Alex Chilton

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Alex Chilton, circa 1999
Photo: Aimeé Toledano
Alex Chilton (born on December 28, 1950, in Memphis, Tennessee) is an American songwriter, guitarist, singer and producer best known for his Top 40 hits as a lead vocalist in the 1960s for the Box Tops and for his critically acclaimed work with Big Star. Among Chilton's better known songs is "In the Street," which (in an altered and shortened version recorded by Cheap Trick) became the theme song for That '70s Show. Chilton's early commercial sales success as a teen vocalist was not repeated in his subsequent years with Big Star and in his indie music solo career on small labels like Last Call Records, New Rose, Razor and Tie, Bar/None, and others, but he did draw a loyal following in the indie and alternative music fields.

Chilton said in the September 1994 issue of Guitar Player that he considers himself a "musical performer, not a songwriter" and that some of his songs sound only "half-baked" to him. Nonetheless, his compositions have been recorded by a number of artists, including This Mortal Coil, The Bangles, Garbage, Kristin Hersh, Jeff Buckley, Yo La Tengo, and His Name Is Alive. The Replacements wrote the song "Alex Chilton" in his honor on their 1987Pleased to Meet Me album, produced by Jim Dickinson in Memphis.


Background and early career

With influences including Chet Baker, The Kinks, Velvet Underground, T. Rex, Sky Saxon, Cordell Jackson, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, rockabilly, country, jazz, and the Beatles, Alex Chilton grew up in a musical family; his father, Sidney Chilton, was a jazz musician. A local band recruited the teenager in 1966 as their lead singer after learning of the popularity of his vocal performance at a talent show at Memphis' Central High School; this band was The Devilles, later renamed Box Tops. The new group recorded with Moman and producer/songwriter Dan Penn at American Sound Studio and Muscle Shoals' FAME Studios.

As lead singer for the Box Tops, Chilton enjoyed at the age of 16 a number-one international hit, "The Letter." The Box Tops went on to have several other major chart hits, including "Cry Like a Baby" (1968) and "Soul Deep" (1969). Chilton occasionally contributed a song, but most of the songs the group recorded were written by top staff writers affiliated with the producers and American Sound, with Penn directing Chilton's singing. Producer Moman often preferred to have his seasoned American Sound session musicians back Chilton on recordings. While at times serving as a creative outlet for producer/writers Penn and Moman and their session players was frustrating for the group members, the young men also appreciated that they were benefiting by learning directly from Memphis music legends. Penn also did use the band members' performances on a number of the recordings on each album, including their first hit, "The Letter."

Among the group members' more stressful challenges as teenage musicians on the road in a popular band with radio hits were the routine disrespect given them by adult managers, lawyers, and promoters, who conned them out of their earnings through bad contracts. By late 1969, only Chilton and guitarist Gary Talley persevered from the original group, and newer additions replaced the members who had departed. When the group arrived in London in December 1969 for their scheduled British tour, the London promoter disregarded the band's standard equipment contract provision, demanding that they use the opening act's toy drums, public address amplifiers, and broken keyboard speakers or else not play at all. The promoter assumed that the stranded young men would have no choice but comply and complete the road dates. With their manager back in the United States ignoring their phone calls requesting assistance, the band cancelled the tour in disgust, according to a 2004 article by Talley published in

Shortly after this incident, the group decided to disband and pursue independent careers, in early 1970. Chilton then began performing as a solo artist, maintaining a working relationship with Penn for demos. During this period he began learning guitar by studying the styles of guitarists like Stax Records great Steve Cropper, recording his own material in 1970 at Ardent Studios with local musicians like Terry Manning and Richard Rosebrough, and producing a few Southern garage-blues-rock local acts. His 1970 recordings and productions from that time frame were released years later in the 1980s and 1990s on albums like Lost Decade (New Rose Records) and 1970 (Ardent Records).

1970s career

After a period in New York City, during which he worked on his guitar technique and singing style, in 1971 he formed the power-pop Big Star group in Memphis, with Chris Bell, recording at engineer John Fry's Ardent Studios, an energetic, relatively new outfit that was not a part of the established Memphis music industry and professional studio sessions scene that Chilton had left behind him. The group's innovative recordings met little commercial success but established his reputation as a creative rock singer and songwriter, when later alternative music bands like R.E.M. praised the group in years to follow. 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.

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) 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 slick, sterile pop recording standards toward a looser, more turbulent punk performance style he viewed as more animated and energized. There he made the acquaintance of the Cramps, a fiery, theatrical group immersed in the primal beats of early rock and roll and rockabilly. 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 often-criticized 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. 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.

1980s to present

He 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 brief, 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 at the time, Coman. Chilton then formed a solo trio with Coman and jazz drummer Doug Garrison, then of Memphis. 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. He 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 the obscure "Nobody's Fool," a song originally written and recorded by his old mentor Dan Penn for Penn's 1973 Nobody's Fool solo album.

During this period, Chilton began to frequently use in his recordings 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, such as his previous heavy use of reverb in his Panther Burns guitar work, instead seeking purer tones for his sonic mood palette, as he came to terms with his late father's jazz legacy. The nuances and subtleties in these interpretative stylings blending soul, country, rockabilly and pop with jazz horns were at times not appreciated by some critics more fond of his Big Star work, who found his 1980s solo work languid or lounge-like.

Touring and recording as a solo artist in the late-1980s and through the 1990s with bassist Ron Easley and drummer Richard Dworkin after Coman and Garrison had departed to form The Iguanas group in New Orleans, Chilton gained a reputation for his eclectic taste in cover versions, his guitar work, and his laconic stage presence. His EP Black List contained a cover of Ronny & the Daytonas' "Little GTO," along with an original song that referenced Tammy Faye Bakker, "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.

He continued recording solo albums, garnering mixed reviews, into the 2000s, with a live cd released in 2004, Live in Anvers. Since the mid-1990s, he has 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 with songs written by Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens, guitarist Auer, and bassist Stringfellow is due out in August 2005 on Rykodisc.

Solo discography

  • One Day in New York - (Ork, 1977)
  • Singer Not the Song (EP) - (Ork, 1977)
  • Bangkok/Can't Seem to Make You Mine (single) - (Fun, 1978)
  • Like Flies on Sherbert - (Peabody, 1979)
  • Bach's Bottom - (Line, 1981)
  • Live in London - (Aura, 1982)
  • Feudalist Tarts (EP) - (New Rose/Big Time), 1985; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
  • Lost Decade - (Fan Club, 1985)
  • Document - (Aura, 1985)
  • No Sex (EP) - (New Rose/Big Time, 1986; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
  • Stuff - (New Rose, 1987)
  • High Priest - (New Rose/Big Time, 1987; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
  • Black List (EP) - (New Rose, 1989; reissued 1994 on Razor & Tie)
  • Best of Alex Chilton (New Rose, 1991)
  • 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton - (Rhino, 1991)
  • Clichés - (Ardent, 1994)
  • A Man Called Destruction - (Ardent, 1995)
  • 1970 - (Ardent, 1996)
  • Acoustic By Candlelight - (Knitting Factory 1997)
  • Top 30 - (Last Call, 1997)
  • Cubist Blues, with Ben Vaughan and Alan Vega - (Discovery, 1997)
  • Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy - (Last Call, 1999) — aka Set (Bar/None, 2000)
  • Live in Anvers - (Last Call, 2004)


  • Auer, Jon (April 11, 2005). "New Posies and Big Star release...?" ( Big Star Book. Accessed Apr. 28, 2005.
  • "Box Tops Biographies." ( Box Tops official website. Accessed Jun. 16, 2005.
  • "Box Tops Frequently Asked Questions." ( Box Tops official website. Accessed Jun 16, 2005.
  • Johnson, Ross (February 1–7, 1996). "Bad Decisions and Busted Eardrums: an Insider's Retrospective on Tav Falco's Panther Burns, the Band That Won't Go Away." The Memphis Flyer.
  • Koda, Cub. "Alex Chilton biography." ( All Music Guide. Accessed Dec. 1, 2004.
  • Kurutz, Steve "Chips Moman." ( All Music Guide. Acessed Apr. 28, 2005.
  • Mazzoleni, Florent (2003). 'Alex Chilton's 'Lost Decade.'" ( Spin Compact Discs. Accessed Apr. 27, 2005.
  • Norton, Cathi. "Dan Penn: a Shade-Tree Guy." ( Box Tops website.
  • "Rock City Bio." ( Rounder Records website. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • Simon, Crawdaddy. "Alex Chilton Discography." ( Crawdaddy Simon's High Priest pages. Accessed Apr. 26, 2005.
  • Stern, Theresa (December 22, 1996). "Interview: Jody Stephens." ( Perfect Sound Forever. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • Talley, Gary (March 2004). "The Box Tops — Setting the Record Straight: a Firsthand Account." ( Accessed Jun. 16, 2005.

Further reading and criticism

  • Baker, Michael (July 2004). "The Glory and Grandeur That Is Defeat: The Music of Alex Chilton, Part 2." ( Perfect Sound Forever. Accessed Apr. 26, 2005.
  • Christgau, Robert (2000). "Alex Chilton: Consumer Guide Reviews." ( Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. Accessed Apr. 26, 2005.
  • Clark, Rick (1990). "Liner notes." #1 Record/Radio City. Big Beat Records.
  • Gordon, Robert (1995). It Came From Memphis. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-7434-1045-9, p. 244.
  • Hogg, Brian (1990). "Liner notes." #1 Record/Radio City. Big Beat Records.

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