18 March 2010

Tribute (In Memoriam): Alex Chilton

Children by the millions
Sing for Alex Chilton
When he comes 'round
They sing: "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."
---The Replacements, "Alex Chilton"

Alex Chilton, the man with the blue-eyed soul voice that hit the charts several times as a teen-age singer with The Box Tops and influenced countless indie artists via his work with Big Star, has died of a heart attack in New Orleans, Louisiana at the age of 59.

Chilton, born in music rich Memphis, Tennessee, rose to prominence as the weathered voice of The Box Tops, who hit the charts with a string of hits, including "The Letter," "Cry Like A Baby," "Soul Deep" and "Neon Rainbow." He was only 16 at the time.

After The Box Tops broke up in 1970, Chilton performed solo for a couple of years, learning to play guitar in the process. He then joined forces with a trio of musicians and formed the group Big Star. The three albums produced in the 1970s - #1 Record; Radio City; and Third/Sister Lovers - were all critically acclaimed but failed commercially, in part because their record distributor, Memphis' once mighty Stax, had fallen on financial hard times.

Chilton then began a polarizing solo career and eventually moved to New Orleans. At one point in the 1980s he worked a variety of jobs and stopped playing music publicly.

With the advent of the "alternative" movement in that decade, bands like Athens, Georgia's R.E.M. and Minneapolis' The Replacements started citing the influence of Chilton, particularly his work with Big Star. "It's a fork in the road that a lot of different bands stemmed from," Jeff Powell, a respected Memphis producer who worked on some of Chilton's records told The Commercial Appeal . "If you're drawing a family tree of American music, they're definitely a branch."

The cult of Big Star moved a little into the mainstream at the turn of the century. A reconfigured line-up toured throughout the decade. That 70's Show used the band's "In The Street" as its theme song. Rolling Stone named all three of the Big Star albums referenced above to its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And in September 2009, the box set Keep An Eye On The Sky was released by Rhino Records to critical acclaim.

Big Star had been scheduled to play Austin's SXSW Festival this Saturday.

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