Big Star - Biography

Contrary to popular scientific belief, Big Star didn’t begin with a bang. It did, however, begin with Ice Water and a Box Top. The former was a Memphis-area rock band fronted by singer/guitarist Chris Bell and included bass player Andy Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens, and guitarist Steve Ray, who left in 1971. Ray was replaced by Bell’s old high school pal, Alex Chilton, erstwhile vocalist for the Box Tops, who had a number one hit in 1967 with “The Letter.” The newly formed group, now made up of Bell, Chilton, Hummel and Stephens renamed themselves Big Star, a supposed nod to a Memphis-area grocery store chain of the same name.


In 1972, Big Star recorded their soon to be cult classic debut on Ardent, a subsidiary of the legendary soul label, Stax Records. This release,  #1 Record (1971 Ardent) was, simply stated, rockin’. The album was also very catchy, with such pop-infused classics as “In the Street,” in addition to the first track, the finger-snappin’ “Feel.” The album also featured the inimitable teen angst ballad “Thirteen,” which brilliantly referenced the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” to highlight the generation gap, as well as the hook-filled yet strangely existential “Ballad of El Goodo.”


With its pop-rock timeliness, the album, like its name, should have been a number one smash hit. Alas, poor distribution kept #1 Record from reaching the masses. In any case, and at the very least, #1 Record deservedly went on to become an influential recording,  and eventually became the template for what later was coined power pop.


By the close of 1972, infighting, especially between Bell and Chilton, started pulling the band apart, and the troubled Bell left to pursue a solo career. Bell's solo career proved somewhat lackluster though he did garner some praise with his single, “I Am the Cosmos,” an extremely vulnerable, yet infinite, tale of love lost. In December of 1978,  Bell died when he lost control of his Triumph TR-7, hitting a wooden light pole at the side of the road.  He was returning home from his family's restaurant in East Memphis.



Chris Bell’s own legend has grown via praise from influential artists such as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. In 1992, Bell’s collected works were released on Rykodisc. The album, I Am the Cosmos, revealed a talented, yet distraught artist (“It’s suicide — I should know I tried it twice” he truthfully sings to an old lover on “Better Save Yourself”). The liner notes for Cosmos, written with literary care by Bell’s brother, David, verified Bell’s struggles with depression and drug use.   


Without Bell, Big Star carried on briefly before calling it quits. In the interim, Chilton, who would prove to have almost preternatural staying power, nurtured his own solo career. Soon, however, after jamming again with Hummel and Stephens at a Memphis music journalist’s convention, Big Star was back at it again.   


Big Star released their second studio album, Radio City (Ardent/Stax) in 1974. The album received critical acclaim but once again a lack of adequate promotion and distribution hindered the record's success. Still, Radio City gave the world a handful of Big Star gems, including the Chilton-penned “O My Soul,” “You Get What You Deserve,” and “September Gurrls,” in addition to “Back of a Car,” co-written by Hummel (who quit the band in 1974).


The remaining members of Big Star recruited bassist John Lightman to play some East Coast tour dates.  One of these gigs, a live radio broadcast, became Big Star Live, released in 1974 on Rykodisc. The album, in addition to featuring Big Star favorites, also included a cover of Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues.”  


After returning to Memphis, Big Star began making plans for another studio album. Reportedly frazzled and harried after years of professional disappointment, the band, especially frontman Chilton, was not quite up the task. The album, while completed, was shelved, becoming for a time the stuff of rock and roll legend. To add to the mythology, the album even had a mystical, unverifiable name, alternatively called Third and/or Sister Lovers (this album, released as Third/Sister Lovers on PVC Records finally made it to stores in 1978, four years after it's recording.) Big Star disbanded in 1974.


During the band's indefinite and perhaps permanent break, Chilton concentrated on his solo career, releasing no less than ten albums over the next twenty years. He also tried his hand at producing. After establishing a relationship with the Cramps while on his second stay in New York City in 1977, Chilton brought the band back to Memphis and recorded songs which would appear on their Gravest Hits EP(1979 Illegal Records) and Songs the Lord Taught Us LP (1979 Illegal Records). He also honed his manic indie rock sound. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chilton hit his stride with such well-received and influential releases as High Priest (1987 New Rose/Big Time) and Black List (1990 New Rose/Big Time), followed by Cliches (1994) and A Man Called Destruction (1995), both on the rejuvenated Ardent label.


In 1993, Big Star played a reunion performance at the University of Missouri. This time Chilton and Stephens, the only two stars of Big Star left, were backed by The Posies’ Jonathon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who played guitar and bass, respectively. Subsequently the album, Columbia: Live at Missouri University (1993 Zoo), was released, and a short tour of Europe and Japan followed.


 While this Big Star reunion was short lived, eventually puttering out after an appearance on The Tonight Show, the band’s myth continued to grow. The Bangles covered “September Gurls” on their Different Light album. In 1998, the original “In the Street” was selected for That ’70s Show's soundtrack. The following year, Cheap Trick recorded the song and this version became the official theme song for the show. Jeff Buckley, meanwhile, began covering “Kangaroo” live, and in the mid-‘90s Elliott Smith and Garbage did their own covers of  “Thirteen.” In 2003, Placebo recorded Big Star’s “Holocaust” and included it on the special edition of their album, Sleeping with Ghosts.


In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine, which has called Big Star the “great lost American pop band,” counted all three Big Star studio albums as some of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers clocked in at #438, #403 and #456, respectively.


Big Star, now made up of Chilton, Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow, was coaxed out of hiding once more to record In Space (2005 Rykodisc). While the album wasn’t as critically appreciated as the previous Big Star releases (it was tepidly described as “Big Star-ish” by one reviewer and “shambolic” by another), the band’s indie cred remained intact. In 2006, a tribute to the band, Big Star, Small World, was released on Koch Records and featured such legendary artists as The Afghan Whigs, Juliana Hatfield, Whiskeytown and Wilco.  


Big Star is currently still performing.


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