Frame For the Blues: The Powerful Ease of Alex Chilton

Right as he finally began to be recognized as a proto-indie rock figurehead in the late eighties and early nineties, Alex Chilton found himself drifting toward the sounds of his youth. Like most of the singer and guitarist’s mercurial actions, it was a contrarian move, the result of a restless desire to chase his muse, a condition that persisted Chilton’s entire artistic life. Right as people had begun clamoring for Big Star and the acerbic rock & roll Chilton wrote after that band’s end, he opted to crack open the Great American Songbook and channel his inner Chet Baker.

Among Chilton’s dedicated fanbase, there were, and remain, factions. Certainly, there are fans who appreciate the entire oeuvre, but there are also individual camps: dedicated followers who prefer the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops; punks who loved Chilton for his work with the Cramps and Tav Falco’s mutant rockabilly combo the Panther Burns; “college rockers” like R.E.M. and the Replacements who lauded him for the chiming power pop of Number #1 Record and Radio City and the deconstructed melodies of Big Star’s Third.

But Chilton wasn’t interested in playing to expectations. In between working odd jobs in New Orleans—washing dishes, trimming trees—he found himself reflecting on the sounds he heard growing up, the music his father, the jazz musician Sidney Chilton, and mother, Mary Evelyn Chilton, played around their suburban home on Robin Hood Lane in Memphis: Cannon Ball Adderley, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Glenn Miller, and Charles Mingus. Following the drowning of their son Reid, the Chiltons would move their family from the suburbs to a Victorian in Midtown. 

There, they became fixtures of the art scene, fashioning their home into an art gallery, a hangout for lefty eccentrics, painters, sculptors, and photographer William Eggleston, who set up a darkroom behind the house. Immersion in this arty world likely helped to set the young Alex Chilton off on his singular path. He was a pop star as a teenager, spent his twenties creating power pop and art rock templates, and wound up in New York City right as punk broke. But as the eighties drew to a close, Chilton began considering those early days on Robin Hood Lane. Perhaps in some way, he wanted to get back there. 

Two new collections exhibit this nostalgic impulse. The first, From Memphis to New Orleans, documents some of his best originals from 1985-1989, including the profane “No Sex,” the hilarious rave-up “Lost My Job,” and moral majority skewering “Guantanamerika”—in which Chilton unbelievably manages to rhyme “Tammy Baker” with the word “flakier”—alongside a series of beautiful covers, including takes on Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Let Me Get Close to You,” Bobby Emmons and Dan Penn’s “Nobody’s Fool,” and Don Gibson’s “Lonely Weekend.” The second, Songs From Robin Hood Lane, eschews original compositions entirely in favor of standards, culled from Chilton’s records Medium Cool, Cliches, and unreleased sessions. Backed by a jazz-minded combo, Chilton’s renditions of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Like Someone In Love,” and “There Will Never Be Another You” rank among the loveliest, most restrained recordings of his career. Chilton could mock with the best of them, but here he sounds utterly committed to the material. He could be ironic, sure, but he doesn’t sound that way singing “Let’s Get Lost” over a plucked acoustic guitar: “Let’s defrost in a romantic mist/Let’s get crossed off of everybody’s list.”

“Alex’s voice—not the Box Tops stuff—but just him singing by himself, had a tremendous kinship I thought to Chet Baker,” says bassist Ron Miller, who produced seven of the 12 songs on Songs From Robin Hood Lane. Inspired by a renewed interest in Baker’s work following the documentary Let’s Get Lost, and his death in 1988, Miller had begun looking for “alternative rock & roll singers who had that raw emotionality that Chet had.” 

Chilton fit the bill. The two had originally met in the ‘70s in New York, where they lived in the same building and were introduced by a waitress at CBGB. Miller had come up in Detroit’s thriving free jazz scene, but he was classically trained too. Years later, while playing with the Memphis Symphony, he caught a set by the Panther Burns, the wild band Chilton had joined led by Tav Falco. “That gig I saw…I wasn’t really sure if I’d seen the Panther Burns or just some guys who got up on stage drunk and screwing around,” Miller says. But there was something in the band’s unhinged music that spoke to him, perhaps an unrestrained exhibition of freedom he recognized from his days playing avant-garde jazz. Miller began gigging with the Burns and continued playing with Chilton off and on in various configurations for years to follow. 

The music that Miller and Chilton collaborated on in the early ‘90s bore little resemblance to the raging early days of the Burns. It didn’t sound much like Big Star either. “I didn’t really know anything about Big Star,” Miller says. “I knew about the Box Tops, certainly—that was sort of the soundtrack to my high school years, I knew all about that part of his career— [but] I had gone deep into all the free jazz and I missed out on Big Star. So when I first started playing with him, he brought over all three Big Star albums and gave them to me. I listened to them and I wasn’t completely captivated by it, to tell you the truth.”

In those days, Chilton wasn’t much captivated by that material himself. “You’re not going to have to play Big Star—don’t worry, we’re not going to do any of that,’” Chilton reportedly told Miller while discussing a trio tour of the East Coast drummer Doug Garrison. Instead, Chilton wanted to play a wide-ranging of selections that certainly must have baffled some of the DBs fans showing up to hear “The Ballad of El Goodo”: Willie Tee’s “Thank You John,” David Porter and Isaac Hayes’ Carla Thomas-popularized “B-A-B-Y,” Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, and a pitch-perfect arrangement of “Volare.”

“He sang the whole thing, including an introduction, in Italian, quite flawlessly,” Miller says. “That really knocked me out.” 

Onstage, Chilton had “that kind of puckish sense,” Miller says. One night in Pittsburg—to the best of Miller’s memory—the crowd began cheering for “The Letter” as an encore. “I’d heard it a million times but I had never thought about playing it, and Alex [had] said we wouldn’t be playing it. So I didn’t know how to play it…we stumbled through the thing. We got through it, but it was not good. Everyone was applauding and going crazy. I walked up to Alex after and said, ‘I apologize, I pretty much fucked that up,’ and he said, ‘Oh no man, that was perfect. That’s exactly the way I wanted that played.’”

Before his death in 2010, Chilton would return to Big Star and the Box Tops (he cut a lightweight but charming record with the former, and an underrated gem with the latter), but he maintained a devotion to R&B and jazz-inflected sets too. His final solo record, 1999’s Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, is thematically connected to the music of From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs From Robin Hood Lane. It’s casual, low slung, and swinging. The stakes feel low, and Chilton, for all his artistic and personal tempestuousness, sounds utterly relaxed. 

“He was a great stylist, which is what the tradition of jazz singing is about,” Miller says. The material they crafted was, “so nuanced,” Miller says. “It has that little slight off-kilter thing every once in a while, even though it’s very polished.” 

“Elvis was a stylist. Frank Sinatra was a stylist,” Miller says. “Bing Crosby was a great singer, but who would you rather hear do a song, him or Sinatra? For me, it’s Sinatra. He’s got a style and you really feel like man, that’s really interesting. Bing Crosby was a great singer, but I would prefer Sinatra, or Alex. You’re hearing something that’s quite a unique expression of what they are.”

Like the great interpreters—from Baker to Sintatra to Nina Simone—Chilton found himself in these universal songs. He brought all of his Chilton-ness to them. He imbued in them as much of himself as he injected into his own songs. “Alex was being himself,” Miller says. “Same with his guitar playing, and everything he did.” words/j woodbury

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