On Tuesday, March 30, Minglewood Hall (1555 Madison Ave) hosted an informal memorial gathering for the late, great Alex Chilton. The remembrance, which was organized by Chilton’s sister Cecelia Chilton and his wife Laura Chilton, took place from 5 to 8 PM and was open to the public.
The Big Star show scheduled as a benefit for the Levitt Shell on May 15 will proceed as planned, with special guests honoring Alex Chilton.
During his life, Alex Chilton made music of deep soulfulness, ornate beauty and glorious chaos.
It was perhaps a more muted but still thoughtful feeling that permeated Midtown’s Minglewood Hall on Tuesday evening as Chilton’s family, friends and fans gathered to celebrate the late Memphis music legend.
Chilton, the supreme rock and roll iconoclast who made his name with the Box Tops and Big Star and as solo artist, died in his adopted hometown of New Orleans on March 17 from an apparent heart attack. He was cremated during a private ceremony in New Orleans last week.
If a man is measured by the company he keeps, then Chilton clearly lived a rich, full and varied life. Many of those in attendance had come from all over the globe — including Australia and Austin, Texas — and the mourners represented seemingly every strata of society, from old Memphis gentry to local punk rock royalty and all points in between.
As old friends greeted one another for the first time in decades, a big screen flashed a slide show: snapshots of Chilton on the beach, on stage, hopping comically into a Catholic school bus. These pictures were offset by a barrage of other random images of Chilton favorites, from the sublime to the ridiculous: a picture of bluesman Furry Lewis’ headstone, a courtroom photo of Phil Spector’s wild afro toupee, a sepia-toned image of Gene Autry cradling a guitar.
A small formal program came at the gathering’s midpoint, with Chilton’s longtime bassist, Ron Easley — who helped organize the event, along with Chilton’s sister, Cecelia, and wife, Laura — introducing Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
Cohen, who had honored Chilton on the floor of Congress shortly after the singer’s death, remembered Chilton as a “special person who encompassed Memphis music in a different way.”
Easley brought a contingent of musicians and producers onstage who represented the many phases of Chilton’s career, from members of the Box Tops and Big Star to old Memphis comrades including Sid Selvidge and New Orleans foils such as Doug Garrison.
Laura Chilton joined Easley onstage with flute in hand to play a classical memorial for her late husband.
Easley remained to sing a couple of Chilton’s beloved standards, including a wistful rendition of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Only the Lonely.”
As the mourners slowly began exiting, many stopped by a display in the corner of the hall festooned with stories and remembrances of Chilton. Some of these “Alex Tales” were handwritten on the spot, others typed and sent in from far-off locales; a few ran several pages, while others just a handful of lines.
Pinned at the bottom of the board was a blue note card that bore a simple and perfect epitaph for Chilton: “One of a kind.”
– Bob Mehr: 529-2517
Photo above by Michael O’Brien. Front page photo by Karen Pulfer Focht.
Any list of the world’s most storied and celebrated music venues must surely include the Bluebird Café, a singer-songwriter’s haven just a few hours up I-40 on Hillsboro Pike in Nashville. Since opening its doors in 1982, the Bluebird has helped launch the careers of performers like Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks as well as those of countless, mostly unknown hit songwriters. The club has been the star of movies like “The Thing Called Love” and its own television show. It is even credited as the birth place of the “in the round” show, where performers sit in a row on stage and trade tunes back and forth, a format that has become standard for songwriters’ nights from Akron to Yazoo City.
This week a handful of Memphis artists will try to become part of the Bluebird’s legacy when they take part in a unique Memphis music showcase organized as a part of a new partnership between the Memphis Music Foundation and Nashville Songwriters Association International, the nonprofit group that took over the listening room in 2008.
On Tuesday, Memphis musicians Jason Freeman, Jeremy Stanfill, Joy Whitlock, Billie Worley and Cory Branan will play a Bluebird showcase hosted by foundation chairman and former Stax Records head Al Bell and Memphis-born Nashville songwriter Rivers Rutherford.
“The Bluebird is 28 years old, so I bet there was something like this before, but we haven’t done anything this specific in an really long time,” the Bluebird’s COO, Erika Wollam Nichols, says of the unprecedented nature of the show.
The showcase is being held on the opening night of the 18th Annual Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival, an event that draws over 9,000 fans and nearly 300 artists to eight venues for what is billed as the “world’s largest all-songwriter festival.”
“I think certainly this is the place to be [during the festival],” says Nichols of the high-profile slot being given to Memphis. “The Bluebird’s reputation as a home for songwriters and as a platform for people’s careers gives it a certain stature among the venues. Certainly not everybody’s going to be signed to a record deal overnight, but it is recognition or a nod. If you’re playing the Bluebird, you’ve made some kind of steps.”
Before heading off to Nashville, the artists will perform a free show Saturday afternoon at the Hi-Tone, dubbed “The Road To Bluebird.”
For Memphis, the road to the Bluebird began with a meeting between Memphis Chamber of Commerce senior vice president Mark Herbison and foundation head Dean Deyo. Herbison introduced Deyo to his brother Barton, executive director of NSAI. And at a meeting in Nashville, Deyo was pleased to discover that, despite its name, the NSAI was about a lot more than Nashville.
“It’s a weird title because while they are the Nashville Songwriters Association, they actually have chapters in over 100 cities,” says Deyo. “They do a lot more than just what their name says.”
Looking to expand their reach into Memphis, NSAI collaborated with the Foundation on one of their “Backstage Pass” industry insider events featuring Rutherford, a native Memphian who has penned No. 1 hits for Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry and Tim McGraw among others. That partnership led to Bluebird showcases.
“Coming to Memphis for meetings with the foundation, it has been really exciting to hear the music people are making in Memphis,” says Nichols, adding that Nashville today is looking beyond just country to other kinds of music. “(Memphis has got something) a little bit different. It’s exciting. It’s kind of fresh.”
The artists for the first showcase were chosen a variety of ways. Branan was selected because he is a Bluebird veteran and an established name in Music City. Other artists like Stanfill and Whitlock were chosen from among the artists with whom the foundation already regularly works. The husband of the foundation’s director of development and communications Pat Mitchell Worley, Worley was selected by Bluebird representatives through a blind, open audition process that will likely become the standard for future events.
At least one more showcase will be held in the fall, and if they both go well, this could become a quarterly event.
“We’re hoping it becomes a regular thing,” says Deyo. “We certainly think we have the talent. And the Bluebird is discovering that as well.”
The Road To Bluebird kickoff concert
4-6 p.m. Saturday
The Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar
Admission: Free. For more information, call (901) 278-8663, or visit hitonememphis.com.
When I hung the phone up, I had just finished going through my iPhoto pictures, trying vainly to categorize them for the thirty seventh time. I kept coming across one in particular that fit into 9 of my categories and I had to get it down to 1. It could be “Ardent Folk”, “Music folk”, “Family”, “Bizarre”, “Bigger that Life”, “Clients”… it was a picture of Alex with my first wife, before I had met either. Hmmmmm. When my phone rang, I answered it with my “EEEYELLOW”. Adam, my assistant, was telling me that Alex Chilton had just died. That was followed by that eerie silence. First I thought “he can’t be dead. I just saw him.” I guess it’s a weird form of shock. Adam was saying something about Fry – John Fry, our founder. Since I was going right by his house on my way home, I thought I would just drop by and check on him. His wife was at home, but then again, she wasn’t around in the day.
I first met Alex at Shoe Studios in Memphis when he was producing another friend, Tommy Hoehn. And Jon Tiven was there as pseudo executive producer. Tommy and Alex had written a song called “She Might Look My Way”, which someone said had missed the cut for Big Star’s Radio City record.
The drums weren’t quite the “vibe” and they needed a drummer. I got the gig. At Shoe, you couldn’t see into the control room. The usual glass ONLY through the headphones. Being the first time for me to ever play in ANY studio, it was … disconcerting at best. So I played as directed and the record was eventually released on Henry Loeb’s “Power Play” records which had also released the Scruffs first single. WOW! I had just played on my first record ever and Alex, the Big Star, had produced it. I was hot stuff, right? Well,considering I was just out of high school and already headed toward my goal-working in a recording studio. I was a happy dude. It was 1974.
March 17, 2010. As I headed down John’s street, I first looked the 1/4 mile to the garage to see if he had company. He did, but I drove up anyway. I called him from his driveway and when he answered, I asked him if everything was cool in there. He replied he was in the “shock bubble”, but assured me he was fine (for now). John had worked extensively on both of the Big Star records and had become very close with Alex, Chris Bell, Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens. They were his friends as well as his label’s pride. #1 record and Radio City were two of the most influential records ever made. But with distribution problems surrounding Stax… well, Big Star’s sales just never happened. I had heard rumors of Big Star’s records ending up in the soul music section of record stores, which I guess made sense in a weird sort of way. If the rumor is true, it would explain why such an influential band had such dismal sales. When you want to buy a rock record, you go to the rock section and if the record isn’t there, you usually buy something else instead of asking “Where are your Big Star records?” I tend to believe the story given the track record Stax had at the time.
Cut to 1977. A guy named Miles Copeland (as in IRS Records, as in Stewart as in The Police) had called to book time for a band he wanted Alex to produce called “The Cramps”. Alex asked if I could engineer the record. Since all I knew at the time was how to align a tape machine and repair faders, I was the perfect choice! Right?
We had a BALL doing that record. Lux Interior was always in character, Brian threw a cinder block at a pile of stuff we had built from folding chairs, flourescent tube lights, a couple of cymbals … and we recorded the subsequent chaos. Lux sang “Human Fly” and “Sunglasses After Dark”. It was NYU performance art becoming a validated rock music scene. Alex basically taught me how to make a rock-a-billy record, and we superimposed that methodology on the Cramps. NOW Alex had been there when I engineered my first record.
As luck would have it, I had inadvertently caused some distortion on the Cramps record. And Alex wanted remuneration for it. So Ardent gave him a week to fix the problem, which he used to record his record “Feudalist Tarts” (a cute little trick he had learned from HIS producer, Jim Dickinson) But wait! That’s cheating! No, I guess in Alex’s eyes, it was legit. I mean, Dickinson did it, so why can’t Alex? Jim always avowed that ‘you can’t have music without some element of crime’.
After that, I hadn’t seen Alex until it was time for him to produce a record on Tav Falco, who had just returned from Belgium where he was learning to Tango. That record, “Behind the Magnolia Curtain” was yet another cult fave, and Alex was now an underground super-star.
1968. Alex Chilton came out of the chute at 16 and within a couple of years had made a plane-load of money having his voice heard around the world. When the “Tops” were opening for the Beach Boys on tour, he stayed in drummer Dennis Wilson’s guest house with none other than Chuckie Manson! (Dennis had thought Charles was harmless enough, so Alex figures what the heck?)
After his ginormous success as the vocalist for the Box-Tops, as in The Letter, Soul Deep, Neon Rainbow, Cry Like a Baby, … a rock-pile of SMASH hits … he met Icewater’s Jody Stephens and Chris Bell (more on Chris soon) and rocket scientist Andy Hummell. Alex and Chris were fairly confident they could make a PowerPop band ala Raspberries, Byrds, Badfinger; PowerPop wis music largely influenced by ’60s British Music: Todd Rundgren’s “Runt” LP, Raspberries single “Go all the way”, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and “No Matter What” (a song Paul wrote for the Beatles), Dwight Twilley, Matthew Sweet … that was PowerPop. It’s a long list. And Alex was standing right in the middle of it’s birth. Had it not been for the demise of their distributor, Stax, I’m convinced they would have been the hottest thing since sunburn. “Back of a Car”, “September Gurls”, “Thirteen” … come on. Tell me that isn’t some of the best music you’ve EVER heard.
Though Alex could be cantankerous, i.e. kicking his Fender Twin at the famed and packed Antenna Club or slapping my hand away from the e.q. on a mix, I’m convinced THAT was the inveterate showman he was. Because he really was a great dude. I told him my birthday once around 1976. One day in 1997 at Ardent, he walked up to join me and a friend at 7 card stud, and out of nowhere, he looked up at me , kind of gazing through me, and said “November …(pause) … seventeenth.” Uncanny.
1986. When we started the Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me”, I was listening to their demos-soon-to-be-masters they had recorded the week before, and I thought to myself, “Paul sure sounds like Alex”. Again in 1988, as we heard Tommy Keene’s demos for “Based on Happy Times”, I thought to myself, “Tommy sure sounds like Alex”. Influenced.
R I P Alex. We love you. God loves you. We’ll miss you.
No questions, please.
A sad day for everyone. Our thoughts are with family and friends.
From Jody Callahan and Bob Mehr’s article in The Commercial Appeal:
Alex Chilton, the pop hitmaker, cult icon and Memphis rock iconoclast best known as a member of 1960s pop-soul act the Box Tops and the 1970s power-pop act Big Star, died Wednesday at a hospital in New Orleans.
The singer, songwriter and guitarist was 59.
“I’m crushed. We’re all just crushed,” said John Fry, owner of Memphis’ Ardent Studios and a longtime friend of Chilton’s. “This sudden death experience is never something that you’re prepared for. And yet it occurs.”
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named all three Big Star albums to its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
“It’s a fork in the road that a lot of different bands stemmed from,” said Jeff Powell, a respected local producer who worked on some of Chilton’s records. “If you’re drawing a family tree of American music, they’re definitely a branch.”
In the mid-’70s, Chilton began what would be a polarizing solo career, releasing several albums of material, including 1979′s Like Flies on Sherbet — a strange, chaotically recorded mix of originals and obscure covers that divided fans and critics.
Chilton also began performing with local roots-punk deconstructionists the Panther Burns.
In the early ’80s, Chilton left Memphis for New Orleans, where he worked a variety of jobs and stopped performing for several years.
But interest in his music from a new generation of alternative bands, including the Replacements and R.E.M., brought him back to the stage in the mid-’80s.
He continued to record and tour as a solo act throughout the decade. Finally, in the early ’90s, the underground cult based around Big Star had become so huge that the group was enticed to reunite with a reconfigured lineup.
The band, featuring original member Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, continued to perform regularly over the next 16 years. Big Star became the subject of various articles, books and CD reissue campaigns, including the September 2009 release of the widely hailed box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky.
“I played with Alex for eight or 10 years regularly, and he was one of the best musicians I ever knew,” said Doug Garrison. “That’s what really locked the first time I played with him, this feel on the guitar. He just played flawlessly. He had a limited technique, but he did what he did really well.”
Chilton was often described as “mercurial,” but those who knew him well described a man with a keen sense of humor, a tremendous musician and a generous friend.
“He was the only person on a record I’ve ever worked with where you’d come up with a horn arrangement, and he’d say, ‘Look, I’m going to make you guys a co-writer on the song now,’” said Jim Spake, who played sax on the most recent Big Star record.
Chilton is survived by his wife, Laura, a son, Timothy, and a sister, Cecilia.
“When some people pass, you say it was the end of an era. In this case, it’s really true,” said Van Duren, a fellow Memphis musician who knew Chilton for decades. “It puts an end to the Big Star thing, and that’s a very sad thing.”
– Bob Mehr: 529-2517
– Jody Callahan: 529-6531
Details to follow as we receive them.
Photo by Andy Hummel: John Fry with Alex Chilton in Studio B ca. 1973
McGee on Music: Big Star’s Alex Chilton was a Guiding Light – Guardian.co.uk 3/23/10
Thank You Friend: Musicians Remember Alex Chilton – Magnet Magazine 3/23/10
The Life and Music of Alex Chilton - Pitchfork.com 3/22/10
Wouldn’t Be Here if it Wasn’t for You – Roll Away the Stone 3/22/10
SXSW Events Honor Chilton’s Life, Music - Goldmine 3/22/10
Beyond the Box Tops (by Paul Westerberg) - The New York Times 3/21/10
Friends, Disciples Pay Tribute to Alex Chilton at South by Southwest - The Commercial Appeal 3/21/10
The Alex Chilton Panel at SXSW: “Those Whom he Touched were Touched Immutably.” - The LA Times 3/21/10
SXSW 2010 Ends with a Lot of Love for Alex Chilton - The Chicago Sun-Times 3/21/10
Big Star’s SXSW Show Turns Into Powerful Tribute to Alex Chilton – Rock & Roll Daily/Rollingstone.com 3/21/10
Alex Chilton: Friends, bandmates remember the late Big Star Singer at SXSW Panel - Entertainment Weekly 3/20/10
SXSW: Thank You, Friend - Back to Rockville, The Kansas City Star Music Blog 3/20/10
SXSW Panel: ‘I Never Travel Far without a Little Big Star’ - Austin-American Statesman 3/20/10
Big Star’s Alex Chilton Tribute in Austin (Some great photos!!) – rslblog.com 3/20/10
“I’m in Love with that Song:” Remembering Alex Chilton – Popmatters.com 3/19/10
Alex Chilton Dies at 59; Mercurial Leader of the Box Tops, Big Star - The LA Times 3/19/10
Underrated Iconoclast: Alex Chilton’s Lasting Influence - The Atlantic Wire 3/18/10
A Couple Alex Chilton Songs - Gawker.com 3/18/10
RIP Alex Chilton, American Music Man - The LA Times Blog, Pop & Hiss 3/17/10
Alex Chilton Dies on the Eve of South by Southwest Tribute - The Chicago Sun Times 3/17/10
From our good friend Bob Mehr (Music Writer for The Commercial Appeal):
I wanted to let those of you who might be heading to SXSW know about a panel/performance I’m moderating on the great Memphis band Big Star. The program, titled “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star,” will take place on Saturday March 20 at 12:30 p.m. in room 18ABC of the Austin Convention Center.
Big Star founders Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel will be appearing AND performing some acoustic numbers as part of the event. It’ll be the first time the two have played together in over 35 years!
In addition, the panel will feature Posies and Big Star members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, Chris Stamey of the dB’s, power-pop fave Tommy Keene and perhaps a surprise guest or two discussing the legacy of the band and the release of the critically acclaimed 2009 Rhino Records box set, Keep An Eye on the Sky.
More info here if you’re interested: http://my.sxsw.com/events/event/7886
And as a side note, Jody Stephens will be making guest appearances with folk pop trio, Star & Micey at the Memphis Music Foundation booth in the Austin Convention Center on Thursday, March 18th at 1pm, Barbarella (Official Memphis Music Showcase – 615 Red River St) that evening at 9pm, and the MMF booth again on Friday, March 19th at 1pm.
Rhino.co.uk / (UK)
Rhinorecords.ca / (Canada)
wmg.jp/wmlife/kami / (Japan)
Platekompaniet.no / (Nordic)