Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

Singer-musician Alex Chilton, who experienced mainstream success in the 1960s with The Box Tops and later achieved cult hero status as one of the founders of Big Star, died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 59.

As the teen-aged lead singer of The Box Tops, Chilton belted out such pop/soul nuggets as The Letter, Cry Like A Baby, and Soul Deep. It's hard to believe the gruff voice that fronted The Box Tops' records came from a kid not even old enough to get into bars legally. Allegedly, the soulful voice he used as The Box Tops lead vocalist was due to lack of sleep. The Box Tops are also responsible for perhaps the first Billboard Top 40 hit to address the subject of prostitution (1968's Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March).

Below is a clip of their 1969 appearance on the program Upbeat in which they lip-synched their 1967 debut The Letter (which spent 4 weeks at #1 two years earlier):

After The Box Tops broke up in 1970, Chilton launched his solo career. However, his early solo output didn't see the light of day until years later when various labels released such compilations as Alex Chilton's Lost Decade and 1970. The latter, includes my favorite Chilton solo tune, Free Again:

Although they didn't come close to obtaining commercial success during their original incarnation in the 1970s, in many circles Big Star is how Chilton is best known today. Despite this mainstream oversight, Big Star was highly influential on many of the alternative bands of the 80s and 90s such as R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, and The Replacements. The latter even wrote and recorded the tribute song Alex Chilton (from their 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me).

The track below (Thirteen) is one of the prettiest ballads ever written and was originally featured on Big Star's 1972 debut titled #1 Record. Because Chilton's vocals on Big Star's recordings are in his natural voice (which has a sweeter, higher pitch) , some people don't make the Box Tops connection.

After several years spent cutting solo records or out of the music business entirely (he was a tree trimmer and dishwasher for a brief time), Chilton relaunched Big Star in 1993 with fellow original member Jody Stephens and two members of The Posies. That same year the band released the live album Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93. To promote the release, Big Star appeared on The Tonight Show and performed one of their most enduring songs In the Street (which was later used as the theme to That 70s Show).

During the last few years, Chilton continued to record and tour, as a soloist and as a member of The Box Tops and Big Star. He is survived by his wife and son.

If you have any favorite songs from Alex Chilton's eclectic career, please discuss them in the comments section.


BeckEye said...

Just read about this a few minutes ago. So sad. "September Gurls" is one of the best pop songs ever.

And it's not one of his songs, but The Replacements' "Alex Chilton" also belongs on that "best pop songs ever" list.

Judi said...

Good post. FYI - NPR's Fresh Air did a segment on Chilton yesterday, which can be found online. They plan to run another segment today, running an old interview with Chilton.

Malcolm said...

BeckEye: My first exposure to "September Gurls" was when The Bangles remade it for their album "Different Light". When I think about some of the crap that cluttered up the pop charts during the mid 70s, the music of Big Star was almost too good for Billboard.

Judi: Thanks for the kind words and the FYI. I bookmarked the Alex Chilton/NPR interview so I can listen later.

Malcolm said...

BeckEye: Oh yeah, good call on the Replacements song "Alex Chilton". It's rather ironic that a commercially overlooked band did a song about another commercially overlooked artist.

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