In February 1999, the often elusive Alex Chilton was in New York City for a couple of gigs at the late, great East Village dive Coney Island High, with bassist Ron Easley and drummer Richard Dworkin. The trio had enough of a groove on playing mostly vintage soul tunes that they went into a Manhattan recording studio, Sear Sound
, and kept the music rolling. In a single night, they cut nineteen cover tunes, and Alex produced the session himself. That sort of approach was common in the studios of Memphis, Tennessee and Muscle Shoals, Alabama during the classic era of sixties soul, though this think-on-your-feet, overdub-free style is an anomaly today. For the Memphis born-and-bred Alex, that's the way he always liked it.
Alex and his cohorts had a list of songs for Set, based on what they’d been cooking up on stage, but, as Alex put it, "we thought of a few more once we got there."
As he recently explained to a British reporter, "I had probably ten or twelve in mind when we went into the studio. As the evening wore on, band members would suggest tunes to do, and we’d do them. I think we only did more than one take of two or three of the songs we did, and I don’t think we used any second takes on the album. There are all different approaches to doing things. Over the years, I’ve come to think spontaneity and doing things live as much as possible is worth something. Somehow, when you layer things by overdubbing them, that seems to lose an element of spontaneity and life that’s very important."
The material on Set ranges from the modern to the classic, the playful to the sexy. It, stays in an R&B groove, save for a trio of jazzy numbers ("April In Paris, " "There Will Never Be Another You ," "Shiny Stockings") and a country tune from the even more elusive Gary Stewart ("Single Again"). What links the lineup is that all these tunes are part of Alex’s personal hit parade. "I know a few scholars of old R&B," he explains, "they play things for me that get me going. Plus I remember things from my teenage years, stuff that was even obscure then."
Even in this era of multi-tasking, few, if any, pop artists can lay claim to the disparate, multi-generational audience Alex maintains with his various, ongoing combos. The Box Tops reform annually to play on the summertime oldies circuit. In August 2000, for example, they played for an after-work crowd in front of Manhattan’s World Trade Center at a radio station-sponsored gig. Big Star still play gigs occasionally too. But Set is perhaps the closest to the "real" Alex -- melding memories of the music that inspired him as a teenager with the sweet soul sounds you can still find today if, like Alex, you know where to look.
" I’m in love with that song," was how Paul Westerberg of the Replacements put it in his heartfelt homage to Big Star
, "Alex Chilton." Alex himself offers the same sentiment on Set, his off-the-cuff tribute to the timeless southern soul music he deeply admires.
*Photos by Aimee Toledano.
1. Never Found A Girl (Booker Jones/Eddie Floyd/Al Isbell)
2. Lipstick Traces (Naomi Neville)
3. Hook Me Up (Johnny Watson)
4. Oogum Boogum (Alfred J. Smith)
5. You's A Viper (Leroy Smith)
6. I Remember Mama (Caesar-Mathis-Sterling-Sterling-Price and Newton)
7. April In Paris E.Y. (E.Y. Harburg/Vernon Duke)
8. Therer Will Never Be Another You (Gordon-Warren)
9. Single Again (Gary Stewart)
10. You've Got A Booger Bear Under There (Ollie Hoskins/Quinn Golden)
11. Shiny Stockings (Frank Foster)