Guitarist Alex Chilton, who died of heart-related problems Wednesday night, was mourned across the alternative rock world on Thursday. But his loss was particularly felt at the South by Southwest Music + Media Conference, where Chilton was scheduled to perform with and speak about his band Big Star.
Sources tell Billboard that a Saturday fundraising gig dedicated to Chilton was being organized.
Whiteboards at the Foundation booth featured updates about the Saturday afternoon panel discussion about Big Star, as well as the Saturday night showcase, both of which were still expected to take place. “It hits here a little more because Alex was on his way here to perform,” said Foundation president Dean Deyo. “It’s devastating. Memphis has a huge musical legacy, and Alex was such a big part of it.”
The Foundation planned to dedicate its Thursday night showcase at Barbarella to Chilton, while Star and Micey, a Memphis band that records for Big Star drummer Jody Stephens’ Ardent label, dedicated its early afternoon performance at the booth to Chilton. Nobody at the Foundation had spoken with Stephens as of early Thursday afternoon.
“The band’s in great shock” and asked that attendees “think of Alex when you enjoy this weekend,” Brent Grulke, SXSW festival creative director told Billboard.
Thoughts about Chilton poured in from various fans and musicians throughout the day. At a listening party for Stone Temple Pilots‘ new album, frontman Scott Weiland recalled using a song from Big Stars’ “Third/Sister Lovers” album as a lullaby for his son, Noah. “I think (Chilton) wrote some of the most beautiful songs,” Weiland said. “He was real special to me.” Weiland said the song [he couldn’t remember the title] also influenced “A Song For Sleeping” from STP’s “Shangri-La Dee Da” album in 2001.
The BoDeans‘ Kurt Neumann recalled opening for Big Star the last time the group performed at SXSW. “[It was] one of those things we were doing because it was Big Star,” he said. “There was a lot of excitement that they were together and playing. We felt lucky to be on that gig.” His BoDeans partner Sam Llanas said the group also did some dates with Chilton during 1987 in Europe, although they didn’t get to spend much time together. “He’s one of those guys that inspired so many young musicians,” Llanas noted. “Between him and the Velvet Underground, they’re probably responsible for thousands of groups out there. And ‘September Gurls’ is a classic pop song you can’t deny.”
John Hiatt did not know Chilton but said he had great respect for him as a musician. “I’m a big fan of his singing, just the sound of his voice,” Hiatt said after his performance at the New West Records party. “He certainly cut some great records, definitely an innovator.”
Chilton’s contributions were “more than just what he did himself. As much as he was celebrated for his songwriting, he mentored and produced so many other bands,” Dave Faulkner of Hoodoo Gurus told Billboard. “Somebody like the Cramps were titans of music and Alex was instrumental in presenting their vision. He was hugely influential on generations of music.”
Singer-songwriter Radney Foster — who twetted that “December boys will love September Gurls forever” – told Billboard that without Chilton, there would have been no Foster & Lloyd, his duo with fellow singer-songwriter Bill Lloyd. “The Box Tops were one of my favorite bands growing up; (Chilton) sounded like a 45-year-old black man when he was 16,” Foster says. “And Big Star was a huge influence on Bill. He introduced me to them and it had a profound influence on what Foster & Lloyd sounded like. It was a roller coaster ride of a career, but there was a lot of stuff that deserved attention.”
But the most unexpected, and one of the most heartfelt remembrances of Chilton was heard in the House of Representatives. Rep. Steve Cohen (D) of Tennessee memorialized Chilton on the floor with a one-minute speech, in which he quoted lyrics from a Box Tops song and gave several statistics about Chilton’s career. “His music will live on forever. He is an embodiment of Memphis music: Hard, different, independent, brilliant, beautiful. We’re lucky he came our way.”