The Late Alex Chilton, An Uncompromising Rocker The influential musician and producer, of The Box Tops and Big Star fame, died this week after a sudden heart attack at age 59. Neda Ulaby looks back on Chilton's varied career.
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The Late Alex Chilton, An Uncompromising Rocker

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The Late Alex Chilton, An Uncompromising Rocker

The Late Alex Chilton, An Uncompromising Rocker

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Alex Chilton was not well-known to mainstream music fans. But he was worshiped by a generation of rock stars. Chilton died yesterday at his home in New Orleans after an apparent heart attack. He was 59 years old.

Among his fans, REM, Wilco, and The Replacements, who wrote an entire song about him.

THE REPLACEMENTS (Rock Band): (Singing) Children by the millions go for Alex Chilton when he comes around....

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY: Rock snobs describe Alex Chilton as one of modern music's great under-appreciated figures. Some say he helped invent power pop. But a few years ago, Chilton told WHYY's Fresh Air he had no idea what power pop even meant.

Mr. ALEX CHILTON (Musician): I dont really. I mean, I like simple pop songs with no real message, you know. Just about feeling good and being happy.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Street")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Hanging out down the street. The same old thing we did last week...

ULABY: The music Chilton made with the band Big Star has been called The Beatles back through the filter imposed on it by British art school dropouts a decade earlier. Alex Chilton was only sixteen when his recording career began in a white-hot blaze with this 1967 number one hit with the Box Tops.

(Soundbite of song, "The Letter")

THE BOX TOPS (Music Group): (Singing) Give me a ticket for an aeroplane. Ain't got time to take a fast train. Lonely days are gone. I'm going home, my baby just wrote me a letter.

ULABY: Chilton sounded like Memphis, the city where he grew up. But he said producers coached him through every growling note and, listening back to the song, he could only hear them. For the rest of his career, Chilton made a point of pleasing himself. Here he is on a solo record he produced from 1978.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALEX CHILTON (Singer): (Singing) Every little thing thats going to please you. There's a little town down in Indonesia. Bangkok, yeah, Bangkok.

ULABY: Chilton was happiest making the kind of music he considered uncompromised. He produced the first record by the iconic punk band The Cramps.

(Soundbite of music)

THE CRAMPS (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. CHILTON: There was an anarchistic sort of edge to it and it wasn't some corporate showcase of Stepford wives bands, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

THE CRAMPS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. CHILTON: Good rock 'n' roll.

ULABY: But it was the rock Chilton made with the band Big Star that may most define his legacy, though Big Star only made three albums.

(Soundbite of music)

BIG STAR (Music Group): (Singing) Won't you let me walk you home from school? Won't you let me meet you at the pool?

ULABY: The story of Big Star is a sad part of music industry mythology. The band never had a hit, one of its members died in a car crash, and their records were hard to find, which maybe contributed to the cult that grew around them. Ken Stringfellow followed the power pop path a generation later with the band The Posies, which has performed as part of a reconstituted Big Star for the past 15 years. They were supposed to play at the South by Southwest music festival on Saturday.

Mr. KEN STRINGFELLOW (Musician): I'm definitely still in shock.

ULABY: Stringfellow says in spite of Big Star's reputation among indie musicians, Chilton felt ambivalent about the band.

Mr. STRINGFELLOW: He felt the same way about Big Star when the band was together as he did later, that it was an experiment that didn't particularly work, and hed moved on to other things.

ULABY: Things like baroque music. Stringfellow says Chilton loved transcribing it for Big Star and then making them play it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STRINGFELLOW: That was one of his little exercises that he really, really enjoyed.

ULABY: An esoteric, idiosyncratic and often maddening career. But it was the one that Alex Chilton wanted.

Mr. CHILTON: It seems to me that the world is full of great musicians who dont have any record companies interested in them. Im not really so concerned about it. I mean, Ive sort of got my scene going and have carved out a little niche, however little it is, and it's okay with me.

ULABY: For Alex Chilton, independence and integrity trumped wealth and fame. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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