Alex Chilton survived the disappointments and dissolute living of the 1970s, and Hurricane Katrina in the last decade, but he won't be with us through the end of this year. The celebrated musician died at a hospital in New Orleans on Wednesday, March 17. He was scheduled to play last night at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin with the current version of legendary Memphis band Big Star -- the show was held as a tribute to his life instead.
Chilton's passing stills a truly unique voice in American music, one that was at times stubbornly contradictory. He wasn't afraid to walk away from the Box Tops, due to the controlling aspects that were a part of what brought them commercial success. The initial commercial indifference to Big Star sent him on a journey to create sometimes cacophonous and messy music that matches the tales about his personal life at the time.
By the time Big Star's posthumous lionization as power pop forebears really began to move into the mainstream in the '80s, Chilton had returned to a more accessible sound -- at least on his own solo projects -- that had little in common with the growing legend of his former band. During the past couple decades Chilton has continued to occasionally release iconoclastic solo records, and one with the re-formed Big Star, while playing shows either solo, with Big Star or with the Box Tops.
Chilton may be gone, but his music will live on. Here's a spin through a good portion of his back catalog -- excepting the three original Big Star albums: #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers. I can't say anything about them that hasn't already been said and, frankly, don't know that I could listen to them right now without getting irrationally upset.
Since there's never been a definitive overview of Chilton's work, the Big Star discs are probably the best place to start for the uninitiated. If you're a Big Star fan and haven't explored much further, read on!
Box Tops: The Letter/Neon Rainbow (Bell, 1967)
The Box Tops were essentially a renamed incarnation of an earlier Memphis group, The Devilles/Ronnie and the Devilles, who had recorded a few singles prior to teenage vocalist Alex Chilton's involvement with the group. The first outing with the new name and lineup was "The Letter," which took Chilton and company to the top of the pop charts in 1967 -- quite a debut for a 16-year old. "The Letter" was also arguably the record that really put Memphis' American Recording Studios on the map in a major way.
Literally hundreds more pop, soul and country hits would flow out of Chips Moman's outfit over the next few years, with and without songwriter Dan Penn, who produced the first three Box Tops LPs. For the band, being involved with American turned out to be a double-edged sword, giving them huge success but also usually relegating them to only playing for live performances (though the group members did play on "The Letter").
Their debut album establishes the pattern of new songs by AGP-associated writers mixed with a few pop and soul covers given the Memphis treatment, and the combination of classy songwriting, top-notch playing and Chilton's older-than-his-years growly vocals equals heaven for fans of blue-eyed soul. Others may be somewhat bored past the singles tracks ... a situation which becomes more acute on the next pair of albums.
Box Tops: Cry Like a Baby (Bell, 1968)
The title track is a brilliant piece of hook-laden songwriting and was another huge hit, making it to No. 2 in Billboard. The accompanying album also includes among the Penn-Oldham songs the "Letter" follow-up "727," plus a pair of Mickey Newbury numbers providing some slower tempo contrast. There's also a Vanilla Fudge-style take on "You Keep Me Hangin' On," which references The Doors and sounds like it's probably the real band rather than the studio guys. Tellingly, the only band member mentioned on the cover is Chilton, and most of the liner notes discuss the studio and producers. Uh-oh.
Box Tops: Nonstop (Bell, 1968)
The group's third album in less than a year, and last produced by Penn, shows the formula stretching a bit thin, but with sometimes interesting results. Covers of "Rock Me Baby" and "I'm Movin' On" develop into an odd sort of proto-Flying Burrito Brothers sound due to some crazy steel guitar playing. Everything's incredibly tightly played, as always, but sometimes leans a bit too far into MOR territory, and on those songs Chilton sounds a bit bored.
However, when it all comes together on songs like "I Can Dig It" or "I Met Her in Church," the formula still works. On some songs, Chilton's singing is beginning to sound more like his adult style, though his grizzled bluesman voice is taken to its extreme on "Yesterday Where's My Mind." The band finally gets named in the liner notes, and by this time included a couple replacement members.
Box Tops: Dimensions (Bell, 1969)
The band's final album, produced by studio head Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill, aims the group in more of a contemporary rock direction than the middle-of-the-road leanings of Nonstop. It earned them one more big hit, "Soul Deep," and they'd hit the charts twice more with a pair of non-LP tracks after this album was released.
A lot of this album sounds as if it could be the band playing rather than the studio cats, and Alex Chilton finally got to include three of his own songs. His blues number "I Must Be the Devil" is a song that would have worked during any of his various incarnations, and "(The) Happy Song" is a preview of his soon-to-be-recorded -- and forgotten -- first solo album. More involvement wasn't enough to keep the group going though, and they called it quits shortly after a trip to London for a tour reportedly so poorly organized by the promoters the band canceled it rather than attempting to play the shows. Singles would continue to appear credited to the Box Tops through the mid '70s, including records on legendary Memphis labels Hi and Stax, though Chilton and most of the original group weren't involved after early 1970.
Alex Chilton: 1970 (Ardent, 1996)
I'm going to cheat a bit under the circumstances and include a few albums that so far have only been released on CD. This is one of them, and it was the first issue (and only, as far as I know) of Chilton's legendary and nearly-lost first attempt at a solo album.
It's a doozy, as he proves that no matter how good much of the music created under the Box Tops name was, the producers might have been better off leaving the band to their own devices. In their defense it's also possible to see how the album went unreleased, as this effortless mix of pop, country and soul would have been challenging to find a marketing niche for at the time. Atlantic was interested at one point before Chilton decided to hold out and continue pitching it to the Beach Boys for release on their label, but before that happened, Big Star did.
Chilton tries out various vocal styles throughout and sounds like he's having a blast. Like much of the great music that's emanated from Memphis during the rock 'n roll era, it's not easy to immediately categorize where Chilton's coming from -- which is why there should just be a genre called "Memphis." Despite taking an extra 25 years to finally see the light of day, it's one of the most immediately satisfying albums in Chilton's catalog. If you see it, grab it, because it's now been out of print for quite a while.
Alex Chilton: Bach's Bottom (Line, 1980)
This is another lost album of sorts, cobbled together years after being recorded following the also unsaleable-for-a-few-years Third/Sister Lovers sessions. It makes perfect sense as a bridge between the organized chaos of the final Big Star recordings and the disorganized-on-purpose chaos of Chilton's first released solo album yet to come, Like Flies on Sherbert. At times, Chilton sounds as hammered as the legend goes, and actually doesn't play guitar on these recordings at all. However, there are a couple essential tracks among the studio goofing, including the relatively finished versions of "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It" (with the unforgettable line "called me a slut in front of your family!") and the nice pop of "Every Time I Close My Eyes." Some of these tracks had previously showed up on the rare "Singer Not the Song" EP on Ork in 1976. If picking this up on CD, be sure to hold out for the import version; the '90s Razor & Tie CD is reportedly re-recorded/remixed versions by producer Jon Tiven.
Alex Chilton: Like Flies on Sherbert (Peabody, 1979/Aura UK, 1980; reissued on Munster Spain with bonus tracks, 1997)
This is the album where Chilton's solo reputation generally resides. Working again with producer Jim Dickinson, who kept an eye on the final Big Star sessions, this album has always sounded to me like Chilton was going for that echoed-out Sun sound. In fact some of it was recorded at Sam Phillips' studio -- but it would qualify for the weirdest Sun record ever made. The album is chaotic but sounds exactly like it's supposed to be that way.
Sherbert set a basic pattern for much of the rest of Chilton's solo career, albeit in a far more shambolic way than what followed: a few good new originals and lots of covers, sometimes relatively straight (the Dickinson-sung "I've Had It") and sometimes near-unrecognizable ("Boogie Shoes" by KC and the Sunshine Band likely never recovered). By all reports Chilton was in a bad place during the sessions, but the album that resulted manages to make walking on the edge sound nearly as fun as horrific, at least until the album closing title track. Originally only a few hundred copies were released by local Memphis label Peabody, with a slightly more available version appearing the next year in the UK. After this Chilton would decamp for New Orleans and abandon his solo career for awhile.
Alex Chilton: Live in London (Aura UK, 1982)
Documenting a 1980 performance, the music on this album is accompanied by the rhythm section of the Soft Boys and second guitarist "Knox." Sort of the live equivalent of Sherbert, but in this case, it's more due to the relatively impromptu nature of the band than by design. That being said, I like this album quite a bit. It's a mess in places, but an honest mess. The cover of Lowell Fulson's "Tramp" is great, and along with Sherbert material there are Big Star and Box Tops songs.
Alex Chilton: Feudalist Tarts (Big Time, 1985)
This six-song EP, half originals, offers a mostly relaxed New Orleans vibe. "Lost My Job" is a highlight of this somewhat tentative-sounding return to recording.
Alex Chilton: No Sex (Big Time, 1986)
No covers this time, so there are only three songs on this EP, but the title track is my favorite Chilton from the '80s, a gleefully un-PC response to the AIDS epidemic. I can't imagine anyone but Chilton pulling this off. The other two songs are pretty good, too.
Alex Chilton: High Priest (Big Time, 1987)
His only full-length album of new material in the '80s is a relaxed rock/soul outing with a few new originals, including his sorta silly tribute to the "Dalai Lama" and "Forbidden Love." There's nothing earth-shattering going on, but it's fun all around.
Alex Chilton: 19 Years: A Collection (Rhino 1991)
A very scattershot comp, but this is the easiest place to find the "Bangkok"/"Can't Seem to Make You Mine" single. At the time, it was also the first commercial release of any tracks from the aborted first solo album ("Free Again" is included here). Otherwise, it includes a few Third/Sister Lovers tracks, and some seemingly random tracks from his '80s comeback discs. If this was ever released on vinyl, I've never seen it. A less easy to find but more coherent version of this compilation appeared as Stuff on the French New Rose label.
Alex Chilton: Cliches (Ardent, 1994)
Chilton tackles mostly pre-rock standards. This is not the usual overblown, orchestrated standards album, though, rather it's just Chilton and his guitar. Sparse and beautiful, it's not a place to start for non-fans.
Alex Chilton: A Man Called Destruction (Ardent, 1995)
I listened to this one a ton when it came out, and it still sounds like a career high point to me today. It's in the usual laid-back, soul-inflected groove, but the new songs are better and cover choices spot-on. Of the new songs, "Devil Girl" and "Don't Know Anymore" are standouts; among the covers are great takes on the New Orleans standard "Sick and Tired," Jan and Dean's "The New Girl in School" and "What's Your Sign Girl."
Big Star: In Space (DBK Works LP, Rykodisc CD, 2005)
Not a compilation or recycling of old tracks, this is a new studio album recorded by the reformed lineup that began playing shows off and on in the 1990s, featuring Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens alongside Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, no power pop slouches in their own right. It's a solid album, if occasionally a bit schizophrenic when it slips into the soul groove of Chilton's last couple decades (though "Makeover" is pretty entertaining). The ten originals are credited to the full band with occasional extra writers, including Box Tops bassist Bill Cunningham. For covers, there's a great hopped-up take on "Mine Exclusively" by The Olympics. Sure, it may not measure up to the three other Big Star albums, but that's not a fair comparison anyway.
In addition to the original Big Star albums and the excellent Keep an Eye on the Sky box set released last year, there's quite a bit more Chiltoniana out there. He produced classic albums by The Cramps and The Gories, and also played off and on in Tav Falco's Panther Burns. There's the Black List EP, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy album (released as Set in the U.S.) and Live in Anvers disc, which I've never heard. Also, the original Box Tops reunited in the '90s, touring off and on and releasing the new album Tear Off in 1998.
I saw the band in 2005 at the Waukesha County Fairgrounds, as part of a short-lived summer music festival (that also featured a shockingly great set by The Raspberries). Chilton was having fun and the band sounded great, mixing some of their hits with rock and soul covers -- probably about what they would have done in clubs in the 1960s.
I never figured that would be the last time I'd see Alex Chilton on stage, and after listening to all this music over the past few days, I can't believe he's gone.