In a business that reinvents itself at every turn, Alex Chilton thrived for four decades with a three-fold career — his early recordings with the Box Tops, the albums he did with Big Star in the mid-’70s and after the group re-formed with a new lineup in 1993, and the spate of cool but chaotic solo albums he recorded beginning in the late ’70s. To some, he was a classic hitmaker from the ’60s. To others, he was a genius British-style pop musician and songwriter. To yet another audience, he was a doomed and despairing artist who spent several years battling the bottle and delivering anarchistic records and performances while thumbing his nose at all pretenses of stardom, a quirky iconoclast whose influence spawned the likes of the Replacements and Teenage Fanclub.
For a guy who grew up in and around Memphis, there wasn’t anything remotely Southern about Alex Chilton. Although fully aware of his surroundings, and in tune spiritually with its most lunatic fringe aspects, Chilton’s South had more to do with genteel Southern intellectualism than rednecks. Chilton started playing music in local high school combos, alternating between bass and rhythm guitar with a stray vocal thrown in, finally working himself up to professional status with a group called the DeVilles. After acquiring a manager with recording connections tied to Memphis hitmakers Chips Moman and Dan Penn, Alex and the group — newly renamed the Box Tops — recorded “The Letter,” a record that sounded white enough to go to number one on the pop charts and yet black enough to track on R&B stations, too. Chilton was still in his teens, but wad already armed with a strong conception of how pop and R&B vocals should be handled. With the hand of vocal coach Dan Penn firmly in place, the hits kept coming, with “Cry Like a Baby,” “Soul Deep,” and “Sweet Cream Ladies” all showing visible chart action. The Box Tops were stars by AM radio singles standards, but tours in general opened Chilton’s eyes to the world and what it had to offer. And what that world seemed to offer Chilton was a lot more artistic freedom than he had as nominal leader of the Box Tops.
After a few errant solo sessions, Chilton found himself in Big Star with singer/guitarist Chris Bell. Their blend of ethereal harmonies, quirky lyrics, and Beatlesque song structures appeared to be radio-friendly, but distribution by their label, Ardent Records, spelled disaster. Bell left the band, and the label faltered. Chilton went into the studio with producer Jim Dickinson and attempted to put together the third Big Star album. These sessions, now known as Sister Lovers, are legendary in some quarters. Much has been read into this recording, primarily the myth that Chilton became a pop artist who, in the face of critical success but commercial apathy, suddenly rebelled against the system and became a “doomed artist on a collision course to Hell.” Chilton himself dismissed all such romantic notions: “I think that to say that it’s a fairly druggy sort of album that is the work of a confused person trying to find himself or find his creative direction is a fair statement about the thing.”
Around 1976, Chilton started producing a wild cross section of solo outings for various foreign and American independent labels, all featuring his love for obscure material, barbed-wire guitar playing, howling feedback, and bands that sounded barely familiar with the material. As he plugged into the bohemian punk rock scene of New York City, Chilton’s anarchic approach and attitude fit the scene like a glove. In addition to his gigging and performing schedule, Chilton also produced the debut session by the Cramps, helping to land their deal with I.R.S. Records. He was becoming legendary enough to end up having a song by the Replacements named after him. Through the late ’80s into the early ’90s, he split his time between recording, gigging overseas plugging his latest release, and playing oldies shows in the U.S., reprising his old Box Tops hits. In the early ’90s, Chilton — relocated to New Orleans, his demons behind him — began releasing a series of excellent solo albums on the newly revived Ardent label and even participated in a couple of reunions (of both Big Star and the Box Tops). A studio album from Big Star appeared in 2005, although it included only Jody Stephens from the original lineup. The band also played high-profile gigs in England and America, while in 2009, Rhino issued a definitive box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky. One year later, however, on the eve of 2010’s SxSW festival, Chilton died in New Orleans of heart failure.