Although Big Star existed for only a few short years in the early to mid-1970s, their influence on today's pop music is inexorable. They wove together an intriguing blend of British Invasion melody with R and B grit. Although they were from Memphis, the soul capital of America, their sound was distinctly influenced by what was happening across the Atlantic.
Alex Chilton1 and Chris Bell2 played together in various bands in high school, but eventually drifted apart. Chilton later became a member of the blue-eyed soul outfit The Box Tops, who scored major hits with 'The Letter' and 'Cry Like a Baby' in the late 1960s. Chilton, frustrated by the group's lack of control over their music, broke up the group in 1970.
Alex Chilton then moved to New York, and attempted to form a career as a singer-songwriter. When that did not pan out, he returned to Memphis.
In the meantime, Chris Bell had been hanging around Ardent Studios in Memphis, learning the ropes of recording and writing songs, and acting as an engineer. In 1971 Bell formed his own band, Ice Water, featuring college friends Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums). Alex Chilton then met up with his old friend Chris Bell and was asked to join.
The group then began rehearsing and recording their first album. During one of the sessions, the group re-christened themselves Big Star, after a supermarket across the street from Ardent Studios.
John Fry and Terry Manning, who owned Ardent Studios, founded Ardent Records, which was distributed by legendary soul label Stax, to release Big Star's music along with that of several other artists.
The band's first album, entitled #1 Record, was released in late 1972. It was an inspired mix of Beatles-esque melody and acoustic melancholia. Bell, in particular, was the consummate pop craftsman, injecting the songs with an unusual pop sheen. Highlights included 'The Ballad of El Goodo', 'In the Street' (the theme to the US sitcom That '70s Show) 'Thirteen' and 'When my Baby's Beside Me'.
As good as the album was, this kind of power-pop was out of step with audiences of the early '70s. Also hampering the album's success was inept distribution by Stax, Ardent's distribution partner. Bell's disappointment with the failure of #1 Record contributed to his exit from the band.
Big Star floundered after Chris Bell's departure. Eventually, they were asked to perform at a local rock writer's convention in Memphis. The warm response to their performance reinvigorated the group. The band's second album, entitled Radio City, was released in early 1974. It lacked the pop sheen that Bell brought to the group, but retained the melodicism of #1 Record. The songs were rough around the edges and chaotic. Highlights included 'O My Soul', 'Way Out West', 'Back of a Car', 'Daisy Glaze', and 'She's a Mover'. However, Big Star's undisputed masterpiece was the lovelorn 'September Gurls'. The song later became a staple of college radio.
However, another great album slipped through the cracks. Stax again dropped the ball and distribution was minimal. Bassist Andy Hummel left the band to return to college, and now works in the aerospace industry. The band recruited temporary bassist John Lightman to replace Hummel for a short tour of the East Coast. After it was finished, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens returned to the studio with a host of session musicians to work on what became Third. Produced by Jim Dickinson, this harrowing collection was also known as Sister Lovers, a reference to the fact that Chilton and Stephens were, at that time, dating sisters, Lesa and Holliday Alredge.
Alex Chilton, by that point, was disillusioned with the music business and life in general, and had sunk into alcohol and drug abuse. Chilton, knowing that Third would probably not be released due to the disintegration of the Ardent/Stax partnership, would often deliberately wreak havoc on the performances on the album. The songs were often disturbing, such as the menacing 'Holocaust', which predated the Goth sound by almost a decade. There were also very beautiful moments on the album such as 'Kangaroo' and 'Night Time'. However, the band folded before the album was truly completed. A set list had not even been agreed upon. The album was shelved until 1978, when it was released in the wake of the group's growing legend. It has since been re-released several times, each time with a different title and running order. Rykodisc released the definitive version in 1992, Third/Sister Lovers.
Alex Chilton now embarked on a chaotic solo career. He eventually kicked both his alcohol and drug habits and, by the early 1980s, Chilton was a cult icon. Paul Westerberg of The Replacements wrote a song titled 'Alex Chilton', which was an exaltation of the same.
Chris Bell, however, struggled with his own heroin habit. He later travelled to Britain to attempt to land a record deal, but no one was interested. He did manage, however, to record a number of tracks, before he returned to Memphis to work as a manager in his family's restaurant. In 1978 he released a single on DB Chris Stamey's Car label entitled 'I Am the Cosmos/You and Your Sister'. The B-side featured Alex Chilton on backing vocals. Sadly, on 27 December, 1978, Chris Bell was killed in a car accident while returning from a rehearsal with his new band. A collection of his recordings, including the aforementioned single, 'I Am the Cosmos' was released in 1992.
Big Star Today
Notable fans of Big Star have included Peter Buck of REM, The Replacements, The Bangles, (who covered 'September Gurls'), the Posies and other alternative groups. In fact, their influence is second among 'cult' bands only to the Velvet Underground.
Big Star re-formed in 1993 for a one-off gig at Missouri University, with Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer backing them. The event was commemorated by the release of a live album. The band then decided to make their reunion permanent, and Big Star continue to play sporadic concert dates to this day. Alex Chilton also fronts the reformed Box Tops.