The Memphis Commercial Appeal is reporting that Alex Chilton has died in New Orelans of an apparent heart attack at the age of 59. One of the true giants of rock and roll, even if he never became a household name outside a circle of fellow musicians and music obsessives, Chilton’s recording career began at the age of 16 when he served as a the throaty voice behind a string of blue-eyed soul and pop-psychedelic hits by The Box Tops. The group scored a #1 hit with its first single, “The Letter,” in 1967 and a #2 the following year with “Cry Like A Baby.” By 1970 the group’s fortunes had dimmed, however, and Chilton appeared destined to become one of many musicians whose fleeting success failed to translate into a career.
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity: Chilton formed a band with fellow singer/songwriter Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummell. Calling themselves Big Star after a Memphis grocery chain, the band released its debut album, #1 Record, to critical acclaim and commercial indifference. The reasons for the former remain self-evident. #1 Record find the band putting its own distinctive stamp on the great pop tradition of other “B” bands and can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the Beatles, Byrds, and Beach Boys. Alternating muscular power pop like “Feel” and “In The Street” (the latter familiar to many as the theme to That ’70s Show) with delicate ballads like “Thirteen”, it’s a melancholy testament to teen angst and pop hooks.
The commercial indifference often gets blamed on distribution problems. Recorded for the Ardent label, the album was distributed by the financially troubled Stax Records. But it’s not like the songs on #1 Record were particularly in step with the times, either. Its failure led Bell to quit the band, though his presence can still be felt on #1 Record’s follow-up, Radio City. (Bell would die in car accident in 1978 after recording an album’s worth of material, some with Chilton, that would eventually see release as 1992’s I Am The Cosmos.)
Despite the presence of such songs as “September Gurls” and “Back Of A Car,” Radio City met the same fate as #1 Record in 1974. Hummell followed Bell, leaving only Chilton and Stephens to record Big Star’s third album, a strange, haunted, dark night of the soul masterpiece alternately known as Third and Sister Lovers. Third largely dispenses with the power pop ambitions of its predecessors, opting instead for the sounds of fear and druggy regret with the occasional bursts of light.
It was released, barely, in 1978. But like Big Star’s other albums, it picked up an appreciative cult in the decades to come as bands like The dBs, R.E.M., and Teenage Fanclub began to cite the group as an influence. The Replacements even devoted a whole song to Chilton called, appropriately enough, “Alex Chilton.”
Chilton himself soldiered on, moving to New Orleans and releasing increasingly unpredictable and idiosyncratic solo albums. In the wake of renewed interest in his career, the 1990s and 2000s saw him fronting reconstituted versions of both Big Star and The Box Tops, and releasing a fourth Big Star album called In Space in 2005.
Chilton's death comes days before a Big Star event at the South By Southwest music festival that would have found him sharing a stage with Stephens and Hummell together for the first time in 35 years. That would have been something to see.