R.E.M., Wilco, ''That '70s Show,'' and more of the musician's pop culture legacy

By Clark Collis
Updated March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Rock music lost one of its great cult icons when Alex Chilton, frontman of beloved ’70s guitar-pop band Big Star, unexpectedly died on March 17 in New Orleans from a suspected heart-related problem. The 59-year-old singer-songwriter may not have been a household name, but he was a totemic and inspirational figure, a huge influence on bands like R.E.M., Wilco, and the Replacements (whose 1987 song ”Alex Chilton” helped introduce him to a generation of alt-rock fans).

The Memphis-born Chilton enjoyed his largest commercial success at the start of his career, singing for late-’60s soul-pop act the Box Tops. Chilton was just 16 when the band’s single ”The Letter” hit No. 1, although his gruff vocals already sounded like they belonged to an old soul. The Box Tops disbanded in 1970, and the following year Chilton formed Big Star, who released three commercially unsuccessful but now-revered albums — #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers — before breaking up in 1974. (Cofounder Chris Bell, who left after the first album, died in a 1978 car crash.) Those three albums offer abundant evidence of Chilton’s fabulous songwriting and often haunting vocals. ”He was very smart about music, but he never let his intellect get in the way of an emotional performance,” says Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.

Following the split, Chilton embarked on a somewhat fitful solo career, while Big Star’s reputation steadily grew. By the ’90s, they were one of the most admired cult bands of all time (their ”In the Street” even ended up as That ’70s Show‘s theme song). ”Alex’s legacy is his independent spirit,” says Stephens. ”He delivered whatever popped into his head. He wasn’t looking for anyone’s approval.” But with his strange, brilliant career and dearly loved music, he found it nonetheless.

Essential Chilton Albums

The Box Tops
Cry Like a Baby
Though it doesn’t include their biggest hit, ”The Letter,” this 1968 LP is the Memphis pop-soul band’s most consistent effort.

Big Star
#1 Record/Radio City
The first two albums packaged on one CD. With classics like ”September Gurls” and ”Thirteen,” it’s totally indispensable.

Big Star
Third/Sister Lovers
This bleary masterpiece is by turns upbeat (”Thank You Friends”) and totally harrowing (”Holocaust”).

Alex Chilton
Like Flies on Sherbert
Big Star fans might be put off by this ragged 1979 album, but the primitive sound has its own sloppy charm.

Big Star
Keep an Eye on the Sky
A four-CD box set released last year that includes their best-loved songs along with live and unreleased tracks.