Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty
Alex Chilton, singer and guitarist of Big Star, one of the most influential rock groups to emerge from the early 1970s, has passed away at the age of 59. Chilton reportedly suffered a heart attack today in New Orleans, just days before Big Star were scheduled to perform at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Chilton had been complaining about his health earlier in the day, and was eventually taken to a New Orleans hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens confirmed Chilton’s passing, Memphis’ Commercial Appeal reports. “Alex passed away a couple of hours ago,” Stephens said. “I don’t have a lot of particulars, but they kind of suspect that it was a heart attack.”
Chilton began his musical career in his teens as a member of the Box-Tops before returning to his native Memphis to form Big Star with guitarist/co-songwriter Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Blending power pop with the sound of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Big Star were critically acclaimed in their time but largely ignored commercially. In their short time together in the early-’70s — though Bell and Hummel exited the band after #1 Record — Big Star only released three studio albums, but what three incredible albums they were: 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City and 1978’s dark but beautiful Third/Sister Lovers all placed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and their classic tracks “Thirteen” and “September Gurls” were both named to our list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
While they only lasted a few years, Big Star’s impact continues to reverberate decades later. R.E.M. and the Replacements both named Big Star and Alex Chilton as major influences, with the Replacements even titling a song “Alex Chilton” on their album Pleased to Meet Me. Chilton became a cult musical icon, and artists as diverse as Beck, Wilco, Elliott Smith, R.E.M., Cheap Trick, Jeff Buckley, Garbage, Bat For Lashes and Whiskeytown have covered Big Star’s songs. Renewed interest in the band’s music led to a reunion of sorts in the early ’90s and a new album in 2005’s In Space, which featured two members of the Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. Just last year, a box set celebrating Big Star’s entire catalog, Keep an Eye on the Sky was released.
“It’s not like I’m a ‘big star’ constantly getting noticed, but I do get recognized,” Chilton told Rolling Stone in 2000 of the fame that eluded Big Star during their first years together. “What’s nice is that the people in my neighborhood just know me as Alex. It’s funny, because I spent so much of my life moving from place to place and I went through a few dark periods, but in the last few years I’ve kind of settled down.” Chilton is survived by his wife Laura and son Timothy.
For more on Chilton’s musical legacy, watch a handful of Big Star classics below, and be sure to remember Alex by looking back at our Rolling Stone features below:
“Life is White”
“In the Street”
Jeff Buckley performing Big Star’s “Kanga Roo”