Alex Chilton, Big Star and Box Tops singer dies at 59

Alex Chilton: he had a No. 1 record and a '#1 Record'
Alex Chilton: he had a No. 1 record and a '#1 Record' (Image credit: © Christopher Felver/Corbis)

Alex Chilton, singer and guitarist with the bands The Box Tops and Big Star, has died at the age of 59.

Chilton reportedly suffered a heart attack in New Orleans yesterday, just days before Big Star were due to play the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas on Saturday.

Longtime friend John Fry told the Commercial Appeal newspaper, "I'm crushed. We're all just crushed. This sudden death experience is never something that you're prepared for. And yet it occurs."

Born in Memphis in 1950, Chilton began his musical career while still in his teens as a member of The Box Tops. The band scored a No. 1 hit with the song The Letter, on which Chilton sang lead, in 1967.

A power pop pioneer

But it was with his next band, Big Star, formed in 1970, that Chilton would become one of the most influential musicians of his generation. Blending power pop with the melodic sensibilities of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, Big Star were critically acclaimed but failed to win the hearts of the public.

During the early '70s, Big Star released three studio albums, #1 Record (1972), Radio City (1974) and Third/Sister Lovers (1978). The songs Thirteen (from #1 Record) and September Gurls (from Radio City) both made Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time list.

Although Chilton quit performing for a time and spent part of the '80s working odd jobs, his influence was cited by bands such as REM and The Replacements - the latter group even named a song after him that was featured on their album Pleased To Meet Me.

During the late '80s, Chilton returned to performing as a solo artist, and in the '90s he put together a new version of Big Star that included original member Jody Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies.

Chilton is survived by his wife, Laura, and his son, Timothy.

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.