On Dec. 28, 1950, William Alexander Chilton was born.
Alex Chilton grew up in Memphis. Music was always in his life. His father, Sidney, was a jazz musician. Chilton joined several local rock ‘n’ roll combos in his youth, mostly playing bass and rhythm guitar. After singing in a Memphis Central High School talent show (his strong R&B sensibilities garnered popular response from the audience), Chilton was recruited by four older classmates to join their rock ‘n’ roll band The Devilles.
In 1967, a Memphis disc jockey introduced the five students to American Recording Studios (ARS) writer/producer, Dan Penn. Penn liked the band’s sound and invited them to a recording session. In the process, he told the band they needed a new name. One teen suggested holding a contest, adding that “everybody can send in fifty cents and a box top.” Penn re-named the group the Box Tops.
Local songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson’s song “The Letter” was chosen by Penn, and the band’s one minute and fifty-eight second recording led them on a path to fame by shooting to the top of the singles charts. Chilton was 16 at the time.
The Box Tops continued to record through 1970, but never had another #1 hit. After the band broke up, Chilton traveled to NYC to attempt a solo career. He returned to Memphis in 1971 and formed a new band, Big Star, with school friend Chris Bell. The band’s first LP, #1 Record, was a critical success, but sold poorly. The three Big Star albums would be credited with influencing numerous alternative pop and indie bands. Paul Westerberg of the Minneapolis band The Replacements went so far as to write a song in 1987 titled “Alex Chilton.”
Chilton continued to perform and tour in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. He died in a New Orleans hospital from a heart attack on March 17, 2010.
Here’s “Soul Deep,” recorded in 1969, and the last song the Box Tops placed in the Top 20 (it reached #18). It, too, was written by Thompson and Chilton’s vocals are superb.
The Replacement’s “Alex Chilton”: http://bit.ly/ReplacementsAlexChilton