Every successful person in any performing realm of the entertainment industry will inevitably talk about the hard road they had to endure when they were first starting out to make a name for themselves. As they painfully worked hard to make it the top of their chosen field they all paid their dues by acting in any role they could get or playing their tunes in a variety of venues, sometimes in front of ambivalent audiences just to be seen. They signed contracts with unscrupulous lawyers, impresarios and mangers. Young musicians lugged their equipment from their vehicles up and down the stairs to seedy clubs hoping that they would get paid after playing a four-set night often in unpleasant surroundings. Everyone goes through the painful early days. For example, speak to any keyboard player about having to carry that Hammond Organ B-3 up and down the stairs at clubs where at the end of the night that same equipment had to be carried back out of the venue.
The Beatles in Hamburg were playing eight sets a night in front a mostly drunken and boisterous crowd and were housed in living quarters in sub standard rooms behind the screen of a movie theater. The Rolling Stones had to endure a rigorous 30 year legal battle to extricate themselves from onerous contracts they signed with unscrupulous management when they were first starting out as a blues band. And were it not for the intervention of Clive Davis, as Head of Columbia records, Billy Joel would probably still be tied to a totally unfair contract he signed as a young musician with a dishonest manager. The road to fame and fortune starts out as a rocky one indeed. Usually, as a performer, you start out with the dream of stardom and if everything hopefully falls your way, many years later, success is the anticipated for outcome. Hopefully, maybe!
So what happens to a free spirited kid at age 15 who is more interested in getting drunk, getting high, hanging out with friends and not much else and then stumbles into a recording career? And what happens to that same kid when a member of a local band in Memphis remembers that same kid who sang pretty well at a talent show and recommends him to the producer to be a lead singer for a group about to go into the recording studio? This is mainly because the lead singer of said group became unavailable at the last moment for the session.
Alex Chilton showed up at a recording session hung over from the night before where he spent the night in a cemetery getting drunk with his girlfriend. It probably was a fortunate moment in Alex’s life when he had to hitch a ride to studio since he was too young to have a drivers’ license and in his condition that fateful morning, it was best that he wasn’t behind the wheel of any vehicle.
He didn’t know any of the songs to be recorded. He had never before been in a recording studio either. However, when the producer instructed young Alex to sing the now iconic phrase “Get me a ticket on an aero-plane” history was made. By the time Alex was 16 yrs. old; “The Letter” was the Number 1 song in the USA and was a world-wide hit. The time of the song was under 2:00 minutes so as filler, the producer added the whoosh of a jet plane at the end just to make it run close to the 2:00 minute mark. Alex’s deep soul voice on that record belied his age and ethnicity.
Rolling Stone magazine voted “The Letter” as #372 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time. Produced by Dan Penn, the song, recorded in 1967 spent 16 weeks at Number 1.
In a brief biography of Alex, Rolling Stone said “Alex Chilton moans like a gruff soul man, though he was just 16. He credited the performance to his producer, Memphis legend Dan Penn. “[He] coached me pretty heavily on singing anything we ever did,” Chilton said. “In a lot of cases, it sounds more like him singing than it sounds like me.”
One would think with all this new found fame, young Alex would use this incredibly lucky circumstance to build upon a great career in the music business with the Box Tops. Virtually all young artists find themselves struggling mightily just to get their songs heard and their performances seen by anyone who can further their career. These young people struggle, usually sign appallingly unfair contracts with dishonest managers just to get a chance to be seen. So what did Alex do to build upon this unbelievably lucky circumstance? For Alex, the Box Tops experience was neither the type of music nor the vehicle by which he wanted for his musical direction.
In the book, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren, we follow Alex’s life from instantaneous rock star to a person hell bent on self destruction to an eventual awakening and then to the realization that he in fact, was a talented musician.
In 1971, with the Box Tops firmly encased in his rear view mirror, Alex formed a power pop band called Big Star with three of his friends. He is now 21 years old with six years of experience as a working musician. The band received highly favorable reviews, developed a cult following, but failed commercially. Stax records which distributed the album on Ardent Records (the name of the recording studio, as well) was having financial problems at the time which certainly didn’t help in the promotional activities that should have been associated with the album which was released in 1972. The name of the album was “#1 Record” and probably should have at least been in the Top 10 records of the day, but it failed to sell. To this day, “#1 Record” is considered to be one of the best records ever produced. It’s worth a listen on iTunes to hear how well the songs on that album still sound today.
On the Rolling stone magazine list of the Top 500 albums of all time, #1 Record is listed at #434. “Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were the Memphis whiz kids at the heart of Big Star. They mixed British-pop finesse with all-American hard rock, from the surging “Feel” to the acoustic “Thirteen.” Big Star didn’t sell many records, but the Eighties explosion of poppy garage bands would’ve been unimaginable without them.”
Big Star’s second album was called Radio City which was also given highly favorable reviews and like its predecessor was a commercial flop. By 1973, Stax Records was effectively out of business and the distribution of Radio City was supposed to be assumed by Columbia Records. For whatever reason, Columbia did no promotion and effectively buried the record. So, all the good luck Alex experienced earlier in his career seemed to leave as he got older. While I have always liked “The Letter” it’s astounding to me that a tune like “September Gurls” on the #1 Record album did not event break into the Top 100. In the 1980’s groups like REM and The Replacements credited Big Star as a defining influence in their careers.
BTW, “September Gurls” is listed in the Top 500 songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine as #180. In describing the band, Rolling stone says, “Big Star were totally unfashionable in their day – early Seventies Memphis rockers inspired by Sixties British Invasion pop. A nonhit from the band’s second LP, Radio City, “September Gurls” is now revered as a power-pop classic. “They were fairly dark records wrapped in a pop package,” drummer Jody Stephens said of Big Star’s now-adored catalog. “Maybe that’s what’s made them enduring.”
Ms. George-Warren paints a painfully realistic portrait of Alex Chilton. In each phase of his life, I couldn’t help but grimace often when he made obvious bad choices and then had to live with the consequences of his actions. It seemed like his entire life was one of contradictions. He became famous without the struggle that virtually every performer has to endure. When he was the mastermind behind Big Star, success eluded him.
In the 80’s when he finally decided to sober up, he moved to New Orleans. For most people, New Orleans represents a “party central” atmosphere. I kept thinking this will not be good, but to his credit, he thrived in the Crescent City. Go figure!
If ever the term, “diamond in the rough” ever needed a visual representation, then reading this book about the life of Alex Chilton is testament to the validity of that term in his case. George-Warren is obviously a meticulous researcher and has done a fine job in delving deep into the life of Alex Chilton. After reading the book, I looked at the YouTube videos posted about Alex and Big Star. In conjunction with the book, these videos show his talent.
Sadly, Alex died of a heart attack on March 17, 2010. He was 60 years old.