Los Angeles had the Go-Go's and the Runaways. New York had the Angels and the Shangri-Las. In Memphis, during a certain era, the most talked about girl group was The Klitz. The band — with Lesa Aldridge, Gail Clifton, Marcia Clifton, and Amy Gassner (billed as Kerry, Darla, Candy, and Envy Klitz, respectively) — sprang onto the Midtown scene in 1978 and quickly worked its way into local rock-and-roll lore. Alex Chilton, Aldridge's boyfriend and creative partner, served as their impresario and helped the band land early gigs at clubs such as Trader Dick's, the Hot Air Balloon, and Lafayette's Music Hall.
Although the Klitz (the name, Aldridge insists, is German slang for "pistol") are often remembered as Memphis' first punk group, that honor actually belongs to The Malverns, an earlier band that Gail Clifton formed with Ross Johnson, Matt Diana, and Eric Hill. Aldridge, however, holds the key to the city's punk legacy. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she was reared in Mississippi, on the East Coast, and in Europe. At 18, she was immortalized in a William Eggleston photograph (they're cousins), shot the night before she left for her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence. In her early 20s, Aldridge returned to Memphis and rented an apartment across the street from Ardent Studios. (The Cramps crashed there while they recorded Songs the Lord Taught Us.) She was also, along with sister Holliday, an inspiration for Big Star's Third album, also called Sister Lovers.
"It was a racy time [in Memphis], but I think the Klitz fit right in," Aldridge says today. "I don't think we thought about it in those days, outside of the sheer joy of expressing ourselves. I'd played piano since I was 8 and guitar since I was 13. I'd also traveled a lot, and although I think I knew Memphis was provincial, I felt like we were the hub, because all these bands like the Cramps were coming here to be with us."
"I'd broken up with my boyfriend and was crying on Lesa's and Alex's shoulders," Gail Clifton says of the Klitz' beginnings. "We started practicing at a boathouse, and our first gig was at the Midtown Saloon in 1978. We were hanging out with the in crowd. The Scruffs influenced me a whole lot, and I think we knew that Alex was something special."
By '79, the Klitz had traveled to New York for gigs at Irving Plaza and CBGBs, garnered a write-up in Rolling Stone, and entered Sam Phillips Recording Studio to cut an album with Chilton and Jim Dickinson at the helm. An extremely limited-release single on Jim Blake's Barbarian label surfaced, but by the start of the next decade, the Klitz were history.
Aldridge moved to New Jersey and formed a band called Missy & the Men before relocating to Nashville, having three kids, and ultimately teaching English in the public school system. Gail Clifton majored in art history and print-making at the University of Memphis, raised two children of her own, and embarked on a career as a sales consultant.
In 2005, the two staged a mini-reunion of the Klitz with Marcia Clifton. Now, they've reformed the group with bassist Stephanie Swindle (Chess Club) and drummer Angela Horton (The Satyrs, Dan Montgomery).
"Before now, I'd come to town and we'd record things. Now we try to get together on weekends and school breaks. I will say that I have not considered moving back here, but [Memphis] is a wonderful town to visit," Aldridge says.
Local musician Greg Roberson (formerly of The Reigning Sound) has plans to escort the group into Rocket Science Audio later this summer, where they'll record a new album with studio engineer Kyle Johnson.
After a show in Oxford, Mississippi, last weekend, the Klitz are ready to take the stage at the Hi-Tone Café Friday, July 27th, with Jack Oblivian and Kid Twist. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $7.
"We've got some happening songs," Aldridge says, "and we're tight and fun to look at."
When asked if they'd like to see any familiar faces in the audience, Gail Clifton says, "Alex, of course, but I know it's different for Lesa."
Aldridge rolls her eyes and says, "Don't do a 'we' on that one!"
For more on the Klitz' back-story, pick up a copy of Rob Jovanovic's Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band or Robert Gordon's seminal It Came From Memphis. Also be sure to tune into WKNO Channel 10 on Wednesday, August 1st, when Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, which was co-produced by Gordon, airs on Great Performances.