Friday, 19 March 2010

Alex Chilton RIP

Photo from
Memphis music loses ‘Big Star’ — singer, songwriter Alex Chilton dies at 59
By Jody Callahan, Bob Mehr

Originally published 07:31 p.m., March 17, 2010

Alex Chilton, the pop hitmaker, cult icon and Memphis rock iconoclast best known as a member of 1960s pop-soul act the Box Tops and the 1970s power-pop act Big Star, died Wednesday at a hospital in New Orleans.

The singer, songwriter and guitarist was 59.

"I'm crushed. We're all just crushed," said John Fry, owner of Memphis' Ardent Studios and a longtime friend of Chilton's. "This sudden death experience is never something that you're prepared for. And yet it occurs."

Chilton had been complaining about his health earlier Wednesday, Fry said. He was taken by paramedics from his home to the emergency room but could not be revived.

Chilton and Big Star had been scheduled to play Saturday as part of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The band was also scheduled to play at the Levitt Shell in Memphis on May 15. It's unknown what will happen to those shows.

The Memphis-born Chilton rose to prominence at age 16 when his gruff vocals powered the massive Box Tops hit "The Letter," as well as "Cry Like a Baby" and "Neon Rainbow."

After the Box Tops broke up 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 Ardent's Stax-distributed label. Big Star's 1972 debut album, #1 Record, met with critical acclaim but poor sales.

The group briefly disbanded, but reunited without Bell to record the album Radio City. Released in 1974, the second album suffered a similar fate, plagued by Stax's distribution woes.

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 named all three Big Star albums to its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

"It's a fork in the road that a lot of different bands stemmed from," said Jeff Powell, a respected local producer who worked on some of Chilton's records. "If you're drawing a family tree of American music, they're definitely a branch."

In the mid-'70s, Chilton began what would be a polarizing solo career, releasing several albums of material, including 1979's Like Flies on Sherbet -- a strange, chaotically recorded mix 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 the Replacements and R.E.M., 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.

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 September 2009 release of the widely hailed box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky.

"I played with Alex for eight or 10 years regularly, and he was one of the best musicians I ever knew," said Doug Garrison. "That's what really locked the first time I played with him, this feel on the guitar. He just played flawlessly. He had a limited technique, but he did what he did really well."

Chilton was often described as "mercurial," but those who knew him well described a man with a keen sense of humor, a tremendous musician and a generous friend.

"He was the only person on a record I've ever worked with where you'd come up with a horn arrangement, and he'd say, 'Look, I'm going to make you guys a co-writer on the song now,'" said Jim Spake, who played sax on the most recent Big Star record.

Chilton is survived by his wife, Laura, a son, Timothy, and a sister, Cecilia.

"When some people pass, you say it was the end of an era. In this case, it's really true," said Van Duren, a fellow Memphis musician who knew Chilton for decades. "It puts an end to the Big Star thing, and that's a very sad thing."

-- Bob Mehr: 529-2517

-- Jody Callahan: 529-6531

Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

— Born December 28, 1950, in Memphis

— Was the lead singer for the Box Tops in the 1960s; recorded "The Letter," which hit No. 1 on the pop charts

— Formed Big Star in 1971 with guitarist/singer Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens

— Big Star put out two albums -- #1 Record and Radio City

— Group broke up in 1975 while working on a third album, which was eventually released overseas called Third/Sister Lovers

— Moved to New Orleans in early 1980s and released some solo albums on Ardent label

— Reunited with Big Star in the mid-1990s

— Rhino Records released a four-disc, 98-song retrospective in September 2009 called Keep an Eye on the Sky

— Band had been scheduled to launch the spring 2010 season at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park with a benefit concert on May 15

What they're saying

“I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, because I heard he just got married. I’d been thinking about stopping by, but I just didn’t have time. I certainly didn’t think I needed to hurry and do that.”

— Doug Garrison, a member of Chilton’s band from 1984-92

“He graciously said, ‘Man, I want to make you a co-producer and give you a point on the record. That’s unbelievable. That’s never happened before.”

— Jeff Powell, who engineered and mixed some of Chilton’s records

“He changed music. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just true.”

— Steve McGehee, former owner of the legendary Antenna club

“(He was) really talented in ways you might not expect. I remember sitting at Ardent with him one time, when I was auditioning with him as a fourth member of Big Star. I remember him sitting down at a piano, and just playing ragtime piano for about 10 minutes just flawlessly.”

— Memphis musician Van Duren

“He was a little quirky maybe. He didn’t care what people thought. He just did his thing.”

— Saxophonist Jim Spake, who played on several Chilton records

“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.”

— John Fry, owner of Ardent Studios

"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,"

— Brent Gulke, creative director of South by Southwest music festival in Austin.

1 comment:

  1. fantastic post!!
    love the blog,
    enjoy ya Fridays boys!!