On September 23, 1967, Alex Chilton had the number one hit song in America. His garage band, The Box Tops, had recently shifted their focus to blue-eyed soul, and they had been together for less than a year when ‘The Letter’, their first recorded song, hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks. That’s a more extended stay than The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, and The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’, all of which also charted at number one that year. Chilton was still two months away from his 17th birthday when he got his first – and last – number one hit.
The Box Tops would chart seven songs in the top 40 before breaking up in 1970. Chilton initially pursued a solo career and turned down an offer to be the lead singer of Blood, Sweat, & Tears before reconnecting with childhood friend Chris Bell in Memphis, Tennessee. Bell was in a band called Icewater that featured drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Chilton quickly joined up, with the group renaming themselves Big Star.
Big Star’s career was plagued by interpersonal conflict and excessive drug use, notably from Bell. The band were cohesive on their first LP, optimistically titled #1 Record, but their distributor, Stax Records, was falling apart, making it difficult for the band or the album to find any traction. It was tough to find #1 Record anywhere, and when Stax signed a contract with Columbia Records, Big Star were lost in the shuffle.
Bell officially left the group before the recording sessions for their second album, Radio City. Chilton was now the sole frontman and principal songwriter, but just like #1 Record, conflicts with the band’s label meant that strong reviews and positive word of mouth couldn’t translate into sales. Hummel left the group, with Chilton and Stephens assembling one final album with producer Jim Dickinson, alternately known as both Third and Sister Lovers, before Big Star finally called it quits in 1975. Third/Sister Lovers eventually came out in 1978, shortly before Bell’s death in a car accident.
For the next two decades, Chilton played in clubs and on nostalgia tours where his Box Tops songs were the main draw. Meanwhile, Big Star was gaining a cult following among musicians in the growing alternative scene, with groups like R.E.M., Primal Scream, and the Posies citing them as a significant influence. Another admirer of the band was Paul Westerberg, the frontman from Twin Cities degenerates The Replacements.
The appreciation was mutual: Chilton had caught a Replacements show at CBGBs where the notoriously wayward band sabotaged their own live performance by playing drunken covers of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ and Kiss’ ‘Black Diamond’ with Gene Simmons reportedly in the audience, although he quickly exited. Chilton offered to produce the band, and the group cut demo versions of ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, ‘Left of the Dial’, and ‘Nowhere Is My Home’.
“The rumour was that when he’d produced [The Cramps] he’d order a case of beer and moved the faders with his feet,” lead singer Paul Westerberg recalled in Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements. “We thought, ‘Yeah – this will be right up our alley.'” When The ‘Mats managed to get signed to major label Sire Records, the label was insistent that Chilton not be behind the desk for their next album, so Tim was instead produced by Thomas Erdelyi, better known as former Ramones drummer and producer Tommy Ramone. The demo version of ‘Left of the Dial’ helmed by Chilton wound up being used on the final album, and Chilton gets credited with vocals on the original LP, along with a special “thank you” in the liner notes.
Westerberg established enough of a connection with Chilton that he largely followed in Chilton’s footsteps with The ‘Mats next album, Pleased to Meet Me. The band departed to Memphis, minus guitarist Bob Stinson, who had been fired shortly before, to record with producer Jim Dickinson as Big Star’s old studio, Ardent. Chilton appeared occasionally and added additional guitar to ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. Westerberg was composing a song based on the exploits of one of their friends when he noticed similarities to Chilton. From there, Westerberg rewrote the lyrics as a sort of sardonic tribute.
Westerberg initially thought the song was too obvious. “If there’s a sense of ‘Oh god, what if this is looked on as being stupid or weird?’ – that’s usually a tip-off that it’s worth doing.” For his part, Chilton was flattered. “I feel like a great legendary outlaw, like John Westley Harding or something,” Chilton would reflect.
Although the song detail “children by the million,” who sing to Chilton based on the love of his songs, the lyrics to ‘Alex Chilton’ don’t always paint the nicest portrait of the singer. “Cerebral rape and pillage/In a village of his choice”, “Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” and “Checkin’ his stash by the trash at St. Mark’s place” don’t exactly compliment Chilton, and the song even includes a macabre prediction. “If he died in Memphis, then that’d be cool, babe.”
On March 17, 2010, Alex Chilton died not in Memphis but in New Orleans, Louisiana. Due to a lack of health insurance, Chilton declined to seek medical care when experiencing shortness of breath in the week prior to his death. He died of a heart attack at age 59. He lived long enough to see his legacy in influencing hordes of younger artists and also was able to enjoy a delayed embrace of Big Star’s music with both critical and commercial success. Westerberg was prescient with one of his observations: people by the millions now love the songs of Alex Chilton.