Alex Chilton, the mercurial leader of the Box Tops and Big Star who burst from the Memphis music scene in 1967 singing “The Letter” in the smoke-gravel voice of a grizzled soul man even though he was just 16 at the time, has died. He was 59.
Chilton was pronounced dead in the emergency room of a New Orleans hospital Wednesday after complaining of shortness of breath and chest pains, longtime friend Pat Rainer said Thursday. The cause of death has not been determined, but Rainer said Chilton’s wife, Laura Kerstin, said he appeared to have suffered a heart attack.
Chilton died just as many of his musical disciples in the alternative-rock world that Big Star’s relentlessly tuneful and uncompromising guitar rock helped inspire were gathering in Austin, Texas, for the annual South By Southwest Music Conference.
Big Star was scheduled to play a reunion performance Saturday. John Fry, owner of the Ardent Studio in Memphis where Chilton recorded with the Box Tops and Big Star, said Thursday that the other band members had decided to proceed with the show as a tribute to Chilton.
“You can’t throw a rock at South By Southwest,” Fry said, “without hitting someone who was influenced by Big Star.”
The conference’s creative director, Brent Grulke, said in a statement, “Alex Chilton always messed with your head, charming and amazing you while doing so. His gift for melody was second to none, yet he frequently seemed in disdain of that gift. He seemed as troubled by neglect as he did by fame. . . .
“It was impossible to know what he was thinking,” Grulke’s statement continued. “But it was always worth pondering, because that’s what a truly great artist makes us do. And make no mistake: Alex Chilton was an artist of the very highest caliber.”
In fact, Chilton was immortalized in a song named after him by the Replacements, the Minneapolis band from the ‘80s and ‘90s that was one of countless Big Star descendants.
“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round,” the Replacements’ lead singer and songwriter, Paul Westerberg, sang, imagining how much better the world might have been had those millions actually heard Chilton’s music.
That, however, was a bit of willful rock ‘n’ roll wish fulfillment. Originally, Big Star’s fans numbered not in the millions, but hundreds, perhaps thousands. Like the Velvet Underground, Big Star’s influence developed well after the band no longer existed, influencing acts from R.E.M. and the Posies to the Bangles and Teenage Fanclub.
Eventually, millions did hear at least one Big Star song, “In the Street,” used as the theme song for the Fox TV comedy series “That ‘70s Show.”
Its cult status grew past the point that Chilton himself thought was reasonable.
“There are only three or four of the tunes, like ‘In the Street’ and ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me,’ that still work for me,” Chilton said in 1995. “I think in general Big Star is overrated.”
William Alexander Chilton was born in Memphis on Dec. 28, 1950, one of four children of Sidney and Mary Chilton. Sidney Chilton was a jazz trumpeter and Mary was a classically trained musician who immersed their children in music, both recorded and live, often hosting jam sessions at home.
That set the stage for Alex to become a habitué early on of Memphis’ many recording studios, where he soaked up the sounds of blues, R&B, soul, rock and gospel musicians working there.
After performing in a talent show at Central High School, Chilton was drafted for the Box Tops and coached by producer Dan Penn toward the gritty, soulful vocal style that turned their recording of Wayne Thompson’s song “The Letter” into a nationwide hit that spent four weeks at No. 1, when Chilton was still 16.
“Cry Like a Baby” reached No. 2 the next year, and the Box Tops charted eight other songs in the Top 100 before the group disbanded out of frustration over not being able to record the band’s own material.
Early on, Chilton once complained, producers “kicked our little band out of the studio and brought in all the session players.”
Not long after the demise of the Box Tops, Chilton fell in with guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens and formed Big Star, in which Chilton became an “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” as the Replacements’ song put it.
That group tapped the melodic invention and rich vocal harmonies of such ‘60s groups as the Beatles and the Byrds -- Chilton’s voice often reminiscent of Byrds’ lead singer Roger McGuinn -- in songs of romantic disillusionment and frustration.
The downcast tone of many flew in the face of the reassuring folk rock of James Taylor and Carole King that ruled the charts in those days as the masses sought emotional salve during the fractious days of the Vietnam War.
“Big Star is like a vulnerable Beatles,” Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz once said. “They sing about all those dreams that you had when you were young that got broken. I’m not sure people were ready for that music back then. It was very confused and vulnerable music, and it was great.”
Big Star also had the misfortune of depending on the venerated Stax label to distribute its recordings. Stax was undergoing financial difficulties at the time and declared bankruptcy before the third of Big Star’s albums was released.
Consequently, none of those albums -- "#1 Record,” “Radio City” and “3rd/Sister Lovers” -- ever cracked the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. That was partially responsible for sending Chilton into a psychological tailspin, and he spent the next decade in a haze of alcohol and drugs.
“I certainly regret wasting 10 years drinking and drugging,” he told the Boston Globe in 1994, “but I didn’t know what else to do.” He quit music entirely for a time, and worked at odd jobs including as a tree trimmer for a Louisiana power company.
Still, the influence of what he’d done with Big Star was felt in the bedrooms and garages of aspiring musicians around the country, to the extent that Rolling Stone magazine once proclaimed, “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star.”
Chilton himself continued to record sporadically, issuing a series of inconsistent solo albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1994, he returned to Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where both the Box Tops and Big Star had recorded, and made a new album mostly of pre-rock tunes he’d grown up with, titled “Clichés,” and followed with the next year with “A Man Called Destruction.”
To Chilton, the up and down life path was preferable to sacrificing his musical vision.
“I’d be happier doing anything in this world -- delivering papers, I don’t care -- than if in 1971 I’d tried to sound like then-popular bands Ten Years After or Led Zeppelin,” he said several years ago.
“I’ve always done what I wanted to do or what I thought was best for any given moment, but it was never what people expected or thought they wanted,” Chilton said. “Staying true to your own vision is the only thing I can do. It’s hard to say in general about career moves, but I’m kind of happy where I ended up.”
In addition to his wife, Chilton is survived by a son, Timothee, from his first marriage; and a sister, Cecelia.