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.