New Orleans is an unlikely place to move to quit drinking, but Alex Chilton always had his own way of doing things. He got to town in 1982 and found work washing dishes and trimming trees. At one point he played guitar and sang in a cover band at Papa Joe’s on Bourbon Street. Most people in the crowd had no idea that, in the estimation of Spin magazine, Chilton had “essentially invented indie and alternative rock.”
The first time Chilton recorded a song, in 1967, it went to Number 1. He was a moody sixteen-year-old in Memphis who’d just joined a garage band soon to be renamed the Box Tops. Their manager arranged for them to record “The Letter,” produced by a young Dan Penn. Chilton sang in a soulful rasp that, famously, belied his age (author Holly George-Warren reports that he was abetted by a sore throat and a late night before the recording session).
Chilton spent years touring and recording with the Box Tops, but poor management and intra-band strife left him eager to focus on his own material. In 1971 he returned to Memphis to collaborate with Chris Bell on what became the debut album of a new band, Big Star. “#1 Record,” as it was cheekily titled, ran into distribution and marketing problems. Though it flopped commercially, critics hailed Chilton’s songwriting and guitar work.
Their second record had a similar reception, and, by the third, Chilton had an escalating drinking and drug habit. Despite low sales, Big Star’s power pop would garner a cult following and be a major influence on bands from R.E.M. to the Posies to the Replacements.
In 1977 Chilton landed in the punk scene in New York. He developed solo material, playing CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. He also stepped away from the spotlight to work with other artists, producing the Cramps’ first album and helping launch Tav Falco’s Panther Burns while playing with them as a sideman.
By 1983 Chilton had stopped boozing and found a home here in Treme. The property, like the man, managed to attract attention and remain obscure at the same time. The house belonged to Jeanne Nathan and Robert Tannen, an urban planner and artist whose metal and cinder block sculptures filled the front yard. Chilton rented a tiny outbuilding in a garden in the back. (Another rock ‘n’ roll hero hunkered here, too: Ray Davies, front man for the Kinks, convalesced in the attic after getting shot in the leg on Burgundy Street in 2004. Chilton, a fan, brought him a guitar to noodle on.)
For a while Chilton lived here with no television or phone. He made music when he felt like it, or sometimes when asked. He did some touring with Rene Coman, a classically trained bassist, and the drummer Doug Garrison. Coman and Garrison would join forces again—without Chilton—in the Iguanas, a roots rock band they’ve been with since the early 90s.
In 1995 Chilton bought a run-down cottage not far from Tannen’s house. When Big Star’s “In the Street” was adapted as the theme song for “That ‘70s Show,” he used the royalties to fix it up a bit. He loved Treme: it was full of music and free of fanboys. As author Keith Spera put it: “A license to live as he pleased was New Orleans’ gift to Alex Chilton.”
He stayed at home even when Hurricane Katrina came calling in 2005, and in the aftermath of the levee breaches he was ferried to safety by a helicopter. He returned right away, and had been gigging and producing other artists when, in 2010, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Located directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter, Treme is arguably the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, and one of the most influential in shaping popular American music. As early as 1726, free people of color lived along Bayou Road and enslaved Africans practiced sacred traditions of music and dance in a nearby commons. The area was subdivided as an urban neighborhood in the 1810s, leaving a square block of the commons, Congo Square, as greenspace (gatherings of enslaved people continued there, under increasing regulation, through the mid-19th century).
Treme became fairly diverse later in the 1800s as Sicilians and other European immigrants arrived, but the neighborhood was strongly associated with its French-speaking Afro Creole community. Historians Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cosse Bell note that Creoles of color, among other distinctions, were known for embracing “dance, music, … ritualized festivals, and marching bands.” Music venues in the 19th century included churches and meeting halls of the benevolent societies that were integral to social life here.
While Treme doesn’t stand alone as the “Birthplace of Jazz”—the artform developed across the city—a high concentration of its pioneers lived here. These include the Tio family, influential clarinet players and teachers; Armand Piron, violinist and popular bandleader; Freddie Keppard, the “cornet king” after the legendary Buddy Bolden; and Alphonse Picou, clarinet ace and manager of a bar in the neighborhood. Others, including Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Kid Ory, came to Treme to perform at dance halls in the early 1900s.
The streets themselves were often full of music. The density of benevolent societies along with funeral homes and cemeteries in the area made brass band parades and jazz funerals common. Young people played homemade instruments on street corners, and early jazz bands promoted gigs by playing on flatbeds pulled through the neighborhood. On Mardi Gras, Black Masking Indians (also known as Mardi Gras Indians) and Baby Dolls rolled with musical accompaniment, often gathering under the canopy of live oaks on North Claiborne Avenue.
In the middle of the 20th century, segregation intensified across New Orleans and Treme became increasingly Black. Neighborhood bars and nightclubs emerged as venues for the remnants of Black vaudeville acts and big bands, then, after World War II, for the city’s brand of rhythm and blues. It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest drummers of the R&B era—including Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, and James Black—grew up in Treme. “The difference is the bass drum,” Johnson told writer Bunny Matthews. “That comes from hearing them street parades, them marching bands.” Palmer brought the parade beat into J&M Studios, which faced Treme on Rampart Street, recording seminal R&B hits with Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others, giving rise to rock and roll.
In the late 1960s two public works projects transformed Treme. The construction of an elevated expressway along North Claiborne Avenue devastated what had been a corridor of Black businesses (including record labels, Houston’s School of Music, and the Black musicians’ union) and a tree-shaded promenade for parades. Shortly afterward, the demolition of 10 square blocks for an ill-conceived “cultural center” uprooted hundreds of low-income Black households (the cleared land eventually became Armstrong Park). Years of divestment followed.
Despite these losses—and, in part, in response to them—Treme was at the heart of a brass band and second line renaissance that began in the 1970s and gathered momentum through the 1990s. New generations of musical families like the Andrews infused brass band music with R&B, funk, and hip-hop, and a new wave of social aid and pleasure clubs (descendants of 19th century benevolent societies), Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs reinvigorated local parading traditions. At the same time, music programs in neighborhood schools produced scores of young artists including Mannie Fresh, the multiplatinum-selling producer for Cash Money Records, who brought the sounds of New Orleans streets back to the top of the national charts.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, public policy once again forced a mass displacement from Treme. With renters largely ineligible for recovery assistance and public housing complexes demolished, many longtime residents were priced out of the neighborhood, which rapidly gentrified (it was 92% Black before the flood and 57% Black in 2018). Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the Candlelight Lounge was the last live music club in the area.
Today, if music no longer infuses daily life in Treme like it used to, culture bearers have a heightened sense of purpose in keeping local traditions alive. Events like second lines, funerals, and Mardi Gras parades continue to fill the streets as they have since the 19th century, and drum circles and festivals continue in Congo Square, now inside Armstrong Park.
Alex Chilton performing "The Letter," the biggest hit of his career, in 1967.
10-minute sampler from the documentary "Alex Chilton: Thanks for Being So Nice" in production in 2018.
From 1994, Big Star performs "The Ballad of El Goodo" in Memphis.
From 2010, a gathering in remembrance of Alex Chilton at the Treme compound where he felt at home.