Big Star. What a great great band. If you don’t know them, stop reading this now, open another browser window, and buy the single CD of their first two albums, #1Record/Radio City, and their 3rd, posthumous album, Third/Sister Lovers. You won’t be sorry–I promise. And read the Wikipedia page on them for the lowdown.
I’m writing this for those of you who know about Big Star, and their leader, the great Alex Chilton, who sadly died on March 17. I was moved by his passing, and thought I’d share some rare Big Star collectibles (pictured above) and some of my memories of this most unique band (sorry if this gets self-indulgent–but hey, it’s a blog.)
I found out about Big Star while working at L.A.’s Rhino Records, in the in the mid-1970’s. By the time I heard them, their first 2 albums were already out of print, but easily available as “cut-outs.” They were a revelation to me, a young (but fanatical) record collector, specializing in American and British 60’s rock. How could anybody interested in 60’s rock not LOVE these records. So great, so original, so obvious.
Rhino at that time had many rock-critic customers (and a few rock-critic employees) and so I heard all about the Memphis rock writer’s convention that Big Star played in 1973. Also much talked about was the legendary unreleased 3rd Big Star album, which was completed–evidently they had even made test pressings–but their label, Ardent, couldn’t find anyone to release it (their distributor, Stax, was having severe financial problems and wasn’t interested.) People knew about the 3rd Big Star album, but nobody in my circle had heard it–or even knew anyone who’d heard it. For record collectors, it was was one of those great, holy grail albums you fantasized about.
And here I have to give a huge shout out to Frank Gutch. Frank was a Rhino customer, friend, and employee at the local Licorice Pizza record store. Frank was a huge Big Star fan. Huge. He really wanted to hear that third Big Star album. Badly. So he did something no fan in their right mind would have even thought to do in those days. He called Ardent Studios in Memphis–owners of Ardent Records, and the studio where Big Star recorded. He somehow got John Fry on the phone, the studio and label owner. He asked if they had any extra test pressings of the 3rd Big Star album. And amazingly–AMAZINGLY–John Fry sent him one. Who would have had the nerve to do that. Or would have even thought to do it ? Only one man. Frank Gutch.
Well, we all heard Frank’s test pressing. It was incredible. Incredible. Maybe the best Big Star album of all. How could this be unreleased. It made no sense. And I must admit, I coveted that test pressing. Man, that was a rare, rare record. And a great one too. I asked Frank, half jokingly, half not, if he could call John Fry and ask if he had another one for me. And you know what ? Frank did. And one day, with no warning, Frank strolled into the Rhino store and gave me my own Big Star 3rd album test pressing. Unbelievable. I said it then, I say it again. Thanks Frank. Amazing.
A few years later, I was staying at the London home of my friend Colin Baker, and he played me a live tape of Big Star on a Long Island, NY radio station WLIR. Incredible. Big Star live ! They were great. Who ever thought that there might be a live radio broadcast of Big Star. Colin made me a copy–thanks, Col.
Jump ahead to the late 1980’s. I was working for A&M Records, and we had signed a band, Tora Tora, who were recording their album at Ardent Studios. I visited Memphis to meet the band, and was lucky enough to meet John Fry (who I belatedly thanked for the test pressing) and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who managed Ardent and worked closely with the band. I probably bored these guys to death talking about Big Star as much as Tora Tora, but hey, you only live once. I mentioned the WLIR broadcast and Jody Stephens told me he had a perfect copy and would send me a cassette. And he did ! These guys were as nice as it comes, and I felt truly honored to meet them. Thanks Jody and John.
Flash forward to 2009. In London, I met longtime UK music journalist Max Bell, who years ago had been friendly with the late, great Chris Bell of Big Star, when Chris was visiting London. Max was a Big Star fan too, Chris, who had already left the band, brought Max a signed copy of “Radio City” when he next visited London. Max had held on to it for many years, but I’m happy to say he sold me that signed copy (above) which is the only period-signed Big Star album I’m aware of. Thanks Max.
My final story involves my late father-in-law, legendary “record man” Larry Uttal, who owned and ran the Amy/Mala/Bell labels in the 60’s (Bell later became Arista Records), and Private Stock Records in the 70’s. Larry knew Alex Chilton from The Box Tops, who had recorded for Larry’s label, Mala. Alex, of course, had been the lead singer of The Box Tops (who’s hits included the classics “The Letter” and “Soul Deep.”) One day in the mid-80’s, I casually mentioned to Larry (then visiting from New York) that I was going to see Alex play live. Larry told me he’d like to come along; it had been many years since he’d seen Alex. I explained to him that Alex was doing some pretty different stuff–loud, dissonant, druggy music that couldn’t be more unlike the Box Tops hits. And that the club he was playing, Al’s Bar, was a real dive–not his type of place. Larry, always super enthusiastic, insisted it would be fine, that he’d love to see Alex again. I knew it would be his kind of scene at all, but there was no convincing him otherwise–so I told him to drive on his own “just in case” and I’d meet him there.
We met outside the club, and entered the tiny, very crowded, stiflingly hot, cigarette smoke filled room. Of course Alex didn’t appear for some time, and when he did hit the stage, he seemed pretty much out of it. He started playing some really discordant, unrecognizable music at an ear splitting volume. It was pretty hard to take even for me–and I was used to shows like this. Suffice to say, Larry lasted about two songs before turning to me and saying something like “OK, I get it” and heading out the door.
Happily, Alex seemed to pull it together in later years, re-uniting Big Star with Jody Stephens and some younger, talented fans from the band The Posies. Big Star belatedly received their due, had their catalog reissued many times, were feted and praised by the a new generation of fans, and their songs covered by many better known bands such as REM, Wilco and Cheap Trick. The Replacements recorded a song, “Alex Chilton” in tribute to him, which was released as a single from their 1987 album “Pleased To Meet Me.” And probably most lucratively, their song “In The Street” was used as the theme song for “That 70’s Show.”
His death is a sad loss to the world of music. But the cliche is true–better late than never–and Alex did receive the accolades while he was alive and could appreciate and benefit from them. So go listen to some Big Star and celebrate all the music this unique band left us to enjoy.