I am a big fan of this white dude from Vernon, Alabama, named Dan Penn, who is without a doubt one of the best Southern soul singers ever. Even if you've not heard him sing, you've heard his songs because he's spent most of his career writing them for other people, which I guess makes him one of the best Southern soul songwriters ever too.
He's probably best known, if at all, for being in the right place at the right time twice in 1967. First, he was in the studio when Aretha Franklin was looking for a new single, so he helped write "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" on the spot. Second, he produced The Box Tops hit single "The Letter." He was the guy who told a slick-looking kid from Memphis to pronounce it "air-o-plane" and thus started Alex Chilton on an improbable career path from teen idol to indie legend to day laborer to cult hero.
Chilton died this week, so just about every corner of the web is glutted with reminiscences and appreciations for the guy. I don't suppose one more will break the internet, so if you'll indulge me:
Alex Chilton played the Chukker in Tuscaloosa sometime toward the end of the last century. Don't go looking for it; the Chukker died long before Chilton did. The stage upon which he stood is now the parking space for a loan officer at the neighboring bank. A few cars over is where my Chilton story takes place, and it's really my friend's story at that. But what are friends for if not source material?
My friend ran the soundboard at the Chukker, a small multi-channel rack that stood perpendicular to the corner of the bar and at the end of a ratty loveseat facing the stage. Even though the "booth" surrounding it was only waist high, he spent more nights than not assuring drunks that it was not, in fact, a restroom. A bit of a perfectionist and a caffeine addict, he was good at the job albeit prickly to suggestions. Chilton, however, was generous with suggestions.
After a few go-rounds of "trust me" between Chilton and my friend, the soundcheck was finally over. There was talk that Chilton had what we called in those days a "nervous breakdown" a few years prior--now we just refer to those as "Tuesdays"--and was taking whatever antidepressant was popular back then or maybe even antipsychotics. The drugs would keep him level, so it was said, but he'd go off his dosage when he had to perform so he wouldn't be flat.
I don't know if there's any truth to that rumor, but I don't consider it speaking ill of the dead to say a man got help if he needed it. For whatever it's worth, the rumor might have only had legs because so many of his fans were bewildered that the person they heard on #1 Record and Radio City and Third could ever do anything else but make music. Much less make ends meet doing lawn work in the bayou.
But whatever sparked his mood that night in Tuscaloosa, internal or external, during the show Chilton couldn't hear his monitors, said he sounded like he was smothered under a pillow, and he called my friend out, point blank, from the stage--"Hey, Mister Sound Man! Hey, Mister Sound Man! Why don't you do your job?!"--in what my friend describes as "the most excruciatingly whiney voice" he has ever heard.
Therefore, for as long as I've known the guy, I've heard how Alex Chilton was a royal prick, which, by the way, didn't stop me from playing the records. They are wonderful. And even before this week's news, I was prone to going on jags of playing nothing but those records over and over again for days.
Imagine how many times I've played them since Wednesday.
So perhaps I'm in an emotionally vulnerable state after listening to so much emotionally vulnerable pop candy, or perhaps it's only the reflective mood one naturally inhabits upon seeing unsaid possibilities expire with a death. But for whatever reason, after hearing of Chilton's passing, I rang my friend up:
"Man, you should've done your job."