Big Star

Big Star was an American rock and roll band of the early 1970s whose work is often cited as a prime example of power pop. Drawing upon pop music traditions — especially The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Zombies, Badfinger, The Who, Todd Rundgren, Moby Grape, The Beach Boys and Free — Big Star's music was lyrical, powerful, and at times melancholic pop for the post-1960s generation. Their approach not only recalled the British Invasion groups but the spare, relaxed style of Stax Records, the Memphis soul label. In an era of singer-songwriters and heavy-metal groups, they played melodic, concisely written songs. Their reputation, negligible in 1974, has steadily grown, and they are today considered one of pop's classic groups.


Early history

Big Star was formed in 1971 in Memphis, Tennessee, by guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens, and guitarist/vocalist Alex Chilton. All four at times contributed to the songwriting and lead vocals, with Chilton and Bell singing and writing the majority of the early songs as a team modelled after Lennon and McCartney's collaborative style.

Bell had previously worked on a couple of the songs in Big Star's early repertoire while in the groups Rock City and Ice Water, whose personnel had included Hummel, Stephens, Steve Rhea, Terry Manning, Thomas Eubanks, and eventually Chilton. Recordings by these groups are included in the Rock City and Ice Water recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s released in 2004 on a Lucky 7 Records album called Rock City.

The Big Star group, named after a local Memphis grocery store, did not receive its final name until well after recording sessions by the lineup that included former Box Tops lead singer Alex Chilton were underway for Big Star's first album, #1 Record. This album was recorded by Ardent Studios head John Fry, with assistance from Terry Manning, who contributed occasional backing vocals and keyboards. #1 Record, was released in 1972, but the band's Ardent Records label encountered problems with its Stax and Columbia Records distributors, resulting in poor sales.
Missing image
The distinctive photo for Radio City was taken by American color photographer William Eggleston

Bell, struggling with severe depression and disappointed by the album's lack of commercial success, left the group in 1972 for a solo career. Big Star soon disbanded for a brief period, but then reformed and released Radio City (1974), an album featuring two of Big Star's more famous songs, "September Gurls" and "Back of a Car." Although uncredited, Bell contributed to the writing of a few of the album's songs, including "O My Soul" and "Back of a Car," according to Fry (quoted by Clark, 1992) and Hummel (quoted by Jovanovic, 2004). Radio City's original album cover was a color photograph, "The Red Ceiling," by noted photographer William Eggleston. In spite of critical acclaim, the album did not sell well; Hummel quit and was replaced by John Lightman for live concerts.

Chilton and Stephens recorded tracks with producer Jim Dickinson for a planned double album with an array of friends and guests including vocalist Lisa Aldridge, drummer Richard Rosebrough, Lee Baker of Mud Boy and the Neutrons, and Steve Cropper. Rosebrough had played on some of Chilton's post-Box Tops solo recordings in 1970 prior to Chilton's joining Big Star and also appeared on a couple of recordings on Radio City, including "Mod Lang," according to an interview with Hummel in Perfect Sound Forever. After finishing the recordings, Big Star again disbanded in late 1974. The album was finally released four years later, on the PVC label, as Third. Third (retitled Third/Sister Lovers for its 1992 CD release), combined a confessional approach with a distinct pop sensibility that recalled a variety of influences from the Left Banke to the Velvet Underground.

In the late 1970s, critics began to cite Big Star's albums as among the finer recordings of the decade, and an important precursor to new-wave rock music. The 1980s and 1990s saw new generations of alternative bands, including R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements, Primal Scream, Bill Lloyd and the dB's, citing Big Star as a major influence. The Bangles included a cover of "September Gurls" on their 1985 album Different Light and, most recently, Wilco has shown a strong Sister Lovers influence, especially in the album A Ghost Is Born.

Later history and reunion

Chilton and Stephens reunited in 1993 with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the American pop band The Posies taking the place of Bell (who had died in a car crash in 1978) and Hummel (who had left music for an engineering career) at the University of Missouri. For an encore, the band performed Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl," reflecting Chilton's marked, post-Big Star interest in early rock and roll. This appearance was followed by tours of Europe and Japan, as well as an appearance on The Tonight Show. Other Big Star releases include Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, a recording of the first reunion show; Big Star Live, a 1974 radio broadcast from Long Island; and Nobody Can Dance, a recording of the last Big Star show, performed at Overton Park in Memphis.

Big Star was introduced to a new generation of fans when "In the Street" was selected as a representative song of the 1970s decade by the producers of the sitcom That '70s Show, who used it for the show's theme song in 1998. In 1999 Cheap Trick recorded a new version of the song, renamed "That '70s Song," for the show. "That '70s Song" and the original Big Star version of "September Gurls" were included in a 1999 album released by the television program's producers, That '70s Show Presents That '70s Album: Rockin'. The reunited Big Star returned to Ardent Studios in early 2004 to work on a new album. With songs cowritten by Chilton, Stephens, Auer, and Stringfellow, the new album is due out in August 2005 on Rykodisc.


  • Jon Auer — guitar, vocals (1993–current)
  • Chris Bell — guitars, vocals (1971–1972)
  • Alex Chilton — guitars, vocals (1971–current)
  • Andy Hummel — bass, vocals (1971–1973)
  • John Lightman — bass, vocals (1973–1975)
  • Jody Stephens — drums, vocals (1971–current)
  • Ken Stringfellow — bass, vocals (1993–current)


  • Ankeny, Jason. "Big Star Biography." ( Accessed Apr. 28, 2005.
  • Auer, Jon (April 11, 2005). "New Posies and Big Star release...?" ( Big Star Book. Accessed Apr. 28, 2005.
  • Boldman, Gina. That '70s Show Presents That '70s Album: Rockin' review." ( Accessed Jun. 20, 2005.
  • "Box Tops Biographies." ( Box Tops Official website. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • Clark, Rick (1992). "Liner notes." Big Star: #1 Record/Radio City double cd. Memphis: Ardent Records.
  • Gordon, Robert (1995). It Came From Memphis. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-7434-1045-9.
  • Gross, Jason (July 2001). "Big Star — Andy Hummel." ( Perfect Sound Forever. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • "The Jokers." ( Box Tops Official website. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • Jovanovic, Rob (2004). Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band. London: Fourth Estate. ISBN 0-00-714908-5.
  • "The Jynx." ( Box Tops official website. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • Ritchie, Paul (April 1996). "Alex Chilton: Live in Glasgow." ( Ready Steady Go! Accessed May 12, 2005.
  • Ritchie, Paul (August 5, 1998). "Teenage Fanclub." ( Ready Steady Go!. Accessed May 12, 2005.
  • "Rock City Bio." ( Rounder Records website. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • "Rockin' Memphis Volume I Bio." ( Rounder Records website. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.
  • Rosen, Craig (August 16, 1999). "Cheap Trick Does Big Star For 'That '70s Show.'" ( Cheap Trick News on Yahoo! Music. Accessed May 12, 2005.
  • Stern, Theresa (December 22, 1996). "Interview: Jody Stephens." ( Perfect Sound Forever. Accessed Jun. 19, 2005.

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