Alex Chilton finally found what he was looking for in New Orleans.
As the teenage singer of blue-eyed soul combo the Box Tops, he scored a No. 1 hit in 1967 with “The Letter.” In the 1970s, he led the Memphis, Tennessee-based guitar-pop band Big Star, whose influence on the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements, Wilco and the Bangles was profound. Big Star’s “In the Street” would later be remade as the theme song to the sit-com “That ‘70s Show.”
But after Big Star’s demise, Chilton was adrift, unsure of where he should be or what he should do. He was, in many ways, the ultimate rock cult hero. To his intensely devoted core of fans, he was a genius. A temperamental, reluctant genius, but a genius nonetheless.
Needing a fresh start, he landed in New Orleans in the early 1980s. He washed dishes in a French Quarter restaurant and trimmed trees.
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Gradually, he resumed making music on his own terms, taking inspiration from New Orleans rhythm and blues; his local performances were often impromptu, unpretentious and anonymous, even as he traveled out of town for the occasional Box Tops or Big Star reunion. He lived quietly in Treme until his death from a heart attack in 2010 at age 59.
Two new CDs released Friday by Bar/None Records, “From Memphis To New Orleans” and “Songs From Robin Hood Lane,” shine a spotlight on long-lost material dating to Chilton’s years in New Orleans.
“From Memphis To New Orleans” is a collection of highlights from his hard-to-find 1980s albums “Feudalist Tarts,” “No Sex,” “High Priest” and “Blacklist.” Most of the material, which ranges from raw, punkish rock to New Orleans rhythm & blues, features bassist Rene Coman and drummer Doug Garrison of local band the Iguanas, who were frequent Chilton collaborators in those years. Together, they barnstormed Europe, then criss-crossed America in a '73 Buick LeSabre with a missing driver's side window.
Recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis, they fired up local funk keyboardist Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton’s “Thank You John” and the Memphis soul of “B-A-B-Y,” co-written by Isaac Hayes. They also banged out the Chilton originals “Paradise,” “Lost My Job” and “Underclass,” the latter two, at least, likely inspired by his down-and-out days after first arriving in New Orleans.
All are featured on "From Memphis to New Orleans," alongside covers of Ronny & the Daytonas' "Little GTO" and the Carole King/Gerry Goffin composition "Let Me Get Close to You."
“Songs From Robin Hood Lane” consists of Chilton’s interpretations of mostly jazz standards he first heard as a child in a Memphis suburb, living with his family on Robin Hood Lane. His father, Sidney, was a jazz pianist and saxophonist. In interviews, Chilton would recall listening to albums by vocalist/trumpeter Chet Baker and other jazz artists as a boy.
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The influence of those albums stuck with him, even as he made his reputation singing full-bodied soul and banging out rock ‘n’ roll. In 1991, Chilton returned to Memphis to record the Chet Baker-inspired album “Medium Cool,” with classically trained bassist Ron Miller serving as producer. Three songs from that project are revived on “Songs From Robin Hood Lane.”
Two years later, Chilton recorded another batch of songs with Miller, which have now been released for the first time on “Songs From Robin Hood Lane.” They include a Ray Charles-inspired version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” Nancy Wilson’s “Save Your Love For Me,” and Baker’s “There Will Never Be Another You.”
Five tracks on “Songs From Robin Hood Lane” are solo acoustic recordings Chilton cut at the late Keith Keller’s old Chez Flames studio in the Lower Garden District. These five songs, including the Nina Simone-inspired “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” and Cole Porter’s “All of You,” originally appeared on Chilton’s 1994 album “Cliches.”
The tracks from “Cliches” are some of the best, and most consistent, of the latter-day Chilton recordings. He is relaxed and clearly fond of, and comfortable with, the material. The ease with which he sings, a far cry from his gritty growl on “The Letter,” falls within his natural range. Keller colored it all with a warm, intimate production.
With these and other latter-day recordings, Chilton finally ended up where he wanted to be — just as he did when he moved to New Orleans.