Thursday, March 25, 2010

the Alex Chilton-Michael Jackson connection

Last week as I read obituaries for singer Alex Chilton, who died on March 17 at the age of 59, reportedly from a heart attack, I realized he had a few things in common with Michael Jackson.

Chilton didn't end up becoming the biggest star in the world—he was a fairly obscure artist compared to Jackson—but he did have a #1 hit on the Billboard Top 40 at the age of 16 as the lead singer of the Box Tops. "The Letter," which hit the top of the charts in 1967, was the Box Tops' first single, just as "I Want You Back" was the Jackson 5's first single two years later, when frontman Michael Jackson was only 11 years old.

Listeners couldn't believe "The Letter" was sung by a tenth grader when they first heard it; Chilton's gruff vocals sounded like they were coming from a much older (and some would say blacker) set of pipes. Similarly, Jackson was noted for sounding mature beyond his years when he sang hits like "ABC" and "The Love You Save," and when he died last June many writers observed that he spent his childhood being the breadwinner of the family only to spend his adult years acting like a child.

One of the tributes to Chilton that I read on the Internet mentioned that he had covered Jackson's "Rock With You" in concert in recent years. In a video shot in Haiden, Austria, in August 2008, the month Jackson turned 50, Chilton introduces the 1979 smash hit by saying, "I honestly love this tune. Nobody else even realizes it's good yet, but I swear to God this is a great song. He didn't write it, but ... that's probably why it's great."

Okay, so Chilton wasn't a fan of Jackson's songwriting, but Rod Temperton, the Englishman who penned "Rock With You," deserves all the praise he gets. "Rock With You," like Chilton and Jackson, is an enduring classic.


  1. MJ was a terrific songwriter. His hit/miss ratio is astronomical, but the total number of songs is tiny.

  2. I agree, and I doubt Alex had memorized which songs Jackson had written and which ones he hadn't. Chilton himself didn't write that many songs, especially after the '70s, and his final studio album, from 1999, contained no originals.