Friday, March 19, 2010

Not a toy or a puppet on a string

Few artists we can think of launched careers with the gritty promise of:

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain't got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home
My baby just wrote me a letter

That was the voice of Alex Chilton, who was only 16 in 1967 when "The Letter" became the No. 1 song in America for the Box Tops. We had never heard anything like it at the time, and we perked up in a hurry.

The Box Tops had a sound and a beat -- blue-eyed soul pop delivered straight out of Memphis --that was likeable, even seductive. "Cry Like a Baby" made it to No. 2 a year later and we knew: These are no One Hit Wonders:

I know now that you're not a plaything
Not a toy or a puppet on a string
Today we passed on the street
And you just walked on by
My heart just fell to my feet
And once again I began to cry ...

And yet there was not much more in terms of commercially successful output from the Box Tops. "Neon Rainbow," "Choo Choo Train" and "Soul Deep" were probably appreciated more years later as cult favorites. Producer Dan Penn often receives credit for the sound and the success of the band, but those who followed the career of Chilton would want to make a case for his contributions, which were not insignificant.

You can't say success spoiled Chilton; it only inspired him to find his true groove. To do that he would later front Big Star, a project that became the rage of the underground but never really gurgled into the mainstream. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock describes Big Star as "Beatles-style melody, Who-like punch and Byrdsy harmonies."

We regret we can find no no Big Star in the Sanctuary library, but it's never too late to fix a fault. Alex Chilton has died at 59 of an apparent heart attack and it's time to show some overdue respect.


  1. Here's a link to Jason Isbell covering Big Star's "When My Baby's Beside Me." It's a bonus track on a limited edition of his latest album.

  2. I have the great Big Star records on CD. I have most of the BoxTops catalog on vinyl. I have some of his later stuff, mostly on vinyl.

    It is all great. No matter what he was doing, he did it like he cared about music. You would never know that he had a #1 record when he was 16.

    Dan Penn worked on those BOx Tops records. Whatever Dann could teach a kid, Alex Chilton took to heart. You can hear the influence in everything he did after that.

    About 10 years ago he released a record of covers, the European version was titled "Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy." It was mostly wonderfully obscure R&B tunes. But he also did a song by the brilliant hillbilly hellraiser Gary Stewart.

    I am grateful that I got to see Alex numerous times. He was always great, even when he was obviously high and pissed at his band.

  3. You never knew where Alex Chilton might pop up. He is credited with the words and music for "September Gurls" on The Bangles' 1980s album, "Different Light."

    But those two big hits with the "Box Tops" were as good as it gets.