Monday, October 12, 2009

A Shot of Rhythm and Blues

Well, I don't know what you kids are doing on this Columbus Day-- my vote for Lamest Holiday Ever, especially given that most of the country seems to not even celebrate it-- but I am in the office, which seems to be where most people are NOT, at least here in Boston, where not a single government holiday, it seems, goes unobserved by the populace. So this is irritating. This is my last week in my soon-to-be-former job, and I'm here when the office is quiet (since it's technically closed) to try to clean up the detritus I've accumulated working here for 6 and a half years. Apparently, I had practically moved in and not even realized it-- I've got a small library of free books I've collected over the years and never taken home (I work in publishing, and this is an occasional benefit), strange bags of thankfully nonperishable groceries that I must have forgotten to bring home God knows how long ago, a folder full of choral music from a concert I sang in 2004, at least three umbrellas, and hundreds of pictures from my wedding (which took place in 2006) stored on my office computer's hard drive. It's all kind of embarrassing, and it's been exhausting to work my way through this while also dealing with the other time-consuming things that, you know, normal people deal with when they change jobs.

So you know what I need? A shot of rhythm and blues. Luckily for me, we're in the middle of a look back at the Beatles' key influences. Yesterday we checked out a Carl Perkins track and heard how George's Perkins-ish guitar is so important to his band's sound. Today, let's enjoy the laid-back yet strangely passionate vibe of Arthur Alexander. (On the video below, only the first track is Alexander's original, so you can feel free to cut it off then, or else hang out and listen to some more covers).

Arthur Alexander-- so little remembered, so wicked awesome. I don't know why Alexander never seems to have gotten his due, but I guess the consensus is that he's a musician's musician--hugely influential but still little known. I don't think I've ever heard one of his originals on a radio station, even. But you can be sure that the Beatles knew who he was. Paul McCartney is the Beatle I specifically remember being quoted on the influence of this guy: "We all," said Paul, "wanted to sing like Arthur Alexander." Assuming that's true, John came closest to approximating his distinct sound, and the three legally available Beatles covers of Alexander songs are all sung by John. (Listen to the other two here and here-- I guarantee it will improve your day.)

"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" is a funny one. If you're like me and didn't get to live through this stuff first-hand, such that your chronology is a little off, you might assume that this is one of the several songs name-checked in Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven." But it's not-- that song was released way back in 1956, and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" didn't come out until 1961, the B-side to "You Better Move On," only Alexander's second single. So although I have no idea how this song was composed exactly, it sounds as though the author appropriated the line from Berry rather than the other way around. (It wasn't Alexander who wrote this, by the way-- I actually forget who did write it and am too flustered to look it up. Sorry.) At any rate, as a B-side by a somewhat obscure artist that still demonstrated familiarity with Chuck Berry, "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" must have been irresistible to the Beatles early on. It became a part of their live act, and they recorded it a few times for BBC Radio-- which is why we can listen to it now on Live at the BBC.

(By the way, it is my fondest hope that if this blog actually gets anyone to do anything or has an effect on anyone's life, it's that I can get at least one person who wouldn't have otherwise done so to actually buy Live at the BBC and hear all the awesomeness I keep going on about. It saves you the time of going through years' worth of bootlegs by compiling some of the very best stuff, and it sounds pretty good too, considering. Just buy it already. After the kerfuffle about the remasters, I'll bet you can find an old-news CD like this on sale somewhere.)

"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" doesn't exactly have that unhinged feeling that Berry seems to hint at in "Roll Over Beethoven"-- being unhinged is kind of what Berry does. But since this is Alexander, we instead get a cool little swinging number, something that Alexander can easily whip us around the dance floor to, seducing us with such a gentle touch that we don't even entirely notice. Alexander's voice has a ton of personality, as we've come to expect, and here he's offering us his shot of rhythm and blues with an effortlessly smooth leer, as if he knows there's no way we can possibly resist. Listen to the way his voice slides down on the low notes of the chorus, on "a little rock and roll on the side," for instance. That is the sound of a man calmly stealing a look down our dress on the dance floor. (Do I even make sense when I talk like this? It's what I hear, is what I'm saying. But anyway.) The chirping girls singing the title line are stand-ins for girls like me as we gradually fall under his spell.

John pretty much follows Alexander's vocal example here, though on this one he sounds a little less in control than his idol did, a little less smooth and a little more looking-to-get-laid. Which is great-- when he starts screaming on "with your lover by your side" and so forth in the choruses, it kind of kicks the song into high gear for me. The Beatles have also made this swinging mid-tempo thing a bit more rocking simply with their guitar-band arrangement-- I for one rarely shed tears when a sax is replaced by a guitar, especially when it's George playing those cute little flourishes he gets in here; they sound like winks. But still and all, with Ringo holding them all together and indulging in some quietly showy fills at appropriately awesome moments, the band shuffles us around the dance floor with all of Alexander's panache and no less energy than we're used to from them. It's totally impossible for me to resist them.

Yup. Better to rev me back up than some other shots I could think of. Back to work!

"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 9 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.


  1. I bought Live at the BBC because of you Meg. I did not even know it existed until i read one of your early posts. I've said it before and I'll say it again - It's top drawer. In fact, I'm Glad All Over about it.

    BTW, your blog is a success in many ways beyond that!

  2. I haven't wanted to listen to Live at the BBC straight through since I bought it, but it's terrific in short bursts and indispensable as a historical document; we wouldn't truly know what they sounded like at the start without it.

  3. Troy, good observation about it documenting their early sound, and for me, how tight a band they were. BTW, I received an email a couple days ago from Amazon informing yet again that my Mono Mix will be delayed. Methinks they are stringing me along and don't really know when they'll have more.