February 8 will see Bar/None Records' release of From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs From Robin Hood Lane, thought-provoking looks at an often overlooked period of alternative rock icon Alex Chilton's long, curious career. Alex was at the height of his cult fame in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s when he made these recordings. It is some of his best most honest work oddly neglected for some time but delivered here for enthusiasts and neophytes alike. All these recordings have been out of print for decades.
In the last 15 years of his life Chilton re-visited a lot of the songs he heard in the 1950s especially doing his own versions of standards, much like his father had played and shared with him. Songs From Robin Hood Lane collects four previously unreleased performances as well as rare tracks and recordings long out of print.
It was a bit of a surprise to his fans when Chilton cited the biggest influence on him as a singer being Chet Baker. When Chilton was only seven years old, he immersed himself in the Chet Baker Sings album. Baker was a trumpet player and the vocal album was a controversial but popular album when it was released in 1954. Alex's father Sidney Chilton was a jazz trumpeter and piano player and he had a large record library that Alex would explore.
Alex heard the Chet Baker Sings album in 1957 when the family was living in a post war Memphis suburb on a street called Robin Hood Lane. Tragedy struck the Chilton family that year when his older brother Reid tragically died in a freak drowning accident. Baker's haunting delivery gave some cold comfort to a kid who was suddenly adrift without the older brother he revered. In an effort to get beyond the tragedy the family moved away from Robin Hood Lane into a large Victorian in Midtown Memphis an area that had fallen on hard times as the suburbs prospered. Sid and Mary remade themselves into patrons of the arts turning their home into a gallery /salon, where musicians came to play, potters and painters displayed their wares in the first floor hall and left of center political views were discussed. The photographer William Eggleston set up a darkroom in a backyard building. Sydney began playing music again and there was no looking back to the traditional suburban lifestyle of Sherwood Forest and Robinhood lane.
From Memphis to New Orleans contains recordings Chilton made in the 1980s when he emerged from a self-imposed exile and began performing again.
Alex knew he had to get out of town. Except for a couple short stints in New York City he had lived in Memphis his whole life. The city was closing in on him, his music career was in shambles and he had developed a bad alcohol habit. He'd had big hit records as a teenager in the Box Tops and critical acclaim for his work with Big Star in his twenties. He'd dabbled in the CBGB punk scene in the late '70s and brought that attitude down South for the album Like Flies On Sherbert and the anarchic southern punkabilly of Panther Burns but now the money had run out and he was uncomfortable with the fame that still lingered.
When an old family friend suggested he might remake himself in New Orleans, Chilton was ready for the change. Alex made the move, quit drinking and quietly disappeared into his new hometown. He abandoned music as a livelihood and worked as a dishwasher, janitor, and tree trimmer, occasionally playing in cover bands in local honky-tonks.
Meanwhile, in the outside world his reputation among a new generation of musicians was growing. R.E.M., the Bangles and the Replacements in the U.S. sang his praises and recorded his songs. Primal Scream and This Mortal Coil in the UK did the same. Frankly in the modern world you would be hard pressed to find an alternative band that has not been influenced by the songs of Alex Chilton and Big Star.
Chilton now sang in a more laconic, natural sounding style that was a far cry from the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops or Big Star's emotional melodicism. The music on these recordings reflects the laid-back vibe of his new hometown: there's the very relaxed groove of Willie Tee's "Thank You John" but also the Memphis soul of B-A-B-Y (a song that could have been an answer to the Box Tops "Cry Like A Baby." There are also originals like "Lost My Job" that was supposedly written after Alex had done enough dishwashing and was ready to get back out on the road. ("Lost my job/Guess I'll have to go steal and rob") and "Underclass" celebrating his new status as a member of the broke down and busted. "People think that I'm a rich musician but no . . . Let me just describe my position. It's way down, it's all the way down."
Out of all this performing emerged a whole new approach for Chilton and a new stripped-down body of work. What he had to offer was laid bare for the listener to take in without fancy production or studio effects. His vocals were recorded "dry" and placed up front in the mix. His singing style is relaxed and easy going if not down right bemused. It certainly sounds like he is having a good time. This lack of artifice is what makes these recordings hold up even after hundreds of plays.
By digging deep into a long forgotten American song book Alex Chilton helped his younger acolytes explore sounds that might have otherwise passed them by. He had given his fans a gift-turning them on to all kinds of music especially from the south and pleasing himself in the process.