Inside Dirt On Alex Chilton's SONGS FROM ROBIN HOOD LANE
February 8 will see the release via the venerable Bar/None label of Songs From Robin Hood Lane and From Memphis to New Orleans, two thought-provoking looks at an often overlooked period of Alex Chilton's long, curious career. He was at the height of his cult star 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.
Once upon a time Alex Chilton was just a kid living in Sherwood Forest on a street called Robin Hood Lane just a couple blocks from Friar Tuck Road. He lived there with his Mom and Dad, Mary and Sydney and three older siblings, brothers Reid and Howard and sister Cecelia. Sherwood Forest was a post war suburb of Memphis TN built for the GIs returning from the second world war.
Before he was the sixteen year old wunderkind singing the number One hit "The Letter" with the Boxtops before he was the leader of the much loved cult band Big Star, before he was the subject matter for the college rock rock hit "Alex Chilton, before his songs were covered by everyone from the Bangles to Wilco, before he was the writer of a long running television show's theme song "In The Street "(That 70s Show)...
Before all that he was just a kid living on Robinhood Lane to listening to his father's long playing record albums.
"We lived in a three-bedroom, red brick house," remembers his sister Cecelia. "I was surprised when my mother apologized to me years later for having us live there, but I loved it. There were tlots of kids in the neighborhood. My Mom was a member of the gardening club and would have ladies over in the afternoon for games of bridge." Cecelia remembers her father obsessively playing "The Swingin' Shepherd Blues" Anybody remember the Moe Koffman Quartette?
Chilton's father, Sydney Chilton, was a jazz piano player and saxophonist who stopped playing professionally when he found himself the father of four children, choosing instead more stable and remunerative work for a theatrical lighting company. While Sydney stopped playing music there was plenty of music in the house. In various interviews Alex Chilton has talked about hearing albums by Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, Glenn Miller and Cannon Ball Adderley among amny others.
"I was listening to a lot of records from his collection. Chilton told Keith Spera in Offbeat magazine."He'd be listening to something and be fascinated by some element of some piece of music and he would talk to me about it and tell me how it was put together. I may not have really understood very well, but a lot of it stuck with me." His father taught him about diminished chords by sitting at the family piano and showing him the chord shift in the opening line of "Bali Ha'i"
It was a bit of a surprise to his fans when Chilton has cited as the biggest influence on him as a singer was Chet Baker. When Chilton was only seven year s old. He immersed himself in the Chet Baker Sings " Baker was a trumpet player and the vocal album was a controversial but popular album when it was released in 1954. Baker was a handsome young man who many derided as a teen idol much the way Alex could be later be teased by his fellow musicians at Ardent for being "Bobby Boxtop."
Alex heard the Chet Baker sings album in 1957, the year tragedy struck the Chilton family when his older brother Reid tragically died in a freak bathtub drowning accident. Baker's haunting delivery gave some cold comfort to a kid who was suddenly adrift without the older brother he revered. The tragedy drove his shell shocked parents into heavy drinking and Alex would be left up to his own devices as he grew into a teenager. 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. Syd 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 Eggelston 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.
In the last 15 years of his life Alex 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. Doug Garrison who played drums with Chilton for many years had actually done live dates with Sydney Chilton.
Alex also worked with was bassist Ron Miller. Seven of these recordings were produced by Miller who met Chilton in the late 1970s when they both lived on the same block in New York City. Miller was a classically trained bassist with a love of jazz who was looking for gigs and Chilton was trying to get a solo career going on the Max's-CBGBs circuit after the demise of his band Big Star.
A few years later Miller got a job playing with the Memphis Symphony. Chilton had returned to Memphis as well and was playing with Tav Falco in a band they put together called Panther Burns. Miller got to witness them in their earliest and wildest incarnation. Miller re-introduced himself and said he'd be interested in getting involved. In the early evening he'd play with the symphony and then take his bass over to the Cotton Loft or the Antennae Club for a different musical experience.
Years later, Miller cut tracks with Chilton for a concept album called "Medium Cool" based around the Chet Baker vocal albums that had inspired Alex as a kid. Baker was having a resurgence thanks to acollaboration with Elvis Costello and a popular documentary made by the photographer Bruce Weber called "Let's Get Lost" His vocal records were re-released and his new fans were not as conflcited. Chilton cut three songs made popular by Chet Baker- "Look for the Silver Lining" (his personal favorite), "Like Someone in Love" and "That Old Feeling." Miller produced and played standup bass, with Robert Arron on piano and tenor sax, and Richard Dworkin known for his work with the Microscopic Septet on drums. Dworkin would go on to play with Chilton for more than fifteen years in Chilton's trio.
A second unreleased session produced by Miller in 1993 and heard here for the first time went farther afield, with Chilton suggesting Ray Charles' version of "Don't let The Sun Catch You Crying" and Nancy Wilson's take on "Save Your Love for Me". Chilton also cut "There Will Never Another You," a song that Chet Baker first turned into a jazz standard. Chilton regularly performed the song in his live shows.
The album is filled out with five tracks from Chilton's 1993 album "Clichés," that finds him working up beautiful, solo acoustic renditions of standards like "My Baby Just Cares For Me," based on the piano version by Nina Simone, and "Let's Get Lost," the song that became the title of a documentary film about Chet Baker that returned him to the international spotlight in 1988. Indeed, the fragile, high tenor of Baker with its dreamy, druggy, lost-in-the-fog approach is not all that far removed from what Chilton did vocally on the Big Star Third album especially his take on "Nature Boy.".
The album ends with a song called "What Was" that sounds like it came from the great American songbook but Chilton probably first heard watching TV late at night in a 1979 movie called "The Late Show," starring Art Carney and produced by Robert Altman.
Chilton passed away at the age of 59 in 2010 the loss was felt deeply by his fan base that included a wide array of songwriters, musicians and music journalists. His body of work is rich and varied from the blue eyed soul of the Boxtops to the iconic early 70s albums by his band Big Star. Later would come the southern fried punkabilly of his work with the Panther Burns and classic solo outings like Feudalist Tarts and Like Flies On Sherbert. In the last 15 years of his life he concentrated on singing rhythm and blues and jazz with a trio comprised of himself on guitar along with versatile bass players and drummers. He also reunited with both the Boxtops and Big Star for various performing and recording projects.
From Robin Hood Lane brings a different heart felt flavor to the Chilton catalog. All that listening in his youth and his aural eqivilent of a photographic memory allowed him to get inside the original performance but while you hear hints of the original singers of the songs, he filters those influences through his own perspective to create something entirely new and distinctive.
As with all the msuci he ever made there is something about Chilton's approach that is truly human and universal. Listen to Baker's original vocal recording of "Let's Get Lost" and compare it to Chilton's. Alex is a little more behind the beat as he takes on Baker's dreamy world weary tones, but also adds a more down to earth style, letting in bits of other colors and emotions, making the performance truly his own.
...and that is the magical gift that is Alex Chilton, bringing it all the way back home to Robin Hood Lane.