A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (Anglais) Relié – 20 mars 2014
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“Somewhere along the line I figured out that if you only press up a hundred copies of a record, then eventually it will find its way to the hundred people in the world who want it the most.”
Alex Chilton uttered those words to English musician Epic Soundtracks, a cult figure in his own right, in 1985. Nearly thirty years later—during the summer of 2013—New York’s Central Park hosted a concert celebrating 3rd/Sister Lovers, one of Alex’s groundbreaking, yet commercially unsuccessful albums. The following night, the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me premiered in Manhattan, then opened around the country. Both events resulted in a flurry of Alex Chilton–related Facebook exchanges, blogging, and media coverage. The Central Park performance marked the pinnacle of eight concerts over a thirty-month span organized by former Chilton collaborator Chris Stamey. In U.S. cities as well as around the world, participants ranged from members of R.E.M. and Wilco to Robyn Hitchcock and M. Ward. A few weeks later, some of Alex’s noisiest acolytes, the Replacements, played their first gig in twenty-two years with their 1987 ode “Alex Chilton” now reaching an audience of fifty thousand, thanks to the internet.
For more than forty years, before his sudden death of a heart attack in March 2010, Alex Chilton touched three-plus generations of fans with his diverse musical legacy. He began his life in music in 1967 as a soulful-sounding teen idol before evolving into a brilliant songwriter and then punk provocateur in the 1970s. After a time in the wilderness—driving cabs, washing dishes, trimming trees—he became the revivified elder statesman of roots music and indie rock, from the mid-’80s until his passing. Musician Chuck Prophet wrote of him, “He defies categorization entirely. ENTIRELY. Isn’t that rock & roll? What rock & roll was and should be all about?”
Alex, though, was forever hell-bent on diverting attention from his artistic accomplishments and widening influence. Unimpressed with the laurels bestowed on him by music critics, alternative rockers, hipsters, and fans, Chilton carved out a sort of incognito life for himself in his adopted hometown of New Orleans.
Alex’s passing at age fifty-nine sent shock waves of grief through the music world and the international media. His death was noted on the evening news, NPR, and in more than a hundred newspapers. The New York Times Magazine included him in their annual “The Lives They Lived,” in which Rob Hoerburger theorized, “If one measure of rock stardom is being your own man, then Chilton, whose career was tracked with impurities, might have been the purest rock star of all.” Rolling Stone had already placed his three Big Star recordings into its 2003 list of the greatest albums of all time, and Spin, in its 25th anniversary issue, said Chilton “essentially invented indie and alternative rock.” In the Los Angeles Times, Ann Powers reflected, “Chilton wasn’t just a genius writer of Beatles-inspired power pop songs. He was a lifelong epicurean and cultural adventurer who sought to brighten the corners of American popular music through his own work.”
Alex died the same week Big Star was to perform at Austin’s South by Southwest, the country’s largest gathering of music cognoscenti. Those who knew him, not wanting to face the hard truth, considered the possibility that he’d faked his demise to avoid the wide-eyed fandom he did not court. But just as it had during his life, his work shone despite the circumstances. Chilton pretty much stole the eighty-thousand-strong conference, with artists ranging from Ray Davies to John Hiatt, Courtney Love to Cheap Trick eulogizing him on various stages. A packed tribute concert became a cathartic, makeshift memorial for the reluctant iconoclast, a rainy parade of indie-rock luminaries. “A procession of guest musicians helped underscore both the timeless beauty of Chilton’s best songs and the wide-ranging influence his music had across different genres and generations,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times. More memorial concerts followed, in Memphis, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, Chapel Hill, and other college towns where his trio had played small clubs off and on for twenty years. No doubt, Alex Chilton would have been bemused by all this attention, perhaps annoyed that once again his story is spun regardless of his will.
Music was Alex’s life—but what he loved more than making music was doing it on his own terms. As former Washington Post writer Joe Sasfy put it, “He [was] always riveting and real in ways few performers can ever risk. And it is those risks, in life and art, that separate Chilton from all that he has spawned.”
Falling into the music business as lead singer of the Box Tops at age sixteen, with no plan to be famous, he went on to make beautiful, sometimes harrowing music with Big Star—the group the term “cult band” personifies—and then became an iconoclastic solo artist, wandering in uncharted territory. In titling his 1995 album A Man Called Destruction—his last solo release filled with mostly his own songs—he acknowledged that he had often torn up the paths he’d taken before, wiping out the footprints, starting anew. As his longtime compadre Tav Falco said, “Alex’s process was to create something that’s beautiful, then the next stage was to destroy it.” Alex continued to use his singular voice as a stylist of songcraft from all genres, while forging ahead as a guitarist, becoming an excellent, imaginative player—“the Thelonious Monk of rhythm guitar,” according to Tom Waits.
“All my career,” Alex said in 1993, “I’ve always kind of envied somebody like the Cramps [whom he produced], who had such a well-defined bag they were in. . . . I guess I was wishing I wanted to be that way or something. But I don’t, really, and now I don’t wish for it anymore, either.”
During the last decade of his life, in his beloved cottage in New Orleans’s Treme, he enjoyed playing a piano he bought with a check from That ’70s Show, which put his “In the Street” into international circulation as the series’ theme song. Alex had grown up listening to his father’s jazz on the family’s Chickering, so this simple pleasure brought him full circle. Leading an eclectic trio for nearly twenty-five years, he relished presenting an endless variety of songs—including those from his childhood and his earliest repertoire as a teenager. His longtime drummer Richard Dworkin remembers that, as they toured America together, Alex liked to find his way without using a map, driving from town to town. Though he might choose some circuitous routes, he usually found his way, pulling up to the club just in time for the gig. As in life, Alex liked traveling the byways, even if it meant getting lost sometimes. It wasn’t an easy road—but it took him where he wanted to go.
The Chiltons of Virginia and Mississippi
William Alexander Chilton came from well-bred, aristocratic stock. When he reached fifty, Alex took a keen interest in his illustrious family history, tracing his lineage back to the seventeenth century, when a Chilton left England for the New World. Alex proudly corrected one journalist who thought the Chiltons emigrated from England in the 1700s, telling him that it was actually 1660 when John Chilton sailed to America. Yet after this account of the Chilton family was published, Alex cut off communication with its author for the sin of including the Chilton genealogy. Ambivalent about his pedigree, Alex both embraced it and disowned it. At various times, traveling to visit ancestral burial plots, he relished his forebears’ accomplishments; at others, such a patrician genetic code contradicted his self-image as a working-class musician, the kind who once said he wanted his gravestone to read SELF-MADE MAN. Such dichotomies would dog Alex Chilton his entire life.
The “Chiltons of Virginia,” described in a 1907 William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, were “descended from an old English family, originally of French descent as the name indicates . . . [perhaps] derived from the Chalk Cliffs of Dover, near which the Chiltons are supposed to have settled on their first landing upon English shores. . . . In 1060 William of Normandy set sail for the conquest of England, and inscribed on his banner roll was the name of Sir John Chilton. This is the first mention we have of the name.”
In 1660 another John Chilton, possibly of Canterbury, emigrated to America to settle on land grants (bestowed to loyal subjects by King Charles II) in Lancaster County, Virginia; he added to his holdings by acquiring land in Westmoreland County. His son John Chilton II, like his father a planter, remained in the northern neck of Virginia, on the banks of the Potomac River, in an area he called Currioman, the name of a neighboring creek that flowed into the Potomac. This part of Virginia became the seat of several wealthy families, including the Chiltons, whose tobacco plantations were manned by slave labor. The Chiltons, continuously buying more land, thrived in Virginia for more than four generations. The present-day hamlet of Chiltons, Virginia—once part of the Currioman estate—was named for the family.
Continuing the line to Alex’s direct descendants, John II’s youngest son, Thomas Chilton, inherited his father’s plantation. He served as justice of the peace, sheriff, church warden, and major in the foot companies of Westmoreland County. At the time of his death, records show he owned sixty-two slaves.
Thomas’s son William participated in a major event precipitating the American Revolution. In 1765 he and other Virginians opposed to Britain’s new Stamp Act formed the first public association to resist the recently imposed tariff on printed paper. William and three other Chiltons were among those signing a document, later known as the Westmoreland Protest, denouncing the Stamp Act. Though William died on the eve of the American Revolution, his brothers Thomas, Charles, and John served in the War of Independence.
In 1840 John Marshall Chilton, William’s grandson, born in December 1815, moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. “That’s how my branch of the Chilton family got to Mississippi and stayed there until two years before I was born,” Alex once related. A prominent attorney and an influential citizen in affairs of church and state, the Honorable John Marshall Chilton married Sarah Norton, of a distinguished, religious family in New Orleans. Sarah’s father, Charles N. Norton, had been appointed marshal of the state of Mississippi by John Quincy Adams in 1824. Norton, to whom James Madison had given a letter of introduction with which to travel abroad in 1806, was a professor and later president of Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi.
Before the Civil War, the John Marshall Chilton family lived on a large cotton plantation with numerous slaves. There John wrote a history of the colonial Mississippi territory (which Alex once said made for “pretty good reading”). In 1859, not long after a journey to Minnesota, Chilton died from unknown causes at age forty-three; his fourteen-year-old son, Charles, a prodigious correspondent, wrote his Aunt Dory, “It is hard to bear this sudden seperation [sic] from Pa; but grieving cannot bring him back; and we must therefore endeavor to be reconciled to our hard lot.”
John Marshall Chilton’s younger brother, Robert Hall Chilton, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served in the Mexican-American War, during which he rescued Jefferson Davis at the Battle of Buena Vista. In 1861 Major Chilton joined the Confederate Army, where he became chief of staff under General Robert E. Lee. After the war he settled in Columbus, Georgia, where he became president of a manufacturing company. His son Robert Lee Chilton married Sydney Norton Chilton, his first paternal cousin and the daughter of the Honorable John Chilton. Alex’s grandfather Howard Sidney Chilton may have been named after her.
Alex, no doubt, was dismayed that his ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War. He was known to deride Confederate heroes; as he once said to a friend, “I hope your street isn’t named after the vicious war criminal/genocidal racist Nathan Bedford [Forrest]. How are these honors for these monsters allowed to continue?” Another time, while performing in Athens, Georgia, he blurted out, “The South sucks! All those clichés about our racism and sleaziness are true!”
Alex may have felt more sympathy for John Marshall Chilton’s son Charles, who attended boarding school in Virginia prior to the war and became known as kind and generous toward the former slaves who continued to work on his family’s estate near Clinton, Mississippi. Charles wrote his grandmother in 1866, “Things go on much as usual here, nothing to break the monotony of the week, except an occasional quarrel with some freedmen. I however have so far gotten along swimmingly with them, and have no reason to complain.”
Nine years later, however, Charles would fall victim to the turbulent period of Reconstruction. In September 1875 Democrats and Republicans were vying for votes in the upcoming November legislature election, with candidates organizing gatherings for their black and white constituents. On September 4 a picnic was held in a grove about a quarter mile from Charles Chilton’s home. Candidates from both parties gave speeches to an audience comprising sixty to seventy-five whites (Democrats and Republicans) and approximately a thousand to twelve hundred black Republicans. As the speechmaking ended, an altercation broke out between whites and blacks, guns were fired from both sides, and a melee erupted. During the ensuing violence, six blacks and three whites were shot and killed, at the picnic and in the neighboring cotton fields. The mob raced from the scene on horseback and on foot. When Charles Chilton, hearing what had happened, ran to his front gate to usher his hired hands into safety, a black man galloping by on a horse shot him in the back with a Winchester.
At a subsequent inquiry, reported nationally as the “Clinton Riot,” it was determined that “Chilton met his death while endeavoring to protect the colored women and children, and had handed his gun to a colored man in his employ at the time he received his death wound. Chilton was well liked, well thought of by his neighbors and friends. A young man of fine family.” (After the killings, a vigilante group of whites took revenge, murdering a dozen black residents of the county.)
Charles’s mother, Sarah Norton Chilton, described the tragedy in a September 17, 1875, letter to her sister in New Orleans:
He died in the arms of his brother John. I was three miles distant from him and had to go all the way through an infuriated mob—with no one but a negro—in order to bid him farewell. It seems to me like a thousand years since then. I never have looked upon any human face so beautifully peaceful as was his dear dear face. He said in every look, “All is well.” The country is in a sad state of excitement—men never take off their weapons except when they go to bed and there they sleep on their pistols.
In her bereavement, Charles’s mother sought the help of spiritualists and then became one herself to contact her son, father, husband, and others and communicate their words from the afterlife.
• • •
Alex’s great-grandfather Harrison Randolph Chilton was Charles’s younger brother, born in December 1853. He was the first of the Chiltons to settle in the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues—music Alex would later embrace. Sometime in the late 1870s Harrison became the owner of a plantation in Issaquena County, across the Mississippi River from Louisiana. Just before the Civil War, Issaquena County had the highest concentration of slaves of any county in the state, with the enslaved constituting 92.5 percent of the population; records show that 115 owners held 7,244 slaves. Harrison Chilton lost everything to heavy flooding in the late 1880s, according to Alex, so he sold what was left and became the county’s sheriff. Alex once visited the area and called it “the end of the world . . . way, way out there, the poorest place I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve read a statistic that around the turn of the twentieth century when [Harrison] was still sheriff . . . the ratio of black to white was 19 blacks to 1 white, in the height of the Jim Crow Era.”
The Chiltons moved to the county seat, Mayersville, which was once the heart of a plantation; approximately 11 percent of its residents were white and the rest black. (The great McKinley Morganfield, who later took the name Muddy Waters, was born in Issaquena County in 1915.) Only one square mile in size, the poverty-stricken Mayersville is where Howard Sidney Chilton was born in 1882. Things have not changed much in the twenty-first century since Alex’s grandfather’s birth: In 2000, around the time Alex visited there, the median annual income for a household in the town was $10,962; about 49.9 percent of the population was living below the poverty line. Today Issaquena County, with its median income even less, has the lowest per capita income in Mississippi and the thirty-sixth lowest in the United States.
The Delta intrigued Alex. “We talked a lot about books and history,” Mississippi native Dan Tyler, a songwriter and Alex’s longtime friend, remembers. “Alex loved history. I gave him a book called Rising Tide, and he said, ‘You’ll never know what this book meant to me.’ It was about the big Mississippi River flood of 1927, which kind of rearranged the South, and about race and class. Alex had almost a Marxist slant on history, so he was interested in those types of books. Toward the end of his life, he was starting to investigate his family history [in the light of such issues].”
“My grandfather grew up in the town of Mayersville with his brother and sister and married a woman from the town of Starkville where the state college [Mississippi State] was,” Alex told writer Bruce Eaton in 2007. “Her father, [William] Magruder, was kind of a big wheel around the college, the chairman of the English department.” According to Alex’s uncle Harrison Randolph “Jack” Chilton, “[Magruder] was an interesting guy who once caused a strike by the whole student body. In those days, . . . boys were not supposed to be found with girls in the stacks of the library. Well, a young man and woman were found there together, and grandpap expelled the boy. . . . The whole college went on strike. He finally had to readmit the boy.” Professor Magruder was also vice president of the university; today an annual scholarship is given to a deserving English major at the university in his memory.
Howard Chilton must have been an impressive young man to have passed muster with Professor Magruder and marry his daughter. Jack Chilton, her son, said that his mother was one of the few female students admitted to what was then an agricultural college. “They made a special case for her to attend because of her father. But she wasn’t allowed to take animal husbandry!” Her name was Kate, but no one ever called her that. “Her daddy called her ‘Daughter,’ so her sister called her ‘Daughter,’ and even her children called her ‘Daughter,’” according to Alex’s sister, Cecelia Chilton.
After their marriage, in 1906, Howard and “Daughter” Chilton became boarders at the home of a widow who lived next door to Professor Magruder and his wife. The newlyweds had bought their own home by the time Alex’s father, Howard Sidney Chilton Jr. (always called Sidney), was born in Starkville on December 17, 1911, followed by Harrison Randolph “Jack” Chilton three years later. Both boys were musical and began learning to play instruments at a young age. The Chiltons then moved farther south, to Meridian, Mississippi. There, in the hometown of Jimmie Rodgers, later known as the Father of Country Music, Sidney and Jack became enthralled by music, and in particular the sound that emerged from New Orleans: jazz. Of his father and uncle’s musical training, Alex told Eaton in 2007:
My father was . . . a musician and played in the University of Mississippi jazz band. He . . . was in college around the early 1930s—he and his brother both. My dad was a sax player in those days although in my lifetime he was mostly a piano player. His brother plays guitar and still does—still going strong at age 93. I’m sure he studied in school a bit—he actually went to the state school [Mississippi State] for three years but as I’m told by Uncle Jack, for his last year he went over to Ole Miss [the University of Mississippi in Oxford]. I’m always confused by how that happened, but Uncle Jack says they wanted him in the jazz band there and that’s how he ended up at the more posh school for his last year of college.
Sidney graduated from Ole Miss in 1933. Later that year he married Mary Evelyn Reid, a striking and artistic brunette who hailed from another small Mississippi town, McComb (the birthplace of Bo Diddley). Though the Reids’ ancestry lacks the aristocratic lineage of the Chiltons, their American heritage dates back to Hugh Reid, who emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1700s. The Reids resided for two generations in South Carolina until Hugh’s grandson William S. Reid moved to Louisiana. His son, William Alexander Reid (b. 1843), a farmer for whom Alex was named, married Emma Gertrude Knott (b. 1848), who was living in Natchez, Mississippi, with her widowed, Virginia-born mother. William Alexander and Emma Reid settled in McComb, about 180 miles from New Orleans. One of eight children, their son Philip (b. 1885) married Nellie (b. 1890)—Alex’s maternal grandparents. The young couple moved in with Philip’s widowed mother, Emma, sharing living quarters with his sisters, Mary, a widow with two children, and Sally, an unmarried stenographer (who would later live with Alex’s family). Philip’s uncle operated a successful Main Street store, Reid & Nance, which sold “pure drugs, toilet items, soda waters, sheet music, cigars and tobacco,” according to a 1914 advertisement. Philip worked for a time as a pharmacist at the store, then became a traveling salesman for the New-Brite Company, which made furniture polish. Philip and Nell still resided with Emma when Alex’s mother, Mary Evelyn, was born on July 8, 1911, followed by a sister, Annelle, in 1916. When Emma Reid died, Philip, Nellie, and their daughters moved out and rented a house for $50 a month, eventually buying a home in a beautiful neighborhood with large shade trees.
Around 1930 Mary Evelyn left McComb to attend Mississippi State College for Women, which held the distinction of being the country’s first public college for women. Located in Columbus (the home of Tennessee Williams), near Starkville, the school is probably where Mary Evelyn met her future husband. Surely she was enticed by the young jazz musician, who played tenor sax at parties and concerts in a band with his brother. When Sidney transferred to Ole Miss, he made certain his engagements continued near Columbus so he could spend time with the raven-haired young woman, who also had a musical bent.
“I learned later that she actually had studied a lot of piano and played a lot, but I never saw her touch it,” Alex once said of his mother. “She could probably read music but not play by ear. I don’t know how she got so arty. . . . She and her sister were striving, elegant types.”
Sidney continued to play saxophone in jazz bands with Jack, who graduated from Mississippi State with a degree in electrical engineering. A few years after their marriage, Sidney and Mary Evelyn were living in the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi. Their first child, Reid Magruder Chilton (named for his maternal and paternal grandparents), was born there on October 25, 1939. With a family to support, Sidney took a job at Mississippi Power & Light in Jackson, where he became personnel director.
In 1930 a distant cousin, Ann Chilton McDonnell, wrote a letter to the William and Mary Quarterly about her family’s traits: “I have traced each branch of the Chilton family which settled in these Southern and Western states and have corresponded with many of them. Am proud to state I found them all, without exception, educated, intelligent, and invariably proud of their name.”
Some folks considered Sidney Chilton one of the best musicians in Jackson, Mississippi. Armistad “Army” Brown, a guitarist and arranger with the touring big band Herbie Holmes and the Mississippians, became close friends with Sidney and Jack Chilton in Jackson. Army and Sidney had met earlier in the ’30s and played together in various combos before Army left town to tour for several years with Holmes’s band. When Army married his wife, Iris, in 1935, Sidney was their best man. “I remember my dad talking about Sidney,” says Army’s daughter Adele Brown Tyler, “and of all the musicians my dad knew and worked with, he would say Sidney was the most talented.” When Army left Holmes’s employ in 1940, he returned to Jackson and opened a music store, eventually becoming the Steinway piano dealer for the region. Iris Brown worked at H.C. Speir, a music store whose founder discovered and recorded such Delta blues greats as Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. The Browns grew ever closer to the Chiltons, who asked them to be their son Reid’s godparents.
The following year, on April 17, 1941, Mary Evelyn gave birth to Cecelia, the Chiltons’ only daughter. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, Sidney, a Naval Reservist, joined the war effort. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he served on a supply ship in the Mediterranean.
“If we asked, ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’” Cecelia Chilton recalls, “he said, ‘I delivered toilet paper and toothpaste to the guys who were fighting.’” Refusing to stay behind in Jackson, Mary Evelyn, with her two kids and Aunt Sally in tow, rented an apartment in upper Manhattan near Columbia University, where Sidney would visit while on leave. Mary Evelyn enjoyed exploring Manhattan. “My mother always loved New York City,” says Cecelia. “Maybe she thought this was her only opportunity to live [there]. . . . She had Aunt Sally to take care of us, so she could go out and party. Her sister, Annelle, who later moved permanently to New York with her husband, came to visit.”
While in New York, Mary Evelyn also looked up a friend’s brother from Columbus, Mississippi, Peter Lindamood, a bon vivant and art critic who wrote for publications like Harper’s Bazaar and View, an avant-garde journal founded by his friend and fellow Mississippian Charles Henri Ford. The gifted Lindamood served as an Italian-language interpreter during the war, earning the rank of corporal, but until his induction, his East Fifty-eighth Street apartment hosted the gay literati. Fellow Columbus native Tennessee Williams once described Lindamood as an “elegant Auntie type,” while others compared his looks and manner to those of Truman Capote. Sidney and Mary Evelyn greatly admired modern art, and Lindamood educated them as he made his own artistic discoveries. The Chilton-Lindamood friendship lasted for decades, with Peter relocating to Memphis in the early 1960s.
After Sidney’s discharge from the Navy, the Chiltons returned home to Jackson, where he got a job as a manufacturer’s representative for Day-Brite Lighting, selling “architectural lighting equipment,” according to Cecelia. “He traveled a lot.” Cecelia would be the only family member to follow in her father’s footsteps in the lighting business.
The Chiltons’ second son, Howard Sidney Chilton III, was born in Jackson on November 27, 1945. Two years earlier, while Sidney was in the service, his father had died, and in 1946, the widowed “Daughter” Chilton, who’d been living in Jackson, moved to Colorado Springs to live with relatives. Sidney and Mary Evelyn also decided to leave Mississippi for Memphis—a hub of the postwar building boom, where Sidney could bid on the many new industrial-lighting contracts. In addition, Memphis made a good, central home base from which to travel between Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. For half a century Mississippians had been migrating to the Bluff City, which Alex once referred to as “the town home for a lot of plantation-owner people.”
In 1947 the Chiltons settled into a brand-new subdivision in East Memphis called Sherwood Forest, filled with modest two- and three-bedroom redbrick houses built specifically for returning GIs. “There were lots of veterans with families all about the same age,” according to Cecelia. “It was kind of the beginning of suburbia.” Right down the street a new elementary school had just been constructed.
The Chiltons’ compact, L-shaped brick house at 987 Robin Hood Lane had a small front yard, three bedrooms, living and dining rooms, and a kitchen complete with breakfast nook. The backyard was perfect for a spacious garden, where Mary Evelyn spent time tending flower beds, earning her stripes in the Garden Club. Eventually the Chiltons would add on to the house, putting in a den, a small office for Sidney, and an additional bathroom and bedroom.
When Cecelia was nine, the third Chilton son was born at Memphis’s Baptist Hospital: William Alexander Chilton came into the world at the end of the first year of a new decade, on December 28, 1950. Thirty-nine-year-old Mary Evelyn named him for her paternal grandfather. Cecelia’s earliest memory of Alex coincides with that of a health scare of their father’s. After having had a heart attack in his early forties, Sidney was recuperating at home. One day after a barber arrived to cut Sidney’s hair, Alex vanished. “Alex was about two, and he just rode off on his tricycle down the street,” Cecelia recalls. “He rode as far as the next corner, and the barber [who’d just left the Chiltons] recognized him and brought him back home.”
When Alex was three, something even more frightening occurred. Fourteen-year-old Reid climbed to the top of an oak tree in the backyard, slipped, and plummeted to the ground. Though he didn’t break any bones, he was knocked unconscious and remained in a coma for three days. “One of [our] neighborhood friends was a neurosurgeon and happened to be the doctor taking care of him,” Cecelia remembers, “which I’m sure was very comforting to my parents, because they could get whatever information they wanted. When [Reid] finally woke up, he was fine, and there was no obvious sign of anything being wrong with him. My recollection is that [the doctor] told my parents that anytime anyone is unconscious for that length of time, there’s some brain damage that might show up at some future point.” But for the time being, all seemed fine.
The Browns, who frequently visited the Chiltons, had three children: a son and daughter near Reid and Cecelia’s age and a much younger daughter, Adele, who was born the same day as Alex. As the youngest children of parents whose eldest child was eleven years older, Alex and Adele shared some traits. “Alex and I were both kind of shy, introverted children,” says Adele. “The two of us were almost awkward around each other at times. I remember him not wanting to talk much, and I didn’t want to, either. My mother’s take on Alex was that he was a little bit of a Dennis the Menace—mischievous. He could be kind of quiet, but he definitely had that little-devil thing. He had such a gleam in his eye. He loved to stir things up.”
To look after active preschooler Alex while his siblings were in school, the Chiltons hired a tall, statuesque woman named Nellie, who favored turbans. “I remember Alex talking about her years later,” recalls Adele Brown Tyler, “because we had a black lady who worked for us during my early childhood, too. Alex and I both felt like these women pretty much raised us.” Nellie was employed as the Chiltons’ maid over the next three decades, and Alex and his brother Howard remained close to her.
While Nellie took care of Alex, Mary Evelyn stayed busy with the Garden Club and a neighborhood bridge club that convened regularly. Not a doting mother, she enjoyed that kind of activity much more than domestic life, according to Cecelia Chilton: “She didn’t join the PTA. She and the neighbors played bridge while we were at school. They’d get together at eleven in the morning and have lunch and play bridge until the kids would get home. They probably did that every day.” Copious cocktails accompanied the bridge parties.
Sidney frequently spent nights away on his many business trips. To ward off loneliness, Alex visited the next-door neighbors, a retired Army colonel and his wife. “His name was Colonel Cray, and he was home all day, and Alex was good friends with him,” Cecelia recalls. “I think he liked to drink and watch TV, and Alex spent a lot of time over there. They were good buddies.”
When Sidney and Mary Evelyn were home, they sipped drinks and played their abundant jazz records. Sidney tried teaching Cecelia piano on the family’s Chickering, though “I didn’t practice very much,” she admits. It was Reid who was the first family member to introduce music to Alex. “My oldest brother was a rock & roll fan,” Alex told musician and music writer Cub Koda in 1992. “He liked things like the Coasters, and I listened to little bits of that ’50s stuff and saw Elvis on TV [in 1956].”
Music was bubbling over in Memphis in the 1950s. The year Alex was born Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service, where Elvis Presley would first record three years later. The Overton Park Bandshell in Midtown featured country artists, including Elvis, whose records started appearing on the C&W charts. Beale Street had been the cultural heart of black Memphis since the nineteenth century. And across the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Arkansas, places like the Plantation Inn featured R&B bands.
By 1955 Elvis had become a regional star, touring regularly but not so big that he didn’t perform at Reid and Cecelia’s high school, Messick, to help get Presley’s then-manager Bob Neal’s son elected to the student council. No black kids attended Messick; for the most part, Memphis public schools remained segregated until federally ordered busing in 1973.
Reid Chilton played an active role in student government at Messick, as well as on the football team. He was a handsome young man, with the aristocratic, fine features of his father—a bone structure that his baby brother, Alex, had also inherited. Of medium height, with brown hair, Reid had a beautiful smile that lit up his face. “He was really the golden boy of the family,” Adele remembers. During his last month in high school, he brought home the Coasters’ double-sided hit 45 “Searchin’”/“Young Blood.” Decades later Alex recalled being somewhat embarrassed by the B-side’s lascivious lyrics when Reid and his girlfriend played the record over and over one night while Sidney and Mary Evelyn were out.
Since he was about fifteen, Reid had been sporadically experiencing seizures in which he’d suddenly go stiff, then lose consciousness. A result of the traumatic brain injury he’d suffered from falling out of the tree, the seizures struck with no warning. The Chiltons unsuccessfully sought medical treatment for their son. The episodes did not stop Reid from living a normal life, however, and he paid special attention to his young brother. “I idolized him,” Alex told Bruce Eaton in 2007. “He was everything to me. He took me places.” Reid continued to participate in sports and student affairs at school and also became an acolyte at St. John’s Episcopal Church. “We were raised going to Sunday school,” says Cecelia. “But for the most part, our parents would take us and come pick us up. It was not really a part of our lives. We were kind of the poor riffraff at the church.”
By the time seventeen-year-old Reid graduated from high school, in the spring of 1957, he’d served as senior vice president of the student council and played first-string center on the football team. He’d also been accepted at Mississippi State College, where he planned to study engineering in the fall, when Alex would be starting first grade at Sherwood Elementary. But on Thursday, June 27, 1957, just a month after his graduation, Reid suffered a powerful seizure while taking a bath. Losing consciousness, he slipped under the water and drowned. Six-year-old Alex was with his mother when she discovered Reid’s body around 7 p.m. The Mercy Ambulance Service raced to the scene, and medics, pushing Alex out of the way, worked to revive Reid with a respirator. But it was no use, and Reid was pronounced dead on arrival at Baptist Hospital. None of the Chiltons, particularly Alex, would ever fully recover from the tragedy.
“That was a big thing in the family of course,” Alex told Bruce Eaton in a hushed tone fifty years later. “You can only imagine how traumatic that would have been,” says Alex’s friend Adele, who remembers the aftermath of Reid’s death. “I think that had a huge impact on the whole family and the drinking [by Sidney and Mary Evelyn, which escalated further] and all that. . . . I’m sure that was totally traumatizing to Alex. I always felt that he had become this stoic . . . [who built] this kind of hard shell, because he had gone through so many things [beginning with] that.”
Cecelia, who was sixteen and out of town visiting relatives when Reid died, believes “the death had a big effect on all of us. I can’t imagine how my mother could have ever been the same.” Decades later Cecelia discovered a letter Sidney wrote to his mother in Colorado, conveying his grief. “It was just gripping,” she recalls, “because he described how he came home and the ambulance was at the house, and he described the trauma and the immediacy of it. I really just can’t imagine what it would have been like to be there at the time.”
An enduring pall fell over the family. Sidney mailed Army and Iris Brown an unfinished thank-you note Reid had started writing them, acknowledging their graduation gift. With his parents shut down by grief, his sister a senior in high school, and the introspective Howard in his own world, Alex was usually left on his own, just when he needed someone to help him through the trauma. Sidney continued to travel, and Mary Evelyn occupied her time with bridge and gardening, struggling to keep depression at bay.
Cecelia threw herself into religion. “I was very much into Jesus,” she says. “There was a group called Young Life, and we had a piano at home, so every week fifty or so kids could come to my house for two hours and they would sing songs and have a great time. My father was an agnostic; Alex was young enough then that they felt like he was not impressionable, but Howard was at a very impressionable age. So my father would take Howard, and they would go to the library; [Sidney] wouldn’t let Howard be in the house when that was going on, because he didn’t want Howard to be exposed to that. But they would never have told me I couldn’t do that—though it was very much not their thing. They were wonderfully accepting parents—whatever we wanted to do, we could do.”
By 1960 close friends of the Chiltons from Mississippi intervened with a plan for lifting the family out of the deadening depression that had settled over them in Sherwood Forest. It involved leaving the suburbs behind for a mixed neighborhood in Midtown Memphis, from which many whites had fled over the past few years. “I was off to college, and the next thing I know, they’re buying this two-story house downtown,” recalls Cecelia. “All of a sudden it’s not the Bridge Club or the Garden Club; it’s artists and musicians. Everybody’s life changed.”
Music and art filled the Chiltons’ elegant new home in Midtown Memphis, where the family moved in 1960. “It was a big old house, almost like a castle,” Alex remembered, “that we bought for a song.”
The 4,400-square-foot limestone manse had been built around 1907 by the wealthy Schorr family, Germans who cofounded Memphis’s Tennessee Brewery in 1885. By 1960, 145 North Montgomery Street was considered part of “the inner city,” according to Alex. “That was a pretty wild neighborhood, with a lot of slum kids hangin’ around,” he remembered, “a real breeding ground for a lot of things.” Montgomery was close to commercial strips chockablock with businesses and bars. The Chiltons’ house was on a short, leafy block with a large synagogue across the street, which sometimes sponsored teenage sock hops. Next door sat a stately mansion, owned for generations by a prominent Memphis family. On the other side, the large home had been divided into offices, including, for a time, a suicide-prevention crisis center. “We joked about how comforting it was to have it so handy,” Cecelia remembered with a laugh.
From the beginning the plan was for Mary Evelyn to open an art gallery in the spacious home’s downstairs rooms. Ceramicists Pup and Lee McCarty, about ten years younger than the Chiltons, were making a name for themselves in tiny Merigold, Mississippi, as arty potters who dug clay from the backyard of William Faulkner’s Oxford home, Rowan Oak, and molded it into designs inspired by the Mississippi River Delta landscape. Lee had first met the Chiltons when he boarded with Mary Evelyn’s mother in his youth. Now, along with another friend from Mississippi, the McCartys and Chiltons pooled their resources to turn the parlor floor of the house into a gallery exhibiting the couple’s pottery and ceramics, along with contemporary art and other regional artisans’ work.
They covered the walls and stained-glass windows with pegboard for hanging the art, painted everything white, including the ceiling crossbeams and oak woodwork, and replaced the vintage ceiling fixtures with contemporary lighting. Just behind the kitchen the Chiltons turned their backyard into a concrete courtyard and strategically placed McCarty ceramics throughout. The McCartys traveled to Mexico annually and brought home artwork and handcrafted objects to exhibit and sell at the gallery.
Mary Chilton Galleries got its first press coverage in November 1962: “Dozens of men and women were coming out . . . carrying large paintings, pottery, statues, and other art objects,” the Memphis Press-Scimitar reported about a joint exhibition: a one-man show by a maker of mobiles and stabiles from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and “Own-Your-Own-Art,” featuring a hodgepodge of affordable pieces. The article reported such unbelievable bargains as a Picasso woodcut for $18.50 and an original Cézanne etching for $26, along with jewelry designed by Elsa Freund of Eureka Springs, Arkansas ($6.50), and ceramic pots made by Memphian Dodie Mann ($5).
While Mary Evelyn concentrated on her art gallery, Sidney returned to his old love—jazz. “Around 1961 Daddy started playing music again,” Cecelia remembers. Its location, in Midtown Memphis, made the Chilton home an easy stopover for jazz musicians going to and from a gig. “When I was ten, it was party time around my parents’ house,” Alex said. “I remember countless nights of going to sleep with, like, sixteen jazz musicians playing downstairs.” Some days, as Alex returned home from school and walked up the wide stone front steps, he could hear jazz wafting out. Sidney “and some friends would be jamming,” Alex remembered. “My dad played piano and he had an electric guitar player, bass, fiddle, and a drummer.” Alex told Times-Picayune reporter Keith Spera, “Five o’clock came, and two or three musicians were over at the house drinking heavily and playing and listening to records. That was every day.”
Each summer, with the family in tow, the Chiltons would travel to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for gatherings Sidney organized to socialize with other musicians and their families. “It was probably only a couple of years or so after Reid died when Sidney started having these summer get-togethers for musician friends from Jackson and Ole Miss,” Adele Brown Tyler recalls.
The Browns adored the Chiltons but worried about Mary Evelyn and Sidney’s consumption of alcohol. Over the years the Browns had become more conventional: Army, a member of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, would found the city orchestra; Iris gave up her job to be a full-time homemaker. At the Chiltons’ evening gatherings, Mary Evelyn would welcome her guests holding a bourbon and OJ in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Though Sidney had heart disease, he continued to sip bourbon and smoke heavily throughout the festivities. (It wasn’t until around the time that he had triple-bypass surgery in the ’70s that he quit smoking and drinking.) In 1997 Alex, during an onstage interview at Jazzfest in New Orleans, referred to his late parents as alcoholics and remembered their salons as including “a lot of crazy people all the time. I knew they were crazy. They didn’t know they were crazy.”
The Browns had also expressed concern about the scant parental supervision on the Chiltons’ part as early as their time in the suburbs, but now, it seemed, Alex’s parents left him to fend for himself entirely, imposing no restrictions or demands of any kind on him. “I got the feeling that he kind of raised himself,” Adele says, “and I did, too, to some degree, because I was also a much later child. Our parents had both started ten years earlier having kids, and we were at the tail end, and maybe they’d run out of energy or something.”
Free of homework or any household chores, Alex listened to music. The Chiltons’ hi-fi sat next to a stack of vinyl that kept growing; just as he had absorbed his brother Reid’s Coasters 45, Alex devoured Sidney’s jazz discs, as he later described:
I became a fan of his Glenn Miller records first, and then I went on to Ray Charles and Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck. . . . I was listening to a lot of records from his collection. He’d be listening to something and be fascinated with some element of a piece of music, and he would talk to me about it and describe the way it was put together. He shared what he liked with me. I might not have really understood it very well, but a lot of it stuck with me. . . . I became a big fan of Chet Baker, and that was when I first really wanted to sing. He first inspired me to sing when I was about 7.
Sidney occasionally mentored Alex in jazz piano. “He’d come home from work and play something and talk to me about theory and chord structures,” Alex remembered, “and when I did start playing more earnestly, I remembered a lot of things he said, and I could piece together diminished scales. It was brilliant left-hand stuff. He showed me a couple of simple, good jazzy bluesy accompaniments to generally use.”
Sidney’s impromptu soirees drew other music and art lovers to the Chilton home. Among them was a well-heeled pair of newlyweds—Memphis’s answer to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. William Eggleston, born into a wealthy Mississippi family in 1939 (the year Reid Chilton was born), had been raised on a cotton plantation, attended the Webb boarding school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and became enamored with the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Eggleston would later revolutionize fine-art photography with his saturated-color images and “democratization” of subject matter, including his shot of a bloodred ceiling that would grace a future Big Star LP cover. Bill and his wife, Rosa, also a child of “old money,” were drifting from place to place when they first met the Chiltons.
“We didn’t have a place to stay, and the Chiltons kind of adopted us,” recalls Rosa. “We were thinking about driving back to Mississippi, and Mary said, ‘Oh, spend the night here!’ We had this rapport going on. They did not seem like parents. The age gap was nonexistent.” Rosa remembers Mary Evelyn as “not really a very talkative person. She was a good listener and a very sweet person.” On afternoons in the Chiltons’ small kitchen, Mary Evelyn taught Rosa how to whip up homemade mayonnaise and to make espresso using an Italian coffee pot.
Sidney and Mary Evelyn “were some of my closest friends,” Bill Eggleston told Robert Gordon for his musical portrait of the Bluff City, It Came from Memphis. “They were two of the most important people in Memphis from that time, the Kennedy era. Mary held what you might call a salon, and things happened in the house. . . . I don’t know who else would have fostered what they did.” The young couple stayed with the Chiltons a few nights, then rented an apartment nearby, close to Overton Park. Eventually the Chiltons offered part of the backyard carriage house (or, in Memphis parlance, “backhouse”), originally the servants’ quarters, to Bill Eggleston to use as a darkroom.
When the Egglestons dropped by the Chiltons’, the classically trained Bill performed his favorite Baroque pieces on the Chickering. Howard, who played tuba in the Messick High orchestra, became friendly with the Egglestons, and occasionally Howard and Bill played music together. Bill showed young Alex a few things, too. “Eggleston was a fixture around our house for a few years,” Alex later said. “He played Baroque keyboards and gave me a taste for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, as did Howard.”
Years later Cecelia Chilton told Rosa that Bill reminded her parents of Reid, though Sidney and Mary Evelyn never mentioned their deceased son to the Egglestons. No photographs of him adorned the house, either. By moving to Midtown, the Chiltons had hoped to put more than just distance between the tragedy of Reid’s death and their lives. Though Reid wasn’t discussed at home, over the years Alex would bring up his older brother’s death to friends, one of whom remembered, “When he told me that, he had a look on his face I had never seen before or since.”
Along with the Egglestons and McCartys, Mary Evelyn’s Aunt Em occasionally stayed with the Chiltons for months at a time. So did Mary Evelyn’s old friend Peter Lindamood, who rented an apartment above the carriage house. With an oversized head and fey mannerisms, “he was real eccentric and delightful,” said Cecelia, recalling special family dinners where “Peter would help decorate the table and take pinking shears and make place mats out of construction paper and put ribbons around.” Alex’s good friend Calvin Turley remembered him as having “peach hair” and holding court at the kitchen table: “He would just pontificate about various things, but specifically he would try to get Alex and anybody else who was around, such as myself, to learn a new vocabulary word every day.” Adele Brown Tyler found Lindamood a character, with seemingly nowhere to go but the Chiltons’: “By the time he showed up in Memphis and lived out in their garage apartment, he seemed pretty down and out.”
In addition to becoming a haven for jazz and modern art, the Chilton home was a repository of progressive social and political thought. “A lot of the hipper people of their generation were around all the time,” according to Alex. “There was lots of music in the house and jazz musicians coming over—black and white. The color line was and is fairly strong [in Memphis], and my parents’ social world was pretty much white people—but it was not uncommon for black people to be in the house.” In a city where the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 was largely ignored or circumvented by school boards and local officials, Sidney Chilton supported James Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss, his alma mater, in 1962. “In terms of social issues, my father was the most unbigoted person that you could find,” according to Cecelia. As in Mississippi, Memphis still had segregated drinking fountains and public bathrooms, as well as schools.
Alex’s childhood pal Dale Tuttle, now a prominent Memphis attorney, recalls, “Sidney was rooting for the Army and the tanks to desegregate [the University of Mississippi]. They were liberal people back then, when there were many, many conservatives. . . . The Chiltons were definitely among the vanguard of the progressives.” Alex recalled that his father “really seemed to admire Franklin Roosevelt and was a staunch Democrat”; Sidney later became active in the Memphis chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
All four Chilton kids attended Memphis public schools, and in 1961, when Alex was in fourth grade, thirteen black children were permitted for the first time to attend the all-white elementary schools, as a sort of compromise in lieu of large-scale desegregation. Even this tiny ripple of it was enough to cause some white families to pull their children from the schools. Only one black student of the original thirteen would attend Bellevue Junior High, where Alex matriculated in 1963. Most had returned to black schools after being bullied and ostracized by their white classmates. Alex’s ninth-grade class included just two African Americans.
Bill Eggleston fondly recalled that the Chilton parties, held in the evening as well as on Sunday afternoons, were filled with Memphis’ minority of social and political liberals, including doctors, lawyers, and musicians, as “a gathering of mutual friends, quite smart people.” Pup and Lee McCarty frequently attended, and Rosa Eggleston sensed that the two couples were very close: “Lee was a fun person to be around, very much an upbeat person, with a good sense of humor and a good observer of people. Pup was extremely lively. If she walked into a room at a party, she would stand out. She was very attractive—she caught your eye.”
When the Browns visited from Jackson, it was clear their old friends had moved far left of center, both politically and socially. “Alex’s mother, compared to other people’s moms, had a dramatic, bohemian, artistic flair about her. She wore dramatic kinds of clothing,” recalls Adele Brown Tyler. As for Alex, “He was definitely one of those boys—the kind I had crushes on—who were a little nerdy, kind of intellectual looking, skinny, lanky, artistic. As I remember him, he was already just like he always stayed the rest of his life.”
Dale Tuttle, whose own family was conservative and well-to-do, was a frequent visitor to the Chilton home and loved the freedom that came with being there: “They were laid-back parents, free spirits, and they let Alex do what he wanted.” Years later, Alex put it this way: “Neither one of them pressured me to do anything. They were permissive, and the liberality of their state of mind fed into it.”
Alex frequently ate dinner at the home of Calvin Turley, whose family numbered among Memphis’s blue-blood set. “There wasn’t a whole lot of structure in Chilton’s household,” Calvin recalls. “So when he would come to my house after school, he definitely wanted to hang around for dinner. He got along well with my parents, and he really hit it off with my spinster aunt, who lived with us. At six thirty on the dot, we would sit down at the table. We’d be dressed appropriately for dinner and have a served meal, with a blessing and everything. I think Chilton kinda liked that, because they had no such thing that I could recall at his house.” Dale Tuttle agrees: “I don’t remember a cooked meal at the Chiltons’—only cereal, strawberries, and maybe a sandwich.”
Alex was also drawn to the Browns’ more traditional life in Jackson: “I think Alex liked my family and my parents, because we did seem to have this kind of normal, stable life,” says Adele. “He seemed to be crazy about my mother, but I think part of him sort of craved a little bit more of that. And he certainly had all that in his background—that southern gentleman upbringing. . . . He could turn it on and off.”
As he became an avid music fan, Alex enjoyed turning his friends on to his musical discoveries. “We’d go over to Alex’s house and stay up all night listening to records,” Dale remembers. “They had one of those Magnavox console stereos.” Favorite platters that Dale recalls include the jazz instrumentals of the Howard Roberts Quartet, the Hammond B-3 organ of Jimmy Smith, and the jazz songcraft of Mose Allison.
Alex had developed an eclectic taste in music. On Saturday nights he sometimes tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast on Nashville’s 50,000-watt WSM radio station. On Memphis’s WDIA, the nation’s first all-black-staffed radio station, he heard R&B by local heroes Johnny Ace, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and B.B. King—himself a former WDIA DJ. Among the first live performances Alex attended was WDIA’s Starlite Revue, presented at the brand-new Mid-South Coliseum and featuring Bland, King, and national star Jackie Wilson. “I don’t know how many white people were there,” Alex remembered. “I went alone, and it wasn’t a problem.”
By the early ’60s Memphis’s pioneering rockabilly scene had faded, though many of its originators, including Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, and Sun engineer and guitarist Roland Janes, were still on the scene and would start new studios as the decade progressed. “I was given a copy of ‘Great Balls of Fire’ for my seventh or eighth birthday,” Alex said. “By 1959 Elvis was syrup and Jerry Lee was pretty much gone, and the rockabilly thing was sort of over.” Still, Elvis’s influence was pervasive on Memphians, and sightings of the King could be exciting. “You couldn’t listen to the radio without hearing Elvis,” Alex told journalist Parke Puterbaugh. “He was influential on everyone in my environment. He happened to live not too far away, and you often saw him driving down the street in a Cadillac.”
Alex listened to the Top 40 stations WHPQ and WMPS, where DJs like George Klein and Jack Parnell (whose son Chris would later star on Saturday Night Live) catered to teenage tastes. “When I got to be 11 or 12, I started listening to the radio a little bit and things like ‘Johnny Angel’ [by actress Shelley Fabares],” he recalled. “The Ronettes I remember pretty well. Then there are other things from that time that I didn’t really get caught up in [like the early-’60s teen idols]. . . . I thought the Kingston Trio were much more vital than Frankie Avalon.”
Alex, occasionally joined by Calvin, Dale, or Paul Jobe, another friend, would hang out on the top of the stairway and listen to the jazz action downstairs. Dale remembered various well-known musicians stopping by later in the decade, including Herb Alpert and Domingo Samudio (leader of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs). “They’d be playing when we went to bed, and when I left the next morning, they’d still be playing,” according to Dale. Alex recalled New Yorker Marian McPartland and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans partying at his parents’ when they were in town. Though Cecelia thought her dad was “bigoted about music—if it’s not jazz, it’s not worth listening to,” Dale remembered Sidney’s turning the boys on to Bob Dylan in 1963: “He was playing ‘Talkin’ New York’ for Alex and me and saying, ‘Y’all need to follow this guy, he’s going to be a star someday.’”
• • •
When Alex entered Bellevue Junior High in 1963, he took up a new interest: running track. “Though he was thin, he was very, very athletic,” Dale remembered. “He was a high-hurdle jumper—it was really difficult.” Alex also started playing tennis, a lifelong pursuit. He began attending ballroom dance classes for seventh- and eighth-graders—a sure way to meet girls—at Memphis’s long-standing private girls’ school, Miss Hutchison’s, on Union Avenue. Carole Ruleman, a pretty brunette whose family lived in Midtown, noticed Alex at the Hutchison gymnasium. “All the girls were standing in a line, and the boys were supposed to stand directly across from us,” she remembered. “The dance teacher said, ‘Stand with your toes on the line, your hands down by your side, and keep still and don’t say anything.’ I looked up, and the boy across from me was kind of going in a circle, sticking his feet out, and waving his hands in the air—as if he were conducting a marching band. I thought, My god, how can he possibly be doing this more wrong? I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘Who is that?’ She said, ‘His name is Alex Chilton.’”
Thus began a friendship that would blossom into a brief romance. Alex also attracted the attention of another of Miss Hutchison’s thirteen-year-old students, Louise Leffler, a self-described “nice Catholic girl from a conservative family,” when he showed up for dance class with his pockets full of firecrackers. “We were all awkwardly standing around waiting to be asked to dance,” Louise recalls. “A loud noise came from over by the door to the back of the gym. It turned out to be Alex, of course. Not just one firecracker, but a string of them.” She adds, “He was funny and good-looking. He had a swagger and held a Camel like no other.” Soon after they met, Alex gave her a snapshot of himself standing in his dad’s office behind his father, whose left hand holds a phone to his ear as his right grasps a cigarette. Sidney smiles for the camera while young Alex, hand on his hip, smirks. By the following summer, Alex was a fixture at Louise’s house.
A group of kids would often hang out on the side porch of the Rulemans’ North Avalon home, where Carole and her older sister Madelyn held court. Carole remembered that Alex pretty much followed the preppy dress code of the day: button-down Oxford-style shirt, navy-blue V-neck sweater, and khaki pants. “His legs were really highly developed, ’cause he ran in the track team at Bellevue,” Carole said, “so his pants were tight. I can just picture him sitting there: his legs crossed, holding his Camel unfiltered cigarette, with his head back and laughing.” With light brown hair, Alex (who in later life resembled his father) looked remarkably like his brother Reid.
Alex also found a partner in crime in Dale Tuttle, who shared classes with him at Bellevue. “Alex and I were prone to get in trouble,” Dale remembers. “We figured out a way to have two lunch periods by skipping out on art class. More than once we were hauled into the principal’s office, and back then, they’d make you pull your pants down and you’d get paddled with a wooden paddle with holes drilled in it. Alex was always a bit of a rebel. I believe he tested as a genius when they gave us the IQ test at Bellevue.”
“When the Beatles came along, I got swept up in it,” according to Alex. “I remember walking into school the day after the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan [February 9, 1964], and somebody pointed at me and yelled, ‘Here comes Ringo!’ All the teenage bands immediately gravitated toward the Beatles. That was where the itch began, seeing the Beatles and suddenly saying to myself, ‘Gee, I wish I could do that!’” Thirteen-year-old Alex started growing out his hair and combing his bangs down, going for his own Beatle ’do.
In 1964 makeshift rock & roll bands began sprouting in Memphis like mushrooms after a summer rain. “There were maybe half a dozen high schools in Memphis, and there were probably fifteen or twenty garage bands in each one of them,” says Russ Caccamisi, who played bass in several of the groups. “In Memphis in the mid- to late ’60s, if you weren’t in a band, you weren’t breathing.” In backhouses and garages, according to one published account, more than five hundred bands formed there in the 1960s.
After school and on Saturdays, Alex began spending much of his spare time at Poplar Tunes, Memphis’s best record shop, either alone or with friends like Calvin Turley, Dale Tuttle, Paul Jobe, Carole Ruleman, and Louise Leffler. “We’d usually walk to Pop Tunes from Alex’s house,” Dale recalls. “It was a local institution about a mile away on Poplar at Danny Thomas Boulevard. Back in those days, you could listen to records before you bought them.” (Vinyl could be popped onto one of the store’s many turntables.) “My musical taste and knowledge all came from Alex,” says Paul, whose friendship continued over the decades. “I had very limited taste, but Alex and I would sit around for hours and listen to music. Alex would introduce me to different music, as well as various musicians and bands. And a lot of it I still listen to.”
Sidney was not taken with rock & roll and made no bones about it. “He was a big Duke Ellington and Count Basie fan,” Alex said. “But he was also a big fan of Ray Charles, and I began to love those records. The first record I ever bought was the What’d I Say album.”
Alex spent much of the summer of 1964 hanging with friends, most of whom lived in the upscale Central Gardens district. His parents had become friendly with a widow whose children, Donovan and Day Smith, joined her at the Sunday afternoon gatherings at the Chiltons’. “When I was twelve or thirteen,” Alex said, “somehow my set of friends began to be people who went to the private school in Memphis—Memphis University School—and the girls’ school that was just across the athletic field, Miss Hutchison’s. That group of people were kind of wealthy.”
Alex would frequently start the day at Louise Leffler’s Harbert Avenue home. He was her first love. “Mother would call upstairs, ‘Alex is here!’” Louise remembers. “I felt close to Alex, and he sort of looked after me and stood by me like he was ‘my guy.’ . . . We would wander aimlessly, or go to Barksdale Sundry to buy Alex’s cigarettes.”
Alex gave Louise gifts, including an autographed photo of Little Stevie Wonder that he’d bought at the fourteen-year-old Motown star’s concert at Ellis Auditorium. “It said, ‘Love and Kisses to Louise from Stevie Wonder,’” Louise recalls, “and at first I didn’t believe him. I asked Alex how Stevie could write if he’s blind. Alex insisted he signed it.” (Wonder used an X as his signature, so Alex or someone else must have forged it.) Alex also got her a present from his mother’s gallery: a clunky handmade ring. “It was very crude in design and made of iron,” Louise remembers. “It was huge, a glob of iron in the shape of a ring. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember wearing it very much.”
Much of Alex’s time at Louise’s house was spent in the basement family room. “We’d sit on the couch and listen endlessly to pop songs on George Klein’s radio show,” she recalls. “I would watch Alex’s face as he listened so closely to the music. He wouldn’t say much, but you knew he liked all the songs. He was consumed with music.” He rhapsodized about listening to WDIA at night and hearing songs like “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” by Muddy Waters, and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Farther Up the Road,” as well as tunes by big-voiced soul singers. Alex also got a kick out of the raunchy black comedienne Moms Mabley.
When not with the more sheltered Louise, Alex hung out with Carole Ruleman, whose older sister or brother chauffeured her and Alex to teenage soirees. “There was quite the extravagant little party circuit,” said Alex. “Every week there would be one, two, or three of these nice little pool parties or indoor parties. And they would hire a teenage band to play at these things.” At one gathering he met a couple of musicians, Christopher Bell, a guitarist and Beatles fan from a wealthy family in nearby Germantown, and Bill Cunningham, a bassist and keyboardist who’d attended Sherwood Elementary a grade ahead of Alex. Bill and Chris had been playing in bands and were putting together a new combo called the Jynx. Both boys would play an enormous role in Alex’s music career.
Booze flowed freely at the teenage bacchanals, and Alex began indulging, chugging down bourbon, scotch, Southern Comfort, and beer. Carole remembered that, after one particularly rambunctious party, “my brother was driving us home in his jeep, and Alex started singing ‘Louie, Louie,’ doing the real words that were kinda X-rated. He was pretty drunk, and it was funny. Even my straitlaced brother was laughing.”
Abundant revelry took place at the backhouse behind Paul Jobe’s Central Gardens home. “When you’re a young teenager, you can’t drive to the park and drink your beer and smoke cigarettes,” says Paul, “so my backhouse kind of sufficed for that. For some reason, my parents never came out there, so we could do what we wanted. I was getting visitors throughout the night—it was kinda crazy.” The teens found a neighborhood woman who worked as a domestic to buy them six-packs of Colt 45.
Alex and Paul, occasionally joined by Calvin and Dale, started making the scene at teen clubs to check out live music, including the Tonga Club, a nitery on Madison, and the Roaring 60s, on Jackson Avenue, with a ten-foot-high stage. Former and current Messick and Central High School students played in bands like Flash and the Casuals and Tommy Burk and the Counts, which had begun adding British Invasion hits to their R&B-tinged repertoire. In addition to entertaining drunken teenagers at parties and teen clubs, bands performed at YMCAs and skating rinks. A few local acts even won bookings to support touring groups; Alex and Paul saw Randy and the Radiants and the Counts open for the Dave Clark Five at the Mid-South Coliseum in December ’64.
Another favorite nightspot was the Bitter Lemon, a funky Midtown coffeehouse where keyboardist Jim Dickinson, singer-songwriter Sid Selvidge, songwriter-producer Don Nix, and many other future luminaries performed. “They had some really good music at the Bitter Lemon,” says Paul. “Blues, rock & roll, folk. Alex and I would hitchhike to the Bitter Lemon or ride our bikes there, then home at one in the morning.”
It was during his thirteenth year, with all this musical stimulation surrounding him, that Alex decided he wanted to be in a band, too. He later told Cub Koda:
It all seemed really complex to me, and I thought the only way I could participate in something like that was maybe on an instrument as simple as the bass, where I didn’t have to play six notes all at the same time. Just one at a time, that I could handle. I asked my dad to get me a bass for Christmas. They took that under their consideration, and when Christmas came around, I got an amp and a guitar, not a bass. My dad said, ‘Hey, most bass players start out on the guitar anyway.’ Well, I knew it wasn’t for me. But what could I do? It was this purple Hagstrom guitar with the Naugahyde on the back, the plastic on the front and the little stove switches on it. I looked at it and said, ‘That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I will never touch that!’ So it was that and an Alamo amp. The guitar kinda sat around, and I’d hear things like ‘She Loves You,’ where it goes [sings] ‘and you know it can’t be bad, blang-blang-blang’ on the guitar, and I’d go, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful!’ But they’re playing three different chords, six notes each, all in rapid succession, there is no way I’m going to be able to do that! So that was really kind of hopeless for me. But what I did do off of a Beatle record on my guitar was learn the bass part to ‘All My Lovin’,’ which I thought was really cool.
Alex was also listening closely to the records made locally at Stax, the independent studio and label on East McLemore, in a predominantly black neighborhood in South Memphis. Owned by banker and country fiddler Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, Stax started out as Satellite Records and was renamed when they moved it from Brunswick, Tennessee, to Memphis. Axton ran the record shop that sold the discs cut at the studio, including “Gee Whiz,” a huge R&B and pop hit by WDIA DJ Rufus Thomas’s daughter Carla Thomas.
“The Stax records from Memphis were really great,” Alex said in 1996. “Listening to the Beatles, I somehow couldn’t figure that out with a guitar in my hands, but when I listened to [Stax session guitarist] Steve Cropper, and not knowing anything about playing guitar, listening to him play, somehow I had a feeling ‘I can do that—that’s what I wanna sound like.’ Learning Steve Cropper licks was the first thing I ever did.” Cropper had played in a couple of local bands with bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn; both were classmates of Cecelia Chilton’s at Messick High. Starting out as the Royal Spades in 1957, Cropper and Dunn’s group changed its moniker to the Mar-Keys and cut their first record on the fledgling Satellite label. “Last Night,” cowritten and produced by Chips Moman, shot to #3 on the Billboard chart in 1961.
Sidney Chilton also helped Alex by getting his son a lesson with legendary Memphis guitarist Sid Manker, best known as the composer of and lead guitarist on the Bill Justis hit “Raunchy.” Manker, who’d done time at a penal farm for heroin possession in 1961, sometimes stopped by the soirees at the Chilton home. Not long after he showed the rudiments of guitar to Alex, Manker dropped out of sight. Forty years later, though, Alex would tell Bruce Eaton, “One of my dad’s musician buddies was Sid Manker in Memphis, who played a lot of recording sessions and was a great jazz guitarist. . . . The only guitar lesson I ever took was from [him].”
In the fall of 1965, fourteen-year-old Alex enrolled in ninth grade at Central High School. Earlier in the year he had joined a loose-knit garage band formed by his Central Gardens buddies Paul Jobe, on drums, Preston Wilson, on electric piano, David Goolsby, on guitar, and David Francher, on bass. Calling themselves the Moondogs, the boys gathered at Paul’s backhouse to listen to Alex’s records and learn how to play them. “Alex kinda took control,” according to Paul. “We started with cheap mics and everything else that we’d buy at a pawn shop, and we got together and started playing.”
As the group’s vocalist, Alex quickly learned lyrics. “I really wasn’t getting anywhere on the guitar, so I just kinda put the guitar away,” Alex said. “I would go and hang out with my friends who had cooler guitars and drums and stuff and I knew I could sing, right? So I would participate in that way. I could be the singer because I had already practiced so much with Chet Baker and Ray Charles. So to do ‘Gloria’ or ‘Louie, Louie,’ it just wasn’t that much of a personality stretch for me to get to any of those tunes.”
He continued to dig the Beatles, as well as Billy J. Kramer, Herman’s Hermits, the Kinks, and “the melodic groups,” he later said. “I really loved the mid-sixties British pop music. All two and a half minutes or three minutes long, really appealing songs. I’ve always aspired to that same format.”
The band thrashed through various covers of them all, along with Motown and R&B hits, including numbers by Sam and Dave, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Otis Redding. Rehearsing with the Moondogs at Paul’s backhouse sometimes brought out Alex’s dark side. “He was a moody guy to start off with,” Paul remembers, “and if someone hit the wrong chord or the wrong note or if I wasn’t doing something correctly on the drums, he would get real pissed off. He had a really bad temper.” Alex would guzzle Colt 45s at rehearsal until he was tipsy, also getting buzzed before the Moondogs’ occasional shows. “It sort of freaked us out,” says Paul, “when he’d get quasi-drunk before going onstage, but then he always seemed to carry it off. He just had this vision that he was kind of like [Mick] Jagger—especially when he’d had a few beers.”
When the Browns visited the Chilton home in 1965, Adele noticed that Alex had taken to wearing dark blue or black T-shirts and Levi’s rather than the preppy clothes most guys in Jackson wore: “All the other boys at the time were wearing madras plaid pants and button-down shirts. Alex stood out. He was very content to be marching to this other drummer and didn’t want to be lumped in with all those other people. I was intrigued, because he seemed to care a lot less than I did about what everybody thought about him. He was much more willing to be an individual. He already had this outsider image of himself, and he sort of wore it like a badge.”
Neither did Alex’s parents follow Southern protocol when it came to supervising fourteen-year-olds. “Back in those days, girls did not go into boys’ bedrooms,” Adele explains. “My mother would never let me have boys come upstairs to my bedroom and hang out. But when we got to the Chiltons’, they were like, ‘Oh, Adele, go on upstairs, Alex and his friends are up in his bedroom.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s fun—there are guys up there, and they’re musicians!’”
Calvin Turley introduced Alex to another boy who would remain a lifelong friend. Michael O’Brien, whose parents were divorced, lived in east Memphis but spent much of his time at his grandmother’s in Midtown. “Alex was nothing like my other friends,” says Michael. “He had a well-defined sense of himself and was already a bit defiant. He knew who he was, what he wanted to do, and what he wouldn’t tolerate. And that never changed as long as I knew him. Hanging out with Alex involved listening to music that he wanted you to hear. It was like a class, with Alex as teacher and us—his friends—as his students. Alex would pick, say, one of his dad’s Ray Charles records and point out a certain vocal phrasing and play it again and again and again—while smiling approvingly. We listened obediently.”
Another frequent visitor to the Chilton home was a thirty-year-old portrait painter who’d moved from California to Jackson, Mississippi, after meeting influential art patrons the McDavids, who then introduced him to the McCartys and the Chiltons. The youthful-looking Bill Buffett quickly became a successful society portraitist in Jackson, primarily painting the daughters and wives of the city’s upper crust. On his first visit to Memphis, Bill headed to the Chiltons’ to discuss exhibiting his paintings in the gallery. Mary Evelyn invited him to stay over—on a chaise longue in Alex’s room, where he spent the next few nights.
“Alex had a big four-poster bed with posts that looked like cannons,” Bill recalls. “We hit it right off, because we both loved music, black music in particular. He had a great record collection.” Then and on subsequent visits, the two spent hours listening to albums, though Alex would sometimes slip out at night to ramble about the neighborhood. With his increasing cigarette habit, his track-running days were behind him, though he continued to trek for miles around Midtown. “He was a fleet runner, and he’d go all over Memphis on foot,” says Bill. “He had big, strong thighs, like [the figures] on a Greek vase. He was a night person even then. He’d go out and run all the way up Poplar Avenue for miles and visit with somebody and shoot the breeze and kick things around and then come running back home around eleven thirty or midnight and get up and go to school the next day.”
• • •
During the summer of ’65 Alex fell for the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and on November 17 he and Paul saw the group at the Mid-South Coliseum, during their second U.S. tour. “We stayed up all night listening to the new Stones album over and over,” Paul recalls. “I remember Alex also talking about how he thought Brian Wilson was a genius.” Alex soon caught a Beach Boys concert in Memphis; three years later, he’d be touring with them. When Bob Dylan’s first electric hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” climbed the pop charts that July, the Moondogs added it to their repertoire.
At some point that year, Alex also discovered marijuana, probably turned on by Howard, visiting from college. Though not prevalent in Memphis at the time, pot could be procured over the counter at a handmade-sandal shop a few blocks from Beale Street. Older musicians in town were known to have connections as well. Alex managed to scrounge the occasional joint, and weed would become nearly a lifelong companion. “Alex was the person who got me into pot,” Paul Jobe relates. “We’d go down to his parents’ basement and smoke.”
Alex continued to make the rounds at teen parties. At one of them he ran into Chris Bell and Bill Cunningham, whose band, the Jynx, was performing. Inspired by the Kinks, the combo covered the band’s material, as well as Beatles tunes, and a tipsy Alex got up and sang a song with them. Impressed, Bill and Chris invited Alex to their next rehearsal to prepare for cutting a demo. He played with them for a few weeks, but when it came time to record at Roland Janes’s Sonic Studio, Alex didn’t show. Nevertheless, like other garage bands in town, the Jynx made a professional-sounding recording thanks to Janes’s expertise.
The finished product was used as an audition tape for DJ George Klein’s Saturday-afternoon television show, Talent Party, where local groups would lip-sync along with their recorded tracks. Klein had made a deal with Janes: Janes would record the teen bands inexpensively and tip Klein off to the most talented. “He had the kids come by on Saturday morning, and for $12 he would cut one or two sides on them,” says Klein. “What was really cool is that he would sweeten up the recording to make it sound a little bit better than it actually did.”
It seemed every teenager in Memphis wanted to play music, including Carole Ruleman, who’d been studying piano and wanted to switch to guitar. Alex accompanied her to a music store on Union Avenue to buy her first acoustic. Though Alex was still a novice on the instrument, he tried to show her a few things. His efforts led to an argument one day when the two sat on the staircase in Alex’s home. “He was trying really hard to pick out a song, and he couldn’t play at all,” she remembered. “We were listening to a record playing upstairs, and he said something like ‘This is where the chord change comes,’ and I said, ‘No, that’s a modulation. I know ’cause I’ve taken piano and been in the choir.’ His face got red and he said, ‘You’re wrong! I know this is a change because my father is a professional musician!’”
On February 10, 1966, Alex invited Carole to go with him to see Bob Dylan at Ellis Auditorium. Her sister drove the fifteen-year-olds to the show. At the five-thousand-seat venue, which wasn’t even half full, Dylan performed solo acoustic for the first half and electric with the Hawks during the second. Alex was floored by the performance, which he and Carole saw from the cheap seats high up in the balcony.
As Alex became more rebellious, some of his friends’ parents began putting a stop to his “bad influence” on their kids. By tenth grade Calvin Turley had been sent to the Webb boarding school, Dale Tuttle was enrolled at Christian Brothers High, and Paul Jobe had transferred to the tony Memphis University School (MUS). Carole Ruleman, meanwhile, had started dating MUS student Chris Bell; Alex’s face had broken out with acne, and Carole didn’t want to kiss a boy with pimples. Louise Leffler’s mother made her end her relationship with Alex. “Alex and I were amorous for a while,” says Louise. “I was a virgin, and he may have been, too. My mother thought the relationship was getting out of hand. I think she freaked and realized she couldn’t control me. I couldn’t control me, either. But nothing ever happened at that time ’cause she broke it up. At that age he was ready to have a sexual relationship. I think he went to Central High and found whatever he wanted, but I was a late bloomer.” At one point Louise tried to rekindle things with Alex, but he literally pushed her away. “By that time he could be really cruel,” she remembers with sadness. “It was a very bad scene.”
Alex had completely stopped caring about school, and his grades showed it. He began arguing with his father over his poor performance, and one day he decided to run away from home. With a bottle of whiskey and not much else, he caught a bus to Jackson and found his way to Bill Buffett. “I was renting a tiny, two-room house, and he just showed up,” Bill remembers. “I didn’t drink much, but he had this bottle, and we drank some of it and got pretty lit and went for a walk. We walked through a cemetery and jumped over gravestones and started stripping off our clothes and acting like a couple of fools.” Afterward the two happened upon an empty fire station, where Alex helped himself to ham sandwiches from the kitchen and donned one of the firemen’s hats. Bill had to talk him into leaving it there.
The next day, when she got home from school, Adele Brown discovered a still-drunk Alex sitting on her steps. He tried to talk her into running away with him. “I kind of had a crush on him, so part of me thought that was great and exciting, though I thought he was getting a little too wild,” Adele remembers. “He ended up hanging around Jackson for a week or so. My mom adored Alex. She always tried to mother him.” Her parents notified the Chiltons that he was there and safe. Bill Buffett recalls Alex returning a couple more times, and on one occasion, after Bill had rented a larger house, some of Buffett’s young female friends stopped by after school. “I remember Alex sitting in the branches of an enormous mimosa tree in the front yard, up there strumming a guitar,” according to Bill. “Of course, they thought he was pretty cute.”
During the fall of ’66, “one of the guys got it in his head that we were gonna play the Central High talent show,” Alex remembered of the Moondogs’ first performance at his own school. Allotted two songs, the Moondogs chose Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” recorded at Stax in 1965, and “Sunny,” a huge hit the summer of ’66 by Nashville-born Bobby Hebb. Paul Jobe’s brother Edward, a junior at Central, had to fill in for Paul on drums, since Paul now went to MUS and Central allowed only current students to participate. Alex had perfected a soulful vocal style that worked for both numbers. Onstage he projected confidence and sang with bravado and grit.
“We lost out to some girl singing some schmaltzy kinda something,” Alex remembered. But in the audience that night was Jimmy Newman, a musician pal of John Evans and Danny Smythe, members of a popular Memphis combo, the Devilles, who’d just lost their lead singer. The group had put out the word they were looking for a new vocalist, one who sounded black. When Jimmy heard Alex Chilton, he leaned over and said to a friend, “Hey, the Devilles should get this guy!”
From Moondog to Deville
“The first time I ever saw Alex, he was smoking a cigarette and looked like a little punk,” Gary Talley remembers about his fifteen-year-old future bandmate. The nineteen-year-old guitarist had also been in the audience for the Moondogs’ performance at the Central High talent show. When he heard Alex sing, it reminded him of Eric Burdon of the Animals, “definitely a soulful kind of sound,” he recalls. Afterward he spotted Alex puffing on a Camel outside the school.
Like Alex, Gary would in 1966 join the Devilles, one of the hottest garage bands in Memphis. The group had formed in late 1963, but after three years, the only original member was drummer Danny Smythe. Vocalist Ronnie Jordan joined in 1964; an attractive teen with a big voice and a forceful personality, he quickly moved from backup singer to front man. It didn’t hurt that his uncle was Roy McElwain, professionally known as Roy Mack, a popular DJ and later program director at WMPS, who began managing the group. By 1965, as the Devilles’ lineup continued to evolve, the band appeared on such TV shows as Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and George Klein’s Talent Party. The Devilles signed with booking agent Bill Chapman, who put them on as the opening act for three Yardbirds concerts during the group’s first U.S. tour, in 1965. Alex had seen their September 10 shows, and while impressed by the Yardbirds, he didn’t care for the Devilles.
By the fall of ’66, the group, now calling themselves Ronnie and the Devilles, played constantly around Memphis, as well as in Mississippi and Arkansas, and had cut some records at Chips Moman’s American Recording Studios, home of local garage band the Gentrys’ 1965 smash “Keep On Dancing.” Their first single was an original, “Oh Love,” which Devilles bassist and cowriter Russ Caccamisi describes as “sort of a Herman’s-Hermits-meets-a-Southern-accent.” It was backed by a version (with lyrics and vocals added) of a 1960s instrumental, “Last Date,” by Nashville session keyboardist Floyd Cramer. Another 45 was a soggy 1959 cover of the Thomas Wayne ballad “Tragedy.” Alex considered both covers “kinda schmaltzy.” Those, plus another original, “Cindy’s Carousel,” came out on Moman’s independent Youngstown label; when Mack added the singles to the WMPS playlist, they became quite popular.
But the group’s behavior at the sessions had not sat well with Moman. “Ronnie was incredibly arrogant,” according to Russ, “to the bandmates and quite often to the crowd. He was an asshole in the studio. Chips hated working with him.” The last straw came in October 1966, when the group got into a fight at a frat party in Oxford, Mississippi: Ronnie quit, leaving the rest of the group—Smythe, Caccamisi, and guitarist Richard Malone—high and dry. Mack had cosigned a loan so the Devilles could buy a PA system, and he threatened to take it back and sell it if they didn’t reorganize the group within thirty days. First onboard was guitarist/keyboardist John Evans, who’d played with Russ in an earlier combo called the Chantelles, coincidentally a favorite local band of Alex’s. The search began for an R&B-styled front man. First they approached Evans’s former bandmate Jimmy Newman, lead singer for the In Crowd, a band that also included guitarist Gary Talley. Newman turned them down, but after seeing Alex at the Central High talent show, he called Evans and recommended his discovery, saying, “He sounds black as hell!”
When Evans rang up Alex, he tried to entice him to audition by mentioning, “We’ve got ‘Sunny’ worked up!” Alex agreed to come, but when Evans gave him Danny Smythe’s address for the tryout, Alex surprised the nineteen-year-old by saying, “Can you pick me up? I’m only fifteen, so I don’t have my license yet.” The next day John and Russ borrowed Mrs. Caccamisi’s Impala and drove to North Montgomery to collect Alex.
When they knocked on the Chiltons’ door, a slight young man with acne-spotted cheeks and long brown bangs and hair covering his ears opened it. Barefoot and dressed in cutoff blue jeans and a faded black T-shirt, Alex grabbed a denim jacket and wrapped a scarf around his neck, saying, “I’m ready to go!” and followed them down the steps. Alex Chilton looked nothing like the rest of the short-haired Devilles, whose normal attire was Gant shirts, pressed pants, and Bass Weejuns. “There was a dress code without having a dress code, and [what Alex wore] was not acceptable in those days,” John Evans recalls. “A blue jean jacket—no one wore those except farmers, blue-collar workers, or trailer park people.”
The boys set up their equipment in Danny’s family room. Alex made no pretense about liking their band or what he considered their schlocky material. “I didn’t care for [the Devilles],” he later said. “They had made a few records, and I didn’t like them. They were pretty lame, really bad ballads that might’ve had some country appeal. But they were one of the big bands around town that made some money.” “We were as much wooing Alex as we were auditioning him,” Russ remembers, “because we had three gigs booked, starting in a few weeks. We told him, ‘We’re gonna recast this thing and come up with a whole new set of songs, whatever you want to sing.’” Alex lit a cigarette and told them he’d give it a shot. When he opened his mouth and sang Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Russ says, “he killed it! And he killed ‘Sunny.’ We worked up five or six songs that we all knew.” When they promised him a steady stream of paying gigs, Alex later recalled that he thought, “Wow! The Memphis big time! I can make $100 every weekend! You could support a family on $100 a week in 1966.” He broke the news to the Moondogs that he was moving on to the Devilles.
• • •
Alex had been in tenth grade at Central High for only a few months, but except for making some new pals, including a sultry eleventh-grader, Kokie Becktold, he was miserable at school. “It was full of these enormous macho guys, and I was constantly in fear of my life,” he recalled. “I was just hanging around, drinking, smoking grass, meeting girls, and looking forward to a very uncertain future.” Another eleventh-grader he befriended was Pat Rainer, renowned as local president of the Beatles Fan Club. When the Fab Four performed in Memphis in August 1966, Alex and Pat were there. She awarded the group the key to the city, though the Ku Klux Klan led demonstrations outside the Mid-South Coliseum and someone threw a firecracker onstage. John Lennon’s infamous statement earlier that year about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus had not gone over well in Memphis.
Pat, like Alex, hung out with the few hipsters at Central High. “There was probably a group of ten or twelve of us,” Pat says. “The guys had longer hair, and the girls had straight hair and bangs and wore short skirts. We were ostracized. I hated that place—it was like being in a fucking prison.” Alex told Bruce Eaton in 2007, “All that year of ’66 and ’67 I was in tenth grade I was just demoralized about school. I just more or less slept through about every class and failed every subject royally. Vietnam was going on and ROTC—I wasn’t going with the program somehow.”
After flunking some classes at Miss Hutchison’s, Carole Ruleman had transferred to Central, where she and another music fan, Dixie Thompson, hung out with Alex. “There were cliques, and we didn’t fit into them,” Dixie remembers. “We were regarded as weirdos. Alex was failing and had to go to the principal’s office because of his grades.” Though he palled around with Pat, Dixie, and Carole, Alex’s attentions were focused on Kokie Becktold.
Adopted as an infant by a Central Gardens family, Kokie was just as pretty as his previous girlfriends, Carole and Louise, and wore her dark hair in a trendy pageboy parted on the side. Kokie also had a wild streak; she’d already discovered pot, much to Alex’s delight. Soon she was sneaking into Alex’s room at night, or he was slipping out to meet her. It wasn’t long into their romance that Alex lost his virginity. He would fondly remember his time with Kokie—“I was getting laid, and she was the first one, and that was pretty cool”—and a decade later still compare other girlfriends to her.
At home Alex’s increasingly dark moods and aggression began to cause problems and concern. In December, when Howard returned from college, he and Alex got into a fight over who had the most Christmas spirit, according to Dale Tuttle. Alex shoved the chubby, somewhat effete Howard, who fell and broke his arm. The Devilles had discovered that Alex had “an explosive temper,” says Danny Smythe. “He could really get bent out of shape about something, but we just kind of treated it like a joke.”
The venues where the Devilles performed were much larger than any stage on which he’d previously appeared, but he adapted quickly, occasionally getting stoned before going onstage. To differentiate themselves from their previous incarnation, Russ, Danny, John, and Richard wanted to rename the group the New Devilles. Alex wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. “We told Alex, ‘When we open the show, you introduce us as the New Devilles.’ He didn’t want to do that, but we convinced him to,” says Russ, “so he walked up to the microphone, looked right at me, pulled the mic close to his mouth, and said, ‘Hello, everybody, we’re the NEW Devilles.’” That was the last time that name was ever used. And it marked the beginning of Alex’s onstage sarcasm.
From the outset Alex took to the stage like a natural. “He was a great front man, a great performer, very active and mobile,” Russ says. “He had a strut to his walk when he was onstage. He would pick out the three or four girls who were closest to the front and perform for them, and everybody else was superfluous. He later told me, ‘I’ll pick the three or four that are diggin’ on me the most, and I’ll work them, and everybody else gets the show for free.’”
By early April ’67, Roy Mack had determined that the band was ready to return to American with their new lead singer. “Let’s see how you sound on a recording,” he told Alex before booking time with Chips Moman. Georgia native Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman had hitchhiked to Memphis as a fifteen-year-old guitar prodigy and connected with rockabilly pioneers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette (“Train Kept a-Rollin’”), with whom he played lead on a tour to California. He then took over guitar duties for former child star Brenda Lee, followed by a stint with teen idol Ricky Nelson, replacing James Burton (who would go on to play with Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons). After some ups and downs Chips returned to Memphis and began working with Jim Stewart, for whom he discovered the defunct movie theater on McLemore that became Stax Records’ home. There he worked as house producer on the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” and other recordings. Following the success of “Gee Whiz,” Chips fell out with Stewart over money and eventually founded American Recording Studios, taking on a new business partner, Don Crews. A boxlike, one-story brick building painted white, the studio was located at 827 Thomas Street, at the corner of Chelsea. American was one of only a few businesses in a run-down, primarily black neighborhood in North Memphis.
Moman was nicknamed Chips “due to his talent for gambling,” according to Jim Dickinson, a session keyboardist at American in 1965: “He was a curly-haired country boy. He had a conspicuous jailhouse homemade tattoo on his right forearm, a pair of dice showing snake eyes and the slogan ‘Born to Loose’ [sic]. Chips was wiry and moved like a cat. He had a winning, good-natured grin and flashing blue eyes. He could hypnotize a roomful of musicians in two minutes flat.”
Chips, as talented a songwriter as he was a guitarist and producer, had a new collaborator at American. He’d befriended Dan Penn during a Wilson Pickett session at FAME Recording Studios, three hours away in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As a teenager, Penn, born Daniel Pennington in Vernon, Alabama, wrote his first hit, “Is a Bluebird Blue,” which scored on the country charts for Conway Twitty. Dan’s real love, however, was rhythm & blues, and blessed with a deep soulful voice, he’d fronted an R&B-tinged band, the Pallbearers, before turning his focus to songwriting. Dan had been engineering sessions at FAME and wanted to get into producing. Chips encouraged him to relocate to Memphis, where they could write together and Dan could produce sides at American. He and Chips wrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” a smash for Aretha Franklin, and Dan and keyboardist Spooner Oldham, another Alabaman who started at FAME, cowrote “Dark End of the Street” and “I’m Your Puppet,” both soul classics. Chips and Dan also hit it off with songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson when he arrived at the studio from Springfield, Missouri, in the fall of ’66 to make a recording and pitch his songs.
“Everything I ever knew about R&B music,” says Wayne, “I learned from Dan Penn.” The son of Western music bandleader Shorty Thompson, Wayne—who later dropped his surname—wrote one particular track thanks to a short story his father had penned. “I had three numbers on my little demo tape,” Wayne remembers. “The first song was called ‘White Velvet Gloves,’ the second song I don’t remember, and the third one had a phrase from my dad’s story: ‘ticket for an aeroplane.’ It was called ‘The Letter.’”
Chips passed along Wayne’s tape to the Devilles with the message “Learn one of these three songs and come back into the studio on Saturday and we’ll record it and see how it goes.” He’d decided to turn the group over to Dan Penn for his first-ever production job. “I wanted to produce a hit record, and that was in my mind day and night,” says Dan. “I’d told Chips, ‘You’re a great producer, but I want to cut my own record, and I don’t even want you there. Find me somebody to cut around here.’” Enter the Devilles.
Though Russ Caccamisi remembers running through “The Letter” at American without having rehearsed it, Alex recalled the band listening to the tape at Danny’s and choosing “The Letter” over the two other numbers. “We worked out the chords to ‘The Letter,’” said Alex, “and used the same opening guitar lick that was on the original demo—just voice and guitar.” After a cursory rehearsal on Friday night, Alex took off to meet Kokie. The lovebirds stayed out until sunrise, drinking, smoking, and, according to what he later told one friend, making love under a tree in an out-of-the-way cemetery. Alex managed to get home and catch a few hours’ sleep before meeting the band at American on Saturday morning. In addition to being sleep deprived, he felt a cold coming on, bringing with it a sore throat and a raspy voice. “I was a little hungover,” said Alex, “been out in the dewy grass in my bare feet all night, and certainly wasn’t in the best shape I could have been in.”
At the studio the Devilles expected to find Chips, who’d recorded them before. Instead, twenty-six-year-old Dan Penn, dressed in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt with one sleeve rolled up around a pack of Lucky Strikes, awaited them. “He was the darnedest thing to see,” John Evans recalls. “We didn’t know what to think.” He remembers being struck by the overflowing ashtrays and empty coffee cups strewn around the studio. Knowing that Chips had cut a hit for the Gentrys, the Devilles thought they were getting a raw deal by working with an unknown producer.
“We had a big room with some baffles where I set them up,” Dan recalls about the session. “Alex was quiet, polite—a good-looking kid—and I walked him to the mic and said, ‘There you are, son.’” He would be singing live while the band played the song.
“We set up and started running the tune down,” Alex remembered. “[Dan] adjusted a few things on the organ sound, told the drummer not to do anything at all except the basic rhythm that was called for. No rolls, no nothin’. The bass player was playing pretty hot stuff, so he didn’t mess with what the bass player was doing.” Dan recalls, “The guitar player had the lick right—we copied Wayne’s demo. Then I asked the keyboard player to play an ‘I’m a Believer’ type of thing.”
Never having recorded before, Alex started singing tentatively, “Give me a ticket for an airplane,” similar to Carson’s country-inflected style. “Punch it up, Alex,” Dan advised. Alex, whose first attempt was inspired by Chet Baker, later recalled that Dan demonstrated the way to emphasize the three syllables of “aer-o-plane.” Alex told Cub Koda:
After Dan got all the instruments sounding the way he wanted them to sound, we started running it down in earnest. I was a little bit intimidated by my surroundings and I was singing kind of softly. Then Dan came out [of the control booth] and said, “I really want you to lay into this, I want you to sing like this.” And he started rocking back and forth and started singing it . . . he is one of the great soul singers in the world of any color. . . . So Dan showed me what he has in mind for the song, and I go, “Yeah, I can sound something like that.” Sounding like a soul singer is something I prided myself on being able to do. We did it like that a few times and Dan seemed to be liking it pretty well, and as we ran through it a couple of times, my voice, considering the night before, didn’t have a lot left in it. So I was getting kinda hoarse, which fitted into things just fine.
“Alex was one of the few people I’ve ever seen that at an early age had his own voice,” says Dan. “He had something in him when he came into the studio.”
Revue de presse
“A Man Called Destruction is also the only thing about this criminally under-appreciated band you’ll ever need to read. It does more than all the articles, books, documentary films, and cover albums with liner notes written by famous fanboys about how important and life-changing Big Star’s recordings were combined…Nobody has done such a great job telling his story before. This is what makes Holly George-Warren’s achievement such an important one, and A Man Called Destruction one of the most important books on the life and work of a musician to come out this year.”
~Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
“This book is all Chilton, all the way.”
~The New York Times
“A revelatory account of [Chilton’s] career."
~Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“The immensely gifted and highly influential musician Alex Chilton has long deserved a big biography. Holly George-Warren's meticulously researched and beautifully written book shows us Chilton in all his mysterious glory. A Man Called Destruction gets to the heart of the man by focusing on the music he made (and the music that made him) with great precision and authority. I loved reading this sensitive, sympathetic, and intelligent portrait of a complicated and important figure.”
~Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia
“This book is the very definition of a labor of love. Every page of it is infused with Holly George-Warren's affection for and deep understanding of Alex Chilton and his groundbreaking work. Even its most candid moments are presented with empathy and a profound respect. Chilton could be thorny and difficult character -- he is fortunate to have found a biographer eager to untangle the knots of his character and to find the sweet heart beating within.”
~Anthony DeCurtis, Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
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Longer form: I know at least a bit about the subject matter. I'm the author of the 33 1/3 book Big Star's Radio City. I started out in the mid 70s as a Big Star / Chilton fan. Eventually met Alex in '1979, played some shows with him and stayed in touch over the decades. I spent two years doing research and interviews for the 33 1/3 book and even before doing that, had read pretty much every article written about him. I also provided material for the Nothing Can Hurt Me film. (I didn't know Holly when she started the book but gladly provided her with all of my research materials, notably Alex's last extended interview.) So before I got to read the book, I was thinking that I'd probably be pretty familiar most of the details. Well, as Lou Reed once observed, "Just goes to show how wrong you can be."
Even if you're the biggest Alex Chilton fan on the planet, you'll be amazed at how much new material (much of it from previously unexplored sources) Holly has uncovered and how many new details and insights she adds to the parts of Alex's story that you think you know all about. Start reading and you'll immediately know that you're in the hands of serious major league biographer. One paragraph in I realized that I wasn't going to be skipping past a single sentence.
Most rock /music biographies read like an extended magazine feature and don't bring anything really new to the table. Way too many are just cobbled together from already existing material that's repeated over and over as gospel truth without any reexamination (it takes a lot more work to do real research). A Man Called Destruction reads like Peter Guralnick's bios of Elvis and Sam Cooke or the Gary Giddins bio of Bing Crosby. It's on that level and that's about the highest praise I could give a book in this genre. If you're not totally familiar with Alex's work, the book will make you want to explore it all. If you've heard it all, you'll hear it in a new way. I'd write more but it's time for you to stop reading this and start reading A Man Called Destruction.