Death of a brilliant musical obscurity

Paul Westerberg and the Replacements spoke for countless artists and diehard fans when they wrote a song called "Alex Chilton" in 1987.

"Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round/They sing, 'I'm in love, what's that song?/ I'm in love with that song.' "

Chilton, who died Thursday in New Orleans of a heart attack at age 59, was a cult artist for most of his career, better known for the bands and artists he inspired — including R.E.M., Wilco, Jeff Buckley and the Replacements — than his own music. Yet his legacy endures, most especially the three studio albums he recorded with his group Big Star in Memphis during the '70s.

"In my opinion, Alex was the most talented triple threat musician out of Memphis — and that's saying a ton," Westerberg said. "His versatility at soulful singing, pop rock songwriting, master of the folk idiom, and his delving into the avant garde, goes without equal. He was also a hell of a guitar player and a great guy."

Chilton's influence was widely felt in the 1980s and 1990s, when a generation of listeners looked to songs such as "Thirteen," "I'm in Love With a Girl" and "In the Street" (known as the theme song for "That '70s Show") because they perfectly captured teen angst and relayed sometimes-dark emotions that were universal.

"There was this feeling of yearning," said Lou Barlow, a member of the bands Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. "The songs were beautiful and the melodies were just almost like intuitive."

Big Star's three 1970s albums all earned spots on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest. In addition to sporadic solo work, Chilton reformed Big Star with members of The Posies in the 1990s to tour and released "In Space" in 2005. A box set of the group's work was released last fall.

Big Star was a group ahead of its time, its merger of British Invasion-style guitar melody and Southern soul a template for what would become known as "power pop." It was virtually unheard in its time; the third Big Star album, "Sister Lovers," was released long after Chilton had walked away from the group utterly discouraged by its lack of success.

Yet Big Star's music only grew in stature as the decades passed, and songs such as "September Gurls" and "In the Street" were covered by numerous artists. The band's music was recently repackaged in a lavish box set, and was to be the subject of a major panel at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, followed by a concert in which original members Chilton and Jody Stephens were scheduled to perform.

From the start, Chilton cut a contrary figure, charting an artistic course that indulged deeply personal idiosyncrasies rather than courting universal appeal. This was apparent the moment the 16-year-old Chilton first stepped inside a Memphis recording studio in 1966 for a rehearsal with his first major band, the Box Tops.

He was wearing jeans with holes torn in the knees, a black T-shirt and a woolen scarf tossed Dylan-style around his neck. The studio regulars, in their dress shirts and penny loafers, were appalled.

But when Chilton re-entered that same studio a few weeks later for his first recording session, he would emerge with a hit: His impossibly soulful reading of Wayne Thompson's "The Letter" became one of the biggest singles of 1967, the first of seven top 40 hits for the Box Tops, and the beginning of what would become one of the most brilliant, enigmatic and maddening careers in rock history.

Chilton would walk away from the Box Tops, disgusted by record-company machinations that would bedevil him the rest of his career. He joined the brilliant songwriter Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens in Big Star, only to be disappointed again, this time by the public's indifference.

Glimpses of Chilton's fractured brilliance continued to poke through as he pursued a solo career; the haphazard, frazzled energy of the "Like Flies on Sherbert" album captured the tenor of the late '70s more effectively than dozens of better-known punk records, and Chilton also made his mark as a producer, working on the early records of the notorious psychobilly band the Cramps.

It wasn't until the mid-'80s that Chilton returned to making records, and his music took another turn; it was more relaxed and bluesy, about evenly split between covers and original songs, with a generally lighter feel than much of his crucial '70s work. He reunited with Stephens to record a new Big Star album in 2005, but otherwise confined himself to live performing.

In a 1995 interview, Chilton claimed that Big Star's music meant little to him.

"In general, I think it's overrated," he said. "There are only a few songs that I can stand to play anymore."

That comment was typical of Chilton in its contrariness. His solo career was marked by inconsistency, and sporadic reunions with Big Star and the Box Tops.

"He's been popular, his music is pervasive, and yet he's virtually unknown," Memphis music journalist Robert Gordon. "He's a magnificent obscurity."

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