Alex Chilton: An appreciation

Alex-ChiltonImage Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty ImagesWith 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.'”

Chilton himself may now be sadly gone. But I suspect many more will fall in love with his songs in the years to come. Please feel free to leave your own thoughts on the great man’s passing below.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

More from EW.com’s Music Mix:
Alex Chilton: Paul Westerberg, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and others pay tribute
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony: Eyewitness report
The Lonely Island and Julian Casablancas’ “Boombox” comes to SNL (finally!)
The Specials: Terry Hall and Lynval Golding on the ska-rock legends’ reunion shows—and why their absent keyboard player is a ‘Scrooge’


Comments (53 total) Add your comment
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  • Laura

    I listened to “Alex Chilton” last night and Big Star this morning. Great stuff.

  • side3

    This is a huge loss. Anyone who loves Beatlesque rock needs to seek out those Big Star albums. They are fantastic. He was slated to play a show at SXSW this Saturday on a bill with another power pop legend, Dwight Twilley.

  • Kris Purzycki

    Chilton nailed angst, longing and struggle like no one else has since and his humble honesty will surely be a refreshing voice long after his passing.

  • thatfootisme

    I cry like a baby.

    • Andy

      Absolutely… I don’t think I’ve been shaken by a musician’s death in a long, long time. For skinny, nerdy pop fans, this is like losing Elvis or Otis Redding(the memphis connection….

      • thatfootisme

        Last rock star death to make me feel this sad was Syd Barrett.

  • lorcastarsailor

    I can’t believe it…one of my biggest heroes is gone.
    It’s just unreal to me.
    I will be mourning this musical loss for some time to come.

  • Tom Cornell

    I am shaken by the loss.

  • Tuba Guy

    I haven’t seen Alex since the 1980’s (I was driving a 1985 Subaru), but I feel sad an old friend is gone. I hope his friends and family are comfroted that so many people were influenced positively by Alex’s musicianship.

  • mpowell

    Very sad indeed to lose someone so young whose influence is so great.

  • T.W

    September Gurl’s is one of the best pop songs I have ever heard.
    A 36 year old tune should not sound so fresh and immediate and to me it represents ground zero for the power pop movement.
    RIP Alex.

    • DennisK

      T.W, you zeroed in on my #1 Big Star song. When I saw the news, I actually gasped out loud, “Oh, no.” There aren’t many people whose death would make me do that. Chilton will always be a musician’s musician and will continue to influence music for decades to come. I can’t believe how sad I am.

  • back of a car

    I love Big Star. I love the autumnal feeling I have when I listen to their records. None of that would have been possible without Alex Chilton’s sweet, cracked and yearning voice. They were a flash of ramshackle beauty in a moribund musical period.

    • mpberry

      Beautifully stated.

  • La Donna

    The only time I would remember
    Alex for is when he was the lead
    singer for the Box Tops. R.I.P.
    Mr. Chilton

  • Nate

    I’ll write you a letter tomorrow tonight I can’t hold a pen…

    Great stuff. Sad loss.

  • La Donna

    The only time I would remember
    Alex for is when he fronted his
    band, The Box Tops. May God rest
    his soul.

    • AF

      But you should also remember Alex for co-founding (with the late Chris Bell who also deserves some credit) and fronting Big Star which has been far more influential and far-reaching than the Box Tops.

  • smackedass

    Michael Jackson’s death is a media mega-event, and when Alex goes, only a handfull of us even know. What is wrong with this world (nothing wrong with MJ)? I don’t know what to say, words don’twork.

    • ditto

      You make a good point.How about when Mother Theresa died a day or so after Princess Diana? Media mega event? Yup. That told me all needed to know about conventional values.

      • Louis Cyphre

        Mother Theresa was a truly evil person, a fraud, a liar, a megalomaniac, a crook, etc.

        She promoted suffering on earth as a means to heaven.

        But the last 2 popes have been wretched human beings as well.

        On the topic, I was saddened by Alex’s passing. I listen to Big Star and his solo stuff a lot, the 3 Big Star albums are unarguably all-time classics as is Like Flies.

    • mpberry

      Alex is a cult hero. Mainstream success wasn’t in the cards, but I kind of love that about him. He’s better suited to a small intimate sendoff I think.

  • Robinson Treacher

    I am blown away today…a songwriter of his calibre and uniqueness will be difficult to find…nor should we try to. He is an American original!!!

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