Big Star's combination of Beatles-style melody, Who-like punch, and Byrds-ish harmonies defined power pop before the term (or an audience for it) existed. In less than four years, Big Star created a seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring succeeding generations of rockers, from the power-pop revivalists of the late 1970s to alternative rockers at the end of the century to the indie rock nation in the new millennium.
Despite commercial failure, Big Star has acquired near-mythic status through such songs as "September Gurls" and the continuing solo work and mystique of its chief singer/songwriter, Alex Chilton. Paid homage to by the Replacements ("Alex Chilton" from 1987's Pleased to Meet Me), Big Star has influenced a number of artists, such as Georgia's R.E.M., Scotland's Teenage Fanclub, and New Zealand's Chills.
The band was formed in Memphis by singer/songwriter Chris Bell; Alex Chilton, who'd been a hitmaker in the Box Tops [see entry], was recruited soon after. Following the release of the band's richly textured debut, #1 Record, Bell left the group. Drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel stayed on, and, with Chilton at the helm, the band recorded the more stripped-down Radio City, which included Chilton's "September Gurls" (covered by the Bangles in 1982), the pop anthem "Back of a Car," and the poignant acoustic Chilton ballad "Thirteen." Though both albums garnered critical raves, neither sold well and the band fizzled. The dark and haunting Third (a.k.a. Sister Lovers; the LP was never titled at its completion), more of a Chilton solo effort, was not officially issued in the U.S. for years.
Bell, whose solo recordings were posthumously released in 1992, was killed in a car accident in 1978. Chilton moved to New York, formed a band that included future dB Chris Stamey, and recorded an EP. He made the adventurous Like Flies on Sherbert in Memphis with Third's producer Jim Dickinson. Then after producing recordings by the Cramps [see entry] and swampabilly band Panther Burns, Chilton disappeared from the scene. He reemerged in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, playing mostly cover songs in clubs. His music of this period, recorded on Feudalist Tarts, No Sex, and High Priest, veered more toward R&B. Usually with a trio, he continued to tour the U.S. and European club circuit into the 1990s, mixing his original songs with an eclectic selection of covers. He recorded several of the jazz songs and standards of his live shows on Clichés (1994). A Man Called Destruction consists of Chilton originals and R&B-tinged obscurities. New product continues to trickle out, mostly reissues and rarities. The album 1970 is a historical footnote, catching Chilton at Ardent shortly after the breakup of the Box Tops and a few months before he cofounded Big Star. The singer was unable to secure a record deal he liked, and the album was lost for 26 years. Set is a latter-day studio recording that breaks no new ground, mingling New Orleans jukebox classics with novelties like "You've Got a Booger Bear Under There."
In 1993 students at the University of Missouri coaxed Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens (by then projects director at Ardent Records, Big Star's label during the 1970s) to reunite for a campus concert. With bassist Andy Hummel retired from music, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies were recruited to round out the quartet. Released in 1993, Columbia: Live at Missouri University chronicles the sloppy but spirited set that draws from all three Big Star LPs. This version of Big Star sporadically performed together through the following year including an appearance on The Tonight Show.
In 1998 That '70s Show adopted the music from "In the Street" as its title theme. A post-Hummel live album, Nobody Can Dance, surfaced the following year. The quartet has continued resurfacing for infrequent performances. In 2005 an album of new Big Star material, In Space, came out to mixed reviews.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).