AlphaBeaticles. Part 5: A Shot of Rhythm & Blues
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
It’s a little known fact that when digging through The BBC archives in early 1994, a portal capable of permitting time travel ripped open, sucking a surprised but nonchalant George Martin through and into the March of 1962.
As he clawed his way back (it took him 32 years, but he hadn’t aged a day), he brought with him a young man called Alexander, from Sheffield, who liked nothing better than singing about how good you’d look on the dance floor.
How good someone could look on the dance floor of the Cavern during one of 292 ram-packed and rambunctiously smelling lunch or evening shows, is anyone’s guess, but it matters not - people were sardined in to the health and safety nightmare of the underground club to experience, rather than throw polite shapes after downing shots of milk or nagging on a cheese roll.
Never really credited, and rightly so, for his role in the foundation of the Arctic Monkeys, Arther Alexander, born in Sheffield, Alabama, was a black R&B soul singer who had as much influence on the cusp-of-fame Beatles as Buddy Holly or Elvis, yet takes even less credit for this than the birth of Britain’s first, and best, viral MySpace band.
The latter era-Cavern Beatles hadn’t so much edged away from the chugging proto-rock of Chuck Berry as moved to the other side of the musical globe with all their belongings squeezed into a guitar case. By mid 1962 they were challenging the NEMs staff in Whitechapel, just around the corner from the venue before and after gigs, to find them the latest imports on niche R&B labels, often flipping the item over, like a rabidly aggressive lover, to head straight for the B-side. Here they mined the gold that kept audiences guessing at what was to come next and informed at what was ‘happening’ and left rival bands marooned in their wake, stunned at the speed of growth and breadth of their repetoire.
The Beatles recorded four of the eight songs Alexander released before the Beatles found the fame and the songwriting chops that took them to Alexander inspired ‘black sounding’ places that they intuitively copied, but filtered through northern English sensibility came out sounding entirely new. Anna (go to him) found it’s way onto their first album; Soldier of Love should have too, but eventually surfaced alongside A Shot of Rhythm & Blues on the Beatles at The BBC album, released in 1994 and rereleased with a new, improved mix and additional track (more work for me) in 2013. The fourth, and a somewhat hidden gem of the ouvre is the plaintive B-side to Anna (go to him), Where Have You Been All My Life?, which found its way to the surface and bobbed along as one of the gems to be found on the Star Club, Hamburg tape that is in almost every way as essential to any Beatles completist as Revolver in term of revelation and sheer…fun.
With Arthur Alexander songs, and other early Motown/soul songs dripping their way into the Beatle collective conscience (driven in the main by Lennon, who sang all of the Alexander covers and most of the Motown songs) came a harder, slower, thicker groove than the earliest rock and roll songs. The recordings we have of this song all vary in tempo and timbre; and all three known recorded versions were put down by BBC engineers, not Mr Martin. This gives an unique insight into what other professionals within the industry could do to the sound of the band as apposed to their feted full time recording manager (the contemporary term for producer). Recorded live, likely in a single take, the production is clean and heavy, removed from he clean, airy-with-a-touch-of-reverb Martin style. This signposts what a Decca Beatles may have sounded like.
The session that appears on The BBC live album is a slow, swinging groove that illustrates how effective the new rhythm section of McCartney & Starr was - already tight, full of feel and locked in. What a revelation this must have been for the core three of the band after Pete Best’s four in the bar straight barrage of the previous two years. George plays a guitar line that will have repercussions on later, soulful original work and John stabs staccato sevenths jabs as is his aggressive wont.
Quietly powerful, in the compressed air of the Cavern this was a fan favourite and a listen in isolation more than suggests why. It is here, alongside other examples like Baby, It’s You or I Just Don’t Understand, that highlights how important John’s early vocal prowess was to the chemistry and appeal of the band. Here, with punchy, bassy backing, he is able to elevate a rather straight forward and seemingly innocent soul croon into something darker, more sinister and much more sexual. That this is a marked improvement on these factors above Arther Alexander who would claim these things for himself, is a marker for what made Lennon such a specialist when it comes to force of expression beyond mere words.
“Chill bumps come up on you, and if the rhythm finally gets you and the beat gets you too, well, here’s a thing for you to do…”
By the end, it’s not just the dance floor you’ll look good on.
What did you think of A Shot Of Rhythm & Blues? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
See you in the comments!