Big Star Big Star Big Star

It is one of the more poetic peculiarities of astrophysics that light from even the closest stars can take thousands of years to reach Earth. By the time we’re able to see it, the original rays have long since faded and sometimes, the light’s source has been snuffed out completely.

Such was the case with Memphis’ Big Star.

Above: Early promo photo courtesy Ardent Studios Archives

The group burned brightly for a short time in the early 1970s. By combining the guttural energy of garage soul with a sonic melodicism inherited from the Beatles, they helped define power pop, a musical movement that would influence much of what would follow including glam, alternative, hair metal and punk rock. For a moment, they were considered the next big musical thing to come from Memphis, following in a long line of talent that included Sun and Stax artists.

But, after recording their first album, Big Star was beset by a series of business and personal crises that have become the stuff of legend in an industry normally inured to such tales of woe. By the end of 1974, just three years after they first stepped into the studio, the band was done. But, their light continued to shine and, eventually, reached the rest of us on Earth.

“Basically, in the mid-1970s, the only people on Earth who knew Big Star were rock critics and record-store clerks.”

“Basically, in the mid-1970s, the only people on Earth who knew Big Star were rock critics and record-store clerks,” wrote Peter Buck in the liner notes to the 2009 Big Star box set Keep An Eye On the Sky. “It was like seeing the heads of Easter Island or the Great Pyramids or something. You didn’t know what they were or how they’d gotten there.”

Hanging out down the street

Above: Photo courtesy of Carole Manning

Alex Chilton was already a rock star at age 16.

As a student at Memphis’ Central High School, he was recruited into blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops, whose late 1960s hits included “Cry Like A Baby” and the original version of “The Letter.” By 1971, the Box Tops had broken up, and 21-year-old Chilton was creatively adrift. He found himself milling about John Fry’s Ardent Studio on National Street, which was the hangout for a group of young musicians learning the art of recording.

An excerpt from the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures Buy on Amazon

Among them was a quiet, moody guitar player named Chris Bell. A year younger than Chilton, he was a graduate of Memphis University School (also John Fry’s alma mater), and had briefly attended the University of Tennessee before dropping out to pursue music. He had played in a succession of bands since junior high, and was at the studio recording with his latest act – a group called Icewater that featured his high school friend Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums – when Chilton approached him about working together. After an introductory recording session at Ardent in February 1971, Chilton was in the band.

An excerpt from the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

You get what you deserve/You’ve gotta have a lot of nerve

Above: Promo photo courtesy Ardent Studios Archives

The four immediately got to work.

Modeling themselves as a songwriting duo in the tradition of The Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bell and Chilton wrote a dozen songs in just a few months, fleshing them out in weekly band practices with Hummel and Stephens. With virtually unlimited access to the studio at Ardent, they began recording. Bell, under the watchful eye of executive producer/engineer Fry, crafted a record that is still hailed for its sheer sonic beauty.

It was a mix of sarcasm and hopefulness that led the quartet to take their band’s name from that of a well-known local grocery chain with a location across the street from the studio. The newly-dubbed Big Star had reason to be optimistic. Chilton was a known name, after all, and their debut album, a collection of youthful epics boldly titled #1 Record, would be one of the first releases on the Ardent label since becoming a subsidiary of soul powerhouse Stax Records.

An excerpt from the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Upon its release in June 1972, reviews for #1 Record were across the board ecstatic, but the record became a victim of Stax’s infamous distribution problems. Music fans were reading rave reviews of the album in the pages of Rolling Stone and Billboard, but the actual record was nowhere to be found. In the end, it has been estimated that only a few thousand copies of #1 Record were sold upon its initial release. For Bell, who had labored so long over the songs and the recording and mixing of the record, the commercial disappointment, combined with reviewers’ focus on the already-established Chilton, was too much to bear. By the end of the year, he had left the group.

“Things began going sour for Chris when he started reading reviews of #1 Record.

“Things began going sour for Chris when he started reading reviews of #1 Record, said Stephens in Drew DeNicola’s 2012 Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. “It was such a large part of his creative vision that when the press reviews came back focusing on Alex he thought he might have to live under that shadow from that point.”

Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay

About the only people who did hear #1 Record in 1972 were the nation’s rock music critics. To take advantage of this, Ardent’s John King organized the notorious Rock Writers Convention. In May 1973, 120 music journalists – including Bud Scoppa, Lester Bangs and a 17-year-old Cameron Crowe – were flown to Memphis for what became more of a party than a convention. Big Star was in limbo after Bell’s departure, but the three remaining members reunited to play the convention’s closing night concert at Lafayette’s Music Hall. The show was an unqualified success and it convinced Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens to give Big Star another try.

“I was glad that the band decided they wanted to make another album, but things are a little different — night clubs and liquor by the drink and bars,” Fry says in Nothing Can Hurt Me. “You can almost see the geography reflected in Radio City.

The late-night atmosphere combined with the new three-piece lineup opened up Big Star’s sound considerably. Chilton did the majority of the writing, but Hummel and Stephens also contributed, the former most notably penning the track “Way Out West”. Bell’s fingerprints are also on the record, as he worked on “O My Soul” and “Back of a Car” before his departure. In the studio, the absence of the meticulous-minded Bell resulted in sessions that were much looser, more embracing of imperfection than before.

None of it was enough to hold Hummel’s interest, however, and he left the band after the sessions, finished his education and had a long successful career with Lockheed Martin Aerospace. John Lightman later replaced Hummel in Big Star. Released in February 1974, the new album had a title as optimistic as the band’s first record — Radio City. The record did boast “September Gurls” – a song that could be considered the closest thing to a hit the band ever had – which in the years since has been covered by the Replacements, the Bangles and others. Once again, the band received rapturous reviews, but, as before, the record was crippled by the distribution woes of its parent label, Stax. Like its predecessor, Radio City sold only a few thousand copies.

Why should I care/It ain’t gonna last

L – R: Bassist Andy Hummel, Drummer Jody Stephens, Guitarist Chris Bell, Singer/Guitarist Alex Chilton. Courtesy Ardent Studios Archives

By the fall of 1974, Big Star, if it was still a band at all, was made up of just Chilton and Stephens. They returned to the studio with producer Jim Dickinson and a revolving cast of players to work on a new record. The sessions expanded on the loose experiments of Radio City. The stark, personal and raw songs reflected Chilton’s crumbling personal relationships and the druggy culture of midtown Memphis at the time.

“Everything was deteriorating and that’s what the record captures — the decomposition of this artistic vision”, Dickinson said in author Rob Jovanovic’s history of the band, Big Star: The Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band. “But there’s geography to the whole record. … It’s all Midtown [Memphis].”

“Everything was deteriorating and that’s what the record captures — the decomposition of this artistic vision”

The sessions for the record — the true name of which has long been in doubt but is generally known today by the mashup title Third/Sister Lovers – did not end so much as they were stopped by Fry. He and Dickinson shopped the finished album around to labels but found no takers and the record was quietly shelved.

This sounds a bit like goodbye/In a way it is. I guess

And just like that, Big Star was gone.

The band’s members moved on. Bell struggled for several years to put his life and career back together. He recorded an album’s worth of material in 1978 — the same year Big Star’s third album was finally released to strong reviews and poor sales — and put out the much revered and covered single “I Am the Cosmos” backed with “You and Your Sister”, before dying in a car wreck in December at the age of 27.

After Big Star, Chilton worked with acts like Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and the Cramps, then embarked on a long, celebrated and varied solo career. He became a major influence on generations of musicians who followed him, including The Replacements, who named a song on their 1987 Dickinson-produced album Pleased To Meet Me in his honor. In 2014, the reformed Replacements played “Alex Chilton” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Stephens, meanwhile, began working at Ardent in early 1987, where he began to get the sense that Big Star, which had seemed destined for obscurity, had managed to reach a number of people after all. Shout-outs and tributes began to come in from bands like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo, The Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream, The Replacements, Matthew Sweet, the dBs, Let’s Active, Wilco, Flaming Lips and Ryan Adams, many of whom made pilgrimages to the studio to meet Stephens and see where the records they loved were created.

Trying hard against unbelievable odds

Above: Full orchestra performance of Big Star’s album Third/Sister Lovers, 2014

Against this backdrop, something no one ever thought would happen happened.

In 1993 — a year after #1 Record/Radio City and Bell’s long-delayed solo album I Am the Cosmos were released on CD — Big Star was offered a gig in Columbia, Missouri. To the surprise of almost everyone, Chilton and Stephens accepted. Supplementing their ranks with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (members of Seattle Big Star acolytes The Posies), the concert found the group playing before the biggest crowds of its career for thousands of fans they didn’t know existed.

“I could see a lot friendly faces,” said Stephens, who recalled seeing a lot of the band’s famous fans, including Jeff Tweedy, at the show. “We did not have an audience in the 1970s other than rock writers. That one gig that we had at Lafayette’s was a Big Star audience. Outside of that, the first Big Star audience we played to was 20 years later in Columbia, Missouri.”

The Columbia show sparked a second life for Big Star. For the next 17 years, the group continued to play shows, touring the U.S., Japan, and Europe and appearing on “The Tonight Show”. In 2005, Chilton, Stephens, Auer, and Stringfellow made a fourth Big Star record, the critically-acclaimed In Space.

“You just do what you do and you have a good time at it and over the years, it reaches people and for that, in itself, you have to be grateful”

Jody Stephens
Mike Mills and Skylar Gudasz perform at the Sydney Festival, 2014

(l-r) Mike Mills and Skylar Gudasz perform Big Star’s Third Album during the 2014 Sydney Festival. Photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

In March 2010, just before Big Star was to play a gig at the high-profile South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Chilton died at age 59. Four months later, Hummel also passed away. By then, Big Star had finally gotten its due as the subjects of books and movies and tribute albums. Once only known to critics and cultists, the band had entered the mainstream, with the #1 Record song “In the Street” reaching millions as the theme for the long-running TV sitcom “That ’70s Show”. Among the honors the band has received, Rolling Stone placed all three of its 1970s records on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Today, Stephens (the sole surviving member of the original lineup) keeps Big Star’s flame burning with Auer and Stringfellow and their legions of musician super fans. They play star-studded tribute concerts that keep Big Star’s music before new generations, including recent performances of Third in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Sydney, Australia, and at Seattle’s massive Bumbershoot festival. Now, with the band’s induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, their legacy seems complete.

“You just do what you do and you have a good time at it and over the years, it reaches people and for that, in itself, you have to be grateful,” said Stephens, who is honored to be in the hall of fame alongside many of the early Memphis blues, rock, and soul legends that inspired them. “Being in the company of these other people is pretty wonderful.”

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