Teenage soul savant, power-pop progenitor, indie rock idol and Memphis music legend Alex Chilton has died.
The Memphis, Tenn., Commercial Appeal confirmed the news Wednesday night, but rumors flew through South by Southwest, where Chilton's influential 1970s band Big Star was scheduled to play Saturday night at Antone's.
"Chilton, 59, had been complaining about his health earlier today," according to the Commercial Appeal's Web site . "He was taken by paramedics to the emergency room where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death is believed to be a heart attack."
SXSW director Roland Swenson said he found out late Wednesday and that he was not sure about the status of Big Star's showcase, which could become a memorial show. The other members of Big Star are scheduled to be on a panel on the group's history and legacy Saturday afternoon. (Big Star co-founder Chris Bell died in 1978.)
Chilton's singular career had a couple of distinct phases; each practically had its own fanbase. Boomers might remember him as the 16-year-old whose gritty-beyond-his-years voice powered songs for the Box Tops such as the smash hit "The Letter" and the Memphis soul classic "Cry Like A Baby."
When the Box Tops folded in 1970, Chilton joined with songwriter/guitarist Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens to form Big Star. Chilton scrapped his gruff soul voice for a higher, thinner tone, as Big Star's British pop-rock obsessions demanded Beatles-style harmonies.
Big Star was a commercial failure, but its 1972 debut album, "#1 Record" and the 1974 follow-up "Radio City" aged into cult classics, worshipped as precision-tooled power-pop perfection by bands from the Replacements (who wrote the song "Alex Chilton" about their hero) to R.E.M. to Cheap Trick (who turned Big Star's "Out in the Street" into the theme song for "That 70s Show").
The final Big Star album, "Third/Sister Lovers," is essentially a Chilton solo album with Stephens on it. Largely a collaboration with the late Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, it's a dark, strange album, its fanbase a cult within the Chilton cult. An excellent Big Star box set, "Keep an Eye on the Sky," was released last year by Rhino Records.
In the mid-'70s Chilton changed again, making tossed-off-sounding EPs and albums that fascinated some and annoyed others — instead of using his sweet Big Star voice, he often mumble-sang like he just fell out of bed.
But for fans, albums such as "Like Flies on Sherbet," "Bach's Bottom" and the brilliantly named bootleg "Dusted in Memphis" embodied a falling-apart, spit-and-baling-wire song style that very few bands could quite master, though Pavement came the closest.
He also dabbled in production, helming brilliant early records by the Cramps and the Gories and playing the sideman in rockabilly weirdos Panther Burns.
Chilton continued to record and tour sporadically throughout the '80s and '90s, his and Big Star's cult building fan by converted fan.
In the mid-'90s, Big Star reformed with a newly minted line-up including Chilton, Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. That band performed often over the next decade-plus.
In the Replacements' fantasia "Alex Chilton," Paul Westerberg sings of a place where "children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round." That never happened in the real world, but his cult loved his music with the passion of a million fans.
He is survived by his wife, Laura, and son Timothy.
Additional material from the Commerical Appeal.