top of page

The musical life of Alex Chilton

• 1950 - William Alexander Chilton is born in Memphis, a city that soon will give birth to rock & roll.

• 1950s, '60s - Alex grows up in a house full of art & music. His mother runs an art gallery in the home. Aspiring photographer William Eggleston, a close family friend, has a darkroom in the Chilton's guest house. Alex's father, a jazz musician, frequently hosts jam sessions gathered around the piano in the Chilton living room.  

• 1965 - 67 - He sings with local"garage" bands in Memphis. 

• 1967 - Chilton replaces the lead singer in a band called the Devilles who are invited for a session at newly formed American Sound Studio, soon to be one of Memphis' most prolific hit factories. On Alex's very first day in a recording studio, the group records The Letter with producer Dan Penn.  It becomes an international #1 hit and, at age 16, Alex quits school as the renamed Box Tops are quickly sent on tour to support the record's success. 

• 1967 - 69 - He is exposed to pop stardom at a time of rapid cultural change as The Box Tops tour with groups like The Doors & The Beach Boys. Beach Boy Carl Wilson gives Alex instruction on guitar which he starts to play for some songs in concert. Squeezed into a frantic tour schedule are recording sessions, often with veteran studio musicians replacing the teenage Box Tops, but always with Alex as lead singer. Four studio albums are made in two years. Other hits include "Neon Rainbow", "Soul Deep",  and "Cry Like a Baby". Alex begins to write songs and a few are recorded by the Box Tops.

• 1969 - As the group grows tired of touring they also realize their managers are pocketing a fortune while paying them a meager salary. They arrive in England for their first overseas tour to find inadequate gear and "toy" instruments have been provided. When management denies their request to fix the situation, they refuse to play any of the scheduled gigs. Instead, they just see the sights in London for two weeks and soon it becomes clear The Box Tops will disband.

• 1970 - In the first year after The Box Tops, he pursues multiple musical directions at once. In Memphis' Ardent studios he collaborates with Terry Manning to make a sweeping range of recordings: from sweet and innocent pop sounds to fierce proto-grunge anthems. These recordings remain unreleased for several decades. He also goes to New York City and lives for some months in Greenwich Village where he gets in touch with the lively folk music scene. While honing his own songwriting craft he meets and is exposed to such talents as Roger McGuinn and Loudon Wainwright III.

• 1971 - 74 - Alex joins a recording project begun by three young Memphians: Chris Bell, Andy Hummel & Jody Stephens. They name the group "Big Star." They have unlimited access to Memphis' Ardent Recording, a state of the art studio whose owner John Fry engineers the first album called #1 Record. Despite stellar reviews in the national music press, sales are thwarted by lack of distribution. Bell quits the group. Chilton fronts the band for a second album as a trio. Radio City meets a similar fate to the first album: rave reviews in the press but dismal distribution by major label Columbia which had swallowed Memphis' STAX label and then failed to support it's releases. Andy Hummel quits and goes to college. Big Star seems to be over, having performed live only a handful of times and never having gone on a proper concert tour.  

• 1974 - Jim Dickinson produces an album at Ardent with Alex accompanied by Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and assorted Memphis session players. They view it as a Chilton solo project and, with Dickinson's guidance, Alex explores a darker palette than Bell and the others had originated with Big Star. When finally released in 1978, it is called a Big Star record as the group's cult following continues to grow. The album is named either Third or Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were dating two sisters).

• 1977 - 78 - He goes to New York and dives into the burgeoning punk & new wave scene. He fronts a band informally called "The Cossacks" for local gigs and realizes from audience response that Big Star's cult following is earning him recognition & respect at the same time he finds himself destitute and living in a cold-water flat. He makes demo records but fails to find a new label deal. He writes and records Bangkok & it is released as a well-received single. He meets the Cramps, who he is greatly impressed by after seeing them perform.

• 1977 - 79 - The Cramps come to Memphis where Chilton produces the recordings that will make up Gravest Hits, their first E.P.; and Songs the Lord Taught Us, their first L.P. It is probably his best-known work as a producer & these are still regarded as some the Cramps' greatest work.

• 1978 - 79 - After returning to Memphis, he again enters the studio with Jim Dickinson and other local musicians for sessions that will result in Like Flies on Sherbert.  The attitude of punk rebellion Alex witnessed in New York collides with Memphis rock and roll, country and pop musics to produce sounds some find unlistenable while others consider it a "lo-fi masterpiece". Only 500 copies of the album are pressed and it will be many years before it has a wider official release, but Sherbert still finds its fans over time.

• 1979 - 81 - He encounters Memphis performance artist Tav Falco and joins him in forming the Panther Burns, a group that approaches traditional southern musical styles with primitive theatricality. Chilton plays guitar as a sideman while Falco fronts the group of mostly untrained or marginally skilled musicians. Eventually, other skilled musicians are also attracted to join the project while maintaining the same attitude of tonal and rhythmic experimentation.

• 1980 - Chilton travels to London for two shows backed by musicians from British groups The Soft Boys and The Vibrators. The second performance is recorded and released in 1982 as Live in London

• 1982 - Alex quits drinking and moves from Memphis to New Orleans. He takes a break from professional music and works a series of odd jobs: dishwasher in a restaurant, janitor in a nightclub, trimming trees away from power lines.... 

• 1984 - He returns to performing & fronts his own trio for an east coast tour. He has reinvented himself (again) - adopting the eclectic approach to performances he will follow from then on. He interprets a wide range of music: jazz standards, blues, rock & surprising pop music covers. Very few of the Box Tops or Big Star songs he's famous for are included. Some in the audience are disappointed - joking that he has become a "lounge singer" - while others appreciate the musical evolution as he develops a loyal audience to support many subsequent tours through the U.S. & Europe. 

1985 - French record label New Rose backs production of Feudalist Tarts, the first of several Chilton albums it will release in Europe. The records also find modest distribution in the U.S. where he starts to receive airplay on "college radio". Other records to follow are High Priest, No Sex and Black List.  The records mix a variety of jazz, blues, rock, surf and soul covers with original songs by Chilton. Some of the originals now reflect Alex's views on current affairs with titles like No Sex (about AIDS) and Guantanamerika (TV evangelism).

• 1986 -  September Gurls, a song Alex wrote for Big Star, is recorded by The Bangles for their best-selling album: Different Light. He gets his first real taste of "mailbox money".

• 1987 - The Replacements create a song called Alex Chilton in homage to his influence on their own music.  They record it for the album Pleased to Meet Me, produced by Alex's old collaborator Jim Dickinson at Ardent, the studio most associated with Chilton, whose notoriety continues to grow as a result. He comes to the studio to play guitar on one song, but not the one named after him. 

• 1989 - 90 - Chilton produces "I Know You Fine... But How You Doin'" by The Gories, a Detroit garage rock trio. Among many groups he produces over the years, he rates this Gories album alongside the Cramps as his favorite achievements as a producer.

• Early 1990s - He discovers kindred spirits in Scotland's vibrant pop music scene & makes numerous trips to Glasgow, where he befriends and collaborates with members of BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub.

• 1993 - In New Orleans he records Clichés, an album of jazz standards for New Rose. It features Alex alone on acoustic guitar, singing in a style that reflects his admiration for vocalists like Chet Baker.

• 1993 - Alex agrees to perform at a festival in Columbia, MO with Big Star's drummer Jody Stephens, who he has not played with since the '70s. Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies are asked to join for the performance as it evolves into a surprising Big Star "reunion." The concert is well-received & they soon agree to play short concert tours in Japan and Europe. The recorded Columbia show is released as a C.D.

• 1994 - The new Big Star is booked for a limited number of U.S. dates including a homecoming concert in Memphis that is filmed with a professional camera crew. It will be the only time in Alex's career that he allows a complete concert to be filmed by a multi-camera crew but the footage will remain unedited for nearly twenty years. Big Star appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This new formation of Big Star will continue to perform occasionally from then on. 

• 1995 - He records the solo album Man Called Destruction at Ardent in Memphis. It follows the model for albums he began in the '80s, mixing his original songs with a wide variety of covers. He appears on Late Night With Conan O'Brien to perform Lies, a song from the album.

• 1998 - Chilton reunites with original Box Tops members to record Tear Off!, an album only released in Europe. They discover their old management can no longer legally control the band's name & start to perform and tour occasionally as The Box Tops. Alex has become a highly accomplished musician since the band's early years, but enjoys now playing the part of "stick man" again, mostly just singing while others play the instruments.

• 1998 - The television sitcom That '70s Show, uses covers of In the Street, a Big Star song written by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, as the theme music for the show. Songwriting royalties finally earn Alex a small but steady income for his recordings with Big Star.

• 1999 - He records Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy , an album that includes his typically eclectic range of covers but with no original songs. It featured his main touring trio over the last two decades of his career - with Ron Easley on bass and Richard Dworkin on drums.

• 2005 - Chilton surprises all by agreeing to return to the studio with the reformed Big Star members to record In Space an album of new original songs.  The group continues to occasionally tour and perform.

• 2000 - 2010 - Alex spends his later years in New Orleans comfortably settling into the role of a seasoned music veteran. He produces some younger bands for little or no money. He reveres the rich local music scene and enjoys occasionally backing other musicians, younger and older than himself, as a sideman. He'll play bass or guitar in this role and, trying not to attract attention, sometimes uses the pseudonym of "Norman Desmond".  

• 2010 - Alex Chilton dies from a heart attack at age 59 in New Orleans.




bottom of page