It's sadly poetic that Alex Chilton passed away a mere few days after the Stooges were finally granted induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like that Iggy Pop-fronted Detroit band, Chilton and Big Star claimed an influence on generations of musicians that belied their complete commercial anonymity while they were a functioning band.
Big Star may be a legend now, and Chilton a hipster iconoclast, but back in the early '70s, while releasing a trio of nigh-on-flawless, power pop-based Anglophile rock albums, the band couldn't get arrested.
Chilton, who died from an apparent heart attack on Wednesday evening in Memphis -- just as the present-day version of Big Star was preparing to depart Memphis for a Saturday gig as part of Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival -- became a star while still a teenager.
He fronted Memphis psychedelic soul outfit the Box Tops, hit the charts in a big way with "The Letter," and was already a road-worn, seasoned musician by the time he met Chris Bell and bucked for a slot in Bell's already formed Big Star. The Chilton-Bell partnership would yield the brilliant "#1 Record," before Bell's emotional and physical dissolution led to his departure -- and, within a few years, his death. Bell's influence could be heard all over Big Star's second album, "Radio City," but by the time sessions for "Third/Sister Lovers" were commenced in Memphis -- some time in 1974 -- Chilton was clearly the man in charge.
>Three for three
All three Big Star records are acknowledged as masterpieces today, and all routinely show up on "Best Albums of All Time" lists in the likes of Mojo and Rolling Stone.
"It was Chris Bell's band to start with, but became Chilton's in the end," says Big Star historian and author Bruce Eaton. "The band recorded three albums in four years -- how many bands take three swings in such a short period of time and hit 'em all out of the park? Not many."
Eaton, producer of the Art of Jazz series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, is also author of "Big Star: Radio City," a book published as part of the critically lauded "33 1/3 " series. More significantly, he was a confidant of Chilton for several decades, after a random encounter with "Radio City" launched a lifelong love affair with the album, and ultimately, an enduring friendship with its key creator.
"I was one of those guys who found 'Radio City' in a Play It Again Sam bargain bin, fell in love with it, and couldn't believe Big Star wasn't the biggest band in the world," recalls Eaton.
"They'd already broken up by then, but my musician buddies and I tracked Alex down in Memphis -- found him in the phone book, actually -- and talked him into coming up to Buffalo to play at McVan's with my band backing him, for $300. With no rehearsal, by the way! That was Alex. He didn't believe in rehearsal -- he thought the best stuff that might happen during a loose gig would be better than anything you'd get through rehearsing.
"He was more like an itinerant jazz musician in that way -- playing music for folks out on the town on a Saturday night. Whatever he felt at the time is what he played. It was never the same thing twice. This approach, I believe, came from his dad, who was a jazz musician."
Eaton recalls "playing Big Star's 'September Gurls' with Alex at McVan's" as one of the greatest experiences of his life, but for musicians and music-lovers around the world, simply hearing that song -- quite possibly, the quintessential American power-pop tune -- was enough to change their perspective for good. Many Buffalo musicians and industry folks expressed shock and sadness when they learned of Chilton's death.
>Sense of loss
McCarthyizm frontman Joe McCarthy said simply, "Rest in peace, Alex. It's time to get those Big Star albums out once again."
"Goodbye to a genius," said Buffalo concert promoter Vincent Lesh. "There is a new song in heaven today -- strike up the band and belly up to the bar."
Veteran musician Nelson Starr believes that "Some of the things Chilton did reimagined the best of the '60s British Invasion stuff -- the Beatles, principally -- with a hipper sound for the '70s. You can't deny just how great the vocal sounds, the part-writing, the quality of the recording, and the arrangements are on those Big Star records. They're incredible. It's a shame the band was overlooked at the time."
"Sometimes losses are immeasurable, and this is one of those times," says Pillagers vocalist Gary Zoldos. "It's like losing John Lennon and [the Clash's] Joe Strummer all over again."
>Big Star returns
After Big Star burned out in the latter '70s, Chilton never stopped performing. He toured as a solo act repeatedly, recorded prolifically, was honored with the now-classic Replacements song "Alex Chilton," and, eventually, reformed Big Star with original drummer Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of Big Star aficionados filling in for the late Chris Bell and the departed Andy Hummell. He was revered by several generations of indie-rockers, Anglophiles and even punks. But commercial success stubbornly eluded him.
"He had this reputation as being a prickly and mercurial personality, and maybe that was the public defense mechanism, based on the disappointment that came with the failure of the Box Tops and especially Big Star," recalls Eaton.
"He did things his own way, always. He had plenty money, too, despite this image of him as a desperate, bitter character living in a cardboard box. He was always health-conscious, he went to doctors, he cared about his own well-being. But he chain-smoked.
"He was a very complex man who was incredibly comfortable with what he was doing, even if other people weren't. I truly believe he was one of the greats."