Alex Chilton, lead singer of Box Tops and tremendously influential pop indie band Big Star, died today of an apparent heart attack. He was 59.
Ironically, Big Star, who no doubt influenced 1000 of the 1500 acts playing at SXSW this week, was slated to play the Austin music festival on Saturday.
His Big Star bandmate and longtime friend, Jody Stephens, confirmed the news to Memphis”s Commercial Appeal, which broke the news. Chilton was from Memphis.
Chilton was only 16 when he sang the Box Tops” huge hit, “The Letter” in the ’60s. Shortly following that band”s break up in 1970 and a short-lived attempt at a solo career, Chilton joined with Chris Bell (who died in 1978), Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, who, like him were obsessed with British pop. The foursome, known as Big Star, helped put Memphis on the modern day pop map, recording at Ardent Studio, as well as being the lead act on the Stax-distributed label. It released three critically adored albums, but the band never achieved any true modicum of commercial success.
Chilton, always a reluctant musical hero, returned to his solo career and relocated to New Orleans. In the ’90s, with their cult status secure, Big Star reunited with the addition of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies. The last Big Star album, “In Space,” was released in 2005.
The group never scored a major hit, but it-and Chilton”s-influence on modern day pop music can”t be underestimated, especially when it comes to ’80s acts like REM and the Replacements, who revered Chilton so much that they wrote and recorded a song, “Alex Chilton,” as a tribute for its 1987 album, “Pleased To Meet Me.”
Additionally, scores of artists, ranging from Wilco, the Bangles, Jeff Buckley and Counting Crows have recorded his songs. However, for many people, their only exposure to Big Star was the group’s “In the Street,” a version of which was used as the opening theme for “That ’70s Show.”
Chilton is survived by his wife, Laura, and son, Timothy.