Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star' Chilton, who died Wednesday from a heart attack, was the lead singer of the '60s teenage band the Box Tops and the '70s power pop group Big Star. He joined Fresh Air for two interviews, first in 1991 and again in 2000. Today, we remember the cult musician.
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Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star'

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Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star'

Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Alex Chilton died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack. He was 59 years old. Alex Chilton first tasted fame as the lead singer of a 1960s group called the Box Tops. Their hits included "Cry Like a Baby" and "The Letter," for which he provided the growly vocal when he was only 16 years old.

(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.

I don't care how much money I gotta spend, got to get back to my baby again. Lonely days are gone, I'm going home. My baby just wrote me a letter.

Well, she wrote me a letter, said she couldn't live without me no more. Listen, mister, can't you see I got to get to my baby once more. Anyway, get me a ticket for an aeroplane....

BIANCULLI: In the 1970s, Alex Chilton formed his own band, Big Star, which was less successful commercially but regarded very warmly by critics and fellow artists and was quite influential. At the time, Village Voice rock critic Robert Cristgau described Chilton's Big Star music as breathtakingly original. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked all three Big Star albums on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

So revered was he by the next generation that The Replacements recorded a song called, simply, "Alex Chilton." And Saturday night at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas - an event at which Alex Chilton had been scheduled to appear - original members of Big Star will join other musicians in a tribute to Alex Chilton. Those other musicians include members of R.E.M., She and Him and X.

In remembrance of Alex Chilton, today we'll replay a pair of vintage interviews he recorded with Terry Gross, beginning with this one, from 1991.


You started recording with the Box Top when you were 16. Can you tell me how you got a chance like that at such a young age?

Mr. ALEX CHILTON (Musician): Well, Memphis was a hotbed of recording activity -Memphis, where I grew up. And you know, I was asked to join a kind of successful local band who made records at - sort of a successful independent producer's studio. And 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 growing up in Hollywood, next door to MGM's studio lot or something, you know.

GROSS: Right. Now on those early sessions with the Box Tops, you have this real, you know, kind of rough, growly kind of voice, and your voice is completely different on your subsequent work. Did you sing that way at the time, or were you asked to sing that way?

Mr. CHILTON: Well, the producer of the band was a strong influence on how we sounded, and he would sort of demonstrate to me how he wanted things sung, and I would pretty much just imitate his singing. His name was Dan Penn - still is Dan Penn.

GROSS: So did you feel like it wasn't really you on the records, in that respect?

Mr. CHILTON: In a way I do. I listen to it, and I go wow, Dan's really in voice today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHILTON: It sounds more like Dan than it does myself, to me.

GROSS: What was it like handling fame at the age of 16? Were you prepared for it?

Mr. CHILTON: Oh, I mean, I don't know that anybody's prepared to handle fame. But then again, I think it would've made a lot more difference if I'd been a true believer in my own fame, too, but as it was, you know, we were kind of doing the bidding of producers and recording songs that were not our own, and it was sort of a job to me. I wasn't such a great fan of our group that I was really caught up in thinking that I was a tremendous, great artist or anything at the time.

GROSS: When did you leave the Box Tops and start your own group?

Mr. CHILTON: In 1970, I left the Box Tops, and I guess the next year, I started the group called Big Star.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you about one of the first records that you made on your own after the Box Tops, and this is a song you wrote called "Free Again." Do you want to say anything about what was going through your mind when you wrote the song?

Mr. CHILTON: Sure, you know, I guess that it's some kind of tune of some kind of liberation as far as the lyrics. But I was a big fan of the Flying Burrito Brothers at the time, and you know, country rock was sort of something I was getting interested in. So it sounds very country rocky, and you know, with the pedal steel guitar and all.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Free Again")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Well, I'm free again to do what I want again, free again to sing my songs again, free again to end my longing to be out on my own again. Well, I had me a girl, but she couldn't understand me and my ways and my need to be a man. Left her today, put my life in my hands. Well, I'm free again. Well, I'm free again...

GROSS: When you formed the band Big Star, was there an intended irony behind the name?

Mr. CHILTON: I guess so. We'd been together for some time without a name and somehow it just -, there was a store across the street called The Big Star, and while wondering what we should call ourselves, we looked across the street and somehow, it seemed perfect.

So I guess yeah, there was an irony in calling our first album "#1 Record" by a group called Big Star. I guess we thought it was funny at the time.

GROSS: Well, I guess it kind of stayed funny in the sense that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHILTON: We sure never sold any records, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Was that a great disappointment to you?

Mr. CHILTON: I don't know. I was I wasn't really counting on selling a whole lot of records or anything, you know. I mean, I thought that someday, if we ever sold any records, I might make some money out of it. That's been that myth has been exploded for me also. But you know, I didn't have any great emotional investment in the success or failure of the record in commercial terms.

GROSS: Now, choose one of the songs from the early sessions that really still works for you, you know what I mean, that really sums up for you the kind of sounds you wanted to get.

Mr. CHILTON: Well, my favorite song from the first Big Star record is called "In the Street," you know, and I think that that's sort of the best song that I wrote in that period. And somehow, it just turned out great, you know. On tape, these things happen, sometimes for no good reason.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Street")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week. Not a thing to do but talk to you.

GROSS: Your records ended up being very influential to a lot of bands who were coming up at the time. The Replacements even have a song called "Alex Chilton." When did you get a sense of the impact that your music was having on other musicians, even if it wasn't having a big impact commercially?

Mr. CHILTON: I guess in the late '70s. I spent some time in New York, and it seemed like everybody I ran into there, you know, claimed to be a fan of the Big Star albums, and that sort of stuff. And so, you know, I guess it was around then that I began to see that even though we hadn't sold any records or made any money out of the albums, that they were still some kind of success in a way, you know.

GROSS: What would they tell you? What kind of specific stories did people tell you about the impact your music had on them?

Mr. CHILTON: Mostly what it is, is young guys coming up who are like, learning to play guitar, you know. They seem to reach a certain stage where this record shows them something, you know.

It's I think that that's what people go for about it. That's what they all seem to gravitate toward - is this jangly guitar sound that's happening there.

GROSS: A lot of people call your music one of the first albums of power pop. What does that expression mean to you?

Mr. CHILTON: I dont know, really. I mean, to me we were more like - our band was more like the mid-'60s British invasion music, you know. It was like three minutes three-minute pop songs that were kind of unpretentious and very basically about love, and just being a teenager and having a good time, you know.

For me, music, once it entered the psychedelic era there in the '60s, I became less interested in it. I like simple pop songs with no real message, you know, just about feeling good and being happy.

BIANCULLI: Alex Chilton, speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're remembering singer, songwriter, guitarist Alex Chilton, who died Wednesday at the age of 59. Chilton made a return visit to FRESH AIR in 2000, and brought his guitar with him. This was after his song "In the Street" had been used as the theme song for TV's "That '70s Show," performed by Cheap Trick. Terry asked Alex Chilton how that song came to be chosen.

Mr. CHILTON: A friend of mine from Philadelphia - or at least, from right across the river - named Ben Vaughn, has been working in Hollywood doing music for various media productions television, I guess, and movies for the past few years, and he somehow is working with the people who produce the show "That '70s Show," and they were looking for a theme. And he suggested this tune to them, and I guess that they liked it and thought it would work well. So that's how it happened.

GROSS: Did you write it in the '70s?

Mr. CHILTON: I did, yeah.

GROSS: And does the song say '70s to you?

Mr. CHILTON: I never thought about it, actually, as having to do with a period of time. I thought of it as having to do with sort of growing up suburban and being a teenager, more or less.

GROSS: Would you play some of it for us?

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, I'll play some of it for you.

(Soundbite of song, "In the Street")

Mr. CHILTON: (Singing) Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week. Not a thing to do but talk to you. Steal your car and bring it down, pick me up, we'll drive around. Wish we had a joint so bad.

GROSS: So how old were you when you wrote that?

Mr. CHILTON: I guess I was 20 - 19 or 20.

GROSS: So you weren't far removed from the character in the song.

Mr. CHILTON: True, true.

GROSS: Smoking joints?

Mr. CHILTON: Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The lyric is kind of rewritten for the TV show. I think there's nothing about the joint on it and instead, there are lyrics about Nixon's gone but rock lives on.

Mr. CHILTON: Oh really? You know, I haven't I've never watched the show. I've never heard them do it.

GROSS: Well, at least that's on the CD version of the theme from the show. I'm not sure that it's actually on the TV version.

Mr. CHILTON: Uh-huh.

GROSS: How did you feel about them changing your lyric?

Mr. CHILTON: Oh, I don't care what they do.

GROSS: I guess you never really know what's going to happen to one of your songs.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, people can twist it any kind of way they want, I guess.

GROSS: But I mean, you never know, like, what use it's going to have.

Mr. CHILTON: That's true.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me take...

Mr. CHILTON: I don't feel like it's a real desecration, though. You know, it's not a sacred object.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Alex Chilton, speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. Let's conclude our salute to Alex Chilton by hearing more from Terry's 1991 interview with him, when she asked about whether he ever performed music from the earliest part of his career.

GROSS: Are you ever on the oldies circuit, playing...

Mr. CHILTON: Absolutely, yeah.

GROSS: You are?

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, I just, I played a gig with the Beach Boys a couple of weeks ago. That was thrilling. I got to even sing "Surfin' USA" on stage with them. It was the greatest thrill of my career.

GROSS: So what's it like for you on the oldies circuit? Tell me what you like and dislike about it.

Mr. CHILTON: Well, I enjoy meeting all these bands that I've heard of for so long, you know - like, I've played some gigs lately with Question Mark from Question Mark & the Mysterians.

GROSS: Oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHILTON: And he's a lot of fun. It's interesting to be, you know, hanging around hotel lobbies with Question Mark and that sort of stuff. So, you know, in the summertimes, it seems like people offer me some gigs, you know, with '60s bands and things like that. And it's fun to do now and then.

GROSS: So what do you play?

Mr. CHILTON: Well, it's pretty strictly Box Tops material that's called for, and usually it's a five-song set, you know. So it's kind of easy money. You just get up and play five or six tunes at a county fair in Iowa or North Dakota or something, and it's kicky. You know, what can I say?

GROSS: In the late '70s, you started becoming really part of the punk scene, and you produced records by the Cramps. You produced their first records. What attracted you to that? You'd already been around a while, and a lot of people in it were just coming up.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, I was I don't know, everybody - since the '60s, it seems like everybody who was still interested in playing rock 'n' roll kept looking for - well, where is the new scene going to be, you know. We've got to have a scene going here so that we can all get involved in it and do good things. And I think that in New York in the mid-'70s was the nearest thing to a scene, like the London scene or the Los Angeles scene in the '60s, you know.

So I sort of gravitated to it because there was an anarchistic sort of edge to it, and it wasn't some corporate showcase of "Stepford Wives" bands, you know, playing up there. It was real, rebellious, good rock 'n' roll that was coming from street level rather than corporate boardroom level.

GROSS: You've been so influential on so many people in rock and yet, you know, you're kind of functioning independently. You don't have a record contract. There isn't a big company after you to record something now. What explanation do you have for I'm always interested when someone of your talents is kind of not more sought after.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, well, I don't know. It seems to me that the world is full of great musicians who don't have any record companies interested in them. It seems to me that the record companies are interested in bands of teenage guys, you know, with long hair and playing heavy metal music - or whatever the next trend will be, you know.

And I'm not really so concerned about it. I mean, 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.

GROSS: What is that scene?

Mr. CHILTON: What is the niche that I've carved out, you mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CHILTON: Well, you know, I can play in these college towns and get my records played on college radio, and that sort of stuff.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. CHILTON: Yeah, well, thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Singer, songwriter, guitarist Alex Chilton, speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. The singer for the Box Tops, and founder of the group Big Star, died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack. He was 59 years old. He will be saluted in concert Saturday at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

You can hear Alex Chilton's complete interview with Terry Gross on May 1st, 2000, on our Web site, We'll close with a song Alex Chilton wrote and performed with Big Star. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "September Gurls")

BIG STAR (Music Group): (Singing) September gurls do so much, I was your butch and you were touched, I loved you well never mind, I've been crying all the time. December boys got it bad. December boys got it bad. September gurls I don't know why, how can I deny what's inside, even though I keep away, maybe we'll love all our days. December boys got it bad. December boys got it bad. When I get to bed late at night, that's the time, she makes things right, ooh when she makes luv to me...

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