To casual and oldies music listeners, Alex Chilton was the gravelly voiced 16-year-old who sang the No.1 hit "The Letter" in the '60s.
But to dedicated music fans — the ones who build their lives going to concerts, collecting records and making lists of the Best Songs About Riding Shotgun During a Road Trip — Alex Chilton was a cult hero.
As leader of Big Star, the Memphis power-pop band Chilton formed after leaving the Box Tops, Chilton made some of the most durable music of the '70s, even if it took most people a couple of decades to discover it.
The band released only three albums (but that's debatable — Big Star's third album, Sister Lovers, was essentially a Chilton solo album), but their impact has spread all the way to the '10s.
The Bangles recorded one of their songs. Elliott Smith recorded one of their songs. The Replacements even wrote a song about him.
Chilton reportedly died of a heart attack yesterday in New Orleans. He was 59. The reunited Big Star was scheduled to play the South by Southwest music festival in Austin this weekend.
I saw Chilton at the old Peabody's in the Flats in December 1987. He came in through the front doors, just like the few fans who braved the snowy weather that night for this intimate show featuring his touring trio. He was carrying his own guitar, made his way through the audience and stepped onstage.
He sang some solo songs. He sang some Big Star songs. And he sang "The Letter." He also sang "The Christmas Song."
I taped the show on a small recorder I snuck into Peabody's that night. I still have it somewhere.
Thanks for the music, Alex. —Michael Gallucci (follow me on Twitter @mgallucci)
(The above photo of Chilton was taken by local photographer Karen Laney at the Box Tops show at the Beachland in 2007.)