Anyone who has records by Sam Cooke or Lou Rawls in their collections will have come across the name of J.W. Alexander. A prolific composer and producer, he is perhaps one of the few people who have had a mighty influence on soul, R&B and gospel, yet has managed to remain almost unknown. As an impresario he was responsible for moving both Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls from the ghetto into highly respected and successful positions in their art. His headquarters for all his operations are located in the Max Factor Building in Hollywood. He is now 53, with 40 years in the music business behind him, and lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Carol Ann, and 4-year-old daughter Adrienne. Being anxious to bring his name into proper perspective, we contacted him, and this article is based mainly on information he kindly gave us.
James W. Alexander was born in 1916, and at the tender age of 13, entered the world of music in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he sand duets with one Carl Anderson each week for the Lyons, Rotarians and Chamber of Commerce in that district. In 1934 (when 18) he became manager of his first gospel group, The Silver Moon Quartet, from Independence, Kansas. With this group he toured the local area of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. After a few years with this group, he decided he should go solo; and he remained solo, in relative obscurity, until 1942, when he joined the Southern Gospel Singers.
The earliest reference we could find to J.W. prior contacting him was his association with the Pilgrim Travellers. He joined this group, in fact, in 1945, when he re-organised it and became its manager and first tenor. The initial recordings were made for Specialty in 1947 (when Art Rupe had just started recording gospel material), for which label they recorded for many years.
Sam Cooke came into J.W.’s life in Chicago. Cooke was singing with a teenage gospel group that was the opening act on a progamme featuring the Pilgrim Travellers. The groups name was the Highway Q.C.’s which with changed personnel, were later to record extensively for VeeJay. In 1951 Sam left the Q.C.’s to join the Soul Stirrers, who were based in Chicago. In February 1952, Alexander, by this time an A&R man for Specialty, recorded the Soul Stirrers for that label. Their first release was entitled “Jesus Gave Me Water”, with Sam singing lead. From 1952 – 1957 Cooke sang the lead part with the group, who during this time toured mainly as a package with the Pilgrim Travellers and the Blind Boys of Mississippi. During these years Alexander was trying to talk Sam Cooke into going pop, as well as another gospel singer, a Miss Aretha Franklin! Sam finally broke out with a pop disc called “Loveable” for Specialty under the name of Dale Cook. This was in fact a rewrite of an earlier Soul Stirrers track on which he had sung lead called “Wonderful”. The record was produced by Roger “Bumps” Blackwell, who had succeeded Alexander as A&R man. Sam left Specialty soon after, and joined one of Bob Keene’s short-lived labels, Keen Records of Culver City. The disc that really launched his career was “You Send Me”/ “Summertime”.
In 1958, while travelling from St. Louis to Greenville, Mississippi, Sam Cooke’s chauffeur, Eddie Cunningham, hit the rear of a cotton truck near Memphis, and in the crash he was killed, Sam was injured enough to be hospitalised, and a member of the Pilgrim Travellers who was also in the car, one Louis Rawls, suffered concussion and complete loss of memory. When Sam was discharged from hospital J.W. offered him partnership in his Kags Music firm which he had recently formed. This first step in business partnership eventually led to other projects such as Malloy Music Corporation, Malloy Artists managers, Sar Productions (embracing Sar and Derby Records), and Sar Distributing Corporation.
Sam’s death has always been a matter for debate among R&B fans, and scepticism towards the official version has always been rife. J.W. Alexander has his doubts too. He says: “I have never accepted the findings nor any of the rumours. As a matter of fact, I somehow think of it as an accident. According to the testimony of the lady who shot Sam Cooke, he said “Lady you shot me”. I somehow think he would have used different language had it not been an accident. Sam Cooke met his untimely death in a motel on South Figueora Street in Los Angeles on 11th of December 1964, shortly after his successful engagement at the Copacabana in New York, and his successful screen test for 20th Century Fox.
Louis Rawls had joined the Pilgrim Travellers in 1957, after his discharge from the armed services, in which he had been a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. At the time the rest of the groups line-up was J.W. Alexander, George McCurn (who later recorded pop material for A&A when it first started), Jesse Whitaker and Ernest Booker. The life of this group was unfortunately coming to an end, and in fact in January, 1959, it was disbanded. From this point J.W. took over Louis Rawls management, changing his name to Lou as a kick-off. Two young men in Los Angeles had just started a record label called Shar-Dee – their names were Lou Adler and Herb Alpert – and J.W. got Lou signed up with them. His first disc for the label was “Love Love Love”/ “My Heart Belongs To You”. The topside was a remake of the old Clovers’ hit, and the flip was written by J.W. The record was not a hit but Rawls’ name began to become known around Los Angeles. After this Lou had one release on Candix Records, which also flopped; but then J.W. arranged a long-term contract for him with Capitol, where he is to this day. When Alexander and Sam Cooke started up Sar Records, he decided that he should give up managing Lou, and so his association was terminated at the time of signing with Capitol. But after Sam’s death and the inactivity of Sar/ Derby he took over managing Lou again in August 1966. This lasted until August 1968, when they split once more.
Sar and Derby Records, that J.W. Alexander and Sam Cooke jointly owned, though never having major hits, had many names who are now household throughout the R&B world. Among them are Johnny Taylor, who had taken over the lead in the Soul Stirrers when Sam Cooke left; Mel Carter, who found some success as an easy-listening singer on Liberty; Billy Preston, discovered on a Sam Cooke session that produced “Little Red Rooster”; and of course the Valentinos, whose “It’s All Over Now” is regarded as a classic of it’s kind. Dave Godin’s labels have already issued some items from the Sar/ Derby aggregation, and perhaps its not too much to hope that many more may see the light of day, including Sam’s own work for that label.
Over the years J.W. has produced items for many other artist’s too. He produced for example Bobby Bland’s “It’s My Life Baby” and Little Junior Parker’s “Next Time You See Me” for Duke Records; plus tracks by Prof. Alex Bradford, Little Richard, Mel Carter, Bobby Womack, the Olympics, Johnny Morisette, The Sims Twins and Linda Carr for various labels. His most recent endevour is the revival of Little Richard’s career, whom he took over from Bumps Blackwell in March 1968, just before the demise of Veejay for whom Richard was recording at that time. So J.W. is far from inactive at the moment. Just for interest sake take a look through your record collections and see just how many times his name does come up. I guarantee it’ll surprise you. Any questions and comments for J.W. Alexander you may have we will pass on to him, and transmit any replies we receive. So don’t hesitate to write.
Records Cited in the text:
The Soul Stirrers “Wonderful” also appears on Specialty
Last issue we looked at the fact that R&B had commercially lost out
to the freaks and subsequently how white music had degenerated to become
a perverted form of black music again. We asked the questions whether
or not black music had become influenced by psychedelia, and also where
black music is able to go.
Naturally the differences between black and white music can be traced back as far as you care to go, but in terms of modern music you can say that blues and jazz are black and pop is white.
The jazz factors of improvisation, spontaneity and inventiveness which were inherited from the blues seldom exist in white pop which is usually carefully arranged to a pre-set pattern, the concept being to produce a complete packaged product. R&B, a development of blues rather than jazz should not have this pre-set requisite.
Unfortunately black psychedelia has tended to copy white psychedelia
Basically, black music has soul and white music has tried to copy this
quality for countless years. We don’t know why black singers can
convey emotion so effectively without the sentimentality that white singers
use when coping with the same material. It may be their heritage. But
this is unlikely.
As Charlie Gillett wrote in Record Mirror, the ways for the renaissance of black music may lie in folk and jazz. That’s a good clue. The swing and spontaneity of jazz, and the simplicity of folk are both able to enhance soul. The contrived arrangements of neo-Tamla and the limitations of white psychedelia aren’t.
All that we, the fans, can do is to hope that maybe this point comes
across….unless we still insist on buying the same re-hashed again
and again. In the end, the consumer can call the tune. But this end can
be prolonged for a long long time by all the hypes of the industry.
‘It’s all right’ – that was a long time ago; and they were called the ‘New Wave’ like something out of the French Cinema. And Major lance, he was there too – in fact that was all the new wave, more like a ripple if you go by numbers. Of course Jan Bradley did ‘Mama didn’t lie’ (and there was ‘The Jerk’ by the Larks but that was a pinch), and in the days when imports were golden we didn’t hear too much of Billy Butler or those early Walter Jackson’s.
Then ‘People get ready’ came out, with unsoulful words. Aretha Franklin added a chorus to her later version: ‘Thank the Lord wee ooo’; white man make slaves of negroes yet the negroes can believe his superstitions! (His superstitions – I can’t really disown the white man but I can’t do much about him either.) Then came ‘Amen’ – a Xmas hit – the dollars ringing round the birth of the Saviour. Now it was down to ‘making’ hits. ‘Talking about my baby’ was easy and just slid velet-like into your head and the U.S. charts. But ‘Meeting over yonder’ was pushing it; it almost grated. But the flipsides were better than ever and then ‘You’ve been cheatin’’ slayed the dancers who were then too puffed to notice ‘Just one kiss from you’.
People seemed here to forget the Impressions. They’d recently done their cop-out album; white wax for the easy listener – you know the American kind: short – sleeved hair, big dads car and dug Jan & Dean; but when the stars came out they did their utmost to break down the ‘double standard’ with the VO5 girl with flick-ups from just down the block if not next door, and all aided with a cop-out musicassette, (though somehow I liked the album!)
But the fans – they nearly forgot the Impressions too when they were doing things like ‘Isle of sirens’ and ‘I can’t stay away from you’ on albums; Curtis was composing something good. Then a hand at the Philly sound, which has never copped a groove, and then they quit A.B.C. and went to Buddah where the Five Stairsteps were surreptitiously waiting….Now the great ones like ‘Gone away’ – and a hand at social comment, the soft stuff which is why the king of love is dead and the assassins very much alive (it doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger when so many were wishing they had). There is no case for choosing colours, but when someone spits in your face because of their choice you probably choose a gun. Turn the other cheek? The death of six million Jews has still not palled enough to halt anti-semitism (when was the last time you laughed at a joke at their expense?) I can turn the other cheek easily enough; I’m comfortable in a household job; I can turn away. But when you’ve got no home, no job and you can never become unblack do you turn the other cheek? If it were decreed today that all people with red hair were outcasts and you had red hair what would you do/ It would be the same stupidity.
Choice of colors …no copping out to meet white ‘brothers’ on their terms because that would not be integration, it would be the coming of whiteness of the American negro. Be careful who you shake hands with and always watch his other one. Choice of brothers.
Overkill – it’s no good showing people any longer, they see the Oxfam ads. In the papers as they eat breakfast and Biafrans and bomb victims on T.V. as they sit down to supper. Compassionless – cry one tear for Harlem and you cry forever for the rest of the world.
Yet something must be said and done. Would Martin Luther King have overcome, would the dream he eternally had ever come true through martyrdom?
It’s taken 2,000 years to show neighbours are no closer together. And what of the violent revolution with which one may win but on the terms of revenge in a travesty of civilisation?
It’s not all right.
It’s now almost two years since the death of Otis Redding. Since that time a great deal has been written about him and most of his remaining records have been released. Just before his death Otis was voted best male vocalist in the world by ‘Melody Maker’ polls ousting, for the first time in many years, Elvis Presley.
The only time I ever actually met Otis was in September 1966 when he had the whole of a ‘Ready Steady Go’ programme to himself. After the show I went to his dressing room with Cliff Clifford (who at the time was the president of the ‘Otis Redding Appreciation Society’) and met the most popular man in soul. He was quite the opposite to his boisterous stage image and appeared quietly spoken and in some ways shy. During the time I spent with him I asked a number of questions like :-
pb – ‘Dou you find a show like this one you’ve just completed takes it out of you?’
or – ‘Not at all – I get such a kick out of personal appearances, I find it easy to do longer gigs. This one was quite short compared with those at home!’
pb – ‘Which singers do you consider your favourites?’
or – ‘Bob Dylan’
pb – ‘Bob Dylan! That’s quite surprising. I expected Sam Cooke or Little Richard, at least.’
or – ‘Well there are so many of course – I Like Sam and little Richard, but right now I listen to Dylan…He’s got a lot to say.’
pb – ‘Many people have compared your early records with Little Richard’s.’
or – ‘They were my songs but he was big at the time so I sang in that style. I was just starting out with Johnny Jenkins – they weren’t my best songs.’
pb – ‘In your later recordings I think Sam Cooke showed a big influence.’
or – ‘Sam was big with lots of singers, all the people I know like his records – he’s the black man’s Sinatra.’
We talked a while longer about this and that, until Messrs. Walden and Fenter appeared and hustled Otis off to his waiting coach.
Just how much did Otis really contribute to soul? His arrival on the
scene certainly gave black music a big boost. But surely his least acclaimed
recordings were his best. – ‘These Arms Of Mine’, ‘I’ve
Been Loving You Too Long’ and ‘Try A Little Tenderness’.
His powerhouse songs of course proved most popular, such as ‘Respect’,
‘Shake’ and ‘Day Tripper’ etc. But not all the
songs chosen were ideal for the treatment they were given, many of them
drastically cut with verses dropped and meanings changed to accommodate
Otis’ robust style. ‘My Girl’ with which he exploded
onto the English scene for instance, was completely transformed from the
originally poetic and delicate love song to a loud, crude shout –
in many ways a messy record. But the Otis sound was the thing that hit
the charts, not too many of the fans were interested in what he was saying.
Later many of the songs were suitably altered. After his success, of course,
came the inevitable copyists and even more than usual ‘hit hangers’.
At times it seemed just everybody was using the Otis sound and many were
claiming to be his successors but as often happens familiarity breeds
contempt and the sound was well and truly ‘dun to death’.
Of course, some people are slow to realise it and consequently even now
records are being made in this style. A style that so blanketed the soul
scene that it stifled much of the original thinking and creative talent
therein and left the music deep in a well-worn rut, lost with no one left
to follow – hence the re-issue era
Otis, of course was in no way to blame for these events, he showed signs
of change towards the end. It’s probable that would have evolved
in many different directions and had a chance to use more fully some of
the great ability he obviously had. Many individuals who avoided the Otis
avalanche followed their own directions and some provided alternative
chart material. But in general terms, the music was, for a long period,
left with no direction and badly in need of new creative ideas and enthusiastic
soul album reviewed