I was 18 years old when The Replacements' musical mash note to Alex Chilton came out, and I had no idea who the guy was. I had to go on other clues the song provided: that Chilton had some connection to Memphis, and that the song's writer, Paul Westerberg, "never travel(ed) far without a little Big Star." When I asked my fellow employees at the local record store the next day who this Alex Chilton guy was, they were incredulous that I'd never heard of him. And today, when I mention Alex Chilton to someone who's never heard of him, I'm incredulous, too.
You've heard Alex Chilton's songs, even if you don't know you have.
Chilton's musical career began in earnest in 1967, in--where else?--Memphis, when he and his bandmates in The Box Tops cut their first single, "The Letter," which would instantly mark the band as a serious contender in the blue-eyed soul sweepstakes (In case you don't recognize the song's title, it's the one that starts out with the line, "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane ..."). Next time you hear the song, and Chilton's gruff, world-weary vocals on it, consider this: Chilton was all of 16 years old when he sang it. "The Letter" went on to become Billboard's No. 1 single for 1967.
Though the group never matched the success of their first single, they had minor hits following it, most notably "Soul Deep" and "Cry Like a Baby," which hit the No. 2 spot on the charts. But by that point, the band's members were fighting a losing battle with their managers for control over the group's direction. Session musicians were increasingly brought into the recordings; disgruntled band members split; and The Box Tops finally disintegrated in 1970, when their contract expired.
Chilton lived for a spell in New York City, where he attempted to launch a solo career, before returning to his beloved Memphis, where he would further change the course of rock 'n' roll history.
Back in Memphis, Chilton reconnected with his high school friend and fellow singer/guitarist Chris Bell, who was playing in a local band called Ice Water. When that band's other guitarist quit, the remaining members of Ice Water--Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel--invited Chilton into the fold. Renaming themselves Big Star, the four went into the studio where Bell worked, Ardent, armed with a batch of mostly Bell/Chilton collaborations, and cut their debut album, #1 Record, for the studio's newly formed label, Stax. Today, the album is considered the blueprint for every power-pop band that followed, from Cheap Trick to Fountains of Wayne.
Meanwhile, Chilton and Bell began having "creative differences" over the direction of the band, and by the end of 1970, Bell had split. (He died in a car accident in 1978, with a posthumous release of his solo material, I Am the Cosmos, issued in 1992.)
By the time the group recorded their third album, Third/Sister Lovers, Chilton began having a bit of a meltdown, one that is captured on wax for all the world to hear. The result is by turns disturbing and gorgeous, a document of an impossibly talented individual still showing flashes of brilliance through the mire, even as he was clearly falling apart. So, it was no surprise when the band itself fell apart soon after its recording.
Since then, Chilton has amassed an erratic catalogue of solo recordings with varying degrees of artistic success, never quite living up to his reputation as one of the finest American songwriters and singers in the history of modern pop-rock music (although the quality of his output certainly increased in the mid-'80s and onward, after he cleaned himself up). In the early '90s, Chilton and Stephens invited the Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer to join them as half of a reformed Big Star (Hummel wasn't interested), in order to play a show in Columbia, Mo., and since then, the band has played the odd reunion gig. Big Star is reportedly working on an album of new material, for release later this year or next.
All of which brings us back to where it all began for Chilton, as The Box Tops have also reunited. Boasting all of the original members--Chilton, Bill Cunningham, John Evans, Danny Smythe and Gary Talley--the group has reportedly also recorded an album of new material and is playing three scheduled shows in the United States this year, Tucson being one of those lucky three. The opportunity to witness the elusive Chilton perform live in any capacity is rare, and you'd be well advised not to miss it.