“Well I met him when I was only sixteen
We could not believe how the big man could sing
And to our surprise he wrote his own tunes
Oh what a talent, the man we called “June””
June is the title of the new record from Donnie Fritts, a personal and emotional tribute to his best friend, the late, great Muscle Shoals R&B legend Arthur Alexander. Recorded in the evenings at the original location of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, June feels like cracking open an old photo album and flipping through it’s pages. It’s a deeply poignant and moving tribute to a fallen friend.
“His name was Arthur Alexander, Junior,” Fritts explains. “That’s why we called him June.”
June opens with the title track, a song that Fritts penned in 1993 on the ride back to Muscle Shoals from the Nashville hospital where Alexander succumbed to complications from a heart attack. “My heart was broken, but I wanted to express how I felt about him,” Fritts says. “So I did it the only way I knew how— I wrote a song for him.”
That song appears for the first time as the title track to this record. What follows is a collection of Alexander standards, including a haunting rework of Alexander’s groundbreaking classic “You Better Move On”, a song that kickstarted the Muscle Shoals music industry.
“It was the first R&B hit record to come out of the Muscle Shoals area,” Fritts explains. “Groups like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles loved June’s songs. They recorded a few of them, too.” (The Stones released their version of “You Better Move On” in the US on December’s Children (And Everybody’s) in 1965.)
The personnel from Fritts’ critically acclaimed 2015 release, Oh My Goodness, return to backup the “Alabama Leaning Man” on June: John Paul White on guitar and vocals, David Hood on bass, Ben Tanner on keyboards, Reed Watson on drums and Kelvin Holly on electric guitar. Laura and Lydia Rogers from The Secret Sisters provide harmonies, while Kimi Samson and Caleb Elliott provide violin and cello, respectively. White and Tanner return as co-producers.
That band gets an opportunity to stretch out on songs like “I’d Do It Over Again”, a track co-written by Alexander, Fritts and Dan Penn and recorded by Marshall Crenshaw for Adios Amigo, a 1994 Alexander tribute album, and “Come Along With Me”, an Alexander/Fritts tune that first appeared on Alexander’s 1972 self-titled Warner Brothers LP.
“He always encouraged me to write songs, so when I wrote my first song I showed it to him,” Fritts says. “He really bragged on it. It made me feel so good and really encouraged me to keep writing.”
The emotional apex of June may appear on “Thank God He Came”, an Alexander/Fritts gospel rave-up that closed Alexander’s ’72 self-titled LP, but raises the stakes on June— reaching for the heavens with the voices of veteran Shoals session singers Cindy Walker and Marie Lewey anchoring Kelvin Holly’s sprawling guitar solo, Ben Tanner’s Hammond organ and the propulsive rhythm section of David Hood and Reed Watson. Amen, indeed.
June closes with “Adios, Amigo”, an appropriate tip-of-the-cap written by Fritts and Penn that originally appeared as the title track for the aforementioned 1994 Alexander tribute. On June, it’s Fritts at his Wurlitzer electric piano singing to his best friend. The album finishes the way it starts— one legendary songwriter to singing to another.
“It was such an honor to do this album,” Fritts explains. “I hope this album will mean as much to listeners as it does to me and my family.”
Donnie Fritts is a Florence, Ala. native and one of many local musical luminaries. He’s a lauded songwriter, noted for his tracks “We Had It All” (recorded by scores of artists from Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton to Ray Charles) and “Breakfast in Bed” which he co-wrote with Eddie Hinton for Dusty Springfield’s album Dusty in Memphis. He played and travelled with Kris Kristofferson’s band for nearly 20 years, and has released four previous albums-- Prone to Lean, Everybody’s Got a Song, the Dan Penn-produced One Foot in the Groove and Oh My Goodness, his first release for Florence, Alabama’s Single Lock Records.