Though Big Star only initially existed from 1971 to 1975, the music has lived on, influencing an array of bands ranging from The Cars to R.E.M. to The Replacements to The Posies. Comprised of Alex Chilton (guitars/vox), Chris Bell (guitars), Andy Hummel (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums), Big Star set the world alight with the release of their 1972 debut #1 Record. Though it wasn’t a huge hit then, critics loved Big Star, writing rave reviews, allowing for a cult following to grow.
And looking back, it’s not a surprise, given Chilton’s pedigree as an ace songwriter with ’60s hitmakers the Boxtops. But less we forget the presence of Chris Bell, whose gorgeous, chiming progressions influenced everyone from Johnny Marr to Paul Westerberg to Peter Buck. And if Chilton and Bell’s visionary ways weren’t enough, then undoubtedly, Big Star’s gifted rhythm section, which featured Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, served as the icing on the proto-power-pop cake.
So, yes, history tells us that #1 Record wasn’t a hit, nor was its follow-up, 1974’s Radio City, a record that some say represents Big Star’s finest hour. Sadly, while the world was sleeping, Chris Bell’s life spiraled into tragedy, leading to his departure from Big Star in 1972, along with Andy Hummel, who split the scene shortly after.
Chilton and Stephens soldiered on for one more record, Third/Sister Lovers, which was recorded in 1974, with session players but didn’t see its release until 1978, after Big Star had burned out. In the ensuing years, while fame eluded him, Jody Stephens noticed increased reverence for Big Star, and by the ’80s and early ’90s, droves of young bands cited the group as an influence.
That goodwill led to Stephens reuniting with Chilton in 1993, though he did so without Hummel, (who wasn’t interested in 1993 but did manage to climb up on stage for a spell in 2010), and Bell, who had died in a car accident in 1978. The on-and-off reunion lasted until 2010, when Chilton (and Hummel) passed, leaving Stephens as the only living member of Big Star.
In addition to stops along the way with Golden Smog and Those Pretty Wrongs, Jody Stephens has kept busy through his work with Ardent Studio, which gave Big Star its start. While Big Star wasn’t given a chance to properly shine in the ’70s, through his work with Ardent, Stephens has championed numerous young bands, helping them achieve their dreams.
As far as legacies go, Big Star’s is nothing short of massive. And Stephens, though eternally humble and forever deferring to the others, played an essential role in the whole shebang. And though we might never be able to quantify Big Star in full, we know this—music would look a whole lot different without those three once-forgotten records for the ages.
In a rare career-spanning interview, Big Star’s last surviving member, Jody Stephens, dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into the lifecycle and legacy of one of rock music’s most important cult bands.
Jody Stephens of Big Star Interview
What first sparked your interest in music?
Seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show with my brother Jim. That’s when he picked up bass guitar, and I picked up the drums. We had a neighborhood band back when you could build those sorts of things in the baby boomer generation. You could put a band together from neighborhood kids and do that. But it was The Beatles… there was an excitement that I’d never felt before.
What attracted you to the drums above other instruments?
It was an innate attraction that was almost primal. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. It’s not a great answer, but I really don’t know [laughs].
What was it like coming up in the Memphis, Tennessee music scene?
It was great because even if you weren’t of age, there were lots of places for underage kids to go to. Nothing crazy, more like Catholic Youth Organizations and dances at the local junior high school, kinda like a Friday night canteen. And at those things, bands would be playing, which was amazing. Those aside, there were clubs that we went to when we got a little older. But those places were the ones we had to hitchhike to see bands on the weekends.
Did you have a favorite local spot?
Well, I’m not sure. But there was a club that often had the great George Klein DJing. And he’d be the first to tell you he was a good friend of Elvis Presley’s [laughs]. So, George would be there some nights, and other nights, there would be bands. But before I was old enough to get in there, when I was 13 or 14, I’d go downtown, stand outside, and try and listen to the music.
How did you first meet Andy Hummel and Chris Bell?
I’ll start with Andy, whom I met through a mutual friend. I grew up out East, and Andy and Mike Fleming were Midtown guys. But my parents would go to church in midtown, and that’s how I hooked up with Mike, who was also in a band with my brother, Jimmy.
And that band also included Andy Hummel, so that’s where I started hanging out with Andy. And then, a few years later, I played drums for the University of Memphis, even though I was still in high school, and Andy came to see one of the shows. So, after the show, he invited me to jam, and that’s when I met Chris.
When did Alex Chilton enter the picture?
So, after that, me, Andy and Chris were kind of the core of things, which lasted from April of ’70 to December of that same year, and that’s when Alex came to see us play at a local VFW hall. Alex liked what he saw, which was cool as he was moving back to the area from New York after the Box Tops had ended. I thought the Box Tops were cool, but they weren’t a band I knew all that well aside from their singles, which I admittedly loved. But having Alex join us was amazing because of the talent and the creativity he brought to what the three of us were doing.
From there, how did Big Star form?
None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for [producer] John Fry. He was an amazing mentor to so many people, and back then, we were all recipients of that mentoring. He gave us the keys to the studio and taught us how to do a lot of things—especially Andy and Chris. He made it so they could improve their skills as players and audio engineers.
But after Alex got involved, we formed the band and did some demos, and it was just really all fun at that point. I think the sound we came up with, which a lot of people associate with power pop, was just something that was inside of us because of our backgrounds. We put what we loved together, and there you had it.
The chemistry between you four seemed to fuel that, too.
Oh, yeah, it did. We all had similar backgrounds, and we liked a lot of the same music. We listened to a lot of the same stuff, which bled into Big Star. The sound of the band is just sort of what bled out from that. And there were so many great ideas from Alex, Christ, and Andy that it really was just a matter of time, and learning what served those ideas best. It wasn’t about any genre of music; it was more about taking input from all four of us and creating output that was representative of that.
Can you remember Big Star’s first gig?
Wow… that’s a good question. It could have been at the High Cotton Club. But we also played at this private home party for a small family, and we did a few theaters, too. But that family also had a little theater in the back of their house, which could have been Big Star’s first gig. And this was back when all the psychedelic stuff was still going on, so there was this overhead projector and greasy colors smeared all over the walls as a backdrop.
What led to Big Star signing with Ardent Records?
With John Fry mentoring us, that was kind of the next logical step. Like I was saying, he made the studio available to us to just go in, work on things, and do what we wanted to do. And when it came time for us to think, we realized we would need a record deal. Through those relationships we’d formed, we got the opportunity to sign with Ardent, and we took it.
What was your mindset like entering Ardent Studios to record #1 Record?
The biggest thing about those sessions was how cool it was being in a band that had songwriters who could deliver songs that meant as much to me as the bands we’d been covering. I felt lucky to be able to lay a drum track down for a song like “The Ballad of El Goodo” because it was and is such an incredible song. My mindset was to play as well as I could, and that was easy because the songs that Andy, Alex, and Chris had written really inspired me.
Did you suffer from red-light fever?
Well, in some ways, it was a little intimidating because I’d been in cover bands, but I’d never been in a position where I needed to create my own drum parts. To have to go in with a blank canvas and do all original stuff was tough. I needed to be a lot more focused on what I was doing and make sure that what I did served the song. But it was also important to make sure what I did had personality, but I think I did that.
You mentioned “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Can you recall recording it?
What I remember most is the little studio we did it in. It was a separate building from the main part of Ardent Studios, but once we were there, I can remember working up the drum part. It only took a couple of times to work out the main part, but through that, we figured out a better way to build things up toward the end of the song.
And then, of course, Alex and Chris had their amazing interaction with their guitars; they were always so great at doing things that complimented one another. But they did them separately instead of playing the same thing with each other’s way playing. Also, Andy’s basslines are amazing; the way it walks back and forth is incredible. It would have been a totally different song had he done something more predictable.
Was it a similar experience when you recorded “In the Street?”
More or less. I just went in and played what I felt in the moment. That’s really what I still do. That’s the easiest way for me to do anything. And the fortunate thing about doing that in a studio is that I can walk into the control room, listen back to what I’ve just done, and then get ideas from that. That’s what I did with “In the Street,” from that, it became pretty apparent if I needed it to evolve, be simpler, or maybe add this or that. That’s the advantage of not having to watch the clock and having no fear of running up studio time.
People often cite Alex as the driving force within Big Star, but Chris Bell had a big hand in producing #1 Record, right?
Yes, that’s true. It would have been Chris on the first album. The whole thing was kind of Chris’s vision, really. But technically, John Fry produced it as far as the sonics of what you hear, like how the guitars sparkle. That record sonically presents itself—especially on vinyl—in a way that a lot of other records didn’t at the time. It was produced well, and John captured things that were inspirational. It was the same thing during the recording of Radio City; Alex and I would go into the control room and say, “God, that sounds killer.”
As good as #1 Record was, it wasn’t a hit. Did it receive enough support from Ardent?
So, Ardent was under Stax, which was a part of Columbia. Around that time, Clive Davis got fired from Columbia, and the remaining powers that be at Columbia no longer wanted to work with Stax and Ardent. So, the big issue became about distribution or lack thereof. Our hands were tied, but John King, who was the promotions guy, still made sure that all these rock writers got wind of the album, and they wrote about it.
He [John King] flew guys like Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe in and got them to write about it. So, we weren’t getting the record into stores, but these writers were getting the word out, which turned people onto it. Even without distribution, a following developed for the record, which was cool. I’ve always said we were on the 17-year marketing plan [laughs].
Given how good that record is, it must have been a shock that Columbia didn’t want to promote it.
I was surprised for sure. But I was also 20 years old and 19 when we recorded it. To some extent, this was how the grown-up world was. I didn’t fully understand it all then, and honestly, I was timid. And being in that band, as much as I loved doing it, and as rewarding as it was to have that bond with the other members, I felt that success was a pie-in-the-sky thing. I knew Alex had success with the Box Tops, but that seemed so far away. I was going to school, had a girlfriend, and even had a real job, so I didn’t spend all that much time thinking about the total lack of distribution.
And Big Star never got to tour behind #1 Record, right?
No, we never really had a proper tour like most bands had. No booking agent was interested in us, and no big management company was interested in us, either. So, John King put together some gigs for us at Max’s Kansas City and a couple of other places, but that was it. But those gigs were amazing, and we did get to play a few iconic but smaller venues. These were places where artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley played, which was so cool. We opened for Boston and Badfinger later at Performance Center when we were supporting Radio City.
Some feel Radio City is a better album than #1 Record, which I find debatable. Regardless, Ardent didn’t push that album, either. Was that frustrating?
It was. But remember, Ardent was up against the machine of a big record company. So, when we went in to do Radio City, we tried to put all that aside and focus on the matter at hand—to make a good record. And because of how things had gone with #1 Record, I got the sense that we were working on an album that would be around for a long time, regardless of whether we had an audience at the time or not. I knew that going in, and once I figured that out, my mindset was set on serving the songs, trying to do cool stuff, and complimenting what Alex and Andy were doing.
I get the sense that you’re in the Radio City is better than #1 Record camp.
I don’t know what it was, but there’s something about Radio City that made it very special! There was something about the evolution of Big Star to that point, which was cool to me. Whatever that was, it added a little more depth; I feel like we’d progressed, if you will, from #1 Record. On that first album, we were kind of innocent, but while doing Radio City, we had a little more of an edge and a bit more sophistication.
But things were very different when Big Star recorded Sister Lovers…
There’s an emotional darkness to that album. Chris and Andy were gone; Alex and I discussed whether it should even be a Big Star record. And once we decided to have it be a Big Star record, we called the album Sister Lovers because we were dating sisters then. But, in the end, I’m glad we did it as a Big Star record because it really did feel like one. But Jim Dickinson brought a new dimension to things, but by the end of it, I felt like there was no longer a role for me because Alex’s lifestyle wasn’t too appealing to me.
Was it difficult making that album without Chris, whose role within Big Star cannot be understated?
Chris was amazing, but we didn’t have much trouble without him. We had an amazingly talented guy with us in the studio, Steve Cropper, so we did okay. The first two records, #1 Record and Radio City were as much Alex’s vision as Chris’s. Alex and Andy were visionaries on those records, so it wasn’t all Chris, though he was very important.
When did you realize the impact and importance of Big Star? Was it in the ’80s when R.E.M. and The Replacements began championing the band?
The first time I tasted it was when I was living in London. I’d see pieces about Big Star in the Melody Maker, and I saw that people were looking for Big Star records in the classified sections of those magazines. And then, one day, I ran into this famous music writer named Nick Kent, and he told me had a copy of Big Star’s third record, even though it wasn’t even out in England, along with bootleg copies of broadcast shows that we’d done.
People started paying attention to Big Star, and then, when Mike Mills and Peter Buck from R.E.M. said nice things about us. I also remember the guys from The Cars were interested in Big Star, too. Their drummer, David Robertson, came into the restaurant I was waiting tables in, and he said that he was influenced by us, too. But there was no hype machine; being into Big Star was more like knowing a secret handshake than anything else [laughs].
What led to Big Star reforming in 1993?
Well, through a series of conversations, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow ended up playing with me and Alex. I was asked if I’d be interested in getting together with Alex and playing some Big Star songs in the spring of 1993. I didn’t have Alex’s number, but long story short, we got in touch with Alex, who said he didn’t have anything better to do, so he agreed.
But even then, I didn’t really want to be a part of reassembling anything, as things tended to have a way of falling apart and going nowhere. But it worked out with Jon and Ken, who had perfect voices for Big Star with their harmonies and sensibilities. It felt awesome with them, so Alex flew up, we rehearsed for a few days, and we did the gig. It was a slow evolution, but it worked out great.
As the last surviving member of Big Star, it must feel good that the band has finally been recognized. Legacy aside, what does the music of Big Star mean to you?
Man… quantifying it is like, whoa. I can’t do it; that’s for somebody else to do. Everything I’ve done since then, regardless of being a member of Big Star, has been attached to John Fry in some form or another. I’m so thankful for him and his influence on me, my career, and my life. But as far as Big Star’s influence and meaning, I really think our biggest impact is giving the example of bands following their path and doing what they like to do.
Mike Mills once said something like that there are all these bands, but the one that was still untouchable was Big Star. But like I said earlier, it feels that way now, but back then, success was like this pie-in-the-sky thing. The story of Big Star is so relatable, but it also opened a lot of doors for people and turned on the lights for other bands later. So, that’s the biggest thing about Big Star; that’s the legacy.
Jody Stephens of Big Star: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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