Alex Chilton wasn't a rock star and I'm not a rock critic and maybe that's why I was able to extract some stuff from him in the several conversations we had since his 1988 release of "High Priest."
Or maybe he was just in some good moods.
Chilton eschewed publicity and enjoyed blending into the rhythm of New Orleans where he relocated in 1982, quit drinking and worked for a while washing dishes and chopping down trees.
Chilton died March 17 of a heart attack in a New Orleans hospital. He was 59. He was slated to appear in a Big Star reunion at the South By Southwest Music Conference, and check out Jim DeRogatis' tender tribute from Austin, Tx.
......His father Howard Sidney Chilton. Sr. was a Memphis pianist and tenor saxophonist who taught his son about tonal relationships.
"There have always been a hundred crazy people in their basements recording crazy music in Memphis," Chilton told me in 1988. "Listening to Memphis radio sort of presented me soul music, blues and rockabilly as part of the environment. There's always that religious madness trip in the South. The gospel music around the South is probably what invented rock n' roll music. Its the most spirited and innovative music there is, and to me it's the freshest stuff there is on the radio."
In his later years as a solo artist Chilton's live shows reflected his eclectic nature.
Chilton would run through Johnnie Taylor's "Disco Lady," the 1967 Brenton Wood soul smash "Oogum Boogum Song" and Ronny and the Daytonas' "Little GTO." He wasn't reluctant to dip into his Box Tops hits from the late 1960s. The Box Tops 1999 reunion show with all original members at the House of Blues in Chicago remains one of my most joyous rock n' roll concerts.
Country-soul singer-songwriter Dan Penn produced the first three Box Tops albums. He also wrote the Box Top hit "Cry Like a Baby" along with his own standards like "I'm Your Puppet" and "Do Right Man."
Penn was a seminal influence on Chilton's gruff vocals. "Alex was singing like Dan Penn told him to sing," Box Tops lead guitarist Gary Talley (a Jerry Butler sideman) told me in '99. "Dan was very involved with everything. He had ideas that you'd think were totally weird, but they'd always work. Like putting the sound effect of an airplane on 'The Letter.' And Dan liked to use trombones, which was strange for rock n' roll, where you'd hear saxophone more than trombones. But on 'The Letter' trombones are the only horns on there."
Penn drove the Box Tops through 33 takes of "The Letter" before he landed with a satisfied track.
Before his performance at the 2001 Chicago Blues Festival the humble Penn downplayed his influence on Chilton. "The fact is he kind of sounded like me when he started," Penn said. "The first things I heard out of Alex's mouth was (the hit line from "The Letter"), 'Give me a ticket to an airplane.' The only thing I told Alex was 'Don't sing airplane. Sing aerro-plane.' He wasn't hitting the groove. There were times I'd sing the line for him because he couldn't sing it. But I never gave him the idea to sound like me. He was a gruffy, blues guy, just like me."
In 1975, when Chilton and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens recorded an LP as the Sister Lovers (they were dating twins), Chilton also took on his own production duties for the Cramps. The Los Angeles psychobilly band was enamored with the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis. Chilton produced early Cramps rockabilly covers such as Jack Scott's "The Way I Walk" and Charlie Feathers' "I Can't Hardly Stand It."
Chilton and the Cramps also connected with peripheral Memphis characters like Rooster, an old taxi driver for Sun Records. Rooster claimed that Elvis Presley used to bring his mother's diet pills to Sun Studio. So, logically, Chilton and the Cramps found an obscure 1956 Sun rockabilly tune by Macey Skipper called "Bop Pills," a tribute to amphetamines.
On the Memphis down low, just as important for Chilton was his exposure to guitarist Reggie Young . The souful guitarist was part of Chips Moman's house band at American Studios in Memphis where the Box Tops recorded their hits (circa 1967-70). Penn dug a hole into his songs figuring the listener can step into it better. Young's guitar was the conduit for that passage.
Young played on almost all the Box Tops records and Chilton would bring snippets of his relaxed technique into the English pop influences of Big Star. Young also performed on the Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield Memphis hits.
"Alex was a quiet guy around the studio," Moman said Thursday from his home in his native La Grange, Ga. "He liked Reggie a lot." Moman assigned Young the electric sitar on "Cry Like a Baby" in 1968 just as he did with the 1968 B.J. Thomas smash "Hooked on a Feeling". "Anything I would see that hadn't been used, I would have them pick up and try," Moman said.
"At the time I couldn't play at all," Chilton told me in 2000. "I learned a few licks from Reggie. He's something I fully don't understand."
That was the last time I spoke with Chilton. I did talk Bill FitzGerald, owner of FitzGerald's into booking him for his July, 2002 American Music Festivals. Bill likes to post a huge American flag on the back of the stage during the festival. Chilton walked on stage and grumbled, "I feel like General Patton." More recently acclaimed Chicago chef Paul Kahan named his new Wicker Park roadhouse restaurant Big Star in honor of Chilton's band.
In 2000 Chilton was excited about astrology. I had asked him about his bouncy pop composition "What's Your Sign, Girl." Chilton disclosed that he was studying Uranian astrology, developed by Germans at the start of the 20th Century.
"I'm having a good time with it," he said on a roll. "It deals with midpoints between planets. Each planet falls into a different spot in the 360 degrees of a horoscope. You add the value of one planet to another planet and subtract the third. If the result of that falls on a fourth planet of your horoscope or someone else's horoscope, there's an interpretation for each one. There's over 1,000 variations of that."
Alex Chilton's star was as unique as each of the two cities he was most identified with. He was one of the premiere American singer-songwriters of our time.
For more on Alex, check out the combo discussion with Chilton and Ben Vaughn under MUSIC at Dave Hoekstra.com