The saga of Big Star, and member Alex Chilton in particular, is one of the more compelling stories in rock history. Big Star was a quartet from Memphis, who included a young Chilton, formerly the teenaged lead singer for The Box Tops. It's a story of naivete, disillusionment, bitterness, and redemption, the first three of which come through in succession on their first, second, and final albums.
Alex Chilton also had three distinct careers; with The Box Tops, Big Star, and solo; they bear little in common with each other. Fans of 60's oldies remember him as the soulful voice of "The Letter", one many believed was that of a black soul singer. Big Star fans know him as the quirky, depressed, erratic genius with a British-style pop songcraft ability, solo Chilton fans remember him as a punk-era enigma; sometimes boozed, sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddeningly inscrutable, blowing off any pretense of stardom, becoming the focus of a quirky, devoted cult while delivering strange, occasionally incoherent albums. This chaos ended in the 90's when Chilton became a specialist in semi-ironic, semi-reverent cover versions of obscure R&B and rock 'n' roll songs.
What is indisputable is that Big Star, with three albums, helped create power-pop and jangle-pop, both of which were two of the most important movements in rock during the 80's. At the time it was a thankless job; the band broke up hitless after just two and a half years. But their legacy remains strong to this day.
Born Dec. 28, 1950, Chilton grew up middle-class in Memphis, TN, and started playing guitar in high school, playing in loose combos with friends. He also took up bass, and could alternate between the two, making him a versatile and useful band member. He began to sing, just a little at first, and then more as he grew confident in his voice; he had his own natural tenor, but could also sing in a deeper, bluesier voice sounding much older than his 16 years. After paying dues in a number of local amateur combos, he had his first professional gigs in 1967 with a group called the DeVilles.
The DeVilles consisted of Gary Talley (guitar), John Evans (guitar), Bill Cunningham (bass), and Danny Smythe (drums). The band played white R&B and were good musicians in a music town; their popularity was already on the rise in town when they invited Chilton, 16, to join the band in 1967. Producers/songwriters Chips Momen and Dann Penn scouted the band and liked what they saw, especially in Chilton. Popular at the time was the 17-year-old white soul shouter Stevie Winwood, and Momen and Penn were seeking a similar act of their own when they came across Chilton and the DeVilles. They signed the band, which changed its name shortly after to The Box Tops to avoid confusion with another DeVilles.