Singer/songwriter Alex Chilton, a Memphis music legend, passed away in New Orleans this week of a heart attack at the age of 59.
Alex Chilton may not be a familiar name to you, but his music career spanned more than 40 years and he left his mark on countless other musicians. His father Sidney Chilton was a jazz musician, so music was in his blood. Chilton joined the band The Devilles as a teen in 1966. The band was soon renamed the Box Tops and when Chilton was only 16 years old, they had a number one hit with “The Letter.”
Chilton would stay with the Box Tops and have several more hits until 1970 when they disbanded. Chilton began his solo career, but also formed Bit Star with Chris Bell in 1971. The first album, “Radio City,” released on Stax Records, was praised by the critics. One of band’s songs, “In the Street,” which Chilton and Bell co-wrote, was used as the opening theme to “That ‘70s Show.”
Through the rest of the ‘70s, Chilton continued to release albums with Big Star, while also doing solo records, such as 1975’s Bach’s Bottom. Financial problems at Stax delayed the release of the band’s third album, which hurt the band’s sales and momentum. Still, all three of Big Star’s albums are listed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In 1977, he worked Alex Chilton and the Cossacks in New York City. It was around this time that Chilton grew further from pop rock and more into indie music.
Chilton moved to New Orleans in the early ‘80s and toured with Panther Burns, but he also stopped performing for a while, instead working odd jobs around town. Chilton’s music was rediscovered in the mid-‘80s by a whole new generation of musicians including R.E.M., Wilco, the Bangles, and the Replacements.
In the early ‘90s, remaining members of Big Star, including Chilton, got back together. The band continued to perform and released several CDs. They was set to play Austin’s SXSW Music Festival this week when the news of Chilton’s death shocked many. Instead, the set turned into a tribute to Chilton, performed by guest musicians including Chuck Prophet, Chris Stamey, the Watson Twins, and original Big Star member Andy Hummel.
Chilton was even remembered in Congress last Thursday by Steve Cohen, a democrat from Tennessee. Cohen opened his remarks with a quote from “The Letter” then said, “He [Chilton] is an embodiment of Memphis music: hard, different, independent, beautiful. We’re lucky he came our way.”
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