Entertainment behind the scenes
Alex Chilton, 1950-2010
To most, Alex Chilton’s was the gruff soulful voice that grabbed you by the throat in “The Letter.” Less than two minutes long, the song by the Box Tops was pure confection: Chips Moman’s rhythm section laying the foundation, Memphis horns punctuating the chorus and the cheesy jet sound effects made the song a chart-topping hit in 1967. Chilton was 16 years old.
Fed up with being a pretty face in the pop music grist mill, he left the band in 1970. When he returned with Big Star in 1972, he traded in the R&B for Beatles-style pop with a harder, driving beat. His voice had jumped nearly an octave. He and his friend Chris Bell penned eloquent elegies of teen angst, exuding hopelessness and defiance, often in the same breath.
Big Star made three albums, “#1 Record,” “Radio City” and “Third/Sister Lovers.” Barely anyone bought them. But as Brian Eno once said of the Velvet Underground, everyone who heard them formed a band. R.E.M., Cheap Trick, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, the dBs and the Replacements are only a few examples.
After Big Star broke up in the mid-seventies, he recorded sporadically as a solo artist and toured relentlessly. His solo material was raw, offhand and sometimes barely listenable. But at their center, he displayed himself as an eccentric music fan inspired by Otis Redding as much as John Lennon.
Missouri University, on a whim, decided to ask Big Star to reform to play a show on campus in 1993, nearly 20 years after the band’s last album. After years of denying and downplaying the band’s influence to the point of being contemptuous of anyone who even asked about the band, he responded, “Why not, I have no other plans.”
The band peaked in the public consciousness in 1998 when their song “In The Street” was selected as the theme song for “That 70’s Show.” Chilton told Rolling Stone in 2000 that he was paid $70 each time the show aired. The recording in most episodes, however, is, Cheap Trick’s (with the offending line “Wish we had a joint so bad” dutifully excised).
Big Star recorded a new album in 2005 with original drummer Jody Stephens, and Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies. It was the first new Big Star music in 30 years. They were slated to play the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin Saturday.
In the song “Alex Chilton” – arguably the Replacements’ finest moment, songwriter Paul Westerberg imagined a parallel universe in which “children by the millions cheer for Alex Chilton.”
They sing, “I’m in love.
What’s that song
I’m in love with that song.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Bar-None Records)