Even in the city of Elvis and Beale Street, Big Star may be Memphis’ strangest musical story. The iconic band released three great records, all of which are on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but Big Star’s success would be measured in critical acclaim and fan loyalty, not in sales.
Featuring Alex Chilton, former lead singer for the million-selling Box Tops, singer/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, Big Star released its ironically moniker debut, #1 Record, in 1972. Bell left for a solo career shortly after its release, but buoyed by the support of the national music community, including pioneering rock journalists Dave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Bud Scoppa and Lester Bangs, Big Star, as a trio, released Radio City in 1974. Hummel left after its completion and Chilton and Stephens enlisted sidemen and Memphis producing legend Jim Dickinson to make Big Star Third/Sister Lovers, the band’s darkest album. Chilton and Stephens parted ways after its completion in early 1975.
Combining the discipline and songwriting economy of Memphis soul, the broader emotional palette of Bob Dylan and the vocal harmonies and musical/technical explorations of The Beatles, Big Star created a brand new sound that came to be known as power pop.
After the breakup, the legend grew. Writers, artists and hardcore fans never stopped talking about the band. In 1993, at the height of the alternative rock movement, Big Star’s music never sounded more contemporary and Chilton and Stephens reorganized the group with Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Big Star performed for the next 17 years and, along the way, released Columbia, a live recording of their debut performance together in 1993 at the University of Missouri’s Spring Fest, and then in 2005 they released In Space, an album of new originals.
“I never travel far, without a little Big Star”
Paul Westerberg (The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton”)
“No one I knew had ever seen them play… Information was scarce. So these records they’d put out… it was like seeing the heads of Easter Island or the Great Pyramids or something. You didn’t know what they were or how they’d gotten there.”
Peter Buck (R.E.M.) on Big Star
“I still listen to all the same stuff. You know, Big Star and everything. It still kills me.”
Johnny Depp – Interview Magazine
“…one of the best songwriters who ever lived.”
Beck referring to Alex Chilton
However, the death of Alex Chilton on March 17th, 2010 was a terrible shock to the music world and to all of us here at Ardent in Memphis. It happened on the eve of Big Star’s triumphant return to SXSW where a panel was scheduled to discuss the band’s legacy and a performance by the band was one of the most anticipated showcases of the festival. The panel and performance went on as planned, although each turned into a sort of wake for Chilton, one celebrating the man, the other celebrating the music.
There was already a Big Star show scheduled for May 15th at The Levitt Shell in Overton Park in Memphis. It would have been their first headlining show in Memphis in 17 years. The show was scheduled as a fundraiser for The Levitt Shell and was expected to help raise money for the over 100 free concerts the venue produces every summer.
Instead of canceling the show, the remaining members of Big Star turned it into a tribute with many special guests including John Davis of Superdrag, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs, Amy Speace, Sondre Lerche and many others…
Bob Mehr of the Commercial Appeal wrote: “The intensely expressive Davis threw himself into a trio of #1 Record classics, working up a wistful “In the Street,” a gnarled “Don’t Lie To Me” and a playfully insistent “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”
Jody Stephens: “For our last performance as Big Star, Jon, Ken and I had some very good friends join us to celebrate the music and lives of Alex, Andy and Chris on May 15, 2010. The performances really tell the story of what happened and how we all felt about that evening at Memphis’ Levitt Shell. The idea of trying to release the show in its entirety was overwhelming in the sense of time and effort needed for all performance clearances. So I thought, first artist first: John Davis of Superdrag was the first of many wonderful guest artists to join us on stage. He nailed all three songs.”