My heart skipped a beat when I learned Alex Chilton had died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. He would have turned 60 in December.
Chilton is probably best known to most Americans as the 16-year-old lead singer for The Box Tops, who took “The Letter” to number one on the Billboard Charts in 1967. To this day, “The Letter” remains a staple of oldies radio. Clocking in at just a little bit under two minutes, it’s the perfect song to play before a station break. “Cry Like a Baby” also receives regular airplay and once in a blue moon you might hear “Soul Deep.”
But diehard pop music aficionados are fondest of Chilton’s contributions to his other band Big Star. Like The Box Tops, Big Star was based in Chilton’s hometown of Memphis. Though that is where the similarities ended. Formed in 1971, the year after The Box Tops disbanded, Big Star provided Chilton with an opportunity to write songs with singer/guitarist Chris Bell. They aspired to a kind of Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership where both artists would receive songwriting credit even if most of the songs were written by one with little input from the other.
Big Star was signed to Ardent Records, which was affiliated with Stax, the same label that had made stars of Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs and Wilson Pickett. But by the time Big Star released its debut album #1 Record in the spring of 1972, Stax was in throes of financial woes. A distribution deal with Columbia Records created more problems than it solved.
Stax was also accustomed to selling R & B/soul music. Given Chilton’s history with The Box Tops perhaps Stax was expecting blue-eyed soul. Instead, Chilton and Bell with a little help from their friends (bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens) had become an extension of the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion in the 1970s. Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim for #1 Record, not only didn’t it top the charts it got nowhere near them.
A discouraged Bell left the group after the failure of #1 Record. (Sadly, Bell was killed in a car accident in December 1978). Chilton and company soldiered on to release a second album in 1974 titled Radio City. But it was a case of brush, rinse, spit and repeat. It was then Hummel’s turn to depart the group leaving Chilton and Stephens to pick up the pieces. The pair made some recordings of Chilton’s songs in late 1974 but Stax wasn’t satisfied with the effort and wouldn’t release it. Stax would go into bankruptcy less than two years later. A small record label called PVC that somehow got a hold of this material would release it simply as 3rd. As with the previous two Big Star albums, 3rd went nowhere in a hurry. From then on Chilton would play whatever his mood dictated — punk, country or jazz.
But a funny thing happened. The people who were listening to Big Star often happened to be musicians. The 1980s would see a flurry of bands influenced by Big Star including R.E.M, This Mortal Coil, The Bangles and The Replacements. They would record Big Star songs. The Bangles would record “September Gurls” while This Mortal Coil recorded versions of “Holocaust” and “Kangaroo.” Paul Westerberg of The Replacements took it one step further writing a song titled “Alex Chilton.”
This would result in the re-release of Big Star’s material including 3rd which by this time was known as Third/Sister Lovers. In his review of Third/Sister Lovers, Parke Puterbaugh of Rolling Stone wrote, “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star.” This in turn would inspire another generation of musicians to cover Big Star material including Jeff Buckley, Elliot Smith, Wilco, Garbage and Beck. Every time you watch the opening of That 70’s Show you are hearing Cheap Trick’s version of “In The Streets.”
Given the level of influence Chilton had with several generations of musicians, his passing cast a pall over the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival held last week in Austin, Texas. This year’s festival featured Big Star as a spotlight artist featuring a panel discussion about the band’s legacy and a concert in which Chilton was to have participated. Both the panel discussion and the concert would turn into a tribute to Chilton.
I had the chance to see Chilton in concert twice although not with Big Star. In the summer of 2001, I saw him play a solo gig at the Paradise Lounge near Boston University. Nearly four years later, I saw him with The Box Tops as the opening act for Eric Burdon & The New Animals at a free outdoor concert near the Charles River.
The main reason I went to see Chilton that first time was in the hope of hearing him play “Kangaroo.” I had spent much of that summer listening to Jeff Buckley’s version of the song. Unfortunately, I would never hear Buckley sing it in person since he had accidentally drowned more than four years earlier. Well, surely hearing “Kangaroo” from the man who actually wrote it would have been more than fine. However, when Chilton solicited requests and I shouted “Kangaroo” he shot me a very cold stare. He spent the night playing an uninspired set of ’50s music.
I would later learn that Chilton, despite all the acclaim and adulation he received for his work with Big Star, wasn’t overly impressed with the music he made from that period of his life. As recently as 2009, Chilton told Mojo magazine, “People say Big Star made some of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums ever. And I say they’re wrong.” So the next time I saw Chilton play I kept quiet and just enjoyed the music.