For me, the goal was recording something I could be proud of for a long time. I never walked away thinking anything else but wow, this is a wonderful record. Anything else would've been icing on the cake," Jody Stephens says.
The rock drummer turned studio manager and his longtime friend and employer John Fry are sitting at a table at the Blue Monkey, eating sandwiches and contemplating the dual release of the 96-song Big Star box set, Keep An Eye on the Sky, and the 27-track deluxe reissue of Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos, due from reissue giant Rhino Records on September 15th and September 28th, respectively.
Next door to the Midtown restaurant is Ardent Studios, which, in 1971, Fry built from the ground up after moving from two previous locations. This is where Stephens and his original Big Star band mates — Bell, Alex Chilton, and Andy Hummel — put the final touches on that "wonderful" album, #1 Record, co-released by Stax and Ardent in June 1972.
Although it seems inconceivable today, few people heard #1 Record or Big Star's 1974 follow-up, Radio City, mainly recorded sans Bell, who quit the band in '72 and died in an East Memphis car wreck in '78. A final album, Third, an experimental collaboration between producer Jim Dickinson, Chilton, and Stephens, was actually shelved for four years before its release a few months before Bell's death.
Big Star's ascendancy to cult-hero status — initiated by adoring '80s-era alternative rock bands like R.E.M., the dBs, and the Replacements — wouldn't arrive until years later, but looking back, the perennially upbeat Stephens insists that he was never disappointed by the lack of success.
"It's a matter of appreciating the moment. Sitting in the control room listening to John put the finishing touch on the mixes — that was it," he says, smiling as he emphasizes that last word. "It was a great revelation whenever John finished a mix, always really exciting."
In recent months, Stephens got the chance to relive that experience as Fry searched Ardent's vaults to augment the original tracks that surfaced on #1 Record, Radio City, and Third, then remixed and remastered the expanded oeuvre.
"We had almost all the tapes that existed here. The exception to that would be the quarter-inch tapes that [Chris Bell's brother] David had and that Andy Hummel had. But the balance of it has always been here. It was just a question of somebody going through it carefully to find these alternate recordings and demos and live versions that had never been issued before," says Fry, who, for the Big Star box, unearthed 45 unheard tracks, including a version of "The Ballad of El Goodo" with different lyrics, demos of "Back of a Car," "There Was a Light," and "Holocaust," and a 20-song live set from Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis circa January 1973.
I Am the Cosmos, which Fry also remixed and remastered, includes 13 more unreleased tracks, such as tunes from pre-Big Star bands Icewater and Rock City and an alternate version of "You and Your Sister" that features a Melotron. For both projects, each of which includes a limited-edition vinyl single, photographers William Eggleston, Carole Manning, and Michael O'Brien came forward with a bevy of unseen images, while author Robert Gordon, musicologist Alec Palao, and Commercial Appeal music writer Bob Mehr provided liner notes.
Stephens describes Keep an Eye on the Sky and the Cosmos reissue as "an astonishing gift."
"It's like a bunch of thoughtful, caring people put together this scrapbook for the band. It's wonderful to have it in hand — the artwork, the photographs, the recordings."
Later, in a telephone interview, Andrew Sandoval, director of A&R at Rhino Records, says of Fry and the surviving members of Big Star: "All of them are humble. They're very unaffected and just as mystified as anybody else about this cult."
Since 1987, when Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg eulogized Big Star on the song "Alex Chilton," which was recorded at Ardent, the band's resurgence has come in waves: In '93, a year after Rykodisc issued Big Star's back catalog on CD, Stephens and Chilton reformed the group with the Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow filling in for Bell and Hummel. In '98, #1 Record's "In the Street" became the theme song of That '70s Show. Rob Jovanovic's Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band was published in 2004, followed by In Space, the band's first studio album in three decades. Last May, the 33 1/3 imprint published journalist Bruce Eaton's analysis of Radio City, and in November, Big Star will regroup for a performance at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, New York.
"Everyone makes Beatles comparisons, but Big Star seems to have something that's even more impenetrable — this enigmatic quality everybody is chasing," says Sandoval, crediting Fry's reputation-establishing hallmark: the "timeless" production sound of the band's first two albums.
"Coming down to Memphis and working at Ardent overwhelmed me," Sandoval says. "I'm not just a record company executive. I'm a huge fan. Even with this box set, there's still a certain amount of mystery to their legacy. It's like the riddle of Stonehenge: How did they make these records, and why didn't people listen to them at the time? Even the early reviews we're getting are commenting on what a strange story this is."