They never quite reached the height of their name 'Big Star' when they were together but this ‘70s pop-soul band that included Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton has become legendary music figures. For those who are unaware of this group, you may recognize their work from the revised theme music of the popular new sitcom ‘That ‘70s Show.’
The quartet produced and put out their debut album #1 Record before Bell left breaking up the band. Back together for a one time performance at a rock writers convention, they decided to put a second album, Radio City, without Bell.
The attractive songwriting of Chilton and the few Stephens contributed, kept Big Star as a musical act after Hummel left . They didn’t sell many records in their time together nor did they play many live shows but became an inspirational music background for many. Ardent Studios stationed in Memphis, was first opened 32 years ago by John Fry, for the purpose of recording Big Star material. The complex’s reputation for “creative and technical excellence in music” has attracted major artists such as Sister Hazel, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and The Replacements.
The band slowly laid down to rest in late ‘74, but would again appear together years later to play reunion gigs, without the late Chris Bell. Andy Hummel is now living in the Dallas Footworth area with his family and no longer is involved with the music industry. Alex Chilton went on to have a solo music career, still a recording artist of Ardent Studios.
As for drummer, Jody Stephens, he went back to school at Memphis State and got a degree in marketing. He played around in different bands, waited tables and finally came to manage Ardent Studios. “I schedule time, musicians and equipment. Bands like Afghan Whigs come and record here. R.E.M did their Green Record here. It’s kind of my job to go out and solicit business for the studio, to make contact and attract people to use the studio. It’s also my job for them to have a good time. I spend about 45 hours here a week at Ardent and travel to New York and places like that.”
Recently, Stephens has picked up the responsibility of being a drummer for the ‘super group’ Golden Smog. This band, which includes Gary Louris (Jayhawks), Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum), Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run), Marc Perlman (Jayhawks), and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), recorded their latest album,Weird Tales, at Ardent with Stephens.
He also helped co-write the beautiful and dark “Fear of Falling” on Tales. “No one’s asked me.” He glances at the question of singing for Smog. “Nor have I asked to sing a song. I think for the moment I was pretty content playing drums, I don’t play drums full time. It’s kind of tough getting prepared, practice drums and having to practice to sing too.”
Ardent’s flexibility with Stephens gave him a chance do some tour dates with Smog at the release of Tales. He enjoyed working with the guys from Smog and sees his role as a member growing. “It’ll be nice to write or at least be a co-writer in a couple of songs. I really need to do some more writing [laughs]. There are alot of rewards in music and I have a really good time doing it.”
When asked about how, or if he has evolved as a drummer, Stephens replies with laughter. “No, I don’t feel like I’ve evolved. That [Big Star’s music style] is still sort of my favorite music to play. I was never much of a technical drummer, I never cared to play many different styles. I wasn’t into being a drummer for the sake of being a drummer. I was into being in a band.”
Microsoft wanted to do a special on the band and decided not to because Chilton was not willing to speak to anyone. Stephens now seems to be the only open string to Big Star. He helped put together a Big Star tribute, which he plays drums on one track with Mathew Sweet. The album is due out late spring or early summer. Bands that got on the album were those who Stephens knew and called up to be on it, which includes Whiskeytown and The Posies.
Stephens also confirmed a rumor of another Big Star reunion in the works. “There might be a date coming up May 7th, here in Memphis.” (update: Big Star reunion includes three shows-Memphis, Minneapolis and Chicago.)
Decades after the break up of this influential ‘70s band, Big Star still rings in the ears of music lovers and written into rock and roll history.