If you don't know who Alex Chilton is you are not alone. He was only 17 when he sang the hit song "The Letter" by The Boxtops back in 1967. He didn't write it but he sure did sing it. Sounding a lot older than he was, there was an emotional depth to his delivery.
Fast forward a few years to 1971 and Alex joined the power-pop group Big Star, with Chris Bell, recording at engineer John Fry's Ardent Studios. At Argent Sound they had the luxury of working for many months on what would be their first album #1 Record Chilton and Bell co-wrote "In The Street" for Big Star's first album #1 Record, a track later known as the theme song of That '70s Show. But at the time this was not a hit record. In fact nothing from this record hardly got any airplay, never mind a hit record.
The group's recordings met with little commercial success but established Chilton's reputation as a rock singer and songwriter; later alternative music bands like R.E.M. would praise the group as a major influence.
He continued to tour and perform with many indie bands,always with a hardcore loyal following but never regaining the success he had when he was a teenager.
He came through Toronto in the early '90's playing at the Horseshoe Tavern. He had a new bass player who had a music stand for the sheet music he read off during the entire show. It was brilliant to see Chilton - he took requests from a rabid and rapturous audience. When I yelled out "The Letter" he smiled and dutifully played a heartfelt version of the song.
By the mid-1990s, he added to his schedule concerts and recordings with the reunited Box Tops and a version of Big Star that included two members of The Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. A new Big Star album, entitled In Space, with songs penned by this lineup, was released September 27, 2005, on Rykodisc.
Chilton continued to perform live yearly, with sporadic solo, Box Tops and Big Star shows in theatres and at festivals around the world.
Chilton was taken to the hospital in New Orleans on March 17, 2010, complaining of health problems, and died the same day of a suspected heart attack. He is survived by his wife, Laura, and son, Timothy.
Here is a clip from the first Big Star album...
And here is a band that has the same indie asthetic as Big Star. Many indie bands owe a lot to Alex Chilton. Another great musican is now jamming at that big jam session in the sky!