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 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.

—John Fry

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.

—John Fry,
Ardent Studios, Memphis, TN, March 24, 2010

Enter to win Big Star's '#1 Record' on vinyl by telling us your Big Star or Alex Chilton story in the comments to this post. Please remember to leave a contact email address. The winner will be notified next Monday, 4/5/2010.


Cp said...

I am too young to have a Big Star story back in their original 'day' so, like others, I was introduced to Big Star in Memphis while in college in 1985 by a college friend. Then, Peter Buck of R.E.M. praised them and then The 'Mats release "Alex Chilton" ... so the rest is communal history.

I saw the new lineup, of course, in shows in Memphis at the New Daisy and Musicfest. I have all the CDs, the imports, the new release, and the new box set.

My proudest part of this collection (without a doubt) is the 'original' press kit/vinyl release of Radio City by Ardent Records. I found it in the bins at Shangri-La Records in Memphis and it hasn't a scratch!

My last thought to share is this; and they are two missed two opportunities. One was to see Alex Chilton play in September 12th and 13th in 2001. Both shows (Cooper Young in Memphis and Proud Larry's in Oxford, MS) were cancelled due to 9/11.

And the second opportunity was to be the May 15th 2010 show at the Overton Park Levitt Shell with Big Star. While it may go on as a tribute and I will keep the pre-party tickets and my wife and I will attend, I'm sure it will be a great show.

Valerie said...

My only Big Star story is from SXSW. I was excited to see them for the first time on the last night of the festival, and was shocked, like everyone else, at the news of Chilton's death on the first day of the festival.

I was at the tribute show, and the performers and audience alike were teary-eyed at several points. I kept telling my friend not to cry, but she did at the end and it was okay. The tribute was really something special, and Sondre Lerche was the surprise star of the night. I felt incredibly lucky to be there, even if I never get to see Chilton perform. I know he was there with us anyway.

Jeff said...

I was too young for the original Big Star releases but if you grew up in Western TN and were into music you'd heard of Alex Chilton, his name surfaced in conversations and occasionally in the newspapers. I remember seeing reviews for "Like Flies On Sherbert" when it came out and I wish I'd gotten a copy, but I was into other genres of music then and there was only so much money to spend on records.

The thing that impresses me most about Big Star is how the music doesn’t sound dated. I love the crisp, clean guitar parts that sound simple on the surface but must be really complicated to play (see “You Get What You Deserve” from Radio City or “Watch the Sunrise” from #1 Record).

Seeing the numerous articles and Alex tributes this past week and a half, I come to realize what a true artist Alex was, artist being defined as people who follow their own path and create something wonderful & unique, then tear it down and create something wonderful & unique again but in a different context, that’s what artist do and that’s what Alex did with the Box Tops, then Big Star and then with his solo work.

Matthew TRISLER said...

I owe Alex Chilton a lot.

My wife and I spent an hour after we met just talking about "Thirteen." That's not mentioning the other hours we spent talking about the rest of #1 Record, the time while we were still dating and I went broke and panhandled in Louisville for a day just to have the cash to buy her a copy of Third.

She grew up in Memphis, and had me convinced from the second she said so that this is where I needed to live. Never mind Elvis or barbeque, it's living within shouting distance of Ardent that makes this place the greatest in the world.

I observe a moment of silence when passing the intersection of Chris Bell's car wreck; I still have the grocery bag and receipt from our trip to the West Memphis Big Star four years ago.

Our wedding rings are inscribed with the line, "Would you be an outlaw for my love" from "thirteen." It's both a challenge and a reminder of our fast friendship.

I could describe my feelings about Alex Chilton's passing, but so much has been written so much better, that I'll just leave it to say I've written about Big Star before. If you want to know my feelings now, you need to understand my feelings from when he was alive.

Kathy Westbrook said...

I was working at a restaurant near the airport called the 91st Bomb Group with a waiter I thought was really cool. We were discussing music one day and he mentioned he was in a band called Big Star. At the time I hadn't heard of them, but learned more about them shortly after. That really cool waiter was Jody Stephens. Over the years I stayed in the bar business and started booking bands. I met many Memphis musicians during this time, Alex being one of them. One night at Antenna I happened to have a guitar for a benefit that was being auctioned off and Alex signed it. I still have the guitar, since I ended up buying it. I still try to do a benefit for a different charity every year, and Ardent & Jody have always been gracious enough to do sound or donate tshirts & posters to auction off. If I haven't let you guys know this, Thank you for your contributions , and for your wonderful music I have enjoyed through the years. R.I.P. Alex and Thanks Jody!!

Golightly said...

The music I hold in the highest regard is the three B's...The Beatles, The Byrds and Big Star.
I keep all of my Beatles, Byrds and Big Star records,cd's and books in a seperate area from the rest of my music. Upon my demise, my instructions are clear...they all go to Caelum Lennon grandson. My hope is that these will be the foundation which he will build and expound upon.

michael baker said...

I worked for 12 months on an article about Alex for perfect sound forever; my mercurial son was blossoming, my dystrophic marriage, floundering. They were Dickensian highs and lows punctuated nightly by BS’s three luminous albums—cigar in hand, red wine nearby, I was musically re-invigorated. My story? As with Gaul, it’s in three parts: my disdain for reunion concerts, my increasing loathing of Hoboken-fueled musical events, my needing to work that crummy rainy Sunday afternoon but when the shambolic box stops wandered into my neighborhood I oozed through the appointed and the precariously perched hipsters and stood there with eyes and mouth wide the shit open. Enough of me, of course: the protagonist needs to be elevated to top billing, or maybe as in the movie memento we need to spin back from the cover songs that day to the beginning of the beginning. The first big star changed my life as a glomming teen; the article defined for me why that changed had occurred; the reunion concert—eight feet away—made me tearful. He was funny, pertinent, on key, embracing, and soulful, all the things we had given up for as mysteriously gone in him, we, the bad critics, na├»ve audience, and youthful exuberants who had no claim in the first place. He calmed us and the weather that day. He made aging seem ok. He made music seem ok. He made me laugh. Like my son does now every day, like a best friend long since gone to cabins in Cali (please write Jim Bob), Sir Alex Chilton made feeling good ok. RIP you mother fucker. I love your music.

dukdukgoose said...

In the late 90s, I showed up for an Alex Chilton gig at New York's Knitting Factory... I'd say about 15 minutes before Alex was to take the stage, the club went dark & the emergency lights came on. Five minutes passed, then an announcement that the power problem couldn't be fixed promptly & the gig was cancelled...

I quickly made my way to the bar to grab a drink before they closed that down, too... After taking the first sips of my gin & tonic, I heard the strumming of an acoustic guitar & the sound of an unmistakable singing voice. Someone had brought his axe to the gig. Alex came down from the stage, borrowed the guy's guitar, joined the 12 or so of us who were lingering & played about 3-4 songs. No Big Star, Box Tops, or Alex Chilton songs in the group; just songs that Alex loved & had never recorded... The most telling bit of audience interaction came when a young woman (who likely fell in love to the song once) wistfully chimed in "Play 'Thirteen.'" Alex paused for a moment, looked toward her with a mixture of bemusement & slight exasperation, & said "I'm just sooo not in that head right now." Then he launched into a kickass version of Glen Sherley's "Step Right This Way" that prompted me to pick up Glen's album later that week...

Needless to say, we all pleaded with him to extend his impromptu 10 minute set... Alex cheerfully complained that the guitar he borrowed had steel strings & tougher fret action than he was used to, & that his hands weren't sufficiently "butched up" to continue. With that, he bade us farewell, & the Knitting Factory staff hastily kicked us all out...

Thank you, Alex, for all the great music you made & inspired...

citizenkeith said...

My Big Star story... interning at Ardent in 1990. Jody Stephens walks up to me with a cassette and asks me to copy it for him. Turns out it was the upcoming Replacements album, "All Shook Down." Back then, Big Star wasn't well known but thanks to The Replacements, they were becoming more well known year by year. This was just a surreal moment in a wonderful summer in Memphis.