Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 December 1950, Memphis TN; d 17 March 2010, New Orleans LA) A guitarist, a singer with superb 'white soul' voice, and a songwriter who looked better as the years went by.

He first came to fame with the Box Tops, first called the De Villes; they signed with the songwriting/production team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and their first single 'The Letter' no. 1 USA '67 written by unknown Wayne Carson Thompson became a classic. 'Neon Rainbow' flopped by comparison but their third 'Cry Like A Baby' with psychedelic guitar and Chilton's blue-eyed soul vocal made no. 2. Known as Memphis's answer to NYC's Young Rascals, the Box Tops became a purely studio creation, Chilton often the only band member invited to the studio; albums included padding with the hits. By late '68 Penn/Oldham had passed the production duties to Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman; chart presence was sporadic '67-9 ('Choo-Choo Train' no. 26, 'I Met Her In Church' 37, novelty 'Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March' 28) but they recaptured their original flavour with another Thompson song 'Soul Deep', no. 18 late '69 and their last big hit (later revived by Gary 'US' Bonds). The album Dimensions showed that their own ideas were still limited. Chilton quit in mid-performance early '70, fed up with the pressure (he'd been only 16 at the time of the first million-seller); the group built around his voice disintegrated. He played the NYC folk circuit for a year; back in Memphis he formed Big Star, whose albums No. 1 Record '72 and Radio City '74 got critical praise but poor sales; the collapse of their distributor Stax caused disillusion and they split before release of their third.

Chilton recorded, gigged sporadically, sometimes with garage band Panther Burns, also produced the Cramps' first records. His first solo album '70 was not released at the time; Creation Records offshoot Rev Ola issued it in the UK '96. Like Flies On Sherbert '76 on a Cooking Vinyl CD '96 received rave reviews, including Chilton's 'Hey! Little Child'. Two gold discs in the first three had been an impossible act to maintain, but Chilton gradually acquired semi-legendary status '80s as a heroic anti-industry maverick, namechecked as an inspiration by R.E.M. and by Paul Westerberg's the Replacements, who immortalized him in a song title ('Alex Chilton' on Pleased To Meet Me '87 on Sire). The extraordinarily sombre and experimental Big Star third album Sister Lovers finally attained general release on Rykodisc '93, while the Chilton cult kept growing in the UK, e.g. the Scottish guitar band Teenage Fanclub's third album Bandwagonesque '91, their first to chart in the USA and with tracks inspired by Chilton's songs. Chilton briefly re-formed Big Star, toured to widespread delight and released an impressively uncompromised live album Columbia: Live At Columbia University 4/25/93 on Zoo/BMG. 'The Letter' has been covered many times; Box Tops' Greatest Hits and Chilton compilation 19 Years were on Rhino, Feudalist Tarts/No Sex and High Priest/Blacklist on Razor and Tie in USA.

Chilton's rackety life was covered in Holly George-Warren's book A Man Called Destruction 2014; reviewing the book in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Danziger described 'Memphis as a singular world of musically precocious, emotionally fragile man-children struggling to attain some state of grace.' George-Warren also wrote 'The Muse of Memphis' in the Oxford American (Southern Music Issue, Winter 2013) about Lesa Aldridge, who co-wrote songs with Chilton, performed with him and tried to get along with him off and on; their battles were legendary. She later married singer-songwriter Tommy Hoehn, who died a few months after Chilton: 'She mourns them both,' wrote George-Warren. In 2013 Lesa was living alone and teaching school in rural Mississippi.