Friday, March 19, 2010

Godspeed Alex Chilton, Leader of Classic Power Pop Band Big Star

Alex Chilton, the lead singer of The Box Tops and the leader of Big Star, passed on Wednesday at the age of 59. After complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath, Mr. Chilton was taken to a New Orleans emergency. A cause had yet to be determined, although presumably he died of a heart attack.

Alex Chilton was born William Alexander Chilton in Memphis, Tennessee on December 28, 1950. His father, Sidney Chilton, was a jazz trumpeter. His mother, Mary Chilton, was a classically trained musician. Growing up Mr. Chilton was then constantly exposed to music, including jazz sessions in the Chilton home. It was not unusual when he was young for Mr. Chilton to frequent the many recording studios in Memphis.

It was after Alex Chilton performed at a talent show at Central High School in Memphis that producer Dan Penn drafted Mr. Chilton as the lead singer of The Devilles, soon to be renamed The Box Tops (another group also used the name The Devilles at the time). Mr. Chilton was only sixteen at the time. Singed to Bell, The Box Tops would have a hit with "The Letter" in July 1967, which ultimately reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In February 1968 their song "Cry Like a Baby" reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In all, The  Box Tops would have seven top forty hits from July 1967 to June 1969. In their original incarnation they recorded four albums.

Unfortunately for The Box Tops, the hits would not last. In March 1969 "I Shall Be Released" became the first Box Tops single not to hit the top forty of the Billboard chart. By February 1970 Alex Chilton and the other members of The Box Tops decided to disband the group. It was not long after the breakup of The Box Tops that Mr. Chilton met guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Together they formed Big Star in 1971.

Drawing up on the sound of British Invasion bands such as The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, and the American band The Byrds, Big Star was one of the first American power pop bands and, short of Cheap Trick, arguably the most influential. What set Big Star apart from such contemporary power pop bands as Badfinger and The Raspberries was their lyrics, which were often dark, cynical, and filled with disillusionment. In many way Big Star's lyrical content foreshadowed The Posies and other power pop bands of the Nineties.

Unfortunately, Big Star would not have success on the charts. The band singed to the legendary Stax Records, who at that time was in financial turmoil. Their first album, #1 Record, released in June 1972, received sterling reviews. Sadly, Stax was unable to provide adequate distribution for the album and it failed to chart. Sadly, the lack of success for #1 Record would result in tension within the band. Chris Bell quit the band before the second album could even be finished. In late 1972 Big Star disbanded.

It was a few months later that Mr. Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens decided to regroup. They resumed work on the second album, by now officially named Radio City. Radio City was released in January 1974 and, like the first album, received glowing reviews. Unfortunately, Radio City would not fare very well in sales. Stax had signed a deal with Columbia to distribute their records, and Columbia refused to process Radio City after a disagreement. As a result, Radio City did not receive proper distribution and in the end sold only 20,000 copies.

It was not long after the release of Radio City that Andy Hummel decided to leave Big Star in order to concentrate on his studies in college. Mr. Chilton and Jody Stephens forged ahead without Andy Hummel, going into the studio in September 1974 to record a third album with a variety of musicians. The resulting album was deemed too uncommercial for release. The album, eventually entitled Third/Sisters Lovers, was released in 1978. Unfortunately, Big Star had broken up in 1975.

In the wake of the break up of Big Star, Alex Chilton would only perform and record sporadically. In 1977 he moved to New York and performed as Alex Chilton and the Cossacks. In 1978 he released the single "Bangkok." In 1979 he released the album Like Flies on Sherbert, in a limited edition of only 500 copies. He produced The Cramps' first album, Song the Lord Taught Us, released in 1980. In 1979 he co-founded Tav Falco's Panter Burns. Mr. Chilton would perform with the band into the early Eighties. He also produced several of their early albums. It was in 1981 that he released the solo album Bach's Bottom and in 1982 the solo album Live in London. He released three EPs, Feudalist Tarts in 1985, No Sex in 1986, and Black List in 1989. He also released the solo album High Priest in 1987.

It was in 1993 that Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens reformed Big Star with guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. The resurrected Big Star debuted at the University of Missouri's 1993 spring music festival. A recording of the performance was released as the album Columbia Live at the University of Missouri in 1993. A new album, Nobody Can Dance, was released in 1999. Another new album, In Space, was released in 2005. It would be the final new album featuring Alex Chilton in his lifetime.

While still performing and recording with Big Star, Alex Chilton continued with his solo career. He released the album Clichés in 1994, A Man Called Destruction in 1995, Cubist Blues in 1997, Loose Shoes and Tight P***** in 1999 (titled Set in the United States), and Live in Anvers in 2004.

The impact of Alex Chilton on power pop cannot be underestimated. Although Big Star was not a success in its original incarnation, the band would develop a large cult following which would result in a lasting influence on future bands. The impact Big Star had upon Cheap Trick, the only American power pop band whose influence outstrips that of Big Star, is evident in their music. Big Star would further have a influence on such artists as Matthew Sweet, The Posies, Teeange Fanclub, and The Replacements, and even bands outside the subgenre of power pop, including R.E.M. Indeed, arguably the whole indie pop movement of the Nineties (largely comprised of power pop bands) was the direct descendent of Big Star. Given Alex Chilton's impact on modern music, it should come as no surprise that The Replacements' 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me featured a song entitled "Alex Chilton," about the leader of Big Star himself.

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