Alex Chilton: 1950-2010



The death of Big Star and Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton — who passed away yesterday at a hospital in New Orleans, where he'd lived for the past couple of decades — is the latest in a stretch of recent losses for the Memphis music scene, most notably Jim Dickinson, Willie Mitchell, and Jay "Reatard" Lindsey.

Chilton, of course, had worked with Dickinson, most notably on the final Big Star album, Third/Sister Lovers, and on his notorious solo album Like Flies on Sherbert, and the two were always linked, with Dickinson also presiding over the recording of the Replacements' tribute song "Alex Chilton" in 1987.

Chilton's death happens on the eve of what was meant to be a busy period for the modern incarnation of Big Star, a group that included Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens alongside new hands Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. With the Big Star legacy back in the news thanks to a high-profile reissue campaign last year, the band was set to perform this Saturday night at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, a performance preceded by a panel on the band. That panel was to include Stephens and original bass player Andy Hummel, but not, notably, a publicity-shy Chilton. The band was also slated to make a rare hometown appearance with a May concert at the Levitt Shell. As of now, it remains to be seen whether those concert appearances will be canceled or reconfigured, but the early word out of Austin was that the panel was likely to still be held, but now as a tribute to Chilton.

The two most high-profile segments of Chilton's career happened early — as frontman for the successful teen garage-pop band the Box Tops — and late — when the larger pop world rediscovered Big Star, leading to national television and concert appearances, not to mention record sales, the band never knew in its original run. But history is likely to remember Chilton best for what came between — the gloriously, influentially off-kilter power-pop he concocted with Big Star and a mercurial, willfully difficult solo career that left many shards of memorable music amid a series of albums and singles had no commercial impact.

In searching for YouTube highlights from Chilton's career, it's perhaps fitting that these true artistic peak years for Chilton are essentially absent. He thrived in the shadows. But are a few glimpses of Chilton on the public record:

A teenage Chilton lip-syncing his way through his biggest hit, "The Letter," with the Box Tops on a television appearance circa 1967:

Here's a little doc/performance segment with Chilton on MTV's 120 Minutes circa 1985:

A documentary segment on "The Letter" from the mid-’80s, on Entertainment Tonight of all places:

The modern incarnation of Big Star, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens joined by acolytes Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, perform "In the Street" on The Tonight Show.

Chilton singing the classic "Thirteen" with Big Star live at a 2007 concert:

The Replacements Paul Westerberg performing that band's "Alex Chilton," a song that probably did more to mythologize Chilton for a new generation than anything:


Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment