Aside from Velvet Underground, Big Star is arguably the most influential cult act in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Despite their brief existence and commercial failure, this American power-pop band created a lasting impact, simultaneously capturing the spirit of early pop music and foreshadowing the direction of its future. Their sound, a blend of British and West Coast pop, combined the melody of the Beatles, the guitar finesse of the Who, the harmonious quality of the Byrds, and the energy of the Kinks. According to Hugh Wilson, contributor to Rock: The Rough Guide, founding members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, both singer-songwriters and guitarists, “were a class apart.”
Big Star ultimately became the musical outlet for the songwriting duo of Chilton and Bell, who had been friends since around age 13. Born in 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee, Chilton was encouraged to be creative by his parents. His father, a musician, and his mother, who ran an art gallery, were friends with other artists and musicians, including baroque pianist Bill Eggleston. Chilton received his introduction to music through his father’s collection of jazz recordings. “I was always interested in my dad’s jazz records, and my dad taught me a lot about music,” he recalled in a interview with LA Weekly’s Kristine McKenna. “When I was seven years old I became fascinated with Chet Baker—his tone was so gorgeous, and he was the first singer that really captured me. My dad also listened to a lot of Ray Charles, particularly the Atlantic Records, and those were some of the greatest recordings ever made.”
Future collaborator Bell, also a native of Memphis, started playing guitar around age 12. His primary inspirations were the Beatles, the Who, and the Byrds, making him somewhat of an outsider in his hometown, where soul music was popular. Acting on his pop aspirations, Bell formed a band in which Chilton occasionally sang. Unsure of his own future as a musician, however, Chilton declined when Bell asked him to join the group permanently, and went off to college instead.
Another friend of Bell’s, bass guitarist Andy Hummel, was eager to join the band. Hummel had first discovered pop music in grade school, listening to top 40 singles. He especially liked surf music and was completely enthralled by the Beatles and other British Invasion bands. Musically inclined, he took piano lessons from the third through the ninth grade and joined his first band as a seventh grader after begging his father to buy him a bass guitar. Taking only ten lessons at a music store, Hummel struck out on his own and eventually started picking out bluegrass and folk songs on a six-string acoustic guitar. In the eighth grade, while playing in a local outfit called the Chessmen, he first met Jody Stephens, a drummer for the band.
With the demise of the Chessmen, the lead guitarist and Hummel joined a soul band called the Swingin’ Sensations, for which Hummel played the organ. Then in the tenth grade, after transferring to a private school, Hummel met Bell and ultimately gave up on soul. Upon graduating, the two attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville together, but found it difficult to make music in the dorms. Both transferred to a college back in Memphis after their freshman year, where they began playing in bands together and eventually decided to form their own. Ice Water, the first incarnation of Big Star, formed in 1971 with Bell on vocals and guitar, Steve Ray on guitar, Hummel on bass, and Stephens on drums. Ray, however, departed soon after the group’s inception.
Meanwhile, Chilton had grown tired of college and returned to music, breaking through for the first time in 1966 with the Memphis soul act Ronnie & the Devilles. A year later, the group accepted an offer for a song and recording session and changed their name to the Box Tops. The resulting single, a pop classic called “The Letter,” hit number one on both the American and British charts. Because of frequent lineup changes, the band ultimately folded in 1970. Chilton, trying to mount a solo career as a folk artist, moved to New York City for a time, but returned to Memphis in 1971, when he accepted the open position in Ice Water.
Bell, Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens rechristened themselves Big Star, taking their name from a chain of supermarkets, and began rehearsing and recording at Ardent Studios, a local label where Bell occasionally worked as an engineer and session guitarist. In 1972 they released a stellar debut album, # 1 Record, which
Members include Chris Bell (died on December 27, 1978; left group, 1972), guitar, vocals; Alex Chilton (born in 1950 in Memphis, TN), guitar, vocals; Andy Hummel, bass guitar, vocals; Jody Stephens, drums.
Group formed as Ice Water in Memphis, TN, 1971; released the acclaimed debut album, #1 Record, 1972; released the more highly praised Radio City, 1974; disbanded, 1975.
featured the classic “The Ballad of El Goodo,” acoustic tunes like “Thirteen” and “Give Me Another Chance,” and rock guitar numbers such as “Don’t Lie to Me” and “Feel.” But despite ecstatic critical reviews, # 1 Record failed to reach the record-buying public, hampered by Ardent’s distribution problems with parent company Stax Records.
Tensions began to arise within the band. Bell, who wanted the quartet to remain largely a studio act, and Chilton, who enjoyed playing live, disagreed over Big Star’s direction. Moreover, because of his past association with the Box Tops, Chilton began to emerge as the dominant personality, receiving the most attention from critics and listeners. Consequently, toward the end of December of 1972, Bell quit his own band. He attempted to develop a solo career, but recorded only one album during 1975 and 1976 entitled I Am the Cosmos before tragically dying in a car crash on December 27, 1978. The album was released posthumously on the Rykodisc label in 1992.
Following Bell’s departure from Big Star, the remaining members struggled on as a trio, releasing a second album entitled Radio City, now considered Chilton’s ultimate achievement, in 1974. Combining raw guitar pop and intense energy, the record featured the classic “September Gurls,” as well as other notables such as “Way Out West,” “What’s Going Ahn,” “Back of a Car,” and “Mod Lang.” As with # 1 Record, critics loved the album; Big Star, however, was once again the victim of poor distribution.
From there, Big Star inevitably began to crumble. Hummel announced his resignation, and although Chilton and Stephens recruited bassist John Lightman for a handful of live dates on the East Coast, including a radio session later released as Big Star Live in 1992, the band had ceased to exist by 1975. Before disbanding, however, an album’s worth of material—mostly Chilton’s work—had been recorded. In 1978 the unreleased songs were issued overseas, variously titled Third and/or Sister Lovers, where they gained a significant cult recognition.
In the years that followed, Big Star’s impact was measured by the generation of alternative/independent bands that emerged—among them R.E.M., the Replacements, Primal Scream, and Teenage Fanclub. This renewed interest led to a brief reunion for Chilton and Stephens, with backing by the Posies’ Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow, for a tour, a live album titled Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, and even a television appearance on The Tonight Show. While a new Big Star studio album had yet to surface as of 2001, Chilton remains an active solo recording artist and live performer.
#1 Record, Ardent, 1972.
Radio City, Ardent, 1974.
Third/Sister Lovers, Rykodisc, 1978.
Big Star Live, Rykodisc, 1992.
#1 Record/Radio City (compilation), Fantasy, 1992.
Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, Zoo/Volcano, 1993.
Buckley, Jonathan, and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
LA Weekly, March 31-April 6, 2000.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 24, 2001).
Big Star Reference, http://www.frontlinearts.com (December 24, 2001).
Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com (December 24, 2001).
RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (December 24, 2001).
Additional information was also obtained from # 1 Record/Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers liner notes.
"Big Star." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/big-star
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