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Alex Chilton dies at 59; led influential Box Tops and Big Star bands

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; B07

Alex Chilton, 59, who began his four-decade career in pop music as the teenage lead singer of the Box Tops and whose later band Big Star influenced "power pop" bands such as the Replacements and Cheap Trick, died March 17 in a New Orleans hospital. An autopsy was pending.

He was scheduled to perform Saturday at the SXSW music festival in Austin, where he had a devoted following.

Mr. Chilton first gained prominence as the lead singer of the Memphis group the Box Tops, sometimes described as a blue-eyed soul band for its ability as a white group to interpret soul music. Its hit records included "The Letter" (1967), later covered by Joe Cocker and Al Green, "Soul Deep" (1969) and "Cry Like a Baby" (1968).

Although Big Star, formed in 1971, never found a niche on the radio, Rolling Stone put the band's three albums on its list of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" in 2003. Cheap Trick's cover version of Mr. Chilton's Big Star song "In the Street" was used as the theme for the sitcom "That '70s Show," and the Bangles covered another Big Star song, "September Gurls."

Big Star's influence was evident in pop acts such as Matthew Sweet, the Gin Blossoms, Teenage Fanclub and the Posies.

William Alexander Chilton, whose father was a jazz trumpeter, was born in Memphis on Dec. 28, 1950. He formed a high school band, the Devilles, with guitarist Gary Talley. After the band was rechristened the Box Tops, Memphis producer Dan Penn guided it into the Top 40.

The band's potential for hit records was enhanced by production touches such as the sound of an airplane taking off at the beginning of "The Letter" and the liberal use of a sitarlike sound on "Cry Like a Baby."

When the Box Tops split up in 1970, Mr. Chilton focused on songwriting and eventually teamed with singer-guitarist Chris Bell. Their new band, Big Star, avoided the Box Tops' soul orientation and instead charted a course influenced by the Byrds and British-invasion bands such as the Beatles, the Who and Small Faces.

Big Star recorded the albums "#1 Hit Record" (1971) and "Radio City" (1974) for Ardent Records, a subsidiary of the Memphis label Stax. The records received good reviews, but Stax, a successful but overextended rhythm-and-blues label, failed to properly promote the group.

A third Big Star album from 1978, recorded after Chris Bell's departure, variously titled "Third" or "Sister Lovers," was initially released only in Europe after the band's demise.

By the time the album was released, Mr. Chilton had embarked on a second career, producing the punkabilly band the Cramps and performing under his own name.

The Replacements acknowledged Mr. Chilton's influence with their song "Alex Chilton." Perhaps in a nod to a career that often flew under the radar, the song describes Mr. Chilton as an "invisible man who can sing in a visible voice."

"My problem mainly was that from the early '70s to 1981 I really drank a lot," Mr. Chilton told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "People didn't want to work with me as long as I was so crazy. I quit doing that in 1982," he said, although he had to wait a while for opportunities to resume his career materialized.

Mr. Chilton reunited with his former bandmates twice. With Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, he put together a new version of the band in 1993 with the Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. The Box Tops reunited in 1997 and released the album "Tear Off" the following year.

Mr. Chilton's survivors include his wife, Laura, of New Orleans; a son, Timothy, from a previous marriage; and a sister.

Mr. Chilton seemed comfortable with his cult status, telling the Associated Press in 1987: "What would be ideal would be to make a ton of money and have nobody know about you. Fame has a lot of baggage to carry around. . . . I don't need that much money and wouldn't want to have 20 bodyguards around me."

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