Big Star Biography
In Their Own Words

Delicious Bookmark this on Delicious
Chris Bell, Vocals/Guitar - (1971-72)
Alex Chilton, Vocals/Guitar - (1971-74 / 1993-2010)
Andy Hummel, Bass/Vocals - (1971-73)
Jody Stephens, Drums/Vocals - (1971-74 / 1993- )
John Lightman, Bass (1974)
Jonathan Auer, Guitar/Vocals - (1993- )
Ken Stringfellow, Bass/Vocals - (1993- )

This biography is a collection of excerpts from many interviews found on the web. Together they provide a unique introduction to who and what Big Star is...
in their own words.

Big Star (1971-74)

Big Star was originally a trio called Ice Water.

JODY: Among other things. The roots of Big Star - it was more like a quartet. It was Steve Ray, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and myself. We had several different names - Ice Water, Rock City. We did some covers and we did some original songs. I don't know if any of those songs carried over onto an actual Big Star record. I don't think so. I can remember covers, like "Funk 49," a Led Zeppelin song or two. We did "Tinker Tailor," the Terry Reed song. That was really our beginning. I met Andy Hummel in the seventh or eight grade through a mutual friend. Andy lived in the mid-town area of Memphis - I lived out East. Andy happened to be playing in a band with this friend of mine. And then probably five years later, I guess, I was still in high school, but I was playing drums in the first college production of "Hair," at Memphis State. And Andy came to see one of the shows, and came up and said, hey, we're putting a band together, are you interest in coming and jamming a bit? I said sure. Steve Ray was at this first jam, and Terry Manning, who's gone on to be a pretty successful producer, was there with a guitar strapped on. And Chris and myself and Andy. The whole thing was kind of disjointed. I walked away thinking it could probably never be organized enough to get anything done. But I was wrong. The next rehearsal turned out to be more of a band rehearsal with Steve, Chris and Andy. We started working on songs. So that was really kind of the beginning - it was more of a four piece. Not to contradict history or anything. [4]

Had you actually started recording any of the songs that ended up on the first Big Star album before Alex joined the band?

JODY: No, not that I remember. Everything that wound up on the album was post Alex joining the band. [4]

Did Steve leave the band before Alex appeared?

JODY: Steve left the band long before Alex appeared. And we were a three piece for a while. Just Chris, Andy and myself. When Alex came to see us, he liked what he saw. He was looking to move back to Memphis and join a band. [4]

How long were you three playing together before Alex came into the picture?

JODY: It hadn't been that long- it might have been eight or nine months. Alex came to see us at a VFW hall in downtown Memphis. He was invited by Chris (to join). Alex and Chris were friends. Me, Andy, Chris and Steve Ray cut some demos at Ardent Studios and we came up to New York in 1970 to see some A&R folks. Alex was living in New York. Chris stayed with Alex at the Chelsea Hotel. Dando, Steve and I shared a room. I liked the Box Top songs too. Everybody knew who Alex was with a number one song ("The Letter") from a few years back. I'd never seen him perform so I didn't know what to expect. We all thought he'd be a great addition to the band. [2]

What do you recall of the origins of Big Star?

John Fry (Producer): The first time I met Alex was when he and Dan Penn were doing overdubs and mixing on the Box Tops' Cry Like A Baby. He would hang around the studio and got to know everybody like [engineer] Terry Manning, and later when Alex kinda finished with the Box Tops, Terry produced an unissued album on Alex as a solo in 1970. Then he hooked up with Chris and Jody and Andy, who had had some bands around Memphis, one of which was Ice Water, and another Christmas Future, which I always thought was a great name. Hanging out at the studio they started having the idea of the band, and in fact diagonally across from Ardent was the Big Star grocery store. The original studio building is of course still there, currently in use as a day-care centre, and I think, well that's not too far fetched from what it was! [8]

How would you characterize what Alex brought to the band, as opposed to what Chris' contribution was?

JODY: Chris added a real pop aspect to the band. I think Chris provided the production direction for the first album. And Alex, [provided] the production direction for the second. You can see how the two contrast. That's kind of how the band changed. We went from a pretty poppy band to something with a littie grit, as well. [4]

ANDY: Alex just made everything better of course. He was just what we needed. He had the name, the voice, and best of all you could get studio time easily if he was with you. Plus the combined talent of the two of them just seemed unstoppable. But even early on you could see that dark side to him which has been so well documented in the media subsequently. [12]

You once said that the reason Big Star was more melodic than your later work was because you made compromises to do what the group wanted to do.

ALEX: I would have been writing bluesier things at the time. Another reason why those things are more melodic than later things is because when I was first learning to play and stuff, which I pretty much was then, I could stumble upon a cliche and be really impressed that I could make that sound. These days, I'm not so amazed with the cliches that I stumble upon. [6]

How did the recording for the first album (#1 Record) go?

JODY: You know, it went pretty smoothly. I don't remember any specific events where things fell apart. The material was great and we were all into it. Things just worked themselves out. For me, the material was so good, I was overly inspired and I had to trim down what I was doing. When I get inspired musically, I tend to overplay a little bit. In the rehearsal process, I had to trim it back a bit. [2]

How would you describe the atmosphere for the recording of #1 Record? How much was Alex or Chris in charge? Where did you fit in?

ANDY: Well, Chris WAS in charge. I would pretty well credit him with recording and producing that LP. Of course, he had a lot of artistic help from Alex but Chris was the technical brains behind it. He was the only one of us at that time who new how to record. Early on, I was just trying to play bass and keep up with the rest. But later on, after I had taken the audio engineering course and become more comfortable with the bass, I began to play the guitar and piano and write music a lot more and to just generally expand musically. I engineered a little of the later No. 1 stuff, but Chris was the main force. [12]

Did you know instinctively that you were onto something?

JODY: We didn't have much of an audience when those records were first released. I think our first record sold 4,000 copies. And it *was* different than what a lot of other people were doing, with the exception of bands like the Raspberries. With the exception of the first song ["Feel"], it wasn't a very commercially slick record. It wasn't maybe what commercial radio wanted to hear. And our second record [Radio City] was very edgy for its time. They were fairly dark records wrapped in a pop package. Maybe that's what's made them enduring. [3]

Why did it take so long to get out the first album?

JODY: It could have been Stax's release schedule. We started in April of '71. We may have worked around paying clients of theirs. It takes three or four months to set up a record. By the time we finished in June, it got released in the Christmas season- it's not a good idea to release a new act in the Christmas season. [2]

When Big Star's #1 Album came out, even though it recieved rave reviews in all the trade publications, somehow it failed to take off.

ALEX: It was a great album but there were just problems in trying to get it sold, get it into the stores. We'd get a lot of radio play on it somewhere but couldn't get it released there; stuff like that. [6]

What did you think of the record when it came out?

JODY: I was really proud of it. I still am. I didn't write the material so I think I can rave about it. I think the songs are amazing. It was a great joy to be in that band because of the songs. Alex and Chris were, are, really talented. It was something I felt really emotionally attached to. Personalities clashed time to time but musically it was always a joy. [2]

ANDY: I don't know about the others but I was sick and tired of most of it by then other than some of the acoustic tunes which I've always really liked. [12]

What happened with the band then? Why did Chris leave?

JODY: Chris was a major part of the first record in terms of its production and direction. The album was released and the critics really focused on Alex, giving him a lot of attention. Anyone would have. Alex was in the Box Tops with the number one song in the nation. It's only natural that they focus on a band member that the readers would be familar with. I think Chris felt slighted and thought that he might have to live in Alex's shadow so he quit the band in late '72 or early '73. [2]

Did the band do any shows before that?

JODY: We did do a few shows but not many. Big Star never did a lot of shows. In our whole career, we probably did 20, 25 shows. We played New Orleans, Georgia, only three or four dates. [2]

What happened when Chris left?

JODY: When Chris left the band, the band broke up. We got back together at the request of John Keene who was putting together this rock writers convention in Memphis. It was just going to be a one-off. A lot of rock writers asked that Big Star play. It was a low pressure sort of thing because we were all doing it for the fun of it. We weren't promoting anything. So we got to get back together and play for the critics who were basically our only audience. We had a great time so the band got back together and immediately started working on Radio City. [2]

ALEX: There are several schools of Big Star cultists, most of which are based in England, and one of them sees me as a Machiavellian guy who stole Chris Bell's band from him. Chris was a funny person. We'd known each other since we were 13, but Chris was secretive, and although we got along great on the surface, there may have been stuff brewing that he didn't show me. But we had a good working relationship, and there was never a harsh word spoken between us. Looking back on it now, I see that some of the things he said did indicate some tension, but they were so cryptic that all I could do was just look at him and nod. After Big Star, I decided never to be in another cooperative band. It's like being married to four people, and it's impossible for four people to cooperate on that level for very long in any real way. [1]

Did Chris play on the second album?

JODY: You know, I can't remember Chris playing on the second album. I know there are songs that he and Alex wrote together - "Back of a Car" was one of them - these are the stories I've heard. When Chris separated from the band, it's like, Chris didn't want to have his name on these songs - so I think he and Alex kind of divided up their songs that they'd co-written. Alex took a couple and Chris took a couple and they just put their own names on them and excluded the other. But I don't remember Chris playing on Radio City. [4]

ANDY: We started Radio City when we were still a foursome. We had four songs, a couple that we all three co-wrote at Alex's house one night. If memory serves they were "Back of a Car", "Got Kinda Lost," "There was a Life," and I'm not sure of the other but it was one of Alex's songs from RC - maybe "You Get What You Deserve." Plus we got John Fry to agree to engineer the band tracks which we had done ourselves on the first LP. We were looking for new, different things to do so we decided to record in mono. We had Fry set one big Microphone in the middle of the B studio and recorded all four with reference vocals in about 3 takes each. It was the tightest, hottest music we'd ever done. Unfortunately those tapes were subsequently lost or stolen so we had to re-record the ones we used later as a threesome. And of course we didn't use much of Chris's stuff because he subsequently left the group. [12]

How was Radio City different from the first album?

JODY: It was under Alex's direction for sure. I never thought bands work as a democracy. It needs to be one person's vision and it doesn't need to be diluted by three or four peoples' vision because you wind up with something pale in comparison. There was no direction for me for the first album. There were no suggestions for drums. On the first album, there are maracas, horns, a flugelhorn, a trumpet on "Gimme Another Chance." There are lots of background vocals. A lot of time was spent on production for that album where Radio City was really more spontaneous. Performances were pretty close to live performances. There were a few suggestions from Alex about playing drums. "Daisy Glaze" where you get to the part where it speeds up, Alex said "why don't you just do this" where I hit the floor tom slow. [2]

What did you think about Radio City?

JODY: I thought it was one of the best records I ever heard. I was excited about it. [2]

ANDY: Oh I thought it was a tour de force - much better than the first because there was so much revolutionary, avant garde sounding stuff on it. Plus I had been more integrally involved in creating it. And it wasn't so over-produced as the first. Plus the graphics were so cool, with the Bill Eggleston photos and all. [12]

After Radio City, you did a tour. Was that the only tour Big Star did?

JODY: Actually we did a couple of tours. I mean, the first wasn't of any real length. But we actually hit the road and played the University of Georgia in Athens, I think. We played in Mississippi and a couple of other places. The other tour we did was - we played Max's Kansas City in New York. From there we went to Boston and played the Perforance Centre, opening for Badfinger. And then we played in Syracuse and down in Ohio. I think that tour was like two and a half or three weeks. That was about the longest we were ever out for. Other than that, it was just a few dates, here and there. [4]

What happened between Radio City and Third?

JODY: Andy quit and Alex and I continued. Andy just got fed up with it all. I don't know that Andy ever wanted to become a musician. He graduated from Southwestern with an English degree. [4]

[Andy], what led you to leave the band?

ANDY: It was late summer 1973, I think. The band was going on tour in the Northeast to try and promote the record. It was time for me to register for my senior year in college. I couldn't do both. I could either finish college and go lead a more or less normal life or I could drop out and go on tour with a band I'd been in several years that had yet to make a red cent. Tough choice! I was tired of being broke. [12]

Which tour did the Big Star Live album come from?

JODY: The WLIR broadcast? It was from the tour when we opened for Badfinger. John Lightman was in the band, playing bass. Probably April, May, or June of '73. [4]

Third has a lot of people working on it. Did it still feel like a Big Star record?

JODY: I think it was an Alex Chilton solo record myself. There are moments that it's a Big Star record but I think it's really his album. I brought my brother Jimmy in to play bass for the song I wrote. Jim Dickerson played drums for "Kangeroo." I layed a drum track down for "Whole Lotta Shaking Goin' On" and Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer overdubbed a drum kit there. [2] [Steve Cropper] played on "Femme Fatale". [7]

The record didn't come out for four years. What happened with Third?

JODY: Stax went under before or during that record. John continued to record and at the end, he pressed final versions. It was all nineteen tracks and it was meant to be a demo. They were sent out. The first ones to put it out where Aura Records in England, three years later. Then after that, it came out in PVC in the States. About that time, EMI in England issued the first two albums in England. [2]

Did you ever have a definite title for the third album?

JODY: Gee, not that I ever knew of. Alex may have a different opinion of that. Alex may have been definite with Sister Lovers - the name stemming from the fact that we dated sisters. They weren't twins - they were about a year apart. [4]

Critics usually regard Big Star Third as either Big Star's weakest album or it's strongest. You don't seem to consider it to be as good as some critics think it is.

ALEX: At that time, we'd been trying to make these Big Star albums which were real slick and pop. I guess that I had been wanting to find myself and find...I don't know, I was sort of groping as a writer until about 1976, and so I started getting into heavy-duty groping there on the third Big Star album. Sure enough, after a couple of years, I kind of did find myself and did find myself artistically a bit better. [6]

What did you think of the Third record when it came out?

ANDY: Although I had nothing whatsoever to do with 3rd, I got a test pressing right after it was recorded and have thought ever since then that it's one of the great LP's of all time. Alex was very self destructive, but absolutely brilliant mode at the time. [12]

So you and Alex ended the band then?

JODY: I kind of decided it was enough for me. Personally, the relationship between Alex and I was degenerating around the third album. That was late '74. [2]

The Reunion (1993-2010)

Why do you think the reunion in Missouri happened after all those years?

JODY: It was the age of Aquarius (laughs). The moon was in the seventh house. Mike Mulvihill called at the right moment. I guess we were all just feeling good and feeling cooperative. I would never have thought it would work. When I got the call I thought, you know, an easy way out of it for me would be to say, if Alex will do this, I'll do it - thinking Alex probably wouldn't do it, from all I'd heard about Alex's sentiments about Big Star. Every now and then someone would tell me about one of Alex's shows that they'd seen and he wouldn't play any Big Star music. Apparently, it's not that he never wanted to, it's just that he was being Alex Chilton - he wasn't being Big Star on stage. So when the opportunity came around to do a few Big Star songs, Alex agreed to do it. It was kind of shocking to me. [4]

ALEX: People kept saying to me, 'What's this about a Big Star reunion?' And I was like, 'It's not a Big Star reunion.' Then this record company came along and said, 'I think we could slip some money your way for a record of this Big Star reunion,' and I said, 'Call it whatever you want! And what songs did you want me to play?' [10]

Were you asked to participate in [the reunion]?

ANDY: That reunion deal is something of a mystery. Jody called me before hand and I was initially very interested. Then my recollection is that the next I heard about the whole deal was after it happened, which I recall being a little pissed about. But later Jody said that he had tried to contact me and was told I wasn't interested or something like that. And that is certainly possible. Actually, as a practical matter I don't know how I would have done it anyway. [12]

How did you get involved with the Big Star reunion?

KEN: Prolonged begging. It all goes back to when we were making Dear 23, we actually looked at Ardent as a place to record, because we thought oh yeah, Big Star, Replacements, ZZ Top! So we got some literature and the studio was, of course, way too expensive for us to use. But the signature on the letter saying thank you for being interested in our studio was Jody Stephens. So we looked him up and talked to him and found out he was going to be at CMJ when we were there. So we hooked up and hung out with him. He's a super nice guy. Then when we were on the Replacements tour we didn't play in Memphis, but we stopped there. We had a day off and went to Ardent and hung out with Jody some more. It was all very cool and amazing. So we stayed in touch with him. When this Big Star show came up I think he kind of put our name in the hat box to draw from. We hassled the people and it just kind of worked out. But you know they really wanted Mike Mills and Paul Westerberg or Mike Mills and Matthew Sweet, or Matthew Sweet and Chris Stamey. That's who they really wanted - not so much Jody or Alex, but certainly the people putting on the show. They wanted some big names. [5]

Isn't it Jon that does 'Cosmos'? It's sounds very much like Chris' (Bell) version.

JODY: I know. As a matter of fact, that's kind of why they're in the band. I met them a while back, '89, somewhere around there. I think I met them in New York City and they gave me a single of 'Feel' and 'Cosmos' and it was so close to the original it was scary. So, when the time came for me to suggest two members to kinda fill out the lineup for that reunion gig at Columbia, I told them to call Jon and Ken. Actually, I told them to call Jon, not knowing that Ken played Bass too. Ken said, 'No, no, no, you've gotta let me play!'. [13]

As a result of that show, you subsequently did some European dates.

KEN: Originally it was just going to be the one show and everyone was surprised that Alex was even agreeing to do that. Then Zoo Records got involved and wanted to record the show, maybe put it out as a live album. They helped finance Jody and Alex coming out to Seattle to rehearse with us, and getting us all out to Missouri. It was going to be a one shot deal - a once in a lifetime kind of thing. But then, people in Europe, especially in the U.K., really wanted them to go. We were already going to be over there playing. We kind of used each other to get good slots at Reading and other festivals. We played a festival in Holland and we played the Reading festival - Big Star headlined the small stage. We played in London, Leeds and Glasgow. And then we thought that was it, and then suddenly we were playing again. We went to Japan last year and to San Francisco and Chicago. There was some talk of doing some more stuff this spring, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. So maybe it really is the end now. Also last year, we went to Memphis and L.A. and we did the "Tonight Show." [5]

I read a quote from Alex where he said, something to the effect of, if somebody paid me a million dollars, I'd make another Big Star album. Do you think that's a possibility?

JODY: Someone offering us a million dollars? (laughs) Or us making another Big Star album? I don't think somebody offering us a million dollars is a possibility. Another Big Star album, given the right day, given the right situation, you never know. [4]

Is there any possibility of new songs being written by you and Alex? Joint compositions?

JODY: I don't think so. I would never say never. At this point, I don't see it happening. Alex has his new album out and is touring in support of that and I've got my work here at Ardent. [7]

Anyway, what's the deal with Big Star and the Posies right now? What's Alex doing?

JON: Alex does whatever he wants to. Alex has a mind of his own, but he's fun to hang out with. We were just in Memphis, and we did a new Big Star track. [11]

A brand new song?

JON: Well, you know like Matthew Sweet, the Gin Blossoms, and Teenage Fanclub - all those bands and more are contributing to a tribute record, and one of the tracks is the new Big Star song. [11]

You have a name for it yet?

JON: It's called "Hot Thing." [11]

Is there anymore unreleased Big Star material that's likely to come out?

JODY: No, not of the original band. But our Memphis show was video taped - a three camera shoot. That may be coming out.... [4]

Would you consider joining Alex and Jody for any shows or recording if they did ask you again now?

ANDY: I think it would be very interesting to get the three of us back together somehow. I'm not sure how we'd do it. I'm certainly not going to move to Memphis or anything. I'm making too much money and having a neat family and other relationships and whatever here. But just maybe, if we were all on the same page, and everyone was a little excited about it, and was willing to work real hard at home, and we could get together to practice once a month or so, and we had a few months to get ready, and the actual event we were getting ready for was really cool, and if, and if, and if ... hey, I'm game. [12]

Has there been any talk about a reunion show with Andy Hummel involved in some way?

JODY: No, there hasn't. I'd love to do it. He's a wonderful guy. I like him a lot. I'm certainly open to that. I don't know how much playing he does or how much practicing with the band we would do. Jon and Ken, they play all the time. They also do pretty amazing vocal harmonies together. If we played with Andy it would be a much different show. [13]

What's the future of the band?

JODY: We'll do dates as requested. I like to do more than one date and not more than three because I can't spend that much time away from Ardent. [2]

ALEX: I guess we don't have any plans. But I sure hope that we do it again. It was great the last time. [9]

Chris Bell died in a car crash at the age of 27 on December 27, 1978.

Alex Chilton died of a heart attack at the age of 59 on March 17, 2010.

Andy Hummel died of cancer at the age of 59 on July 19, 2010.

[1] LA Weekly - April 6, 2000 LAWeekly
[2] Perfect Sound - December 1996
[3] Rolling Stone - December 17, 1998 Rolling
[4] Discoveries - January 1996 Chris Bray's Big Star Page
[5] Discoveries - (Date?) Chris Bray's Big Star Page
[6] The Bob May - June 1987 Jeff The Joker's Page
[7] Madison Badger-Herald - (Date?) Chris Bray's Big Star Page
[8] Alec Palao Interview - (Date?)
[9] ActiveBass Interview - February 28, 2000 ActiveBass
[10] San Francisco Chronicle - 1994 DecayNet
[11] Adam Metz Interview - June 9, 1996 Dear 23
[12] Perfect Sound - (Date?)
[13] BSR Interview - October 2. 2001 Big Star Reference