Four months after Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and I talked about his late bandmate, singer-guitarist Alex Chilton, who died in March, we talked again – about bassist Andy Hummel, who passed away on July 19th of cancer at his home in Weatherford, Texas. Hummel was 59. His death leaves Stephens as the only surviving member of the original lineup of the legendary Memphis-born power-pop group; singer-guitarist Chris Bell died in 1978 in a car crash.
Born in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and raised in Memphis, Hummel was an undercelebrated factor in the Big Star legend: instrumental in the formation of the group, as Stephens explains, and a gifted contributor as a singer, keyboard player and songwriter on the band’s back-to-back classics for Ardent Records, 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City. Frustrated by Big Star’s inability to commercially capitalize on the critical love for their music – an ultimately influential combination of electric-R&B twang, modern romantic anguish and classic Beatlemania – Hummel quit the group just before the release of Radio City, getting a master’s degree in engineering and a job in Texas at Lockheed Martin Aeronautical while continuing to play bass as a sideline. His appearance at the SXSW tribute to Alex Chilton and Big Star in March, playing on his “Way Out West” from Radio City, was the first time he played with Stephens since 1973. It was also, sadly, the last.
Two days after we spoke, Stephens was in New York for a July 28th tribute show to Chilton at City Winery – an event that also became a celebration of Hummel. “Andy’s impact on my life was huge,” Stephens says fondly. “I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now and had all these experiences without him. I wouldn’t have been in Big Star.”
Becoming Big Star
How did you meet Andy?
I met Andy when I was 13, through a guitar player named Mike Fleming. Mike and Andy were a year older. They both lived in Midtown; I lived in East Memphis. I used to catch a bus into Midtown, or hitchhike, and hang out with Andy and Mike.
Then I lost track of Andy. We hooked up again in early 1970. I was performing in a college production of Hair, along with my brother Jimmy. Andy came to see one of the performances and said hello after the show. We talked, and he invited me over to jam with him and Chris and some other folks. That’s how that got started. Andy introduced me to Chris, then to John Fry at Ardent Studios.
When “#1 Record” and “Radio City” came out, the critical attention was on Chris and Alex as the main singer-songwriters. What did Andy bring to the sound and style of Big Star?
Andy could play guitar and keyboards and utilized those things from time to time. In “The India Song” [on #1 Record], which he wrote, he played mellotron, a little flute-like thing he came up with. There was his writing of “Way Out West” and contributions on “Daizy Glaze” and “Back of a Car” [all on Radio City].
Way Out West” – that’s a riff from a classical piece [hums the theme of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”]. Andy added different colors to what we did. And he didn’t have any problem holding his own in the band. Chris and Alex were receptive to his ideas. Andy wasn’t a primary writer like Chris and Alex. But he definitely had input and direction in terms of what Big Star was musically.
Andy left Big Star – and music as a full-time profession – when he was in his early twenties. Why do you think he did that?
To an extent, Andy became a lot like his dad. His mom was Miss America 1947, and his dad was a doctor, a gynecologist. Early on in Andy’s childhood, there were photos taken by the Commercial Appeal of Miss America at home with husband and children. But his dad was always up to something. His dad, in addition to his medical practice, had a great interest in putting things together, how they worked. He would convert oil lamps into electric light fixtures. He had a Rolls Royce, and he sent himself to chauffeur school to learn how to work on it. He could handle the oil changes and stuff himself.
I think Andy took a cue from that. He was more of a romantic, which was interesting. Andy was this combination of romantic and practical at the same time.
The End and the Legacy
Could you tell Andy was losing interest in Big Star after you made “Radio City”?
I don’t know if he lost interest so much as he gained this practical view of the future. We all kind of looked at it as, “Well, we probably can’t make a career out of this.” While we had an audience of rock writers that proved to be amazingly beneficial over the years, we couldn’t make a career out of it. So Andy set out for something that he could make a career of. I’m a bit of a pragmatist myself. I was going to school inbetween Big Star events. I could do that and record the third album too. And it afforded more opportunity for me to participate, because it was Alex and I as remaining members.
Did Andy come to any shows by the reunion version of Big Star you and Alex formed with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies?
In 2004, we did a Big Star panel together at SXSW. That was so much fun – I got to hang out with him. But when he came to the gig that night, Andy showed up with all this camera gear, and they wouldn’t let him in. His hotel was 30 minutes away; it wasn’t practical for him to take it all the way back and come back to see us in time. So he didn’t come to the show. For years, I thought, “Wow, he just decided not to come to the show, for whaever reason.” That was finally explained to me at this last SXSW, when he came up to do another panel.
What was his take on the legend of Big Star?
He was really proud of it. He spoke with people on Facebook about it and shared some of the music that hadn’t been released with people. He had to be proud of it, because he was such an integral part of what Big Star was. To begin with, the nucleus of the band was Chris, Andy and myself. Alex joined the three of us, but it was already getting started.
You can have one or two pretty remarkable people in a band, like Chris and Alex. They can be painting a particular picture, or painting several pictures. But as you introduce another artist to the painting, that person can pull it toward a different perspective, to make it even more special, like in “Life Is White” [on Radio City] where Andy plays the pump organ. He would come up with these interesting chords and textures, the way “The India Song” colors how you hear #1 Record. It’s such a romantic song, for one thing. But sonically, it’s different from what had gone before it on the album.
How would you summarize his part in the legacy of Big Star?
It wouldn’t have been Big Star without Andy.