Alex Chilton, the Memphis rock iconoclast best known as a member of 1960s pop-soul act the Box Tops and 1970s cult group Big Star, died of apparent heart problems in New Orleans on 18 March. He was 59 years old.
It is well known that Alex Chilton started at the top. At age sixteen, the Memphis schoolboy was the lead singer on the Box Tops’ ‘The Letter,’ one of the biggest selling singles of 1967. Further hits, such as ‘Cry Like A Baby’ and ‘Soul Deep’, and several albums ensued, before the group petered out. There was a faltering attempt at a solo career, before Chilton formed Big Star with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel in 1971. They would record two critically acclaimed, commercially negligible pop-rock masterpieces in the Ardent/Stax albums “#1 Record” and “Radio City”. If there ever was an act in pop music whose sales were inverse to their influence, then Big Star is the most obvious candidate. Chilton emerged the de facto leader of the band and its most visible songwriter, contributing timeless material such as ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’, ‘In The Street’ and of course, the immense ‘September Gurls.’ With the eventual departure of Bell and Hummel, Alex and Jody recorded “Third/Sister Lovers” in 1974, although the record was not released until 1978, by which time Chilton was well into what would become his erratic solo career with a pair of EPs, to be followed by a succession of singles and albums over the course of the next three decades.
Granted, the Box Tops and Big Star might have been difficult to live up to, but Alex preferred to live them down, seemingly unconcerned about any perceived reputation he may have acquired from either group (although, from the mid-1990s on he participated in Box Tops reunions, and reformed Big Star with Jody Stephens, performing for appreciative audiences the world over). Critics, coveting the bright ringing tones of Big Star in particular, consider his later works a disappointment, but that misses the point of Chilton the maverick. Alex enjoyed both confounding expectations and acting upon whatever momentary inspiration he might have. In truth, his post-Big Star solo recordings are invariably hip, if admittedly – and willfully - inconsistent. One of the earliest and best, 1977’s ‘Bangkok’, set the template: decidedly rocking with a cryptic, non-sequitur sensibility, equally intellectual and nonsensical. He would maintain his lyrical wit with such items as ‘No Sex’ and ‘Guantanamerika’. Chilton always wore his enthusiasms, if not his influences, on his sleeve, and his solo career, both on record and in person, demonstrated this with covers as diverse as ‘Big Bird’, ‘Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’, ‘Baby Strange’, and yes, even ‘Volare’.
Alex could be something of a musical chameleon; it’s well known the raunchy growl he employed on the Box Tops records was coached by Dan Penn; that the delicate singer-songwriter of Big Star emerged partly from hanging out on the Greenwich Village folkie scene; and that the skewed roots-rock of his early solo records from associating with the Cramps and Panther Burns. My personal theory is that “Third/Sister Lovers” might be the closest to what you might call his “own” music, even if the mood is coloured by the environment it was made in. Over the past few years I have had the great honour and pleasure of examining the Big Star tapes at Ardent Studios and ironically, the “Third” sessions seem to be among the most ordered and focused, given the chaotic ambience of the final product. The Chilton blend of the sublime and the perverse is there in equal measure, aided and abetted by Stephens, producer Jim Dickinson (another recently departed, and sorely missed, Memphis maverick) and Ardent majordomo John Fry. It was my introduction to both Chilton and Big Star, and remains my favourite album attributed to the group, mainly because the sound is so fresh, in both sonics and execution, it could have been recorded yesterday. Going through the Big Star tapes also gave me renewed admiration for Alex’s abilities as a singer and a guitarist, the latter an aspect of his talent that is rarely remarked upon.
For some, Chilton’s continued stance as an anti-rock star was hard to fathom, but I always found it amusing and to a degree, admirable. I saw him play a few times over the years, and got to meet him on more than one occasion, most memorably backstage at a club in San Francisco in 1989, when there was some talk of my band the Sneetches backing him for a few shows (this was a period in which he was famously living in a tent). Maybe it was because I have a similar first name, or the right birth sign or something, but I was the only one in the room Alex offered his joint to, yet I was the only one who didn’t smoke. The mooted collaboration was sadly just a brief thought, but after regaling us with fascinating stories of touring with the Beach Boys and Left Banke, most people in the room left, allowing Matt of the Sneetches and myself to buttonhole Alex about his vintage guitar sound and style, about which - given Chilton’s famous disdain for the specifics of Big Star’s records – he proved remarkably candid.
The last time I had a conversation with him was around the time I had begun delving into the Ardent vault on behalf of Ace, and he was quick to rhapsodize about the Ole Miss Downbeats and other Memphis obscurities, with the excitement of a genuine fan. I titled the eventual collection “Thank You Friends” after his Big Star song of the same name, and not just because of the obvious nod to the collaborative atmosphere of Ardent in the 1960s and 1970s. The tune is a quintessential musical smirk, implied cynicism married to joyous melody, but also because Alex Chilton above all embodied a fascinating juxtaposition of craft and madness, musical or otherwise. At the end of the compilation is a heartbreaking acoustic fragment of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, Alex expertly overdubbing the harmonies himself – but the song is a fragment because, in typical fashion, on the original multi-track he apparently wiped most of the channels shortly after recording it. Emblematic of Alex’s career? Perhaps, but any pop music fan with taste knows, and reveres, the work of Alex Chilton. He will be missed.
By Alec Palao