Alex Chilton is Still Worth Remembering


The late Alex Chilton may be the biggest rock star that could have and even should have been that you may never have heard of. If I mention that he was the singer for late-1960s hitmakers The Box Tops, you likely know his voice from chart-topper oldies that remain goodies like “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Bay” and “Soul Deep.” Those into the margins and arcana of 1970s rock may know of his band Big Star, who reaped wide and unstinting praise from music critics (back when they mattered) but were the all-but-definitive “cult” group that never caught on at radio and in record sales. His solo career that followed up until his 2010 death would be an even-more-definitive – yes, I know that is a tautology – example of a “cult” artist.

Yet for all that, Chilton matters in the historical scheme of popular music. Which is why the recent book A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton has gotten high-level media coverage, as did the 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (previously touted in my 10/15/13 column).

Disclosure time: I knew Alex during and after his time on the New York City music scene in the late 1970s. The author of his bio, Holly George-Warren, is a friend and peer who I’ve gotten assignments from and edited, and vice-versa.

But I’m hardly the only one giving her book on Chilton good notice. As rock music bios go – and believe me, they can often go wrong – it’s a fine example of the form at its best: deeply and meticulously researched and rich with details that explain why someone acknowledged as a major music talent had such a quixotic career. It’s well written, and also written with love, as George-Warren knew Chilton even better than I did. If you knew Chilton’s music as well as the man himself, he and his work inspired such love.

Chilton first came into my life at age 13 with “The Letter” and then as the first band with songs on the radio that I saw live. Since then I’ve seen many hundreds and likely into the thousands.

Yet as the frontman for the Memphis pop/soul group, his performance that day in 1967 wowed me in a way that few since then have done. His burnished blue-eyed soul voice delivered the songs with a thrilling passion and finesse, and he worked the stage with all the command of, as I have said since then, a white teenaged Otis Redding. It was the stuff from which legends are made. It also impressed my friends and I that a fellow teenager was up there onstage and on the radio (Chilton was 17 at the time).

His group that followed in the early 1970s, Big Star, may have initially only sold the 2000 copies of their first album that were pressed and distributed. But the group’s legacy and influence came to loom large from soon after the group’s short run, which is why they merited a documentary. Their new Beatlesque take on pop-rock – a both reductive but praiseworthy shorthand for Big Star’s sound – helped define what was later called power-pop, and the band was a prime inspiration for 1980s “college rock” groups like R.E.M. and The Replacements to name but a few of many. I’ve long quipped that I am one of the few who bought their debut, the ironically-titled #1 Record that didn’t start a band (yet). To wit, I did become a music journalist.

I met and came to know Chilton soon after he landed in New York in 1976. He became a presence on the city’s punk/new wave scene, playing clubs and releasing independent records, but had gone from an artist who boldly named his band Big Star to being an all but committed anti-star. In the years that followed he made a number of records full of oddities, experiments, tangents and such, but there are some gems to be found in there.

Happily, he did enjoy some later in life success when That ‘70s Show used his Big Star number “In The Street” as its theme song, recorded by Big Star acolytes Cheap Trick. In 1983 a new version of Big Star convened with members of The Posies, yet another act heavily influenced, filling out the line-up. In ‘96 The Box Tops reunited and played shows in the years that followed.

Though there are many factors why Chilton abandoned the pursuit of stardom and success after Big Star and George-Warren uncovers most all without, wisely, attempting to pin down any specifics of his complex character, life and career as reasons. But one of them was surely, from the mid-1970s on, enjoying music and making if for it’s own sake. And that is something to be admired.

The Replacements wrote a song titled “Alex Chilton” that said ironically sang of how “Children by the millions wait for Alex Chilton.” Thanks to the book, many more people are aware of him. And over time his legacy will surely someday reach millions.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2014

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