Four Years After Death, Alex Chilton Is Finally A Big Star

Apr 9, 2014
Originally published on April 9, 2014 5:48 pm

Four years after his death, the former singer of the Box Tops and Big Star is enjoying a level of popular acclaim that eluded him in life. A new biography of Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction, follows on the heels of a successful documentary about Big Star released last year.

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Four years after his death, singer and songwriter Alex Chilton is enjoying a kind of popular acclaim that eluded him in life. Chilton did have brushes with fame in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. One of his songs became the theme of a hit TV show and his band, Big Star, was hugely influential on a generation of younger rock musicians.

Last year, a Big Star documentary played in theaters across the country. Now, Chilton is the subject of a full-length biography, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The first song Alex Chilton ever recorded in the studio turned out to be the biggest hit of his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LETTER")

ROSE: Chilton sounded like a veteran when he sang "The Letter" with a Memphis band called the Box Tops. But in fact, he was barely 16. And he had just joined the group, as he told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FRESH AIR BROADCAST)

ALEX CHILTON: After I'd been with them about a month, we went in the studio and recorded our first hit song. And so it was just something that was easy to fall into. It was sort of like Memphis was a hotbed of recording activity - Memphis, where I grew up.

ROSE: "The Letter" was one of the biggest hits of 1967. And Chilton's worldly vocals fooled a lot of people, says Holly George-Warren. She's the author of the new biography "A Man Called Destruction."

HOLLY GEORGE-WARREN: There's some funny stories about - you know, these little, pimply teenagers showing up at a black radio station. And they thought he was a black dude, a 40-year-old black dude.

ROSE: What they got instead was a skinny teenager from a comfortable, middle-class family in Memphis. After he sang "The Letter," Chilton dropped out of 10th grade, and spent the rest of the '60s touring almost nonstop with the Box Tops. When the band dissolved in 1970, he reinvented himself as a singer, songwriter and guitarist with a new group.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF EL GOODO")

ROSE: Big Star began as a collaboration with Chris Bell, another young Memphis songwriter who shared Chilton's love of British Invasion bands, especially The Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF EL GOODO")

ROSE: The name was a joke, sort of. In a 1993 interview with journalist Parke Puterbaugh, Chilton said it was borrowed from the name of a regional grocery store chain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHILTON: Chris and I were like, smoking a joint outside the studio, and trying to think of the name. And he looked across the street and said, Big Star. And I said, that's it.

ROSE: The band's cheekiness extended to the title of its first album, called "#1 Record." Critics loved it. But problems with the band's label meant that fans couldn't find the album in stores. That didn't stop Chilton and the rest of Big Star from partying like the rock stars they thought they were going to be, says biographer Holly George-Warren.

GEORGE-WARREN: Memphis was a crazy party town at that period in the '70s. A lot of other things came into play and would, you know, make people have short tempers. And there were some arguments and things...

ROSE: By other things, you mean drugs.

GEORGE-WARREN: (Laughter) Quaaludes - quaaludes were very popular in Memphis, in those days.

ROSE: After their first album flopped, Chris Bell quit. Chilton led the rest of the band back into the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER GIRLS")

ROSE: The album "Radio City" was another success with critics. But once again, the band failed to find an audience, much to Chilton's dismay.

CHILTON: It was frustrating not to make any money there and, you know, thinking: Well, Jesus, here in the last two or three years, what I've been doing hasn't made a penny.

ROSE: Chilton recorded a third album with Big Star. It's revered as a classic now but at the time, it was considered so dark and strange that it wasn't even released for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLOCAUST")

ROSE: After Big Star broke up, Chilton reinvented himself again, this time as a punk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANGKOK")

ROSE: From there, Chilton went on to record R&B, country, rockabilly, lounge music - pretty much anything but the power pop anthems he wrote for Big Star. That frustrated his fans, says Holly George-Warren.

GEORGE-WARREN: He was constantly reinventing himself. But it wasn't done consciously, like, oh well, I'm going to be a new - you know. It was wherever his voracious appetite for new music would lead him.

ROSE: That appetite led Alex Chilton to New Orleans in 1982. He quit drinking and got a job as a dishwasher. But he kept on playing when it suited him, as he told FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FRESH AIR BROADCAST)

CHILTON: And I've sort of got my scene going and have carved out a little niche - however little it is - in the music business, you know. And I manage to play as many gigs as I want every year, and make money doing that; and make a little money here and there, making records. And it's OK with me.

ROSE: Meanwhile, Chilton's reputation started to grow, thanks to younger musicians who had hunted down Big Star's records, including members of REM, Wilco and the Replacements.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE STREET")

ROSE: And Chilton did make some money when the producers of "That '70s Show" chose one of the band's songs for the opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE STREET")

ROSE: Eventually, Chilton agreed to play reunion shows with Big Star and the Box Tops, though he seemed ambivalent about it. Chilton could be rude to fans, and he developed a reputation for sometimes phoning it in on stage. But Holly George-Warren says that's not entirely deserved.

GEORGE-WARREN: He has this reputation of being kind of mercurial and snarky, and things like that. But he could be just the friendliest person you ever met. And sure, yeah, I mean, the guy had to make a living. He wanted to make some money. But he would also happily just sit around and play music sometimes, just for the sheer love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHILTON: Any other great ideas, kids?

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Alex Chilton was 59 when he died of a heart attack in New Orleans, in 2010. Chilton never duplicated the commercial success of that first single. But his music did not fade away. In fact, it's never seemed bigger.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.