“Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance…
and I’ll take you.”
Some artists are chameleons, able to change sounds and looks to render themselves almost unrecognizable. Whether by design or by accident, it makes for interesting and engaging listening. Alex Chilton is an artist who has changed drastically over a period of fifty years, changing direction with each group he has joined and each solo venture he has undertaken. Coming of age in Memphis, Chilton had his first and greatest commercial success with The Box Tops. Only a teenager during the height of their sixties success, Chilton had a gravel infused singing voice belying his young age on hits ‘The Letter’, ‘Soul Deep’ and ‘Cry Like A Baby’. Working with legendary Memphis record men Chips Morman, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham at Bell subsidiary Mala Records, the group attained heights of success based on their love of the popular soul music coming from the Stax and Motown labels. Chilton, however, moved in a quite different direction after the dissolution of The Box Tops in 1970.
Chilton worked on several projects in the early seventies, including producing other artists and working on several aborted solo projects (which were subsequently released in the CD era). He soon joined Chris Bell at Ardent Studios in Memphis to form his next group, Big Star. Big Star would become known as one of the first acts to define Alternative Rock. Based in soul, rock and folk, the group would meld their influences into a sound that the listener could identify with. The sensitive and emotive lyrics, paired with spare yet deceptively simple musicality, could give would-be musicians a template for their own songwriting aspirations. Chilton left his soulful singing voice behind and adopted a quieter delivery more appropriate to the material. Quality songwriting was abundant and the production values were simple but gave the music a homespun feel. The band recorded three albums for Stax subsidiary Ardent Records, all hailed as classics decades after release, but quickly faded from view at the time. Critics claim that the music was ahead of its time, with artists from the eighties college rock movement and nineties grunge scene hailing Big Star as chief influences.
‘Thirteen’, from the debut “#1 Record”, was a beautifully choreographed acoustic ballad that owed a debt to the British Invasion groups Chilton favored so heavily during this period. It is an obvious homage to teen concerns, with the interesting notion that Chilton himself was a pop star for most of his teenage experience. The ringing guitars recall Roger McGuinn, while the vocal delivery is reminiscent of John Lennon’s early ballads. The album was hailed as a classic, yet Stax didn’t have the marketing capabilities to give the group traction. They recorded two more albums, “Radio City” and “Third”, before dissolving in the late seventies. Each release is worthy of investigation as would-be-hits abound and Chilton’s songwriting and vocal performances only improved with each subsequent release.
Unfortunately, Chris Bell died in a car accident shortly after the disbandment of Big Star. Chilton continued producing other artists and moved to New Orleans, avoiding the limelight for most of the eighties. Big Star was resurrected in the early nineties in the wake of a renewed interest in the group. Paul Westerberg wrote the fantastic rock standard ‘Alex Chilton’ as an ode to the man in 1987, released on their album “Pleased to Meet Me” and the Seattle based grunge scene began hailing power pop as a major influence. Big Star were finally getting their due, and Chilton took a revamped version of the group on the road. They continue to tour and record albums with Alex Chilton sounding as ethereal as he did in 1972. By establishing himself as a non commercial entity hailing quality over quantity, Alex Chilton has a emerged a leading figure in Rock N Roll music setting an example for those seeking fame in today’s media hungry environment.