Under the Radar

Children by the Millions Mourn for Alex Chilton


Alex Chilton, legendary Memphis guitarist and singer, died March 17th in New Orleans. Old people might know him as the lead singer of the Box Tops, younger folks as the guy in that Replacements song. Lots of people would recognize Cheap Trick's version of "In the Street," a song originally recorded by his incredibly influential band Big Star, as the theme to That '70s Show.

Alex had a #1 single at the age of 16 with "The Letter" as lead singer of the Box Tops. Released at the beginning of national turbulence over the Vietnam war, "The Letter" immediately resonated with Americans who had friends and family serving in Southeast Asia.

The Box Tops broke up in 1970 and Alex went on to join Big Star, a Memphis rock band that sold very few records but, much like the Velvet Underground, became a powerful influence on alternative rock artists like R.E.M., Wilco, the Bangles (who covered "September Gurls"), Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and Ryan Adams.

After Big Star broke up in the late '70s, Alex pursued a controversial solo career, playing shows that featured (outstanding) R&B covers instead of the Big Star and Box Tops songs people thought they wanted to hear.

I had a long and complicated history with Alex Chilton, both personally and professionally. He's the single greatest influence on my own career in music. I always pictured him becoming an old bluesman, playing solo shows until he was 90. It's inconceivable that he died at 59.

In 2005, Alex went missing for a week after Hurricane Katrina hit his adopted home of New Orleans. I wrote a long tribute to him then that's been reposted today at the Too Cool to Die blog.

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