By Greg Kot
Paul Westerberg and the Replacements spoke for countless artists and diehard fans when they wrote a song called “Alex Chilton“ in 1987.
“Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round/They sing, ’I’m in love, what’s that song?/ I’m in love with that song.’“
Chilton, who died Wednesday in New Orleans of a heart attack at age 59, was a cult artist for most of his career, better known for the bands and artists he inspired, including R.E.M., Wilco, Jeff Buckley and the Replacements, than his own music. Yet his legacy endures, most especially the three studio albums he recorded with his group Big Star in Memphis during the ’70s. Big Star was a group ahead of its time, its merger of British Invasion-style guitar melody and Southern soul a template for what would become known as “power pop.” But it was virtually unheard in its time; the third Big Star album, “Sister Lovers,” was released long after Chilton had walked away from the group utterly discouraged by its lack of success.
Yet Big Star’s music only grew in stature as the decades passed, and songs such as “September Gurls” and “In the Street” were covered by numerous artists. The band’s music was recently repackaged in a lavish box set, and was to be the subject of a major panel at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, followed by a concert in which original members Chilton and Jody Stephens were scheduled to perform.
From the start, Chilton cut a contrary figure, charting an artistic course that indulged deeply personal idiosyncrasies rather than courting universal appeal. This was apparent the moment the 16-year-old Chilton first stepped inside a Memphis recording studio in 1966 for a rehearsal with his first major band, the Box Tops.
He was wearing jeans with holes torn in the knees, a black T-shirt and a woolen scarf tossed Dylan-style around his neck. The studio regulars, in their dress shirts and penny loafers, were appalled. But when Chilton re-entered that same studio a few weeks later for his first recording session, he would emerge with a hit: His impossibly soulful reading of Wayne Thompson’s “The Letter” became one of the biggest singles of 1967, the first of seven top 40 hits for the Box Tops, and the beginning of what would become one of the most brilliant, enigmatic and maddening careers in rock history.
Chilton would walk away from the Box Tops, disgusted by record-company machinations that would bedevil him the rest of his career. He joined the brilliant songwriter Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens in Big Star, only to be disappointed again, this time by the public’s indifference.
Glimpses of Chilton’s fractured brilliance continued to poke through as he pursued a solo career; the haphazard, frazzled energy of the “Like Flies on Sherbert” album captured the tenor of the late ’70s more effectively than dozens of better-known punk records, and Chilton also made his mark as a producer, working on the early records of the notorious psychobilly band the Cramps.
It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that Chilton returned to making records, and his music took another turn; it was more relaxed and bluesy, about evenly split between covers and original songs, with a generally lighter feel than much of his crucial ’70s work. He reunited with Stephens to record a new Big Star album in 2005, but otherwise confined himself to live performing.
In a 1995 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Chilton claimed that Big Star’s music meant little to him. “In general, I think it’s overrated,” he said. “There are only a few songs that I can stand to play anymore.”
That comment was typical of Chilton in its contrariness. His solo career was marked by inconsistency, and sporadic reunions with Big Star and the Box Tops.
“He’s been popular, his music is pervasive, and yet he’s virtually unknown,” Memphis music journalist Robert Gordon once told the Tribune. “He’s a magnificent obscurity.”
THE BEST OF ALEX CHILTON ON RECORD:
—Box Tops, “The Best of the Box Tops: Soul Deep” (1996): The teenage Chilton sang some of the more memorable blue-eyed soul of the 1960s, including hits such as “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby” and “Soul Deep.”
—Big Star, “No. 1 Record” (1972): Pristine power-pop with Chilton and Chris Bell trading songs like Memphis’ answer to Lennon and McCartney.
—Big Star, “Radio City” (1974): With Bell out of the group, Chilton brings a grittier, soul-fired edge to the trio’s unerring melodies.
—Big Star, “Sister Lovers” (1978): Cobbled together after Big Star broke up, the group’s final studio recording is a dark-night-of-the-soul classic, far different in tone than its predecessors.
—“Like Flies on Sherbert,” (1979): Slapdash yet weirdly inspired, Chilton’s solo debut became an unlikely punk touchstone.