Music’s Forgotten Genius: Alex Chilton of Big Star Was a Restless Human Jukebox
The late Memphis native soaked up every kind of Southern music, but he didn’t quit there. A lover of punk and a master of jazz standards, he shows his range on two new albums.
As a musician, Alex Chilton could do damn near everything. And that was his problem (one of them anyway). He never stood still, so it was hard even for his fans to keep him in focus. Oldies acts thrive because they keep doing the same things they did when they first got popular. Chilton wanted none of that. So, while he died tragically early, of a heart attack at 59, he had in his all-too-brief life packed the careers of several different musicians. If you’d asked the real Chilton to stand up, you’d have had an army on your hands.
Defined by the reductive taxonomy of the music business, he was a one-hit wonder. As the 16-year-old lead singer for the Box Tops, he charted #1 for the first and last time with “The Letter.”
According to music critics, a lot of other bands, and a small but passionate bunch of fans, he was one of the most talented and influential composers and performers in pop rock, a genre he’s often claimed to have invented as one of the leaders of Big Star.
A band far more widely beloved today than when it was active in the early ’70s, Big Star was over and out in under five years. Now it’s a legacy band: its three albums continue to beguile musicians from Elliott Smith to Teenage Fanclub to the dB’s to…you get it. It’s like the old line about the first Velvet Underground album: it only sold like 7,500 copies when it came out, but everybody who bought a copy started a band. Anyway, by the time people began catching up with Big Star, Chilton was long gone. By the end of the same decade, he would be producing The Cramps’ first album. He never stayed still.
He made a living as a musician almost his whole life—it didn’t hurt when That ‘70s Show picked his song (but not the Big Star version) “In the Street” for its theme song—but on the back half, he steered clear of the music business. “To sign with a record company where if I only sold a hundred thousand records, I’d be a failure, isn’t for me,” he said. Instead, he played gigs, sometimes with the reconstituted lineups of Big Star and the Box Tops, sometimes alone, and he made records that in their various ways all showed you some side of him you hadn’t seen before.
Bar None Records has graciously reissued a couple of albums (culled from existing albums and some EPs) of late-life Chilton that give some hint of his range. And there’s really not a bad patch in that range. You may prefer one of his phases over the others, but you can never say he didn’t know what he was doing. Even the punk-meets-Ernest Tubb chaos on Like Flies on Sherbert (yeah, I know it’s misspelled but apparently he didn’t), while it’s a tough sled here and there, is a knowing tough sled, as in “he knows what he’s doing even when ‘live in the studio, keeping it simple but not stupid, not knowing what comes next’ is the point.” As his friend and producer Jim Dickinson said, “Alex didn’t have any bad ideas.”
One of the new albums features Chilton mostly fusing R&B and pop and making it sound old and fresh all at once. And he had great taste and the talent to pull it off. I can’t think of another singer who could so credibly cover anyone from Lou Reed to Bobby Charles. The originals include “Guantanamerika” and the always hilarious “Dalai Lama.” But as much as I like From Memphis to New Orleans, which namechecks both of his principle addresses and his most dominant musical influences and which now reigns as my favorite party record, it’s Songs from Robin Hood Lane that has my heart.
This title, like the other one, refers to both a geographical place and a musical influence—the Chilton family’s Memphis address, where Alex up grew up listening to his father play jazz and where he learned the standards that appear here (he also borrowed heavily from trumpeter Chet Baker’s singing repertoire). Some of the songs come from an album cut with backing musicians, and others from an album where Chilton goes solo. I much prefer the solo songs, just Chilton and an acoustic guitar, because there’s more intimacy and because you get a great chance to hear what a terrific guitarist he was. I must have already played “My Baby Just Cares for Me” a hundred times. And as a bonus, you get his recording of “What Was.” Not an old standard exactly, it’s a sad but beguiling ballad written for The Late Show, the (if you’ve never seen it, stop right now and go find it) Art Carney and Lily Tomlin noir movie. I do wish the producers had used the acoustic version of “There Will Never Be Another You,” but you can’t have everything.