From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Alex Chilton (born named William Alexander Chilton, on December 28, 1950, in Memphis, Tennessee – March 17, 2010 in New Orleans) was an American songwriter, guitarist, singer and producer best known for his work with the pop-music bands the Box Tops and Big Star. Chilton's early commercial sales success in the 1960s as a teen vocalist for the Box Tops was not repeated in later years with Big Star and in his indie music solo career on small labels, but he did draw a loyal following in the indie and alternative music fields.
After a period in New York City, during which he worked on his guitar technique and singing style, (some of which was believed to have influenced by a chance meeting Alex had with Roger McGuinn at a friend's apartment in New York, and Chilton was subsequently impressed with McGuinn's singing & playing), Chilton returned to Memphis in 1971 and joined the power-pop group Big Star, with Chris Bell, recording at engineer John Fry's Ardent Studios. The group's recordings met little commercial success but established his reputation as a rock singer and songwriter; later alternative music bands like R.E.M. would praise the group as a major influence. During this period he also occasionally recorded with Rosebrough as a group they called The Dolby Fuckers; some of their studio experimentation was included in Big Star's Radio City, including the recording of "Mod Lang." Rosebrough occasionally worked on later recordings with Chilton, including on Big Star's Third album and the 1975 solo recording Bach's Bottom. Chilton and Bell went on to co-write "In The Street" (best known as the theme song of That '70s Show).
Moving back to New York in 1977, Chilton performed as "Alex Chilton and the Cossacks" with a lineup that included Chris Stamey (later of The dB's) and Richard Lloyd of Television at venues like CBGB, recording an influential solo single, released in 1978: "Bangkok," backed with a cover of the Seeds' "Can't Seem to Make You Mine." This period learning from the New York CBGB scene marked the beginning of a key change for Chilton's personal musical interests away from multi-layered pop studio recording standards toward a looser, animated punk performance style often recorded in one take and featuring fewer overdubs. There he made the acquaintance of punk band the Cramps. He brought them to Memphis, where he produced the songs that would appear on their Gravest Hits EP and their Songs the Lord Taught Us LP.
In 1979 Chilton released, in a limited edition of 500 copies, an album called Like Flies on Sherbert, produced by Chilton with Jim Dickinson at Phillips Recording and Ardent Studios, which featured his own interpretations of songs by artists as disparate as the Carter Family, Jimmy C. Newman, Ernest Tubb, and K. C. and the Sunshine Band, along with several originals. While criticized by some as a druggy mess, this album is considered by many to be a lo-fi masterpiece. Sherbert, which included backing work by Memphis musicians including Rosebrough, Memphis drummer Ross Johnson, and Lisa Aldridge, has since been reissued several times. Beginning in 1979 he also co-founded, played guitar with, and produced some albums for Tav Falco's Panther Burns, which began as an offbeat rock-and-roll group deconstructing blues, country, and rockabilly music.
Chilton moved to New Orleans in the early 1980s, while also touring regularly with Panther Burns and occasionally as a solo artist, as documented in his poorly received 1982 solo release Live in London.
After a six month span of working outside music at tree-trimming and dishwashing jobs in New Orleans, he resumed playing with Panther Burns in 1983. His new association with New Orleans jazz musicians (including bassist René Coman) marked a period in which he began playing guitar in a less raucous style and moved toward a cooler, more restrained approach, as heard in Panther Burns' 1984 Sugar Ditch Revisited album, produced by Jim Dickinson.
Immediately upon completing the recording in mid-1984, Chilton returned his focus to his own solo career. He stopped playing regular gigs with Panther Burns and took with him the group's bassist, Coman. Chilton then formed a trio with Coman and Memphis jazz drummer Doug Garrison. The trio immediately began touring intensely and recording at Ardent Studios, releasing in 1985 an EP, Feudalist Tarts, that featured his versions of songs by Carla Thomas, Slim Harpo, and Willie Tee, and releasing in 1986 No Sex. The latter EP contained three originals, including the extended mood piece, "Wild Kingdom," a song highlighting Coman's jazz-oriented, improvisational bass interplay with Chilton.
During this period, in his recordings Chilton began frequently to use a horn section consisting of Memphis veteran jazz performers Fred Ford, Jim Spake, and Nokie Taylor to imbue the soul-oriented pieces among his repertoire with a postmodern, minimalist jazz feel that distinguished his interpretative approach from that of a simple soul revivalist style. Chilton forged a new direction for his solo work, eschewing effects and blending soul, jazz, country, rockabilly and pop. Coman left Chilton's solo trio at the end of 1986 to pursue other projects, forming (with Garrison) The Iguanas, three years later, with other New Orleans musicians; both would record occasionally with Chilton after departing.
Touring and recording as a solo artist from the late-1980s through the 1990s with bassist Ron Easley and eventually drummer Richard Dworkin, Chilton gained a reputation for his eclectic taste in cover versions, guitar work, and laconic stage presence.
Chilton included on 1987's High Priest a cover of "Raunchy," his instrumental salute to Sun Records guitarist Sid Manker, a friend of his father from whom he'd once taken a guitar lesson; this song was also a standard in his early Panther Burns repertoire. Along with four upbeat originals, High Priest also included other covers like "Nobody's Fool," a song originally written and recorded in 1973 by his old mentor Dan Penn. His EP Black List contained a cover of Ronny & the Daytonas' "Little GTO," along with an original song, "Guantanamerika." He also produced albums by several artists beginning in the 1980s, including the Detroit group The Gories, occasionally producing Panther Burns albums well into the 1990s.
In the 1990s, Chilton recorded an acoustic solo record of jazz standards in New Orleans' Chez Flames studio with producer Keith Keller, entitled Cliches, and continued with a live CD released in 2004, Live in Anvers.
Since the mid-1990s, he added to his schedule concerts and recordings with the reunited Box Tops and a version of Big Star that included two members of The Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. A new Big Star album, entitled In Space, with songs penned by this lineup, was released September 27, 2005, on Rykodisc.
Chilton was present at his home in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and evacuated on September 4, 2005.
Chilton continued to perform live yearly, with sporadic solo, Box Tops and Big Star shows in theatres and at festivals around the world.
Chilton was taken to the hospital in New Orleans on March 17, 2010, complaining of health problems, and died the same day of a suspected heart attack. He is survived by his wife, Laura, son, Timothy, and sister, Cynthia.
- One Day in New York - (Trio, 1978, reissued 1991 on Art Union Records)
- Like Flies on Sherbert - (Peabody, 1979; Aura, 1980 UK)
- Bach's Bottom - (Line, 1981, remixed & reissued 1993 on Razor & Tie)
- Live in London - (Aura, 1982 UK)
- High Priest - (New Rose/Big Time, 1987; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
- Clichés - (Ardent, 1994)
- A Man Called Destruction - (Ardent, 1995)
- Cubist Blues, with Ben Vaughn and Alan Vega - (Discovery, 1997, reissued by Last Call in 2006 with an extra disc recorded live)
- Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy - (Last Call, 1999)
- Set (Bar/None, 2000) (U.S. release of Loose Shoes LP)
- Live in Anvers - (Last Call, 2004)
Singles and EPs
- Singer Not the Song (EP) - (Ork, 1977)
- "Bangkok" / "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" - (Fun, 1978)
- "Hey Little Child" / "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena" - (Aura 1980 UK)
- Feudalist Tarts (EP) - (New Rose/Big Time, 1985; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
- No Sex (EP) - (New Rose/Big Time, 1986; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
- Black List (EP) - (New Rose, 1989; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
- Lost Decade - (Fan Club, 1985)
- Document - (Aura, 1985)
- Stuff - (New Rose, 1987)
- Best of Alex Chilton - (New Rose, 1991)
- 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton - (Rhino, 1991)
- 1970 - (Ardent, 1996)
- Top 30 - (Last Call, 1997)