Alex Chilton, Influential Rock Star, Dead At 59

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Alex Chilton, an inspiration to many famous rock bands and singers and former lead singer of the Box Tops and Big Star died Wednesday at a New Orleans hospital. The cause of death is unknown, but he went to the hospital after having complaining about heart problems.

Chilton's career spanned four decades, and Entertainment Weekly describes his death as the loss of one of rock's "great cult figures and touchstones of influence." In 1967, when Chilton was just 16, he and the Box Tops scored a hit with "The Letter."  After the Box Tops disbanded in 1970, Chilton became the frontman for Big Star, whose 1972 "In The Street" enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the '90's when a cover of it was used as the theme to "That 70's Show." The group broke up in 1974 but reformed in the 90's and was scheduled to perform at the South By Southwest music festival on Saturday.

Chilton is remembered as having inspired myriad artists and groups, including R.E.M., Wilco, Jeff Buckley, and the Replacements. Entertainment Weekly explains that his legacy is less about his impact on the public than on musicmakers:

He was a musical figure--like Nick Drake or Gram Parsons--whose importance lay not with his chart placings, but in the place his music found in the record collections of subsequent generations of stars.

Big Star, EW's Clark Collis writes, "is regarded in many quarters as one of the greatest rock acts of all-time." After Big Star disbanded, Chilton embarked on an initially wobbly solo career, according to a 2000 Rolling Stone profile:

Since 1975, Chilton has been releasing albums under his own moniker and on his own terms. With snarled early solo efforts like Bach's Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert, he appeared to be an artist unraveling, but by the mid-Eighties Chilton was earning praise for R&B-tinged efforts like Feudalist Tarts and High Priest. On his new album Set -- his first since 1995's blues-inflected A Man Called Destruction -- Chilton interprets gospel, country and jazz offerings with appropriate tact.

Here's Big Star performing "In The Street" on "The Tonight Show:"

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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