EXPIRED: 03/17/10 – Alex Chilton, 59, was making preparations to play the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas when he had a heart attack and died in his home of New Orleans.
Maybe you don’t know his name. You might not even know his recent music. He sort of became a cult status performer over the last few decades. But you’ll certainly know his voice from the hits he had in the 60’s with pop-soul act the Box Tops, and you’re definitely aware of the hundreds of acts who cite Chilton as a major influence.
The Memphis-born Chilton rose to prominence at age 16 when his gruff vocals powered the massive Box Tops hit “The Letter” to #1 on the charts in 1967. They followed that a #2 the following year with “Cry Like A Baby.” In 1970 they split and Chilton tried a solo gig in NYC.
He returned to Memphis a year later and was renewed by the energy there. With the band he fronted in the 70’s, Big Star, named after a Memphis grocery chain, Chilton helped define the sensitive power-pop sound of the ’70s. Big Star’s 1972 debut album, #1 Record, met with critical acclaim but poor sales. Songs like “Feel” and “In the Street” and “I’m in Love with a Girl” wowed critics but failed to find a commercial audience. Instead they found fans who would themselves become international icons: R.E.M., Paul Westerberg and Wilco — all owe Chilton a debt of gratitude.
Chilton had been complaining about his health earlier Wednesday. He was taken by paramedics from his home to the emergency room but could not be revived.
Big Star’s second album Radio City, and the next, Third/Sister Lovers, were both minor masterpieces that simply didn’t sell. Two decades later, Rolling Stone magazine named all three Big Star albums to its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Meanwhile, Chilton mixed releasing solo recordings – like the odd Like Flies on Sherbet — with working odd jobs to make ends meet. He moved New Orleans in the mid-80’s and was often seen busking on street corners. Eventually he stopped performing altogether until a Big Star cult following swelled enough to coax him to reunite the band.
Just last year he released a collective of Big Star music entitled Keep an Eye on the Sky.
For a Big Star named Alex.