In the summer of 1967, at the tender age of sixteen, Alex Chilton topped Billboard charts for four weeks with his band, the Box Tops. Their performance of “The Letter” clocks in at less than two minutes, but the blue-eyed soul growling out from the vocal chords of Chilton made it an unforgettable statement about love and youth and reckless abandon.
Get me a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain’t got time to take a fast train
My baby, she wrote me a letter
Its apparent authenticity, conveyed through Chilton’s beyond-his-years gravelly voice, charmed its listeners. But under the polished facade, the band’s management was attempting to guide the production style of every rasping note Chilton sung. Thrust into the spotlight under Chilton’s well-coached performances, the Box Tops went on to score a dozen or so hits over the next few years before they disbanded in 1970. The celebrity status Chilton achieved in his early years evaded him nearly as much as he avoided it later in life, and this became perhaps the most defining influence he left upon the world after departing on March 17, 2010.
My exposure to the music of Chilton began around the time I graduated from college and met my wife in Tennessee. Her father had known Chilton since junior high, circa 1965, in Memphis. She told me that her father played drums in an early band with Chilton and toured as a tech with his band Big Star in the early ’70s.
At the time, this fascinating woman had been tracking down the music her dad had been interested in during his youth and, in the process, discovering the roots of her own musical tastes. Among the early staples of her collection were REM and Elliott Smith, both of whom regularly cited Big Star among their influences.
Amazon.com WidgetsThere was something in the very personal longing and earnestness of Chilton’s performances that stuck with us such that we couldn’t deny that they were unique and timeless. The first dance at our wedding would eventually be set to “For You” from Big Star’s final album.
Despite the prevalence of their influence on the music surrounding us, there was a sense of guilt that it had taken us so long to appreciate Chilton’s music. Big Star flew low on the radar, but how could such an influential presence in popular and underground music go practically unnoticed? Was Chilton’s distance from the scene an engineered persona or a genuine distaste for the entrapments of celebrity culture?
Chilton’s first exposure to culture and creative personalities came well before his teenage rise on the charts: his mother ran an art gallery out of the basement of their house and his father would regularly host jazz parties, inviting local musicians to play with him on his grand piano in their Midtown, Memphis home. Chilton and my father-in-law, Paul, along with future Big Star members Chris Bell and Andy Hummel, attended Central High School and each would graduate together a few years later, with the exception of Chilton, who earned his GED, a result of missed school while he toured with the Box Tops.
During their formative years, Paul’s garage apartment in the back of his parent’s house was private enough to be a perfect gathering place. Chilton started a band with Paul on drums, practicing in the garage, and they played a few school dances together. “I remember that was about the time Chilton got his first electric guitar; it must have been a Fender Stratocaster,” Paul told me in a recent conversation. “He would get high, well not high but, you know, drunk, before we played a show. I guess it gave him confidence.”
The kids in Memphis would often gather at local booze-free watering holes like the Roaring 60s in downtown or Midtown’s Tonga Club to hear their favorite local garage bands play. The cover charge was usually just a dollar. The climate was highly influenced by the influx of California surf rock and the simultaneous invasion of British pop stars like the Beatles. Chilton’s performances piqued the interest of other musicians, and he eventually joined Ronnie and the DeVilles. After adding a drummer from another local band, the Counts, they started calling themselves the Box Tops.
“Memphis was pretty much cooking at that time,” Paul remembers. It was a hub for recording artists: Stax Records was employing studio musicians and pressing albums for the likes of Booker T, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin. The Box Tops found time to record at American Studios, where Franklin, Neil Diamond, and Joe Tex, among others, were also taping sessions. Often, it was just Chilton in the studio, recording his voice with the studio’s hired musicians.
After that, fame struck hard and fast for the Box Tops. “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” were instant hits. But Chilton never had an interest in showing any sign of celebrity, except as a face he put on during his concerts. Gatherings at Paul’s apartment were still the same relaxed affairs; the place had become a safe haven from parenthood and responsibility. When marijuana became popular in Memphis, Chilton would start bringing by matchboxes full of “really excellent pot” to smoke out of improvised paraphernalia. On more than one occasion, Paul would come home to find a ladder leaned up against his second floor window and Chilton there waiting and listening to the latest record.
“Any time there was a new album out, we’d just sit up all night and listen,” Paul recalled. “But then he also liked Scott Joplin, rockabilly, straight country.”
After the end of the Box Tops era, music remained in Chilton’s blood, but the thirst for the Amazon.com Widgetsspotlight, if there had ever truly been one in his heart, quickly faded and was replaced with distaste for media attention and a desire to practice his craft on his own terms. He wanted to play more of his own songs, and the band’s mismanagement had left a bitter taste in his mouth, a fact that became immediately apparent in 1972 with the release of Big Star’s #1 Record. This marked the debut of Chilton’s collaboration with Bell, Hummel, and Jody Stephens (the trio sans Chilton had previously been performing together under the moniker Ice Water).
Though the name Big Star evokes aspirations to fame and fortune, the origins of the band’s designation are far humbler. The accepted story goes that after a recording session at Ardent Studios on Madison Ave in Memphis, the band members were drinking at a bar nearby, wondering what they could call themselves. The logical choice became quickly apparent. The grocery store down the street was called Big Star and boasted a sign remarkably similar to the eventual art selection for the cover of #1 Record.
Along with the adoption of a new name, Chilton’s voice was increasingly at the forefront of their material. The new and authentic Chilton. with his wavering and almost frail approach, was both on display and would become a guiding presence behind the scenes of Big Star. The clarity of his singing was gilded by an intriguing lyrical symbiosis of mystic and Christian religious influence, cynicism, and earnestness—a characteristic notably absent or forced in his earlier work with the Box Tops. The youthful yearning, fervor, and ache present in his psyche are particularly transparent on tracks like “Thirteen” and “Watch the Sunrise,” two of Chilton’s original contributions to Big Star.
Bell and Chilton modeled their partnership after wildly popular groups from the British Invasion and the West Coast’s answer from bands like the Beach Boys. In contrast to the increasingly homogenized rock surrounding them, Chilton and Bell bonded over the unique pursuit of culturally distinct and deeply personal pop music. Rooted in the Rock and Roll and the Blues in their city of Memphis, Big Star were creating songs in uncharted territory as they drew on sounds from contemporaneous soul, alternative country, and British and power pop to effectively create a free standing art form, to which not everyone understood exactly how to respond.
Despite its hopeful title, sales of #1 Record faltered. Stax, the soul-focused record label entrusted with distribution and marketing privileges, couldn’t fathom a demographic to which Big Star would appeal, regardless of critics whose immediate reactions had been favorable.
Big Star began work on a follow-up album without Bell, who departed as the spotlight began to shine more brightly on Chilton. Though he is not credited, his work appears on the second album, readily apparent in songs like “Back of a Car.” Chilton, meanwhile, was becoming obsessed with the art of recording. He would stay up all night in the studio mixing and manipulating the music until it conformed to his vision. The result was Radio City, an elegantly layered album brimming with vocal tapestry, fuzzy guitars, and splashy percussion emulating the sound of a subtly raw, live performance.
“Big Star caught on quick,” recalls Paul, who toured with Chilton and Stephens after the release of the second album. “Even though [their records] didn’t sell, they had a national following.”
They opened for post-Beatles power-pop coprogenitors Badfinger in Cambridge, Massachusetts, going on to play Boston, where their van was stolen but the trailer with their instruments and equipment was fortunately left behind. After renting a station wagon, they traveled to New York City and, while Pete Tomlinson’s liner notes indicate otherwise, Paul recalls the band performing for packed houses at both Lou Reed/Andy Warhol hotspot CBGB and glam/punk scene Max’s Kansas City.
Despite nationwide exposure and some measure of popularity, “Chilton didn’t have a big head,” Paul remembers, mentioning that he “basically just wanted to hang out and get high. He didn’t really give a shit if people liked him or not; it was like ‘screw you if you don’t like it.’ He never really wanted fame, it just came his way.”
But it didn’t last long. Radio City met a similar fate as #1 Record: critical acclaim and unsuccessful album sales. Frustrated but undaunted, Chilton and Stephens remained to complete Big Star’s 3rd, affectionately referred to as Sister Lovers, a nod to the siblings the duo were dating at the time.
The third would prove the final effort for Big Star, though its quality is not diminished from its predecessors. It is an effortlessly tragic and slightly neurotic album, and much has been made of its thematic heartbreak and bare, exposed sound. However, the album’s release was immediately marred by the death of former member Bell, who drove his car into a tree in the winter of 1978. Limited pressings, label influence, and poor initial reception have made the original order of songs an obscurity, and to date it has been rereleased in at least five different incarnations, each with a different and disputed track order.
By the time the album was finished, Big Star had already disbanded, and Chilton spent a brief time playing solo gigs around CBGB and other clubs in the Big Apple. His time in New York City exposed him to the punk scene, whose rawness and penchant for a less overdubbed recording style began to fascinate him, and he began to lose interest in playing shows. A withdrawal into his own mind, aided by increased drug use, started to drive a wedge between himself and his interaction with the world around him. In much the same way as the Beatles tired from touring, Brian Wilson disappeared into the studio, or former bandmate Bell fled society to pursue music and philosophy unencumbered by ego, Chilton became increasingly reclusive.
Around this same time, Chilton’s passion and obsession with studio recording led him to try his hand at production. At former Sun Records owner Sam Phillips’s studios, Chilton manned the helm for numerous early recordings of the Cramps, a highly influential punk band credited with some of the earliest employment of rockabilly styles. The hours he spent helping them develop their sound in Ardent Studios clearly left a mark on his own tastes. While the Cramps were making rockabilly into punk, Chilton would attempt to create an alternative rockabilly.
Infamous Memphis studio recording artist Jim Dickenson had made Chilton’s acquaintance during the production of the third Big Star album, and the two reunited and would go on to work together on many of Chilton’s solo projects. The first of these was the unsubtle and disheveled Like Flies on Sherbert, whose album artwork, along with that of Radio City, features a picture taken by fellow Memphian William Eggleston.
Chilton’s affection for the simple, chromatic, and undeniably southern photography of Eggleston is unsurprising given the similar mindset of the two artists. Both displayed a fascination for their hometown and, more broadly, southern culture. However, their perspective was never a haphazard, unchecked obsession, but rather an observer’s distance made up of equal parts of respect, optimism, and self-loathing. Both created unmistakably locally influenced and highly self-representative art, all the while managing to distance themselves from pop-culture iconography and bewildering their peers with works that may have seemed unrevolutionary at the time but have stood the test of time and can be regarded as among the most highly influential individuals in their respected fields in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Chilton was often compared with contemporary southern musician Gram Parsons. But while Parsons’s sad, sometimes ironic, honky-tonk ballads evoke similar ghosts and internal struggles, they differ stylistically. Parson’s innocent-sounding voice paired with the allure of youthful indiscretion and lackadaisical melodies lent to the mystique of his displaced talent, but Chilton’s edge existed in his sincerity, his straightforwardness, and in his roots. Whereas Parsons roamed about in Europe with the Byrds and in Los Angeles with the Flying Burrito brothers, partying with celebrities like the Rolling Stones and David Crosby, Chilton’s Big Star quietly rocked the Mid-South and East Coast.
In a small substance-induced haze of his own, and with minimal success to show for his solo career, Chilton dropped off the map for a while and withdrew himself from his hometown. He settled in the old blues neighborhood of Treme in New Orleans, where he gigged with a few old band-mates and local blues and jazz artists and produced the work of other musicians intermittently between occasional stints washing dishes at local bars. His creative efforts throughout the ’80s were often tempered by his desire to steer clear of fame and recognition, and much of this time was dedicated to developing solo projects and recording back at Ardent Studios in Memphis. When he did perform live, he appeared reserved and distant, and he maintained a reputation for disdaining media attention.
Meanwhile, Big Star had become a secret handshake for rising musicians. Recognizing not just the importance of Chilton’s musical contributions, but also his anti-hero, art-first mindset, aspiring kids with their guitars were making music their way, singing about their own troubled lives, hopes, dreams, and fears, and damn the consequences. Celebrity, for the select few, for those on the cutting edge or the periphery, was being recognized as a fleeting and generally undesirable situation, as an obstacle in the way of creating meaningful, artistic rock. Evidence of this mindset cropped up across college campuses nationwide in the early ’90s with mainstream bands like REM and the Replacements and artists like Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith. And while genres change, singers come and go, bands form and break up, Chilton’s influence is the adhesive that is the constant thread in both underground and popular music over the last forty years. In many ways, alternative and indie rock are built on the foundation of the personality and outlook Chilton pioneered in the early ’70s.
A resurgence of Big Star’s popularity in the early ’90s reunited Chilton and drummer Stephens for a tour and a live album, with backing band members made up of Posies cofounders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. They released a studio album in 2005 and had been scheduled to play at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, in the spring of 2010, when Chilton died of a sudden heart attack while mowing his lawn in New Orleans. In his honor, the remaining members of Big Star played a tribute concert featuring guest appearances by numerous friends and colleagues, including heretofore-estranged band mate Hummel. It was revealed after his death that Chilton had been experiencing chest pains but refused to see a doctor because he lacked health insurance.
The remembrance of Chilton’s passing came about in much the same way as the singer lived his life and wrote his music—intimate, unobtrusive, and unapologetically sincere, with a casual indifference toward the reactions of the world around. His memory continues to be honored by the pioneers of great new music, who, in their practice can’t help but look back in debt to one of the original revolutionaries.
“Rock and Roll is here to stay,” Chilton croons on #1 Record’s delicate “Thirteen,” “Come inside where it’s OK, and I’ll shake you.”