'A Man Called Destruction': a definitive bio of Alex Chilton, cult legend of rock
Holly George-Warren chronicles the dizzying career moves that brought Chilton early fame and middling success, but great influence
April 29, 2014 12:00 AM
By Paul Zotter
Alex Chilton burst onto the music scene in 1967 singing "The Letter," which went on to become a classic. As the lead singer for the Box Tops, he had a gravelly voice that belied his age of 16. Thus began a musical odyssey that spanned four decades until his death in 2010 of heart failure.
In "A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton: From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man," author Holly George-Warren attempts to chronicle the dizzying career moves that helped Chilton establish himself as one of the most legendary cult figures in rock music history.
"A MAN CALLED DESTRUCTION: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF ALEX CHILTON: FROM BOX TOPS TO BIG STAR TO BACKDOOR MAN"
By Holly George-Warren Viking ($27.95).
At 13, with the advent of the Beatles and the British Invasion, Chilton gravitated toward singing and playing in a band. His big break occurred when his voice was noticed in a Memphis high school talent show with his band.
Chilton was subsequently asked to join another band, the Devilles, whose singer had just departed. After a name change, the Devilles became the Box Tops. Lady luck smiled upon Chilton again when young musician Dan Penn was given the assignment to produce a recording session for the Box Tops.
Mr. Penn, who is now recognized as an accomplished songwriter and producer, taught Chilton how to sing "The Letter," turned him loose, and the rest is history.
"A Man Called Destruction" details the process of how Box Tops songs were created and gives the reader a good understanding of how the record industry in the 1960s "manufactured" hits.
Sometimes the band members' playing would be replaced by hired studio musicians as well as additional layers of strings and horns added to the final product. When the Box Tops folded in 1969, due to lack of sales and band infighting, Chilton attempted to continue as a solo artist briefly while learning to play the guitar.
He then joined with some high school acquaintances from Memphis to form Big Star. That band, whose songs were mostly composed by Chilton and Chris Bell, later became regarded by music critics as one of America's most influential power pop bands.
Big Star signed with a small Memphis label, Ardent Records. The group's first two albums were critically acclaimed, but due to distribution glitches by Columbia and Stax Records, the recordings were pretty much unavailable to the record-buying public.
In our era where ordering online or downloading music from iTunes is common, there might have been a better outcome for Big Star. The group's failure to chart precipitated Bell leaving the band. Chilton then became involved in the burgeoning punk/new wave scene in New York in the late '70s, and the chaos mirrored his own life.
Chilton's increasing substance abuse problems caused his live performances to become erratic, and his records also suffered from a lack of focus. Bell died in a car accident in December 1978. This had a life-changing effect on Chilton.
The transition eventually lead him in the early '80s to New Orleans, where he became a dishwasher. He still maintained a presence in the music community though, playing rhythm guitar for Tav Falco's Panther Burns, and producing recordings for various bands.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Chilton continued to release albums under his own name and tour. In the early '90s, Big Star reformed to tour with two members of the band the Posies as replacements for its original members. This continued into the next decade with a Big Star album release in 2004 and reunion tours with the Box Tops.
Ms. George-Warren has written more than a dozen books with musical or western themes and served as editorial director of Rolling Stone magazine. She became acquainted with Chilton in 1985, when he produced four songs for her band.
Because of this, Ms. George-Warren's tendency is to highlight the more musical aspects of Chilton's life. The author has traced the Chilton family genealogy from its roots in England to Virginia, then Mississippi and, finally, to Memphis, Tenn. She documents family background and how the death of his older brother traumatized the family.
"A Man Called Destruction" describes the peaks and pitfalls of Chilton's often chaotic life. Drawing on interviews with friends, former band members and associates, Ms. George-Warren portrays Chilton as the flawed character he was at times, although her treatment of the latter part of his life and career in New Orleans seems sadly lacking in depth. She does include some unusual anecdotes, one of which involves Chilton waking up in a bed with Charles Manson.
"A Man Called Destruction" should satisfy the devoted Chilton fan and also interest music buffs interested in the record-making process in the '60s and '70s. For now, this is the definitive biography of Chilton.
Paul Zotter is a writer living in the South Hills (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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