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Published: 2010/03/18
by Jeff Tamarkin

Alex Chilton, Box Tops/Big Star Singer, Dies at 59

Alex Chilton, the singer and guitarist who helmed two popular Memphis-based bands, the soul-pop Box Tops and power pop pioneers Big Star, died today (March 17) of a suspected heart attack in New Orleans. Chilton, who was 59, had complained earlier in the day of feeling ill and was taken to a hospital emergency room, where he was pronounced dead.

According to a news item on the Memphis Commercial Appeal website, Chilton, whose death was confirmed by former Big Star bandmate Jody Stephens, was scheduled to play with Big Star at Austin’s SXSW this Saturday.

Born December 28, 1950, in Memphis, William Alexander Chilton was only 16 when he rose to the top of the American singles chart as lead singer of the Box Tops. Their hit “The Letter”—one of the shortest number one records ever at under two minutes—featured Chilton’s gruff vocal performance; it remained at the top for four weeks in the early fall of 1967. The Box Tops scored a second major hit early the following year with “Cry Like a Baby,” which peaked at number two, and also made the top 25 with their singles “Neon Rainbow” and “Soul Deep.”

After the Box Tops dissolved in 1970, Chilton embarked on a solo career in New York but the following year he began the second major phase of his career by joining the Memphis pop-rock band Big Star, whose other members were songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. Although Big Star never enjoyed the commercial success the Box Tops did, they became the quintessential cult band postmortem, supremely influential long after their demise as the power pop movement—a melodic offshoot of punk and new wave—took hold.

Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City (both released on Ardent Records), are considered seminal releases in that genre, influenced by the British Invasion, soul music and the chiming folk-rock of the ’60s. A new Big Star built around Chilton and Stephens recorded an unfinished album, Third/Sister Lovers, in 1974 and early ’75, but it remained unreleased until 1978 (Bell died that same year). The album was either loved or despised by most fans of the group due to its eccentric, often dark nature, and became the final release by the band (a Chilton-supervised reissue came out in 1992). A comprehensive Big Star box set, Keep An Eye on the Sky, was issued by Rhino Records last year.

Chilton began his solo career in earnest in the late ’70s following the breakup of Big Star. He leaves behind a series of often brilliant, often erratic recordings for many different labels—among them Like Flies on Sherbert (1979) and Bach’s Bottom (1981). None ever found commercial success but all served to earn Chilton a devoted following that never dissipated. He also produced recordings for numerous artists (including the debut by the Cramps) and performed under his own name both as band member and leader and, eventually, in reunions of both the Box Tops and Big Star. Chilton was considered a bona fide legend in indie rock quarters, so much so that the Replacements titled a song after him and bands such as R.E.M., Wilco, Yo La Tengo and the Posies have cited Chilton as an influence.

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