Alex Chilton was never destined to become a bona fide rock star, but his penchant for writing brilliant pop gems (with a little bit of soul) led him to a high level of artistic significance that influenced and inspired generations of rock and pop songwriters.
The low-key, self-effacing songwriter died of a heart attack in New Orleans on Thurs. March 18. He was 59.
Fans and critics knew him best perhaps as the singer, and guitarist of late-’60s Memphis pop band The Box Tops and of the influential, early-’70s roots/pop band Big Star. Chilton was still in his teens when he arranged and sang the melodic hit single “The Letter” with the Box Tops. The tune was originally written by Wayne Carson Thompson. Chilton’s savory and emotive vocal delivery propelled it to Number One in late 1967.
With Big Star — a rootsy and jangly quartet he formed with guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens — Chilton released only three studio albums: 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City, and 1978’s Third/Sister Lovers. Their music could either veer into lush, romantic pop beauty (“Give Me Another Chance,” “September Gurls”) or detour into more gnarly and edgy guitar rock (“Don’t Lie to Me”).
The band never enjoyed much commercial success, but their melodic, moody, organic pop style influenced many in the rock world, including Cheap Trick, The Cramps, R.E.M., Wilco, Teenage Fanclub, and Ryan Adams, among many others.
The Replacements’ 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me featured a hook-laden tribute song titled “Alex Chilton.” Cheap Trick’s rendition of Big Star’s “In the Street” was used as the theme song to That 70’s Show.
During the 1980s, Chilton made records and toured as a solo artists and with various backing bands. He pulled the Box Tops back together 1998 to record an album titled Tear Off!. He reunited with drummer Jody Stephens and enlisted members of The Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow), hauled everyone into Stephens’ Ardent Studios, and recorded a new Big Star album in 2005 called In Space.
Chilton died in New Orleans, just days before Big Star were scheduled to appear on a panel and perform a concert on Sat. March 20 at Antone’s during the South By Southwest music festival and conference in Austin, Texas.
Last week, the editors at The Oxford-American (oxfordamerican.org) posted a page and a video montage of 16mm film footage shot by Bell and Hummel in the Ardent Studio during the making of Big Star’s debut album. It was edited by the mag’s editor, Derek Jenkins, and posted in honor of Chilton (“[He was] a brilliant musician whose untimely death has hit us hard,” he noted). The clip originally released as part of the Oxford American DVD #2 in their 2008 Best of the South Issue.
“The film, about 20 minutes total, is wholly silent,” Jenkins wrote in the posting. “The images are by their nature experimental, sometimes expressly so. The camera captures the group recording both in the studio and in Chilton’s home. Other footage seems to hint that they had fictional narratives in mind as well: one about a young man (Chilton) registering for selective service, and another that could have been yanked from one of their songs, about a boy and a girl in love. All of the threads, fictional and nonfictional, eventually unraveled.”
The delicate, tangled mix of innocence, joy, and determination in this footage would eventually become significantly more morose and melancholic as Chilton and the band pushed ahead, but the hints of optimism and joys never completely dissolved — even within Chilton’s meandering solo work of his later years.
It’s worth the effort to dig into some classic Chilton music and Big Star collections. That’s where I’ll be rummaging much of the time this season.