Alex Chilton: Singer and guitarist with the power-pop pioneers Big Star
Monday 22 March 2010
The Memphis-born singer and guitarist Alex Chilton disproved the theory that there are no second acts in popular music. As a teenager with a raspy voice that belied his years, he fronted the 1960s blue-eyed soul group The Boxtops and scored worldwide hits with "The Letter", "Cry Like A Baby" and "Soul Deep". In the early '70s he formed Big Star, who distilled the British-invasion sound of The Beatles and the Byrds' jingle-jangle, and invented the power pop genre.
"I really loved the mid-'60s British pop music, all two and a half minutes or three minutes long, really appealing songs. So I've always aspired to that same format, that's what I like," said Chilton, whose gorgeous paean to "September Gurls", later covered by The Bangles, was rated by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Top 500 songs of all time.
The first incarnation of Big Star only issued two studio albums, No 1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), but they became the ultimate cult band and influenced much of what subsequently happened on the alternative scene in the US and around the world – the likes of R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Counting Crows and The Hold Steady. In 1987 The Replacements even recorded an homage simply called "Alex Chilton", which became a college radio favourite and is now playable on Rock Band 2.
Chilton made several solo albums, including the wonderfully-ragged Like Flies On Sherbert (1979), and produced The Cramps' first two singles and their 1980 debut album, Songs The Lord Taught Us, as well as the equally demented Tav Falco's Panther Burns, with whom he toured in the early '80s. In 1993, Chilton and drummer and fellow founder-member Jody Stephens reactivated Big Star with the help of guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. The power-pop pioneers made their London debut at the Grand in Clapham, released Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, and a new studio album, In Space (2005), and became regular visitors to British shores. Their last UK appearance was at London's Hyde Park in July 2009, a couple of months before catalogue specialists Rhino released the exhaustive four-CD box-set Keep An Eye On The Sky.
Born in 1950, Chilton was the son of a jazz musician and began playing guitar at the age of 13. As a teenager, he loved rhythm 'n' blues, and in particular the music coming out of the local Stax label, as much as the Fab Four and other British Invasion groups. In 1966 he joined The Devilles, a five-piece who were soon renamed The Box Tops and began recording at Chips Moman's American Sound studio under the guidance of producer Dan Penn. They spent most of a Saturday doing more than 30 takes of the Wayne Carson Thompson composition "The Letter". Penn taught Chilton to "say aer-o-plane" and told him to "get a little gruff", then enhanced the track with the sound of a plane taking off, and a strings and horns arrangement by Mike Leach, thus creating one of the most memorable singles of 1967. Leased to Bell Records, "The Letter" topped the American charts and has been covered by dozens of acts, most famously Joe Cocker, who made the US Top Ten with it in 1970.
Over the next three years, The Box Tops scored an impressive run of US hits, including "Neon Rainbow" and "Soul Deep" – two more Carson compositions – as well as "Cry Like A Baby", written by Penn and his regular collaborator Spooner Oldham, and "Choo Choo Train", "I Met Her In Church" and "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March". However, even if The Box Tops played live as a band, Penn and Moman, who took over production duties in late 1968, often employed session musicians such as the guitarists Reggie Young and Bobby Womack, with Chilton's amazingly soulful voice the only constant.
Chilton grew increasingly frustrated and effectively ended The Box Tops when he left in February 1970, though Bell milked their catalogue for another year. After a spell in New York, during which he turned down the opportunity to replace David Clayton Thomas in Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chilton returned to Memphis in 1971. He toyed with the idea of forming an acoustic duo with his friend, the guitarist and songwriter Chris Bell. Instead, Bell suggested they recruit Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel from his own group Ice Water, and they became Big Star. Recorded at Ardent Studios, No 1 Record included the much-covered melancholy ballad "Thirteen", co-written by Chilton and Bell, and received rave reviews.
Unfortunately, the expertise of Stax, its distributor, lay in marketing soul music rather than the blueprint for what was yet to be called power pop, and the album had little impact. Bell left and Big Star soldiered on and made the equally wonderful Radio City as a three-piece. When this also sank without trace they disbanded, though the darker album Chilton subsequently recorded with another Memphis legend, producer Jim Dickinson, was credited to Big Star on its much-delayed release as Third/Sister Lovers in 1978.
By then, Chilton had headed back to New York and fallen in with the punk crowd at CBGB's. He also became addicted to heroin, though he managed to keep touring and recording, and eventually kicked the drug. In the 1980s he moved to New Orleans, where he took a succession of odd jobs before resuming his career in music. In 1987, he played guitar on "Can't Hardly Wait", one of the singles from The Replacements' album Pleased To Meet Me, which also contained the irresistible "Alex Chilton". Two years later he participated in the first of several Box Tops reunions, though he always spent more time on Big Star and his solo projects. In 2000, Cheap Trick, another group inspired by Big Star, recorded the Chilton-Bell song "In The Street" for the sitcom That 70s Show.
"I've been performing in the public eye since I was 16," Chilton said. "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?' I guess that my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that I'll ever have. I've been paid for some things that were real successful, for no good reasons. And I've not been paid for things that weren't so successful, for a lot of good reasons. You can't live your life being upset about things."
Chilton died of a suspected heart attack three days before Big Star were due to play at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. Stephens and associates intended to perform as a tribute to him on Saturday night.
William Alexander Chilton, singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer: born Memphis, Tennessee 28 December 1950; twice married (one son); died New Orleans, Louisiana 17 March 2010.
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