New Book & Box Set to Detail Short, Brilliant Career of Big Star’s Chris Bell: Exclusive Chapter & Song Premiere
5/5/2017 by Gary Graff
The mythology and iconography around the late Alex Chilton is so strong that his Big Star co-founder Chris Bell sometimes gets short shrift. But this year Omnivore Recordings is taking some significant steps toward giving the incredibly gifted Bell his due.
The campaign begins with the July 7 release of Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star, a 22-track compilation that includes six previously unreleased tracks from Bell’s pre-Big Star career—including one from the band Icewater, whose “A Chance to Live” is premiering exclusively below. The year will also see a re-release of Bell’s gorgeous posthumous solo album I Am The Cosmos as both a single LP and a two-CD deluxe edition, along with The Complete Chris Bell, a six-LP vinyl box set that will include more unreleased material.
A biography, There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Big Star Founder Chris Bell by Rich Tupica, will also be published (read chapter 2 from the book below). Bell died in a automobile crash on Dec. 27, 1978, at the age of 27.
“This has been on my list of things to do,” Cheryl Pawelski, who worked on Big Star’s catalog at Rhino Records before co-founding Omnivore, tells Billboard. “Because Alex had the longer career and certainly the hit career that predates Big Star, I think Chris gets overlooked sometimes. I think it’s important to keep his work out there and keep refreshing it. He had a short career, just like Nick Drake. I feel like people need to discover this guy. We’ve seen how it happens. I just keep hoping that if we keep putting him out there more people will find it.”
In addition to Icewater, Looking Forward also spotlights Bell’s work with bands like Rock City, Christmas Future and the Wallabys, along with rare photos, liner notes from producer Alec Palao and remembrances by a variety of Bell’s cohorts, including Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and Ardent Studio founder John Fry. Pawelski says the Cosmos reissue was broached first but that the idea of a “prequel,” not unlike the Chilton compilation Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions, came along in short order. “We thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s all that pre-Big Star Chris Bell, too, like we did with Alex,” Pawelski says. “This can be the precursor to Big Star, but from the Chris angle. It felt good to me and I think it’s a good way to tell the whole (Bell) story this year and wrap it up in a big, white bow.”
The Bell projects follow this year’s other major Big Star release, Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third Live…And More, following a performance of the album and a film premiere during this year’s South By Southwest conference.
There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell & the Rise of Big Star (Exclusive Excerpt)
By Rich Tupica
<strong”>Chapter Two: The Jynx
After a short spell of learning British guitar licks in his bedroom, Chris Bell played in a series of teen bands with a mishmash of audiophile friends, some of whom would ultimately collaborate with him on a series of projects at Ardent Studios.
By 1965, while a freshman at Memphis University School, things got serious when Chris met future Box Tops bassist Bill Cunningham and formed the Jynx—his first foray into performing rock ‘n’ roll in front of high-school crowds. As the band’s lead guitarist, he’d tear through the innovative riffs of his idols, like the Who’s Pete Townshend and the Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The Jynx were a part of a new wave of Memphis garage bands, though a previous generation had already forged the path across the Bluff City.
David Bell (Chris Bell’s brother): A big local band in the early to mid-’60s Memphis garage-rock scene was Tommy Burk & the Counts. They were like a half generation before Chris’ band the Jynx. I remember the Counts when I was in high school. They played parties. There was another band, the Gentrys, they had a hit in 1965 with “Keep On Dancing.” The Gentrys had Jimmy Hart and Larry Raspberry. They’d have a Battle of the Bands every weekend in Memphis. It was a big, big scene.
Larry Raspberry (The Gentrys, Alamo, Highsteppers): After all the band gigs on Friday and Saturday nights, it wasn’t unusual to see all these bands at Shoney’s grabbing some food with their audience. It was very exciting, good memories.
Van Duren (Baker Street Regulars, Memphis-based songwriter): Chris came up in garage bands in the ’60s. Those teen bands did everything from Stax and Motown to Beatles and British Invasion. Most versions of those bands did the same type of material. There wasn’t a whole lot of distinction because they’d basically just play parties. They’d play what people wanted to hear.
Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star): Some of the older bands were playing some soulful stuff, but kids my age were pretty Beatles-influenced.
David Bell: When The Jynx started in 1965, Chris was in eighth grade, around 14 years old.
Bill Cunningham (The Jynx, Box Tops): I first met Chris through music at the tail end of ’64. Together, with a couple of fellow musicians from my old junior-high band, we started the Jynx in early 1965. I would spend the night at the Bell’s house. Chris and I became best friends as soon as we met. We hung out all the time. All of us were dreamers. Chris took music very seriously. The Jynx would play high school parties almost every weekend for Memphis University School (MUS) and Hutchison students. We mainly played rich kids’ parties by the pool side, it kept us pretty busy. We knew everybody there and they all knew us. I don’t know how big the Jynx following was across Memphis. I certainly wouldn’t consider it significant outside of the MUS and Hutchison crowd.
Leo Geoff (The Jynx): The Jynx name was a takeoff on the Kinks.
David Bell: They wore matching jackets so they would look Beatles-ish or Kinks-ish. DeWitt Shy, who was the drummer, his mother was booking them gigs. There were some garage parties and shows like that. I was at a lot of their shows because I had a driver’s license and I would lug Chris and his equipment from party to party and to his band practices.
Bill Cunningham: We played a lot of songs, but mostly British Invasion covers. It was not really Memphis soul music, but we did play things like “Walking The Dog” and a number of other Memphis-based tunes. It wasn’t like we didn’t do any soul, but most of it was the Zombies, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Them and the Moody Blues.
Among the crowd at the weekend parties was a pre-Box Tops Alex Chilton, who was born December 28, 1950 in Memphis—a couple weeks before Chris. As a Central High School student, Alex was an accepted outsider.
Alex Chilton: I was about 13 years old in 1964. I was a public-school kid, but somehow my family was hooked up with all these rich, society people in town and I started going to their little circuit parties. It was the same people at every party. It was my scene from the time I was in junior high school until the time I quit school to become a rock star.
David Bell: Chris and Alex knew each other for a couple years before the Box Tops took off in ’67.
Alex Chilton: Their parents would let them have a big party for all their little private-school friends. It’d be around a pool or inside the house and the parents would always hire a band to play. Half the time, it’d be Chris’ band the Jynx with DeWitt Shy on the drums and Bill Cunningham on the bass, plus whoever was singing. These parties were full of these rich, beautiful kids. Every week there seemed to be one or two parties. That’s where I got to know Chris. It was a magical, wonderful scene.
Chris’ circle of friends spanned beyond MUS, he soon found comradery with some fellow mischievous teens at the adjacent all-girl’s school. Future Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, who transferred to MUS one year after Chris, also joined the mix.
Linda Schaeffer Yarman (Friend): MUS was next door to the private girl’s school I went to, Hutchison School. Andy Hummel and Chris Bell both took art classes held at the girl’s school. I encountered that whole bunch – Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell—through mutual friends.
David Bell: Chris’ close friends at the time were Carole Ruleman Manning and her friends. They were the female counterparts to all these MUS boys who were rebels, rock ‘n’ rollers and lovers of anything English.
Carole Ruleman Manning (Ardent photographer and designer): I had known Alex Chilton since I was 12 years old. I dated him at 13 and 14. I’d known Chris since I was 14—dated him when I was 15 and 16.
Andy Hummel: It was pretty cool. Those girls were of like mind to Chris and me. The wild childs of MUS and the wild childs of Hutchison’s somehow met each other and hit it off.
Linda Schaeffer Yarman: Our inner circle of friends was the odd people out, the rebellious ones at the school. We just loved Chris. He was liked by everybody but he was very quiet, shy and into music.
Cindy Bell Coleman (Chris Bell’s sister): Chris’ room was always completely consumed with guitars and amplifiers—all sorts of musical paraphernalia and posters.
Steve Rhea: We always did see ourselves in that school setting at MUS as being different and separate from the other guys. However, I was more aware of cliques and snobbery at White Station, the big public school, and I was totally accepted at MUS. People respected me for my talent and they did for Chris, as well. But they were a little more Ivy League-type.
Alex Chilton: These weren’t angry, young poor kids. These were the ultimate privileged class of Memphis. They didn’t have anything to rebel against. If they had, they would have been cut out of their parents’ wills. That’s how these kids were kept under control. I was a bit of an outsider, but it wasn’t a huge deal. Surely, all these people had a ton of money and I wasn’t one of the richies.
Carole Ruleman Manning: Alex and Chris really did lead different lives. Alex was not from the same background, he was from an arty, Midtown-neighborhood background and Chris was from an upwardly-mobile east Memphis businessman’s child background.
Michael O’Brien (Friend, Big Star photographer): Chris and I lived out in East Memphis and Alex lived in Midtown—the older, historic area of Memphis. East was a new, nouveau, suburban area. The Chilton’s house on Montgomery was a great place to hang out during those teenage years. Alex had very permissive parents.
Andy Hummel (Big Star bassist): I was also living in Midtown Memphis. It was much more diverse living in an older neighborhood like that. The environment Chris grew up in out in Germantown was much different from mine. He grew up on what had previously been plantations out on the countryside. Midtown was generally professional people who lived in those neighborhoods because their father had to get to the hospital pretty quick if somebody went into labor, or the attorney had to get to the court building every morning. In those days they were all in downtown Memphis. There were also horrible shotgun-house neighborhoods just a block away. It was literally that diverse.
Tom Eubanks (Rock City vocalist): Chris came from a well-to-do family and was a little bit spoiled, but not overly so. He was always trying to bum money from people. Chris would try to borrow money for cigarettes all the time. I knew he was getting a liberal allowance from his parents for basically doing nothing, so I asked our friend John Dando about it one time. Dando said, “Chris is saving up for a leather jacket just like the one John Lennon is wearing on the cover of Rubber Soul—it’s down at Lansky’s.” He was keeping his money to buy this jacket and then begging money from other people.
Linda Schaffer Yarman: Chris was absolutely not spoiled. That is the opposite of Christopher. He was one of the most kind and humble people I’ve ever met.
Tom Eubanks: I never saw Chris act in a supercilious manner. He was never disdainful of others or putting anybody down. He cursed some, but not a lot. He was a well-mannered, quiet and somewhat refined guy. We were always just talking about the records we were listening to at the time.
Richard Rosebrough (Alamo, Chris Bell’s drummer, Ardent engineer): Chris’ dad was very successful, but Vernon Bell was old school. He was from Mississippi and came from humble beginnings. He didn’t just give his family things. When they were growing up, they had to earn it. They had to go get a job. It wasn’t given to them on a silver platter by any means.
Andy Hummel: Anytime I went to hang out with Chris, which I did quite a lot before we got heavily into Big Star, it seemed like a wonderful life that he led out there. They had this colonial-style house on this gigantic, wonderful lot. He had three sisters who all seemed like interesting people. His mother was a very nice person, plus she was British which was very cool. I never saw much of Mr. Bell, I saw David a little bit. The only thing I ever thought was a little peculiar was he had such a difficult time getting his parents to buy him musical instruments—which I never found difficult for some reason. I don’t know why my parents were so easy about that because they weren’t easy about anything else. I’d been early on forced to do music, since I was in the third grade. Nobody else in the Bell family was musical at all. In Chris’ case, it was kind of an off-the-wall thing.
The Jynx may have been submerged in the advantaged preppy scene, but the group was not afraid to hit the town, either. The band shared bills at numerous teen clubs that popped up in the wake of Beatlemania.
Steve Rhea: The teen clubs were always run by these guys nobody knew. They had vacant buildings so they’d decide to make some money off this phenomenon of teens that needed a place to go. They’d form these teen clubs and invite these local bands to come in and play for a cut of the door. These teen clubs were just wild, crazy and dark. People were having dances at Skateland Frayser, places like that. At this time, there are no clubs or liquor by the drink in Memphis. There was nothing going on in Memphis night life and all the sudden music had ignited everybody. There was a teen club down near the bridge in the Pinch District called the Roaring 60’s. There was another teen club in Midtown around Cleveland and Madison called the Tonga Club.
Alex Chilton: There was another one called the Go-Go that was also in Midtown. Those were happening all the time on the weekends. Must have been a fuckin’ hundred teenage bands in town, there was an endless amount of teenage rock ‘n’ roll bands in Memphis at the time. The clubs were almost all white. A couple of bands may have had a black singer here or there, but in general the color line was pretty starkly drawn and almost all these bands were playing British Invasion, white rock ‘n’ roll.
Cindy Bell Coleman: One of his band’s shows was at our sister Sara’s sixteenth birthday party out in our backyard near what we called “the wild garden.” It was near a grove of trees. My mother planted it like a wild-land garden and it had a little pond in there. The band set up next to that and played for Sara’s birthday party. This wasn’t too far from the back house.
For Chris, a perk of moving into the new house in Germantown, was gaining access to an old one-story house the family christened as the “backhouse.” Positioned at the back of the Bell’s property, it was promptly filled with guitars and gear. Chris would use the rickety shack as a creative space for years to come. It would also serve as a secluded haunt to smoke cigarettes and experiment with booze and pot.
David Bell: The backhouse had sat at the very front of the property on Riverdale Road but was moved to the very back of the property when my father bought it. Rather than tear it down or burn it, my father, being frugal, thought, “We’ll put it at the back of the property.” Then we built our new house in its place. In short order, Chris asked our father if he could use it for band rehearsals. That’s when my father had it hooked up for electricity.
Cindy Bell Coleman: The backhouse was his hang out place. They padded all the walls and would practice their music.
Steve Rhea: It was this little clapboard, wood-sided house that had two rooms, a kitchen and a bath. It was just a cheap, pier-and-beam wooden house.
Tom Eubanks: The backhouse was left on blocks and you could see right under it because Mr. Bell didn’t go through a whole hell of a lot of trouble trying to dig footings and building a foundation when he moved it.
Bill Cunningham: It was far enough away from everything that you could turn the amps up, make a lot of noise, and no one would complain.
Terry Manning (Producer, Ardent engineer): We’d go out there and almost anybody involved at some point in that revolving door would hang out there. We’d do photography or set up the amps and play.
Linda Schaeffer Yarman: I was only at the backhouse a couple times. That was their hang out. When Andy Hummel and Chris wanted to take a break from music that’s when we’d hang out together. When they wanted to get away from music I’d be the one they’d call. We’d just tear across town doing whatever.
Vera Ellis (friend, ex-girlfriend of Alex Chilton): We’d act stupid out in that backhouse. They’d be playing music, smoking a little pot, drinking a few beers, smoking cigarettes, which, back then we were not supposed to be doing. Sometimes we’d go swimming, too. The Bells had a pretty pool with a lovely waterfall. The only time I went in their house was when someone cut himself and Chris took him inside. His mother got these gorgeous white towels from her gorgeous white house and was taking care of the blood and helping to mend the wound. She was this pristine woman in her pristine home. His mother was always nice to us, but I don’t know what she actually thought about us.
Tom Eubanks: Chris respected his mom. When we’d practice in this backhouse, we’d have to drive back there. I remember him saying, “Hey guys, be careful driving up in here because my mother works her ass off on these flower beds back here.”
David Bell: Chris had ideas of turning the backhouse into a studio. He certainly wanted to be able to make all the noise he possibly could. No one was going to allow that kind of volume in the house. But when he discovered Ardent Studios a couple years later, he and his friends migrated over there.
After Alex and Chris bonded at house-party gigs, the pair decided to work together musically. A Jynx gig would be the duo’s first public collaboration.
Chris Bell: 1965, I first met Alex Chilton, who wasn’t really into music at that time but he started playing some gigs with us.
Drew DeNicola (Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me director): If anyone was a true musician in the early days, it was Chris. Alex wasn’t in the Box Tops yet, he was just a kid who hung out and sang a bit.
Alex Chilton: I couldn’t play or anything… I wasn’t in any bands or anything at the time. I was singing with some guys in my neighborhood and Chris invited me to audition with their band and I guess he dug it. We rehearsed a few times.
Chris Bell: Alex came and did a couple gigs with us. He didn’t take it very seriously at all. He just had a mimic, or something he could do with his voice that would make it sound very gruff.
Alex Chilton: It was kind of like imitating black records.
Chris Bell: Sometimes he’d come in and sing like that just as a joke and walk off after two numbers. Alex did talk to me a couple of times about doing a gig. I tried to talk him into joining the group I was with because he could sing quite well.
David Bell: Alex Chilton sang with the Jynx a few times. I specifically remember a gig they had at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. It was the first time I ever saw Alex or certainly heard him sing. I was really knocked out.
Chris Bell: I could see Alex was really getting interested in the music, but he was more into Otis Redding and the whole soul and R&B thing.
Steve Rhea: People that knew Alex in high school, before the Box Tops, said he was always different, the James Dean character in your class. He grew up the son of musicians, had a different way of dressing and all of that. He was also just extremely intelligent. Even before he had any kind of success, there was something about how he talked, or just his presence, that was noteworthy.
While he was never an official member of the Jynx, Alex nearly sang on the band’s sole recording session. The four Jynx songs, released decades later as Greatest Hits! via Norton Records, features Bill Cunningham on bass, Dewitt Shy on drums, David Hoback on rhythm guitar and Chris Bell on lead. After Alex flaked out on the session, Mike Harris was the sole vocalist. The Nuggets-style tracks, including a primitive take on Van Morrison’s “Little Girl,” were recorded so the band could lip-sync the covers on a local television program.
Alex Chilton: Chris said they had a recording session. I guess I was just scared of the entire procedure. I told him I’d be there, but I didn’t go. I instead went out and got drunk or something. I didn’t go to the session.
Chris Bell: We continued on. Alex drifted off. He wasn’t very interested in music back then because he wasn’t playing any instruments.
Alex Chilton: This was at least a year before I went into the studio with the Box Tops.
Bill Cunningham: The Jynx recorded those songs for George Klein’s Saturday afternoon WHBQ TV show, Talent Party, which featured local acts as well as nationally-known artists.
Steve Rhea: Talent Party was sort of a knockoff of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand on a local basis. Chris and his band went down there. George Klein was a local DJ on WHPQ. He had local acts come in and lip-synch their songs. Klein was very interested in the bands playing around Memphis in these local high schools.
Bill Cunningham: I had arranged the studio time with Roland Janes, the producer of the session, at Sonic Studios in Memphis. Travis Wammack was the engineer on the session. Wammack was known for his instrumental hit “Scratchy.”
Robert Johnson (Memphis-based guitarist): Sonic Studios was pretty cool, just an old beauty parlor kind of place. The building is still there, right down the street from Ardent. He built a control room and put egg crates all over the walls. Everybody and their mammy recorded there because they wanted to be on Talent Party. You’d have to submit a tape and if they liked it they’d let you come on the TV show.
Even with a steady flow of gigs, and scoring a television appearance, the Jynx called it quits after just over a year. While some of the Jynx members returned their focus to homework, Chris’ musical focus swelled. From there, the MUS sophomore partook in a string of one-off bands and projects.
Bill Cunningham: After the Jynx broke up I moved on to another group called the Jokers, a band sort of already established around town. The drummer was Richard Rosebrough, who went on to play drums for Chris on “I Am the Cosmos.” It was after that short time with the Jokers that I joined the Box Tops.
Richard Rosebrough: You can thank Bill Cunningham for introducing Chris to everyone. That was the first link. I first met Chris in my mother’s living room back when I was 15 or 16 and playing with the Jokers. Bill Cunningham, who was our keyboard player, said, “Well, I got this friend named Chris Bell, I want to bring him by to jam with us.” Chris had his red Gibson and one of those old Bassman amplifiers with four 10-inch speakers. After that we developed a friendship. When Chris would come in to town he’d stop by the house and we’d hang out. Then we’d go out to the Bell’s nice, big house out in Germantown – but we hung out at the pool or in the backhouse. We’d jump in the car and go out to the record store and listen to the newest Who and Kinks records. Of course, we’d always be talking about The Beatles.
Chris Bell: The guys in those early groups were mostly the crowd who would all end up at Ardent Studios, Richard Rosebrough and Terry Manning.
Robert Johnson: Terry Manning became an incredible engineer at Ardent and a really creative guy. He was probably one of the better engineers to come out of Memphis. Back then we only had three television channels and there were no video games or internet. All we did was sit in our rooms and play guitar. That breed is totally gone in modern times. That’s why a lot of us were great musicians.