Alex Chilton had quite a career in the music business. As the singer of his first group, the Box Tops, he had a number one hit with “The Letter”; he was just sixteen at the time. Later, he joined Big Star, writing pop gems that failed to find an audience then, but are now so beloved that the band has one of rock’s biggest cults. He recorded wonderfully chaotic material from the mid-to-late ‘70s, before setting on a steady course of gigging and albums that focused on his interpretations of other people’s songs, as well as periodic reunions with the Box Tops and Big Star. He died in 2010 at the age of 59.
When Chilton was around 20, he began using something he found useful in helping guide his life’s path: the zodiac. Alex initially became intrigued with astrology during his teenage years, but it was only after he moved to New York in 1970 did he fully embrace it. While living in Manhattan during the post-Box Tops/pre-Big Star period, Chilton befriended the Brooklyn musician, Grady Whitebread, who schooled Alex on astrology. Over the years, Chilton used horoscopes to decide who he should hang out with—including potential band members—and generally deal with life’s uncertainties. In a 1992 interview, Alex talked about the subject:
I’ve studied it rather extensively and I’ve gotten really, really sharp at it. I’m a pretty good interpreter of [astrological] charts. It is interesting as far as understanding people and it’s just darn interesting in and of itself. The longer you study something you believe in, the more profound it can get for you. (from the 2014 Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction)
His fascination with astrology has, in turn, influenced his songwriting. Two tracks from the second Big Star album, Radio City, come to mind: “Morpha Too”, which contains the line, “Kitty asked me to read her stars”; and “September Gurls,” arguably Chilton’s best tune. Alex was born on December 28, referenced in the song’s refrain, “December boy’s got it bad.”
Chilton frequently covered other artist’s material, and one choice in particular was surely swayed by the star signs.
In 1978, a soul singer recording under the name Mr. Danny Pearson put out a track based on the cheesiest of pick-up lines.
“What’s Your Sign Girl?” was produced by Barry White and released on a 45 though White’s Unlimited Gold imprint. Somewhat of a novelty song, it features White’s backing band and a lush production, complete with strings. Only in the seventies could’ve a tune like this found an audience—and it did, peaking at #16 on the R&B chart.
The number was a natural fit for Chilton, as aside from the astrology factor, Alex took pleasure in playing cheeky covers. Plus, the protagonist in the song is a Capricorn, as was Chilton. Alex’s guitar/bass/drums version, included on his 1995 album, A Man Called Destruction, is significantly stripped-down, compared to the original. His rhythm guitar playing here is stellar, working his way through the chords in a manner that’s so infectious it makes this catchy song even more so. At the time of the recording, Chilton had already been performing the tune live for some time, and it would be a frequent part of his set for years to come.
Below is a nicely shot/great-sounding audience video of Alex and his group performing “What’s Your Sign Girl” (he omitted the question mark, for some reason) at the 1999 Cooper-Young Festival in Memphis. Before they launch into it, Chilton tells the audience he’s a Capricorn, “like Phil Spector and Howard Hughes.” You can tell how much he loved playing this ridiculous song.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Downs’: A stoned and chaotic unreleased Alex Chilton track from new Big Star box, ‘Complete Third’
Meet the enigmatic Gimmer Nicholson, whose ill-fated 1968 album influenced Alex Chilton & Big Star