Big Star: Going back to 'Radio City' and beyond

Up ahead in the distance, as he was driving home in the early morning hours of Dec. 27, 1978, Jody Stephens could see what appeared to be an accident scene.

Wanting to avoid a traffic snarl, Stephens recalls, “I detoured using another street.”

Sadly, hours later, Stephens found out he knew who was in that crash. It was his former Big Star bandmate Chris Bell.

“I had stopped at Ardent (Recording Studios in Memphis, Tenn.) to see if Chris was there,” says Stephens. “He had left about 30 minutes earlier. I headed home taking the same route that Chris [usually did] as we lived near each other.”

On the way, Stephens saw, “ … about a half mile ahead, the emergency lights flashing and a car wrecked in the street. [I] didn’t take time to see [the] details enough to notice it was Chris’ car … (Ardent founder) John Fry called the next morning to deliver the bad news.”

In 1972, almost six years to the day, Bell had split from Big Star, the patron saints of power-pop being fêted this summer with the release of a new Rhino Records box set, Keep An Eye On The Sky, and Fantasy Records’ single-disc reissue of their first two albums #1 Record and Radio City.

Another in a long line of music-industry casualties who deserved a better fate, Big Star, ironically, never did produce a #1 record. Nor did they receive much radio airplay. A tragic tale of bad luck, mismanagement, unfulfilled promise and clashing egos, Big Star, in the end, might have gotten the last laugh, building a church of worshippers that included R.E.M., The Replacements and The Posies, among others.

“These bands and music writers talking about us are the reason Big Star have a bit of an audience today,” says Stephens. “In the ’70s, we didn’t have much of an audience outside of these folks. More than ever, Big Star’s time is now.”

In an earlier life, years before the somewhat recently reunited Big Star would be invited to play high-profile gigs like like the Serpentine Sessions July 1 in Hyde Park in London, one Alex Chilton was a teen growing up in Memphis. In that steamy mecca of soul and R&B, he had his pick of bands to join, including one he hung around with that featured Bell and Richard Rosebrough.

College called Chilton away, however, although some have speculated Chilton preferred playing soul music over the British Invasion-inspired rock Bell was into. Whatever the case, Chilton ended up as the frontman for Ronnie And The DeVilles, an early incarnation of The Box Tops.

Chilton’s sandpaper-rough vocals were perfect for the group’s smoldering R&B sound, and they would go on to score a massive hit with “The Letter,” a classic example of blue-eyed soul. But despite the grooming of Chip Moman’s American Recording Studio, the Box Tops would lose their way, and during a 1969 show, Chilton left the stage, and the band, in a huff, never to return. 

Bell, meanwhile, had set up shop at Ardent with Fry and Terry Manning, an ex-bandmate of Bell’s. Working as a session engineer and second guitarist, Bell helped Manning record his solo album, Home Sweet Home — as did Rosebrough. But Bell had his own project going, a local act called Ice Water that Stephens joined through bassist Andy Hummel. Still a senior in high school, Stephens ran into Hummel at a Memphis State University production of “Hair” in March, 1970. “Andy just asked if I would like to come over and jam sometime — sounded like an adventure to me,” says Stephens.

As Stephens remembers it, Steve Rhea had been drumming with Hummel and Bell, but he left for college in Texas. Stephens stepped right in. Whil

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