Alex Chilton 1950-2010 Memphis Commercial Appeal
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  • 1. Photo by The Commercial Appeal files For nearly a decade starting in 1962, American Sound Studios in Memphis churned out hit after hit: including The Letter and Cry Like a Baby by the Box Tops (with a young Alex Chilton). By the 1980's, Chilton and Big Star, would foster a generation of rock bands. Chilton died Wednesday, March 17, 2010, in New Orleans.
  • 2. Alex Chilton, the pop hitmaker, cult icon and Memphis rock iconoclast best known as a member of 1960s pop-soul act the Box Tops and the 1970s power-pop act Big Star, died Wednesday at a hospital in New Orleans. The singer, songwriter and guitarist was 59. "I'm crushed. We're all just crushed," said John Fry, owner of Memphis' Ardent Studios and a longtime friend of Chilton's. "This sudden death experience is never something that you're prepared for. And yet it occurs." Chilton had been complaining about his health earlier Wednesday, Fry said. He was taken by paramedics from his home to the emergency room but could not be revived. Chilton and Big Star had been scheduled to play Saturday as part of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The band was also scheduled to play at the Levitt Shell in Memphis on May 15. It's unknown what will happen to those shows. The Memphis-born Chilton rose to prominence at age 16 when his gruff vocals powered the massive Box Tops hit "The Letter," as well as "Cry Like a Baby" and "Neon Rainbow." After the Box Tops broke up in 1970, Chilton had a brief solo run in New York before returning to Memphis. He soon joined forces with a group of Anglo-pop-obsessed musicians -- fellow songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens -- to form Big Star. The group became the flagship act for Ardent's Stax-distributed label. Big Star's 1972 debut album, #1 Record, met with critical acclaim but poor sales. The group briefly disbanded, but reunited without Bell to record the album Radio City. Released in 1974, the second album suffered a similar fate, plagued by Stax's distribution woes. The group made one more album, Third/Sister Lovers, with just Chilton and Stephens -- and it, too, was a minor masterpiece. Darker and more complex than the band's previous pop-oriented material, it remained unreleased for several years. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named all three Big Star albums to its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. "It's a fork in the road that a lot of different bands stemmed from," said Jeff Powell, a respected local producer who worked on some of Chilton's records. "If you're drawing a family tree of American music, they're definitely a branch." In the mid-'70s, Chilton began what would be a polarizing solo career, releasing several albums of material, including 1979's Like Flies on Sherbet -- a strange, chaotically recorded mix of originals and obscure covers that divided fans and critics. Chilton also began performing with local roots-punk deconstructionists the Panther Burns.
  • 3. In the early '80s, Chilton left Memphis for New Orleans, where he worked a variety of jobs and stopped performing for several years. But interest in his music from a new generation of alternative bands, including the Replacements and R.E.M., brought him back to the stage in the mid-'80s. He continued to record and tour as a solo act throughout the decade. Finally, in the early '90s, the underground cult based around Big Star had become so huge that the group was enticed to reunite with a reconfigured lineup. The band, featuring original member Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, continued to perform regularly over the next 16 years. Big Star became the subject of various articles, books and CD reissue campaigns, including the September 2009 release of the widely hailed box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky. "I played with Alex for eight or 10 years regularly, and he was one of the best musicians I ever knew," said Doug Garrison. "That's what really locked the first time I played with him, this feel on the guitar. He just played flawlessly. He had a limited technique, but he did what he did really well." Chilton was often described as "mercurial," but those who knew him well described a man with a keen sense of humor, a tremendous musician and a generous friend. "He was the only person on a record I've ever worked with where you'd come up with a horn arrangement, and he'd say, 'Look, I'm going to make you guys a co-writer on the song now,'" said Jim Spake, who played sax on the most recent Big Star record. Chilton is survived by his wife, Laura, a son, Timothy, and a sister, Cecilia. "When some people pass, you say it was the end of an era. In this case, it's really true," said Van Duren, a fellow Memphis musician who knew Chilton for decades. "It puts an end to the Big Star thing, and that's a very sad thing." -- Bob Mehr: 529-2517 -- Jody Callahan: 529-6531 Alex Chilton1950-2010 — Born December 28, 1950, in Memphis — Was the lead singer for the Box Tops in the 1960s; recorded "The Letter," which hit No. 1 on the pop charts
  • 4. — Formed Big Star in 1971 with guitarist/singer Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens — Big Star put out two albums -- #1 Record and Radio City — Group broke up in 1975 while working on a third album, which was eventually released overseas called Third/Sister Lovers — Moved to New Orleans in early 1980s and released some solo albums on Ardent label — Reunited with Big Star in the mid-1990s — Rhino Records released a four-disc, 98-song retrospective in September 2009 called Keep an Eye on the Sky — Band had been scheduled to launch the spring 2010 season at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park with a benefit concert on May 15
  • 5. What they're saying “I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, because I heard he just got married. I’d been thinking about stopping by, but I just didn’t have time. I certainly didn’t think I needed to hurry and do that.” — Doug Garrison, a member of Chilton’s band from 1984-92 “He graciously said, ‘Man, I want to make you a co-producer and give you a point on the record. That’s unbelievable. That’s never happened before.” — Jeff Powell, who engineered and mixed some of Chilton’s records “He changed music. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just true.” — Steve McGehee, former owner of the legendary Antenna club “(He was) really talented in ways you might not expect. I remember sitting at Ardent with him one time, when I was auditioning with him as a fourth member of Big Star. I remember him sitting down at a piano, and just playing ragtime piano for about 10 minutes just flawlessly.” — Memphis musician Van Duren “He was a little quirky maybe. He didn’t care what people thought. He just did his thing.” — Saxophonist Jim Spake, who played on several Chilton records “It’s obvious to anybody that listens to his live performances or his body of recorded work, his tremendous talent as a vocalist and songwriter and instrumentalist.” — John Fry, owner of Ardent Studios Alex Chilton Music world, friends, fans pay tribute to Memphis legend Alex Chilton
  • 6. Big Star returns to the Levitt Shell for benefit concert Stars align for Big Star retrospective Related Links Sign the Legacy Guest Book for Alex Chilton. Rep. Steve Cohen talks about Alex Chilton today on the floor of the House of Representatives. checkmate writes: Another great music ambassador to the world from Memphis is gone. March 17, 2010 8:02 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post liveactdj writes: Lots of great musicians have named him as a major influence..he is a true legend, big big loss to Memphis music March 17, 2010 8:08 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post tiger4life writes: oh no.... .....Memphis Music has lost it's #1 native son Alex embodied Memphis Music.....i'm deeply saddened March 17, 2010 8:30 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post annmulhearn#298449 writes: wow - that's such a loss. :( March 17, 2010 8:37 p.m. Suggest removal
  • 7. Reply to this post stemar writes: if you can have it and you are 45 or over you should have a Nuclear Stress Test. March 17, 2010 9:08 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post ronleo writes: I cry like a baby.....RIP. A true Memphis legend. March 17, 2010 9:34 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post bigcat33 writes: Man...I am in shock. RIP, Alex and may God Bless You for all you did for Memphis Music. I first picked up a guitar partly because of you and still play to this day. March 17, 2010 10:03 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post carjo writes: It should have also been noted in this story that his biggest commercial hits were with the Box Tops that were cut at American Studios and produced by Chips Moman,Dan Penn and Tommy Cogbill in addition to the great work he did at Ardent with John Fry. March 17, 2010 10:21 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Gardner writes: I saw Alex many times during his renaissance in the 1980s. Sometimes he was distant. More often, though, he was chatty, friendly, though always enigmatic as well. The last time I saw him was with the reformed Big Star at the Fillmore in 1994. He wasn't in a great mood that night, but he played his heart out, and his eyes were as soulful as ever. This is a terrible loss, and a terrible shock as well. Children by the million will keep on singing for him, as long as there are songs to sing. "I can't be ... satisfied." March 17, 2010
  • 8. 11:25 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post cpnjoe writes: The sage of Memphis, so long. March 18, 2010 12:27 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post bornin47 writes: Boggs, now Chilton. Bummer. March 18, 2010 3:20 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post tigerteacher writes: A tragic ending to the band's already tragic story. Here's to hoping Alex and Chris have been reunited and are playing something amazing somewhere. March 18, 2010 6:01 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Mamba writes: Alex; Who..........? March 18, 2010 6:12 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post MCSTHOMASPAINE writes: Such a shock and loss. The absence of your voice will leave a hole that is Soul Deep. As I read the story I thought of all the bands and places I've heard him perform from the Liberty Bowl to the Antenna Club, down on the River, and all points in between. You were and still are a local treasure. Bon Voyage and Happy Trails as you blast off for Rock N Roll Heaven. March 18, 2010 6:13 a.m. Suggest removal
  • 9. Reply to this post mdtwntgr writes: in response to Mamba: Alex; Who..........? You fool! March 18, 2010 7:09 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post astarc writes: OMG - the music in heaven just got a bit more soulful... rest in peace Alex March 18, 2010 7:54 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post bluesman1 writes: I remember the good times at the Antenna club. Alex, Tav, Cordell Jackson and others. Alex will be missed by many including me. Rock On Brother! March 18, 2010 7:59 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post thememphisstar writes: How sad! ...child, husband, father, friend - and icon. Rip. You will be sorely missed by many. March 18, 2010 8:04 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Critch writes: Well, another great one gone. RIP Alex. March 18, 2010
  • 10. 8:12 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post memphismojo109 writes: Incredibly shocking. My favorite Memphis musician. Rest in peace, sir. March 18, 2010 8:25 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Pippin writes: Oh no. Oh no. March 18, 2010 8:26 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post DeadPoet writes: Very sad news indeed. Vaya con música. March 18, 2010 8:32 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post missingmemphis writes: So very sad. He was a good man and friend. I will miss him. March 18, 2010 8:41 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Pippin writes: "Take care, please, take care This sounds a bit like goodbye In a way it is I guess As I leave your side I've taken the air Take care, please, take care
  • 11. Take care, please, take care" March 18, 2010 8:54 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post GymMom writes: Last night at the Tiger game a tweet came through. I was in shock. and all I could think was "oh my". It was hard to enjoy the win when there was a loss so much bigger than any game. RIP and bless your family. March 18, 2010 9:03 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post italianpc writes: "Oh, NO!" was my first reaction to my first email today from an old friend. We saw Alex play with the Panther Burns Band opening for the Clash somewhere in the early 80's. Before that, the Antenna Club. Most recently my wife and I saw him here in Memphis last summer at the Italian festival with the Box Tops. But I knew Alex when we went to Bellevue Jr. High together, when he ran track and exuded genius in his very being - a being that was to become a manifestation of focused talent, expressed in songs that will live forever. Now, the Overton Park Shell has an eternal silent hole in the expectations of many who want to hear him one more time, just one more time, please Alex? Your race is run, special one. You are missed and remembered well. March 18, 2010 9:07 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Dervish writes: The old gang is dropping like flies on Harbert. Adieu and farewell to the best guitarist in the world -- especially about 2am at the Well! March 18, 2010 9:13 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post smiladon72#246386 writes: At least he lived long enough to see his creative work appreciated. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that while I haven't listened to Big Star per se, covers of their songs by more contemporary bands and the standard, "Alex Chilton" by the Replacements made Chilton and his band matter to me. I hope that he felt honored to have such an exhilirating, infectious song named after him. My condolences to his family, friends and fans. March 18, 2010 9:36 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post
  • 12. Mulachi writes: Another member of Memphis music who died tragically turned me on to Chilton ... Jeff Buckley. March 18, 2010 9:45 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post pay_attention writes: in response to Mamba: Alex; Who..........? Stop it. March 18, 2010 9:48 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post bluescity writes: Truly a loss to Memphis as well as music. A great deal of the music we like today has some Big Star DNA entwined somewhere in its beat. March 18, 2010 9:52 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Pippin writes: in response to Mamba: Alex; Who..........? Leave it alone, Mamba. March 18, 2010 10:13 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Dunno writes:
  • 13. in response to Pippin: Leave it alone, Mamba. Some people just thrive on negative attention, Pip..... March 18, 2010 10:24 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post PcklsMcNckls writes: R.I.P Alex You will be missed..... Our loss is Rock-n-Roll heaven's gain Good Times last forever March 18, 2010 11 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Mamba writes: in response to Pippin: Leave it alone, Mamba. To Pippin and anyone else I may have offended, I offer my sincere apologies. But I had never heard of this musician until today. Mamba March 18, 2010 11:03 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post Pippin writes: in response to Mamba: To Pippin and anyone else I may have offended, I offer my sincere apologies. But I had never heard of this musician until today.
  • 14. Mamba It's okay, Mamba. He's a big part of Memphis' musical heritage, and maybe you should do some research, I'll bet you are more familiar with him than you think. We've lost a good friend, and one of the greats. I am just stunned, frankly. March 18, 2010 11:27 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post I_MCOSMOS writes: Alex was blessed with great talent as a singer,musician and songwriter. Thirteen still makes my hair stand on end. Since Alex gave us all so much, we should give back to him now by praying for the repose of his soul. It seems that when a musician dies we throw around platitudinal sentiments of "rock n roll heaven" and " I bet they are jammin in heaven now" which sound good, but they take away from the real truth of eternity. A truth which we will all come to realize as Alex has. Eternal Rest Grant unto him O Lord! March 18, 2010 11:36 a.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post davidsweeney#435355 writes: Sweet cream ladies are in morning. March 18, 2010 12:06 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post gizsmom writes: I cry like a baby That says what I fell today for the Chilton's and for Memphis Music. Alex you will be missed by millions. March 18, 2010 12:09 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post envythewind writes: Man what a season of losses for Memphis music -- Boggs, Mitchell, McMillan, Stoker, and now Chilton. All made tremendous contributions to our music, our sound, our spirit. March 18, 2010 12:18 p.m. Suggest removal
  • 15. Reply to this post QuentinRoberts writes: Being a son of Memphis (Trezevant 1966) this news hit me like a punch in the stomach. I remember when "The Letter" got hot in the summer of '67, and my cousins from L.A. were visiting. I was busting with Memphis pride when I told them it was a local Central H.S. boy singing like a soul survivor. Elvis, John, George, Joe (Strummer) and now Alex. Why do the good die so young? March 18, 2010 12:55 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post confutates#659951 writes: What a terrible loss. March 18, 2010 12:59 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post minniemouse writes: RIP Alex Chilton. I was looking forward to seeing Big Star at the Shell in May. March 18, 2010 1:04 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post judetennessee writes: Oh no, talking 'bout my generation! "Won't you tell your Dad get off my back? Tell him what we said 'bout "Paint It Black....Won't you tell me what you're thinking of? Would you be an outlaw for my love"? Thirteen-Chilton/Bell March 18, 2010 2:38 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post tiger4life writes: yes, thirteen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA-OCC... March 18, 2010 3:02 p.m. Suggest removal
  • 16. Reply to this post Pippin writes: in response to tiger4life: yes, thirteen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA-OCC... Well, now I'm just boohooing. March 18, 2010 3:25 p.m. Suggest removal Reply to this post bornin47 writes: For those who don’t know the story, it bears telling at this time. Alex and his bandmates had been working on some songs at Ardent and were close to having several ready for recording. But, they didn’t have a name for the band. They were talking about that fact as they walked out of the studio. Across Madison Ave. , a local grocery chain had opened an entry into the “convenience store” market. The store ultimately failed, the name Big Star will live forever, but not as a grocery store.