Cry Like a Baby...The Passing of Alex Chilton

At almost the same time this evening my phone started vibrating with text messages from all over the country on the passing of Alex Chilton.

Here is the news from the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

Pop hitmaker, cult hero, and Memphis rock iconoclast Alex Chilton has died.

The singer and guitarist, best known as a member of '60s pop-soul act the Box Tops and the '70s power-pop act Big Star, died today at a hospital in New Orleans. Chilton, 59, had been complaining of about his health earlier today. He was taken by paramedics to the emergency room where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death is believed to be a heart attack.

His Big Star bandmate Jody Stephens confirmed the news this evening. "Alex passed away a couple of hours ago," Stephens said from Austin, Texas, where the band was to play Saturday at the annual South By Southwest Festival. "I don’t have a lot of particulars, but they kind of suspect that it was a heart attack."

The Memphis-born Chilton rose to prominence at age 16, when his gruff vocals powered Box Tops massive hit “The Letter.” The band would score several more hits, including “Cry Like a Baby” and “Neon Rainbow.”

After the Box Tops ended in 1970, Chilton had a brief solo run in New York before returning to Memphis. He soon joined forces with a group of Anglo-pop-obsessed musicians, fellow songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, to form Big Star.

The group became the flagship act for the local Ardent Studios' new Stax-distributed label. Big Star’s 1972 debut album, #1 Record met with critical acclaim but poor sales. The group briefly disbanded, but reunited sans Bell to record the album Radio City. Released in 1974, the album suffered a similar fate, plagued by Stax’s distribution woes.

"I’m crushed. We’re all just crushed," said Ardent founder John Fry, who engineered most of the Big Star sessions. "This sudden death experience is never something that you’re prepared for. And yet it occurs."

The group made one more album, Third/Sister Lovers, with just Chilton and Stephens — and it too was a minor masterpiece. Darker and more complex than the band’s previous pop-oriented material, it remained unreleased for several years. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine would name all three Big Star albums to its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

In the mid-'70s Chilton began what would be a polarizing solo career, releasing several albums of material, like 1979’s Like Flies on Sherbet — a strange, chaotically recorded album of originals and obscure covers that divided fans and critics. Chilton also began performing with local roots-punk deconstructionists the Panther Burns.

In the early '80s, Chilton left Memphis for New Orleans, where he worked a variety of jobs and stopped performing for several years. But interest in his music from a new generation of alternative bands, including R.E.M. and the Replacements, brought him back to the stage in the mid-'80s.

He continued to record and tour as a solo act throughout the decade. Finally, in the early '90s, the underground cult based around Big Star had become so huge that the group was enticed to reunite with a reconfigured lineup.

"It’s obvious to anybody that listens to his live performances or his body of recorded work, his tremendous talent as a vocalist and songwriter and instrumentalist," Fry said.

"Beyond the musical talent, he was an interesting, articulate and extremely intelligent person," Fry added. "I don't think you’d ever have a conversation with him of any length that you didn’t learn something completely new."

The band, featuring original member Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, continued to perform regularly over the next 16 years. Big Star became the subject of various articles, books and CD reissue campaigns, including the release of widely hailed box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky, released last year by Rhino Records.

"When some people pass, you say it was the end of an era. In this case, it’s really true," said Memphis singer-songwriter Van Duren, a Chilton contemporary in the Memphis rock scene of the '70s.

The band was scheduled to launch the spring 2010 season at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park with a benefit concert on May 15.

Big Star had not played in Memphis since a 2003 Beale Street Music Festival appearance.

Chilton is survived by his wife, Laura, and a son Timothy.

Views: 147

Tags: Alex, Big, Box, Chilton, Star, Tops

Comment by Easy Ed on March 17, 2010 at 7:23pm
Comment by Easy Ed on March 17, 2010 at 7:26pm
Comment by Ron Frankl on March 17, 2010 at 7:33pm
A devastating loss. Few artists have shaped my musical life as much as Chilton. I'm just glad the Big Star box set brought deserved recognition for Alex in the last year of his life.
Comment by Easy Ed on March 17, 2010 at 7:33pm
Comment by Easy Ed on March 17, 2010 at 7:44pm
The Rolling Stone Interview from 2000:

Alex Chilton has been a significant music presence for over thirty years. Beginning in 1967, when he was a mere teenager, he fronted the Box Tops and scored major hits with "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby." Despite the act's success, a discontented Chilton dissolved the Memphis-based blue-eyed soul band prior to his twentieth birthday, storming offstage midway through a performance. The members have since reconciled and now play a handful of venues each year on the oldies circuit.

In the early-to-mid Seventies, Chilton presided over the seminal Anglo-pop band Big Star. While that outfit's three critically revered studio albums (#1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers) were publicly ignored upon release, Big Star would later garner an enormous cult following, influencing post-punk groups like R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub. Chilton's songwriting contributions from this era had such a profound effect on the Replacements' Paul Westerberg that he immortalized his hero in the 1987 college radio staple "Alex Chilton." Feeding the Big Star fever, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens took disciples Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (both of the Posies) on the road in 1993 to perform as Big Star.

Since 1975, Chilton has been releasing albums under his own moniker and on his own terms. With snarled early solo efforts like Bach's Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert, he appeared to be an artist unraveling, but by the mid-Eighties Chilton was earning praise for R&B-tinged efforts like Feudalist Tarts and High Priest. On his new album Set -- his first since 1995's blues-inflected A Man Called Destruction -- Chilton interprets gospel, country and jazz offerings with appropriate tact.

Why did you decide to do a covers album?

The French record label I've been dealing with for the last fifteen years kept asking, "When are you gonna do a new album for us, Alex?" So back around last winter I thought to myself, "I've got an idea that I think will work out," and it just sort of found a life of it's own. These were a bunch of tunes that my band and I had been performing live for a few years now, and we knew them really well.

You recorded the entire album in New York in just one night. Do you think there's a benefit to that sort of speedy approach?
Yeah [laughs]. If you can get up onstage and play twelve or thirteen songs in twenty-five minutes, what's the point in making it take longer? A lot of people like to put together music in a recording studio track by track, and that has a certain charm about it I suppose, but you'll never get the spontaneity of a live performance.

The European version of Set is titled Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy. Why the change?

The American label, Bar/None, thought it would be better to give it a more suitable title, whereas the French record company didn't mind a more controversial title. In fact, they probably preferred it.

What do you think of Cheap Trick's take on "In the Street" [used as the theme to the Fox-TV sitcom That 70's Show]?
I haven't heard it.

Really? Is it true that you only get $70 in royalties per airing?
Yeah. It's actually ironic that the amount is $70. To me it's "That $70 Show."

Do you think being a publicly recognized figure can be an inconvenience?

It's not like I'm a "big star" [laughs] constantly getting noticed, but I do get recognized. What's nice is that the people in my neighborhood just know me as Alex. It's funny, because I spent so much of my life moving from place to place and I went through a few dark periods, but in the last few years I've kind of settled down.

Do you have any plans to play again as Big Star?
I guess we don't have any plans. But I sure hope that we do it again. It was great the last time.

What does it feel like to go back onstage with the Box Tops and perform those hits again after thirty years?
When the band's good, it's fun. But it's sporadic sometimes. When it's sporadic you start to think about leaving it alone.

Was it difficult being a pop star at such a young age?

I don't really have anything to compare it to, because I've been performing in the public eye since I was sixteen. In fact, at the time I was failing the tenth grade and I was going to have to repeat my sophomore year in high school, but I got lucky and had a No. 1 hit that summer. So my mom and dad were like, "Why don't you go ahead and give this 'rock' thing a try?"

Your songs from the Big Star era have been covered so frequently, is there one particular interpretation that you're particularly fond of?
I remember hearing Garbage's version of "Thirteen" a few years back and thinking it was really good, but in general I don't think that there's any one that's all that great. But it can be flattering when someone does it right.

Have you been writing any new material recently?

Oh yeah. I've been writing for the past year -- not just songs and music but I've been keeping a journal and have written over 1500 pages in about ten months. It's great to write about people I know and to organize my thoughts.

Do you ever envision putting out your life story as a book?
I haven't really thought about it, but I suppose I might like to.

JOHN D. LUERSSEN
(February 28, 2000)
Comment by Easy Ed on March 17, 2010 at 8:02pm
"Cry Like A Baby"...the single was stuck in a plastic bag with about five others. They called it a "Mystery Bag" for 99 cents, and they were all promo 45's with a little tiny hole drilled in the label next to the big hole. I liked the song and I liked the Box Tops. Especially "The Letter". Saw the band on TV a few times but I'm not sure where. Could have been Lloyd Thaxton's Dance Party, American Bandstand, Shindig or Hullabaloo. I recall they wore suits of some sort but you know, maybe I'm wrong.

Flash forward about five years and I'm in college with a part time gig at a record distributor in Philly. A couple bucks an hour for stuffing records in envelopes and sending them out to radio stations in all the small towns between Wilmington and Scranton, Atlantic City and Harrisburg. Ardent was one the labels we represented and I'll never forget that first Big Star record. Still have it in the closet. The cover was shiny. Not just shiny...but it sparkled and shined like a mirror. Might have used it as such a time or two.

So a couple years ago the oldest kid had just turned fourteen and asks me if I have any Alex Chilton stuff. To be truthful...he asked if I had any Alex Chilton mp3's on my computer that I could share. I didn't so we went down to Amoeba in Hollywood and bought some stuff. Uploaded it and listened.

He was a generational artist. Not just a guy with a guitar who made a couple bucks here and there, but a man who leaves a huge legacy. My son was the first tonight to text me the news. We're watching his videos and listening to his music tonight. Thoughts are with his family and friends.
Comment by T Hanssen on March 17, 2010 at 10:00pm
Thanks for posting all this stuff. That picture at the top is great.

I took all my Chilton solo, Big Star and Box Tops and have been playing non-stop all night.

R.I.P. Mr. Chilton.
Comment by hyperbolium.com on March 17, 2010 at 10:10pm
I saw Mr. Chilton perform several times, with Big Star, solo and with a reunited Box Tops. The latter, at a local festival, may have been my favorite. After the show I got to ask him what brought him to the Tracy Dry Bean Festival and he said "I'd play the chamber of commerce if they paid me." It was perfectly funny and snarky and honest all at once. I always thought of him more as a legend and superhero than as an actual person, and though his passing cements the legacy, it also brings into focus the reality of his humanity.
Comment by Kyla Fairchild on March 18, 2010 at 12:18am
Feudalist Tart is one of my favorite Alex Chilton solo albums. Also spent many hours with Big Star and less so with the Box Tops but some time there too. Very sad indeed. I had hoped to see Big Star here at SXSW.
Comment by Dennis Darrow on March 18, 2010 at 4:40am
he was as influential on generations of guitar pop bands as there was. with contemps like the flaming groovies,ny dolls and the kinks, they influenced as many bands as the beatles ,beach boys references often quoted by critics.its like a part of our youth is gone forever.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.