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Alex Chilton: An Appreciation

March 18, 2010

by Clark Collis of Entertainment’s Music Mix

With the passing of singer-songwriter Alex Chilton, rock music has lost one of its great cult figures and touchstones of influence. Chilton, who died at the age of 59 in New Orleans on Wednesday from what appears to have been a heart problem, achieved teen stardom in the ’60s with the Box Tops. Then, in the following decade, he played with Big Star, whose track “In The Street” would ultimately become famous as the theme song for That ’70s Show. But Chilton’s limited commercial success offers no indication as to his influence on rock. He was a musical figure—like Nick Drake or Gram Parsons—whose importance lay not with his chart placings, but in the place his music found in the record collections of subsequent generations of stars.

At the start of his career, Chilton had a string of pop-soul hits with the Box Tops, including 1967’s chart-topping “The Letter” and the following year’s “Cry Like a Baby.” But in 1970, Chilton disbanded the group and joined the then nascent Big Star. The latter power pop outfit is regarded in many quarters as one of the greatest rock acts of all time, thanks in large part to Chilton’s skilled songwriting. Unfortunately, there is little doubt it was also one of the more luckless and, during its brief lifetime, underappreciated.

Big Star’s debut album, #1 Record, was well reviewed—and featured the beautiful, heartbreaking ballad, “Thirteen,” which you can hear below—but its release was poorly managed by the band’s label. A second album, Radio City, also failed to break through, while Big Star’s third collection, which was produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson, was initially regarded as too uncommercial to be released at all (it would finally be issued to stores in 1978 under the title Third/Sister Lovers). In 1974, Big Star broke up.

The mercurial Chilton would continue to perform and record over the next 35 years, and his 1987 album, High Priest, is just one of several releases worth checking out. However, it was the three Big Star albums that rippled through the collective rock consciousness and whose influence was acknowledged by countless bands, from R.E.M. to Wilco to Britain’s Teenage Fanclub. The Replacements even included a song called “Alex Chilton” on their 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me. “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round,” claimed the Minneapolis rockers, “They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?/I’m in love with that song.’”

Clark Collis also reports that, according to Chilton’s good friend and bandmate Jody Stephens, Saturday’s Big Star show @ SXSW will go ahead in some form or other.  “We still plan to play but we will turn it into a musical way of honoring Alex,” he said. “And that, to me. is the important thing. I had this great sibling feel with Alex. It’s not like we talked a lot, but we had this wonderful connection onstage.”

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