Alex Chilton, a legend of the Memphis music scene and one of the founding fathers of the power-pop movement, died at a hospital in New Orleans on Wednesday, the victim of an apparent heart attack. He was 59 years old.
Chilton's hugely influential band Big Star was about to be celebrated at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, partaking in a panel session and a showcase gig on Saturday. The band was experiencing the latest in a series of career resurgences, thanks to the recent reissues of its celebrated albums from the '70s as the box set, "Keep an Eye on the Sky."
According to the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Chilton's native Memphis, the singer, guitarist and songwriter had been complaining about his health early Wednesday and was taken to the emergency room, where he was pronounced dead. "Alex passed away a couple of hours ago," Big Star drummer Jody Stephens told the paper. "I don't have a lot of particulars, but they kind of suspect that it was a heart attack."
Born William Alexander Chilton and raised in a musical family, Alex experienced his first taste of musical stardom at the tender age of 16 as a member of the Box Tops. His surprisingly deep, soulful and mature vocals propelled the 1967 single "The Letter" to No. 1 on the singles chart in the U.S. and many other countries, and his first group went on to score several other hits, including "Cry Like a Baby" (1968) and "Soul Deep" (1969).
When the Box Tops broke up in 1970, Chilton was left feeling jaded and bitter about the music industry, which he felt had exploited the group. He had lost none of his joy in playing music, however, and in 1971, he linked up with an existing group of Memphis musicians--Stephens, fellow guitarist and vocalist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel--and Big Star was born as a band with a distinctive sound based in equal parts on the grit of Southern soul and the chiming guitars and irresistible harmonies of British Invasion pop.
Despite two brilliant records whose titles evinced Chilton's sardonic sense of humor and ingrained skepticism about the music industry--"#1 Record" (1972) and "Radio City" (1974)--and the warm embrace of pioneering rock critics such as Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe, the band's label, Ardent Records, was unable to break the group on radio, and it struggled to find an audience during its original incarnation.
Reduced to just Chilton and Stephens, Big Star made one final record in 1978, alternately called "Third" or "Sister Lovers," and a dark night of the soul classic. "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Big Star's 'Third,'" R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck once said.
After Big Star broke up, Chilton went on to make a series of solo albums--among them strong discs such as "Like Flies on Sherbert" (1979) and "Bach's Bottom" (1981)--that won him a place on the fringes of the punk scene. But as punk yielded to the indie-rock movement of the mid-'80s, he became a true hero to a new generation of musicians, and elements of Big Star's sound were embraced by a new wave of bands led by R.E.M.
Such is the level of devotion in Chicago, where power-pop remains a thriving and much-loved genre, that a group of local musicians has for years thrown an annual "Alex Chilton Birthday Bash" to celebrate his songs every December.
Among the many bands that have proudly cited Big Star as an influence and put their own interpretations on its sounds are Chicago's Wilco and Material Issue, the dB's, Teenage Fanclub, the Posies (whose Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow fleshed out the reunited version of the band that has performed over the last decade), Game Theory, Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush, the Bangles (who scored a hit with a cover of "September Gurls"), Ryan Adams, Cheap Trick (which covered "In the Street" as the theme song for the sitcom "That '70s Show") and of course the Replacements, who went so far as to write a song called "Alex Chilton."
"Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round," Paul Westerberg sang in the Replacements' tribute. "They sing... I'm in love with that song."
Those words stand as a fitting tribute to a great talent, survived by his wife, Laura, son, Timothy, and legions of fans whose lives were enriched by his music.