- - Monday, June 12, 2017

No band better lives up to the term “cult heroes” better than Memphis’ own Big Star. Comprising Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens, the band burned bright from 1971 to 1974, releasing just three critically acclaimed albums but never breaking through commercially before disbanding.

Bell died in a car accident just four years later, and Big Star seemed destined for obscurity until Paul Westerberg wrote a little tune called “Alex Chilton” for his band The Replacements that had a new generation of music fans asking “What’s that song?”

In the years that followed, the cult of Big Star was born. A reconstituted version of the band appeared in the early 1990s with Chilton and Mr. Stephens joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies. Concerts, a reunion record and a live CD followed. Then “That 70’s Show” used the band’s song “In the Street” as its theme song for eight seasons.

Sadly, both Chilton and Hummel both died in 2010, leaving drummer Mr. Stephens as the lone surviving original member. To celebrate the release of “The Best of Big Star,” I spoke to Mr. Stephens about the history and the legacy of Big Star.

Question: What do you remember about the first time you met Alex Chilton?

Answer: It was at like a VFW Hall in downtown Memphis. Andy, Chris and I were playing a gig as a three-piece. We were there for some rental function. And Alex came to see us at Chris’ request. Alex had had all this success in The Box Tops. I just remember thinking, “This is a good thing.”

Q: Was there any trepidation of starting a band with him since he had previously had a hit and been in a successful group?

A: You know what? No. When we got together at practice, we all just clicked so well musically. Everything just seemed to fall into place. Everybody knew what to do. It was pretty magical.

Q: The band started in ‘71 but broke up in ‘74. Why only three years together?

A: Chris left the band after the first record. Alex was getting all the attention in reviews, and I think Chris felt he would have to live in that shadow. Then we kinda drifted apart.

John King got Alex and Andy and I back together to do the Rock Writers Convention in May of ‘73. That was fun. We were underdogs. I don’t think we had a real sense of purpose other than having fun. It was one big party, so we were encouraged to do another record. So we did “Radio City,” and then Andy quit because he didn’t feel like he could make a career out of it.

Alex and I did the third record together. Then after that it was just kind done. Plus, we were just sort of drifting apart lifestyle-wise.

Q: Did you all stay in touch?

A: We didn’t. There was no real communication. I would talk to Andy every now and then. Chris and I would get together to play tennis. Chris died, so that was kind of it. I didn’t hear from Alex until Sept of ‘78 or ‘79. He said, “Hey, do you wanna go to Austin? Somebody wants us to go down there and play?” I hadn’t played in a few years, but then again, I had never been to Austin, so I thought, “What the hell?”

That was it. I didn’t see Alex until he showed up that afternoon in Columbia, Missouri, in April 1993.

Q: How did that 1993 reunion with Alex happen?

A: I got a call from two guys at the University of Missouri. They asked if I was interested in getting together with Alex and playing some Big Star songs at their festival. I said sure.

I didn’t have Alex’s contact info at the time. I got off the phone thinking it wouldn’t happen. They called me back a couple days later and said, “Alex will do it. He says he doesn’t have anything else to do that day.”

Q: The band always generated “critical acclaim.” Did that mean anything to you guys?

A: I know it meant the world to me. Critics and rock writers became our audience. Writers were critical in turning people on to Big Star. The critical acclaim for me was everything.

Q: How did you feel when you first heard The Replacements song “Alex Chilton“?

A: The whole album just knocked me out. It is easily in my top 10 favorite albums of all time. That song is pretty amazing.

Q: Did that song reignite the interest in Big Star?

A: Yes, it did indeed. Every now and then I’ll ask people how they came to know of Big Star. They heard that song and would do a little research. “Millions of children scream for Alex Chilton.” How could you not wonder who the hell Alex Chilton was if you didn’t know already?

They are real music fans because back then you couldn’t just ask your phone who Alex Chilton was.

Q: Is it your life’s work to preserve the band’s legacy?

A: Preserving the legacy the way that is being done is the right way and [the] best it can be for me. Now having a “best of”[record] out makes sense. It’s sort of a sampler for new fans.

Q: I know you work at Ardent, the studio where Big Star recorded. What do you do there?

A: I have a new title now: “VP of production.” In part I’m kind of starting a new focus on producing myself. I have a group called Those Pretty Wrongs, which I co-produced. And I’ve produced in the past. I realized I enjoy doing it.

Q: Is there something magical about Ardent Studios?

A: Of course there is. Like [Ardent founder] John Fry said, “Magic and good things have happened here.” So you know they can happen. When I walk into the studios to record at Ardent, there is such a sense of purpose.

“The Best of Big Star” is out Friday.


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