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Box Tops, Big Star singer Alex Chilton dies at 59

March 17, 2010 | 10:09 pm

Alex Chilton, who burst out of Memphis in the late 1960s with the Box Tops, singing “The Letter” in the smoke-gravel voice of a grizzled R&B veteran even though he was just teenager at the time, has died in New Orleans. He was 59.

Chilton's longtime friend John Fry told the Associated Press that Chilton died Wednesday at a hospital after experiencing what appeared to be heart problems.

“It was just a sudden and unexpected event,” said Fry, the owner of Memphis-based Ardent Studios. He said he spoke to Chilton’s wife and that she was very distressed.

With the Box Tops, but even more with Big Star, the band he started in the ‘70s after the Box Tops disbanded, Chilton helped lay the foundation for the movement known as “indie rock,” defined by groups that still honor the fundamental power of the guitar-bass-drums band lineup and that make music for the sheer joy and artistic exploration rather than chiefly for commercial success.

Big Star was to be the focus of a tribute to its legacy on Saturday at the annual South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Tex.

“Alex Chilton always messed with your head, charming and amazing you while doing so,” the conference’s creative director, Brent Grulke, said in a statement Thursday. “His gift for melody was second to none, yet he frequently seemed in disdain of that gift. He seemed as troubled by neglect as he did by fame. He wrote the most accessible pop songs that turned into something quite sour on closer reflection.

“It was impossible to know what he was thinking,” Grulke’s continued. “But it was always worth pondering, because that’s what a truly great artist makes us do. And make no mistake: Alex Chilton was an artist of the very highest caliber.”

Chilton was immortalized in a song named for him by the Replacements, the Minneapolis band from the ‘80s and ‘90s that was one of countless Big Star disciples.

“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round,” the Replacements lead singer and songwriter, Paul Westerberg, wrote.

A full obituary will appear in Saturday’s paper.

--Randy Lewis