#1 Record Big Star (Stax Records) Much of the music world was stunned last week by the sudden death of 59-year-old Alex Chilton of a heart attack. What had been a highly anticipated gig by his cult act Big Star at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, instead turned into an impromptu tribute by well-known performers who considered him to be a musical hero. REM bassist Mike Mills took to the stage to perform with the remaining members of Big Star, as did a slew of singers from 80s alternative acts, including Evan Dando from the Lemonheads, John Doe from X and Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets. As a pop songwriter and guitarist, Chilton was by turns elusive, influential, a genius and a shooting star who burned brightly and crashed just as hard. After all, he discovered all too early about the pressures of fame when his classic song The Letter hit No1 while he was a member of the Box Tops. He was just 16 years old. Bored with the demands and profoundly influenced by The Beatles, Chilton teamed up with his Memphis, Tennessee, friend Chris Bell, who introduced him to his own group Icewater. With Bell on guitar, Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens playing drums, the trio were accommodating when Chilton played them some homemade compositions that included Thirteen and Watch the Sunrise. Into the now famous Ardent Studios they went, where founder Jonathan Fry masterminded the proceedings while each member of the band honed their already considerable production skills. In the process, they stumbled upon their name, which was based on a grocery store chain they would visit in between sessions. If Bell was the McCartney of the group, then Chilton was Lennon. Everyone contributed, but the duo wrote the majority of the songs that would form #1 Record. Stephens claimed that Chilton would record dark and edgy material before Bell added sweet backup harmonies on the songs to balance them out. The album became a home to the exuberant and upbeat single Don't Lie to Me just as it did to the more reflective, albeit catchy Ballad of el Goodo. Among the gems on an album that became a blueprint for 'power pop' was Thirteen, which has been covered by scores of acts. The 1972 release was a critical success but distribution problems meant that Big Star were a long way from matching the commercial heights of The Beatles. So, they attempted to emulate them again on second album Radio City and it was more of the same - critical accolades without commercial success. By this time Bell had left the group and Chilton soldiered on. His work on the original group's third and final album Third/Sister Lovers was hailed as the epitome of what an emotional breakdown would sound like on vinyl. Bell was killed in a car accident in 1978 and Chilton pursued his own muse. While he was periodically releasing half-baked R&B-based albums, Big Star's catalogue was finding its way into the hands of more and more musicians. California girl group The Bangles had a minor late 80s hit with their cover of September Gurls while REM recorded covers and talked up the band to anyone who would listen. Alternative act the Replacements even famously wrote a song called Alex Chilton where 'children by the millions ask 'What's that song?'' In a New York Times tribute published last weekend, former Replacements singer Paul Westerberg mused: 'Someone should write a song about him. Then again, nah, that would be impossible, or just plain stupid.' Chilton and Stephens, encouraged by belated musicians' praise and a continued groundswell of fans around the world, reformed the band in 1993. They later released an album, In Space, and continued to tour to spread the gospel of Big Star. Warner Brothers came out with a new CD box set of the group's music this year. Last Saturday's concert at the music conference was sold out; instead, it became a sad memorial to a singer who had known the highs, lows and every emotion in between. He was a man 'who befriended the underdogs', his wife Laura said. 'He saw beauty in what other people would dismiss.' Naturally, songs from #1 Record figured prominently.