"Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round." It was exaggeration for effect—and maybe some wishful thinking, too—when Paul Westerberg recorded those words at Memphis' Ardent Studios in 1987. He meant folks by the several thousand—a good chunk of them musicians or music critics—when it came to those offering the praises of Chilton, the "invisible man who can sing in a visible voice."
Doug Edmunds was little more than a child when he discovered Alex Chilton. In the early '80s, Edmunds, already a journeyman drummer at age 13, was playing in a wedding and party band. The 30-something leader of the group had copies of the first two records by Big Star, the alternately jangly and shimmering pop outfit led by Chilton. "It was such a revelation to me," recalls Edmunds. "Suddenly there was something between the Beatles and new wave that sounded so amazing to me." He advanced quickly from rookie to convert.
A decade later, Edmunds' own band, the power-popping Gladhands, opened for Chilton at the Cat's Cradle. Chilton was in the midst of his back-catalogue-ignoring, pop standards days, so Edmunds and his Gladhands ended their set with a take on "O My Soul," from Big Star's Radio City. In the dressing room, the first person Edmunds encountered was Chilton. Edmunds expected a comment on their cover. Chilton looked down at Edmunds' red, pointy-toed footwear and offered a dry "Great boots, man." That was plenty for Edmunds.
Flash forward another 15 years: The news of Chilton's death at age 59 on St. Patrick's Day reached Edmunds the morning after. "It was almost instinct," says Edmunds. "I e-mailed [Cat's Cradle owner] Frank Heath and said, 'I'm really upset by this, and I'm going to put together a benefit show, a tribute show, and I'd love to do it at the Cradle.'" Within minutes, Edmunds had a commitment from Heath, and within hours he had commitments from a number of local musicians. With the blessing of Chilton's wife, Laura, Edmunds turned the tribute into a benefit for the Future of Music Coalition and its Health Insurance Navigation Tool (HINT).
Here are recollections from some of the other ex-children who will be singing for Alex Chilton at the show.
I went to the Alex Chilton show at Cat's Cradle with Gladhands opening. I don't think he played an original song all night. People were yelling for Big Star songs, and he would go, "No, but I have a new record out, Man Called Destruction, and I'll be playing selections from that this evening."
After the show, my friend Jack Whitebread took me back to the dressing room to meet Alex. He looked me up and down, kind of sizing me up, and he stuck out his hand. "How ya doin'?" I was like, "What am I gonna say?" Then I remembered that we'd both just played the same off-the-beaten-path location in Austin, so I said, "My band just got back from South By Southwest, and we played the same stage you did." He looked at me and goes, "You mean that converted used car lot like 10 miles from anything?" I say, "Yeah, that's the one." He looks at me again, gives me the thumbs-up and goes, "We're really moving up in the world, huh, kid?"
I first heard of Alex Chilton from my friend Chris Stamey back in the '80s. Chris had played with him, so his name was floating about: important guy musically, interesting personally, of course. I think the Big Star records were the soundtrack to every party in my life starting from the mid-'80s and continuing to the present moment.
My band Holiday opened for Alex Chilton a very long time ago in Virginia—lousy club, lousy audience. He seemed slightly perturbed, probably because the audience was so lame. We were, of course, thrilled regardless. But one year later, I saw him and it was one of the top 10 shows I've seen in my life. Absolutely beautiful, and blisteringly lovely on guitar as well. My friend and I were so thrilled we even saved his cigarette butt that he threw on the floor. Insert weird geek fan comment here.
I saw The Box Tops on American Bandstand. After they played their song, which was probably "The Letter," Dick Clark interviewed Alex.I was stunned to hear his Southern accent, because, you know, pop music came from Los Angeles or London. It really sort of gave me hope to realize you could have a pop band in the South! And then I heard "When My Baby's Beside Me" in my car. I didn't know who the band was but the track sounded so exciting and bright and had guitars all over it!Wow!Even though the early '70s was a "rock" era, radio hits tended to be pretty soft.You might hear a solo, but you rarely heard big, clangy chords like that on the radio. I don't know when I learned that "the Box Tops guy" was in Big Star. And then I still couldn't quite grasp it since "the Box Tops voice" was missing. I instantly loved that track, and I think Chris Stamey was the first person I knew who had the LP.It was a thrill to hear more songs like that.
There was a festival in Wilmington back in the mid-'90s that tried to launch called M.A.S.S.S. (Mid-Atlantic Surf Sound Sand?). There was a writer covering bands, and my band Velvet was performing, and we were thrilled to get into the promo booklet. The writer said very appropriate things about our band and our sound, and at the end said, "... must have been listening to Alex Chilton a long time." Ha! I didn't know who he was, so I slinked off to the CD store and bought Big Star's #1 Record. I had heard "Thirteen," and, of course, The Box Tops, but didn't put it together. I've been a fan ever since.
I was hip to The Box Tops when the single was a hit. I remember singing "The Letter" on the monkey bars in kindergarten! But I didn't know Alex Chilton by name then. It wasn't until 1985 when he played The Brewery in a rock trio that I really got hip to him and Big Star. When I heard the Big Star recordings and after seeing him live, I had a hard time believing this was the same guy in all those formats. He was such a chameleon.
It felt like a punch to the gut to hear of his passing. Upon hearing of his death, the extent to which his music touched my life really hit home. When I read more about his passing, I cried big fat tears over him.
Our bass player, Jeff Taylor, had "AC" cut into the back of his Rickenbacker. He had asked Chilton, after a show in Virginia, to sign it. Chilton said something like "I'll do better than that," and returned with a screwdriver. We all looked at his roughly carved initials in reverence.
Alex Chilton was one of the greatest songwriters who ever drew breath. He had sufficient mastery of the pop song structure to fuck with it and capture the implosion. His was a quintessentially Southern voice and perspective: quirky but accessible, but ultimately dark and remote. He was a phenomenally talented guitarist, who played rhythm like lead and leads like rhythm.
I discovered Alex and Big Star through groups I loved early on, like Let's Active, dB's and R.E.M. Guess you could say I was soaking up their musical approach secondhand. Honestly, I didn't really listen to the Big Star records until my band Dillon Fence began getting Big Star comparisons in the press. A couple of years later, we found ourselves recording at the fabled Ardent Studios in Memphis. Big Star's drummer, Jody Stephens, was managing the studio. Jody knew I was a Big Star fan and approached me one day: "C'mere, Greg, I want you to hear something." We entered the tape dubbing room, and he handed me some headphones to have a listen—Big Star live in Japan! The band that was never supposed to play again had just re-formed and toured Japan. One of those moments in my life when I realized music really can take you anywhere, good or bad.