William Alexander "Alex" Chilton (December 28, 1950 – March 17, 2010) was an American songwriter, guitarist, singer and producer, best known as the lead singer of The Box Tops and Big Star. Chilton's early commercial success in the 1960s as a teen vocalist for The Box Tops was never repeated in later years with Big Star and in his subsequent indie music solo career on small labels, but he drew an obsessive following among indie and alternative music musicians. He is frequently cited as a seminal influence by influential rock artists and bands, some of whose testimonials appeared in the 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Chilton grew up in a musical family; his father, Sidney Chilton, was a jazz musician. A local band recruited the teenager in 1966 as their lead singer after learning of the popularity of his vocal performance at a talent show at Memphis' Central High School; this band was (Ronnie and) the Devilles, later renamed The Box Tops. The new group recorded with Chips Moman and producer/songwriter Dan Penn at American Sound Studio and Muscle Shoals' FAME Studios.
As lead singer for The Box Tops, Chilton enjoyed at the age of 16 a number-one international hit, "The Letter." The Box Tops went on to have several other major chart hits, including "Neon Rainbow" (1967), "Cry Like a Baby" (1968), "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" (1969), and "Soul Deep" (1969). Aside from the hits "The Letter," "Neon Rainbow," and "Soul Deep," all written by Wayne Carson Thompson, many of the group's songs were written by Penn, Moman, Spooner Oldham, and other top area songwriters, with Chilton occasionally contributing a song. By late 1969, only Chilton and guitarist Gary Talley remained from the original group, and newer additions replaced the members who had departed. The group decided to disband and pursue independent careers in February 1970.
Chilton then began performing as a solo artist, maintaining a working relationship with Penn for demos. During this period he began learning guitar by studying the styles of guitarists like Stax Records great Steve Cropper, recording his own material in 1969–70 at Ardent Studios with local musicians like producer Terry Manning (who had worked with Chilton as an engineer on The Box Tops' recordings) and drummer Richard Rosebrough, and producing a few local blues-rock acts. His 1970 recordings and productions from that time frame were released years later in the 1980s and 1990s on albums like Lost Decade (New Rose Records) and 1970 (Ardent Records).
During this era, Chilton was considered as a replacement vocalist for Al Kooper in Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Chilton was taken to the hospital in New Orleans on Wednesday, March 17, 2010, complaining of health problems, and died the same day of a heart attack. Chilton had experienced at least two episodes of shortness of breath in the week prior to his fatal heart attack, though he did not seek medical attention in part because he did not have health insurance. He was survived by his wife, Laura, a son, Timothee, and a sister, Cecilia.
He had been scheduled to play a concert with Big Star at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, on March 20; the show instead took place as a tribute to Chilton, with guests Curt Kirkwood, Chris Stamey, M. Ward, Mike Mills, John Doe, Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet, Evan Dando, The Watson Twins, and original member Andy Hummel (who died three months later) joining the other members of Big Star.
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