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Boston musicians come together for Alex Chilton tribute

William Eggleston, Eggleston Artistic Trust

In true cult-hero fashion, Alex Chilton and his prestige live on well beyond his death five years ago. Beloved for his work with the 1970s power-pop band Big Star — and, before that, the Box Tops — Chilton is still revered as a musician’s musician.

From left: band members Andy Hummel, Chilton, and Jody Stephens in the 2012 documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”William Eggleston, Eggleston Artistic Trust

Big Star’s legend has only grown in recent years, bolstered by a 2012 documentary, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” and Holly George-Warren’s biography of Chilton, last year’s “A Man Called Destruction.”

On Saturday, a who’s who of Boston musicians will pay tribute to Chilton in an evening that will include a special appearance by Jody Stephens, the Big Star drummer who is the band’s only remaining original member. He’ll share memories of his former bandmate and perform a few songs (on both vocals and drums).


“I really like the community of people who get together around Big Star-related things,” Stephens says from Memphis, where the band made its name. “So it seemed like a good reason to come to Boston.”

Organized by local promoter Dino Cattaneo, the show will also feature George-Warren reading passages from her book, along with a house band (Sister Lovers, a local Big Star tribute act) made up of Marc Pinansky, Kimon Kirk, and others. We asked some of the evening’s guest vocalists to riff, in their own words, on a favorite Chilton song.


Instead of waxing poetic about how Chilton’s iconic cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” [with the Box Tops] led to my first kiss with Ben Howe at my hippie summer camp, I’m going to discuss “The Letter.” I am a writer, and I won’t want someone writing about my cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” 20 years from now. “The Letter” is one of my favorite songs because it captures a moment we’ve all felt, which is, “I’m going to see my baby, and no one’s gonna stop me!” Secondly, what I love about this song is that Chilton wrote a perfect verse, second verse, and chorus, and I just imagine him saying to himself, “Screw it! I’m just gonna sing this three times in a row and that’s the song!” And there it was: a hit.



My favorite track came by way of a tribute. I had already heard a lot of the Big Star standout tracks — the required listening numbers like “Thirteen” and “In the Street,” etc. But long before tribute shows had festival-type status and sponsors, my buddy Richard Atkins started The Cult of Point Break Society as a special group doing tribute shows, and in 2007 they pulled off a sprawling Big Star tribute. It included the first time I heard “Daisy Glaze,” and I was floored by the performance and song. I’ve since grown the world’s biggest collection of “Daisy” bootlegs, and I finally get to add my version to the collection.


I appreciated Big Star’s music before, but having read Alex Chilton’s biography, I feel I’ve glimpsed into the creative spirit behind the sound. One song that caught my attention was “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” which Alex wrote and recorded at Ardent Studios at the start of his solo career. It’s supposedly about the painful relationship he had with his parents, and because of its sensitive subject, the song wasn’t released until 2012. Deceptively simple yet quiet and intensely honest, this song really speaks to my singer-songwriter heart.



I chose “You Get What You Deserve” as one of my songs for the tribute. For me, this song is the working musician’s directive. You get what you deserve means you gotta work for it. It’s a lesson: Basically you get out of it what you put into it, but try not to be such an eager beaver about it. This is true for anything in life. In the first part he is making a declaration that he is working hard, but he is struggling. He is in the weeds, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good. When you are working so hard at something and there seems to be little return, you may not feel great . . . cynical perhaps. In the end it’s optimistic — just keep pushing and you will get where you are going.


My favorite is “Feel” from [Big Star’s] debut album, “#1 Record.” To me, it combines everything Alex was about: R&B, pop, soul, rock ’n’ roll – everything in one song. That’s a tall order, and he pulls it off. The horns on the chorus show him not being afraid of mixing genres; in the end he created his own. At the time, I suppose one reason the Big Star records were unsuccessful was because they were so “Memphis.” That’s apparent listening to them now. Back then in the ’70s, I think it just confused people, especially music-business types.



1968. 8th grade at Mineral King Junior High, Visalia, Calif. My family has just moved from cosmopolitan Washington, D.C., to the sullen swelter of the central San Joaquin Valley. My only consolation is lying in my tiny, shared bedroom with a transistor radio under my ear, a pillow over my head, and tears leaking out of my eyes. One night, I hear a strangled, rough moan-yell, alternating with an awesomely weird guitar-ish hook that’s the aural equivalent of a perky ’50s housewife smiling while holding a butcher knife. The guy is singing about crying, like a baby. But he’s a man – my kind of man! The next day I take my allowance down to the record store and buy the 45 of the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby.” I proceed to wear it out, screaming along with the words in our rec room/garage, while my mom rolls her eyes in the kitchen. Forever after, I prefer raw and strange to pretty and easy. When I was 13, Alex Chilton showed me my own awesome weirdness by showing me his.

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.