Remembering Alex Chilton: An Underground 'Big Star'
Musician Alex Chilton died Wednesday from an apparent heart attack in New Orleans. He was 59. Chilton's music, with his '60s band the Box Tops, his '70s group Big Star and his solo work later, was fiercely beloved by a small audience. His albums sold relatively few copies, but his influence echoed in many bands that followed.
Chilton was a teenager when the Box Tops released their hits "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby." After that group disbanded in 1970, Chilton began recording as a solo artist in New York City. A year later, he returned to Memphis and joined the power-pop group Big Star. Though the group was never as commercially successful as the Box Tops, Big Star acquired a cult following in the 1980s, particularly among other musicians; as NPR's Neda Ulaby noted Thursday, "he was worshiped by a generation of rock stars, including REM, Wilco and The Replacements."
In a May 29, 1991, interview on Fresh Air, Chilton explained when he realized that Big Star was having an impact on other singer-songwriters.
"In the late '70s, I spent some time in New York and it seemed like everybody I ran into there claimed to be a fan of the Big Star albums," he said. "So it was around then I began to see, even though we hadn't sold any records or made any money out of the albums, that they were still some kind of success."
Chilton said it didn't matter to him that he wasn't more commercially successful or sought after as a musician.
"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," Chilton said. "I'm not really so concerned about it. I've got my sort of scene going and carved out a little niche, however little it is in the music business, 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."
Portions of this interview were originally broadcast on May 29, 1991, and May 1, 2000.
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