Twenty years after he recorded “The Letter” at the age of 16—a song that became a mega-hit for the Memphis-based Box Tops—Alex Chilton mused: “I guess my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I ever did was the biggest record I’ll ever have.”
Chilton went on to record more hits with the Box Tops, though none as famous or memorable or covered by other artists as “The Letter.” He put together and fronted one of the most influential power pop bands of the ’70s, Big Star, and re-emerged as a significant solo artist in the ’80s. His song “In the Street” became familiar to millions as the theme song of the television comedy “That ‘70s Show.”
Chilton’s powerful musical legacy shaped bands as diverse as R.E.M. and the dB’s, yet his remarkable life story has never been the subject of a biography—until now. In A Man Called Destruction, music critic Holly George-Warren (The Road to Woodstock)—whose band, Clambake, Chilton produced in 1985—vividly narrates Chilton’s rise to early fame, his genius in developing new musical directions and his precipitous decline from the musical pinnacle to an untimely death at the age of 59.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews with his family, friends and bandmates, she traces Chilton’s life from his childhood and youth in Mississippi and Memphis, including the tragic death of his older brother, Reid, and its effect on the entire family. His early musical tastes were eclectic—Jimmy Smith, Mose Allison, Jackie Wilson, Elvis—and he was recruited to join his first band, the Devilles, while still in high school. George-Warren recounts his early recording sessions with famed songwriters and producers Chips Moman and Dan Penn and the meeting with singer-songwriter Chris Bell that eventually resulted in the formation of Big Star. Throughout his long career, which included a stint as a solo artist and a hiatus from the music business, Chilton showed an appetite for self-destruction that seemed to grow as much from his creative genius as from his thirst for alcohol and drugs.
As George-Warren points out, “music was Alex’s life—but what he loved more than making music was doing it on his own terms.”
“As in life,” she observes, “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.” In this colorful and compulsively readable biography, she takes readers along for the ride.