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Alex Chilton dies on the eve of South by Southwest tribute

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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.

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16 Comments

A devastating loss.

Very sad news -- hearing he finally got married and had a kid after a pretty rough life as a musician is bittersweet given his young age. So sad. I met him once at one of those suburban summer festivals, he was playing with the Box Tops (dunno how many other originals), threw in "In the Street" -- talking with him after the show I could sense where his reputation for being cranky with other musicians came from, but he was all pro with the fans waiting to get autographs, talking to everyone, a few self-depricating jokes thrown in.

Musically a true original who followed his own tastes/mood religously.

Mourners by the million scream for Alex Chilton.

Thanks Jim for a wonderful and informative tribute to a musician whose music touched me deeply. From the Box Tops to Big Star to his wondefully eratic solo recordings, Alex never failed to bring his unique soulfulness to all of it. I am deeply saddened tonight.

Absolutely crushing. Thank you, Jim, for the tender and thoughtful article.

T-Bone Wolk and now Alex Chilton, this month has been a bummer. Joy in their music.

Saw him perform with the reconstituted Big Star at Nashville's Uptown Festival a few years ago. Someone handed him a piece of paper from the audience and he read it, did a sort of smile-smirk and said, 'well, we are definitely not gonna play that song.' Great show, nonetheless. There is a great book on him and other Memphis musicians and performers NOT named Elvis Presley called 'It Came from Memphis' by Robert Gordon. Look for it.

Thanks, Jim. One of my first thoughts was how can we continue to do the bash this year, because it has been an ongoing celebration of Alex's one-of-a-kind, often shambolic genius? But of course the music speaks for itself, so December's event will have an added and unavoidable poignancy.

I'm flat busted
Wild-eyed and free
I couldn't get arrested if I tried
A has-been at a mere thirty-five

Straight, honest, forthright and true
Great expectations for someone
Doesn't anybody know how to have fun

But I'm gonna be a Big Star
I'm gonna be a Big Star someday
I'm gonna be a Big Star someday

-- The Jayhawks, "Big Star" (1997)

Thanks for this. I never got to see him live, but his chilling power pop music has coursed through my veins for decades, thanks partly to other great bands he influenced like the 'Placemats, REM, Cheap Trick, and the Posies (undebatably the best band since Big Star). (Chris Bell wrote some disturbingly great songs too - "I Am The Cosmos," anyone?)

Thanks to Chilton's uncanny Box Tops music, the fantastic Big Star records, including the incredible Third/Sister Lovers, and the enduring legacy of the legions of also-great bands (and many others currently enjoying great chart success) which owe him a serious debt of gratitude for the enormous influence his music exerted, he'll forever be remembered as the heart and soul of power pop music.

Great work Jim. I'm still in shock and very sad when I heard it last night. I love Big Star and some of Chilton's work as a solo artist and with the Box Tops. It is a great sense of comfort that at least he and Big Star were playing to an audience, no matter how big or small, that wanted to hear them. Thank you Alex.

Knew Alex and the others in Memphis in '72-'73. Slept under the studio piano at Ardent on Madison. He was kind, clever and talented.

Great article! Alex left us too soon, but I am glad that while he was still here his work in Big Star began to get the recognition and respect it should have gotten when it was first created. I think I'll go listen to "Third/Sister Lovers" now...

Great article Jim. I remember hearing "The Letter" for the first time at 14(only two years younger than Alex) and loving it, and then discovering a copy of "Radio City" in a cut-out bin in 1974 and immediately falling in love with the sound. Alex will be remembered as a pivotal figure in rock'n'roll history. I was lucky enough to see him solo, with the reformed Big Star at the Metro here, and with the reformed Box Tops at the House Of Blues, and they were all memorable shows. Finally, I will be doing my own tribute to Alex and his music on Friday, from 1-3 PM CDT at http://uicradio.org/ . I hope everyone that loved his music will join me.

Our thoughts are with his wife and son, as their loss is greater than ours. Thankfully, this guy's songs will literally last until the end of civilization - Thirteen, September Gurls, When My Baby's Beside Me, The Letter, etc, etc. Just doesn't get much better than that. RIP

I saw Alex Chilton open for the Replacements at Einstein A-Go-Go at Jacksonville Beach in 1987. I had not heard "Pleased to Meet Me" yet, so when the crowd chanted "Alex Chilton" I thought that they wanted Alex to come out and sing one more song. Millions of his fans feel that way today.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 17, 2010 8:36 PM.

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