Alex Chilton, Big Star Frontman, Dead At 59

Influential rock musician was scheduled to play at SXSW this week.

Cult rock icon Alex Chilton, leader of the influential 1970s power-pop band [artist id="316"]Big Star[/artist], died on Wednesday in a New Orleans hospital at age 59.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Chilton, who was also a member of the 1960s pop-soul group the Box Tops (“The Letter”), had been complaining about feeling unwell earlier in the day and was taken by paramedics to an emergency room, where doctors could not revive him after he suffered a suspected heart attack.

“I’m crushed. We’re all just crushed,” said John Fry, a longtime friend of Chilton’s and owner of Memphis’ Ardent Studios, the legendary recording studio whose label, Ardent Records, released the first two Big Star albums. “This sudden death experience is never something that you’re prepared for. And yet it occurs.”

Chilton’s death came just days before Big Star was scheduled to play a showcase at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

Born on December 28, 1950, in Memphis, Chilton was a musical prodigy, joining the Box Tops at age 16 in 1966. That same year, the band had a #1 hit with the grooving pop soul song “The Letter.”

It was a rare commercial high point for an artist whose chiming guitar-playing and lush, layered arrangements would influence a generation of rock bands, including R.E.M., Wilco, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Primal Scream and the Posies, whose Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow were instrumental in reforming Big Star in 1993. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck famously said, “We’ve sort of flirted with greatness, but we’ve yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star’s Third.

Chilton first formed Big Star in 1971 after the dissolution of the Box Tops, recruiting childhood friend Chris Bell to play guitar along with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. Their debut album, 1972′s #1 Record, was released on Ardent, but failed to reach a wide audience due to distribution problems. But like the Velvet Underground, the influence of Big Star’s early work grew legendary over time, with the lush harmonies and British Invasion-style arrangements drawing raves in the decades since.

One of the songs from that first album, the jangly “In the Street,” later became the theme song to the Ashton Kutcher sitcom “That ’70s Show,” re-recorded by fellow power-pop legends Cheap Trick. Bell left the group in 1973, and the remaining trio returned to the studio in 1974 to track their second effort, Radio City, which suffered from similar distribution problems and faded quickly as well. A distraught Chilton tried to keep the band going by cutting a third album, Third/Sister Lovers, which featured only Stephens and was considered so uncommercial, due to its dark themes and layering of synthesizers and strings, that it wasn’t officially released until four years later.

Big Star broke up in 1975, and Chilton moved back to New York to work as a solo artist, ingratiating himself with the punk scene around CBGB’s before returning to Memphis in the early 1980s and recording and playing occasionally with the avant-punk band Panther Burns. He continued to tour sporadically and released solo albums throughout the 1980s. Meanwhile, the cult of Big Star continued to rise thanks to a new generation discovering such delicate gems as “Thirteen” and “You & Your Sister” and the chiming power-pop tour de force “September Gurls.”

The cult of Chilton included a legendary homage from Minneapolis punks the Replacements, who recorded the driving song “Alex Chilton” for their fifth studio album, Pleased to Meet Me in 1987. The combination of that song’s popularity as well as copious praise from R.E.M. and other contemporary acts helped prod Chilton back into the spotlight in the late 1980s after a period of inactivity until Big Star finally reunited in 1993, with guitarist Auer and bassist Stringfellow joining Chilton and Stephens.

The new lineup recorded In Space in 2005 and had played occasional dates together since then. A four-CD box set of Big Star songs, Keep an Eye on the Sky, was released in September by Rhino Records. One of Big Star’s songs, “I’m in Love With a Girl,” was featured on the soundtrack to the 2009 film “Adventureland.”

It’s likely that a tribute to Chilton will take place this weekend in Austin as many of his acolytes gather for SXSW. 

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