Music News

Happy Birthday -- and RIP -- Alex Chilton!

William Alexander Chilton, otherwise known simply as Alex Chilton, was born December 28, 1950, and died unexpectedly on March 17, 2010, only a few days prior to a scheduled appearance at SXSW. Although he wasn't always appreciated or even recognized by the masses, he became one of the seminal figures in the burgeoning American underground.

Chilton was an independent-thinking musician who helped create the power-pop movement early on. His dad was a jazz musician, but Chilton attained his own success at the tender age of 16 when he helmed the Box Tops, originally a teeny-bopper band but one whose hit "The Letter" became an enduring standard. In the early '70s, Chilton went on to form Big Star with Chris Bell and Andy Hummel, establishing a gold standard for power pop that remains intact until this day. 

Likewise, Chilton's eclectic solo career and later associations with the likes of the Cramps and Panther Burns helped define an insurgent stance and further added to his legend. A new disc, Free Again: The 1970 Sessions, offers a look at his seminal solo recordings.

Consequently, there are plenty of reasons to heap appreciation on Chilton for his various creative contributions. Consider them part and parcel of Chilton's charms.

1) The Box Tops loaded up the Top 40 with a number of worthy hits -- "Neon Rainbow," "Cry Like a Baby," "Soul Deep," and the aforementioned "The Letter" among them. They also, however, proffered one of the first songs to praise prostitutes, in the 1969 track "Sweet Cream Ladies."

Sadly, it didn't get its due, getting overshadowed by the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," which was released around the same time. One would think there would be more room on the charts for tunes that hailed hookers.

2) Big Star brought rock back to its birthplace in Memphis. Producer Sam Phillips and Sun Studios had established an early musical template with Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, but Memphis rock 'n' roll was later overshadowed by the ever-present blues scene and the emerging soul sound of Stax Records.

It took another resident record label, Ardent Records, to bring back rock with the two original Big Star recordings, #1 Record and Radio City. A third Big Star album was reissued on the label after the fact, as was one of Chilton's first solo efforts. Likewise, the Big Star songs "Mod Lang," "The Ballad of el Goodo," and "O My Soul" remain classics of the retro-rock/power-pop genre.

3) Speaking of memorable songs, Big Star's song "In the Street" served as the opening theme song for That '70's Show.

4) If it weren't for Chilton, there wouldn't have been the song "Alex Chilton" as recorded by the Replacements on their 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me. Chilton contributed to that album, playing guitar on the song "Can't Hardly Wait."

5) Big Star was a huge influence on vast numbers of retro rockers that followed in its wake, among them R.E.M., the dBs, and the Posies. Years later, when Chilton opted to re-form Big Star in the mid-'90s, members of the original lineup were augmented by Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.

6) Likewise, Chilton's ramshackle solo efforts -- Flies on Sherbert, Bach's Bottom,Cliché, High Priest, and Feudalist Tarts -- more or less vindicated Syd Barrett's output after he left Pink Floyd. Both artists offered the promise of hitting their former heights but left their fans bewildered instead. In retrospect, both Chilton and Barrett have gained greater appreciation.

One final note: I had the opportunity to see Big Star in concert in 1969. My most lingering impression was that Chilton performed in a T-shirt and jeans. He was a precursor to the punks -- no fancy stage garb for that guy.

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Lee Zimmerman