Monday, March 29, 2010
TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | 'My Big Star Story' by John Fry
One day in 1968, I walked into my office to find a young man still in his teens, seated in my chair, with his boots propped up on my desktop, smoking a cigarette. Once I relocated him, I learned that he was Chris Bell. I would soon meet Andy Hummel, as the two, along with Steve Rhea, were starting to join the after-hours recording crew at Ardent. I already knew Alex Chilton from his visits to Ardent for Box Tops overdub and mixing sessions. A bit later I would meet Jody Stephens as he joined Chris and Andy on drums when Steve left for college.
Of course, there would be no Big Star band until a few years later, but this day is as good as any to mark the start of a journey that Alex, Andy, Chris, Jody, and I would wind up taking together. That journey has been well described in several different formats. The life stories of the individuals involved would progress in ways that none of us could have envisioned.
For me, the experiences included getting to participate in the recording and release of music I loved then and still love now, the bitter feeling of total commercial failure in the Memphis ashes of 1975, an early morning phone call in 1978 with bad news, and the ultimate acceptance of the music by generations of fans and musicians, many unborn at the time it was recorded.
Recounting some recent events may express my feelings better than talking about the distant past. Fast forward to 2008. Jody Stephens shouts from his office across the hall from mine “Hey, we’ve got a show in London on August 28”. My response is, “I’m going.”
It’s three hours until show time, and I am having dinner with friends in an Indian restaurant around the corner from The Shepherds Bush Empire. Seated at the next table are what turn out to be a dad, mom, and teenage daughter. After a while dad leans over and says “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing, and it sounded like you were talking about Big Star, We’ve driven down here from North Yorkshire to see this show. We’re all huge Big Star fans. Do you know anything about that?”
I responded, “Yes, a little” and enjoyed making some new friends.
The show is now in progress, and I’m studying the audience. Their ages range from older than my own to teenagers who are obviously in a band (note playing of imaginary instruments). They know the songs and the lyrics. “Cosmos” kicks off, and the room becomes very quiet; the crowd knows about that too. I walked back to my hotel, feeling a sense of closure about a number of things which had eluded me for decades.
I am grateful to Cheryl and Andrew at Rhino, and to Alec Palao for the vision and persistence that made the Big Star box set 'Keep An Eye On The Sky' and the 'I am the Cosmos' 2 CD Deluxe Edition possible (The new Cosmos Handmade edition presently is available only from Rhino.com and their affiliated international sites). I can’t say enough about the hard work by Adam Hill at Ardent in finding and gathering materials. Thanks to Ken and John for ably filling their roles since 1993. Finally, thanks to Alex, Andy, Chris, and Jody. Mostly you made me smile, sometimes you made me cry, but this journey has been the best thing about my 44 years of doing this job. I love you all and always will.
Addendum | Since writing this, an unexpected and unwanted event occurred on March 17, 2010. At about 7 pm, I received a call from Jody Stephens, who had gone to Austin that day to participate in SXSW. He quickly said that he had received a call from Laura, Alex Chilton’s wife. Alex had suffered symptoms of heart failure at home and had been taken to a hospital where he died in the emergency room. There initially was nothing more to say beyond “What, say that again, are you sure?”
Then we said to one another, I guess we better cancel everything. I was about to hang up when it occurred to me to say “It’s your decision, but you guys should talk about it among yourselves. Maybe you want to go ahead with everything as a tribute to Alex.”
They called back in a couple of hours and said they were going to perform with guest artists. I think it was the right decision.
There was a tremendous outpouring of love and support from the artist community at SXSW. The media were courteous and respectful in as far as I have seen. We all are grateful.
There was a previously booked Big Star show at the Levitt Shell in Memphis on May 15. The remaining band mates and family are in agreement that this will also go on as a hometown tribute to Alex.
A memorial for Alex will be held at Minglewood Hall on March 30th from 5-8PM. It is open to the public.
One week ago, I picked up the Big Star boxed set, looked at the cover photo with their smiling faces, and reflected on the fact that there are now two of these four people about whom I have received shocking sudden death phone calls, one in 1978 and another in 2010.
Alex and Chris are sorely missed, much loved, and deeply respected.
Ardent Studios, Memphis, TN, March 24, 2010
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Posted by Jon at 12:25 PM