Last week on St. Patrick's Day I was playing soul 45s on the Blackbird patio when a sad text from my sister came across the wire. She said her friend Laura's husband Alex had suddenly died and that everyone in New Orleans was shattered. I told her I was sorry and to give Laura my condolences, then got back to playing records. It wasn't until the next day that I realized what Alex she was talking about: Alex Chilton—guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, king of cult power-pop.
Chilton, who grew up in Memphis, was 16 in 1967 when his soul-slanted sunshine pop act The Box Tops made hits (now omnipresent oldies) "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby." Beginning in 1971, Chilton fronted Memphis-based power-pop band Big Star, a less commercially successful endeavor that over the years gained an exponentially growing cult following. Nearly four decades later, songs like "Thirteen," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "In the Street" (which became the “That 70’s Show” theme song) and "September Gurls"—with their tender sentiment and tales of youthful rebellion—wound their way into the hearts of millions of rock and roll fans. The Replacements acknowledged that phenomenon in the 1987 song "Alex Chilton" where Paul Westerberg sings "Children by the million 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 was somewhat blasé about the cult of Big Star. He had a prolific solo career that explored realms of jazz and classical guitar, beginning with '79's oddball masterwork Like Flies on Sherbert. Chilton was also a producer for garage trash notables like The Cramps and The Gories.
Alex Chilton died of a heart attack on March 17 in New Orleans, where he'd resided since the early ’80s. He was 59.
R.I.P. Alex Chilton, and thank you for all of the incredible songs.