Illustration from William Blake's Milton, a Poem in Two Books, 1804
Alex Chilton was a Memphis-born musician. He was an impressive singer, belting out the soulful vocal that propelled the Box Tops' "The Letter" to #1 in 1967 - he was just 16 years old at the time. He was a fascinating songwriter, moving in his career from bubblegum pop to power pop to experimentation and exploration of roots music and other traditional genres. He was one of the most underrated rhythm guitarists in pop music as well - you rarely hear praise for his inventive '70s-era guitarwork that shaped the sound of college rock in the 1980s. He was a producer, a historian, and an art-lover.
For me, personally, Chilton was a doorway into other worlds of pop music - like a lot of rock fans of my generation, I started out listening to the big names that came out of '80s college rock, like REM and the Replacements. All of these bands talked up Chilton's then little-known '70s power-pop combo Big Star. So I went looking for information about Alex Chilton. Now, Chilton's Big Star is one of the foundational pieces of my musical perspective (I wrote about them in my first week of doing Wires and Waves), and I'm still exploring Chilton's work (I wrote about the Box Tops' Dimensions two weeks ago and I'm expecting another Chilton CD in the mail any day now.)
One of the saddest things that happens when people write about Alex Chilton is that they usually include some direct or indirect reference to "squandered potential/talent". This is because people who write about Chilton are by and large, like me, HUGE Big Star fans. But I think that it's important to recognize that Chilton was something other than what people wanted him to be. From a young age, he was a restless explorer of music's traditions and potential - Big Star was a dalliance for him. He tried the "pop" thing for a couple years and was really REALLY good at it, but we may have Big Star co-founder and huge Beatles fan Chris Bell to thank for dragging Chilton in that direction. The saddest thing is that this little period in which Chilton tried the "pop direction" didn't intersect with any kind of mainstream success. Never really content to stay in one place, I don't know that Chilton would have kept making glossy rock albums if Big Star had broken through, but I don't think I'm alone in saying that he deserved that success on some level. The Replacements' Paul Westerberg captured the essence of hearing Big Star in his song "Alex Chilton": "I'm in love - what's that song? I'm in love with that song!"
"Take Care" by Big Star