I first met Jody Stephens in April 1993 after a student group at the University of Missouri in Columbia asked the great cult band Big Star to reunite for their SpringFest, and miraculously it did. Almost as miraculously, I convinced the Chicago Tribune’s Arts & Entertainment editor to send me down there to cover Big Star’s first concert in almost 20 years.
The setting was a tent pitched in the parking lot outside a basketball arena where Bryan Adams would be playing that night. Many bands were scheduled, and Big Star was somewhere in the middle.
As I wrote in my Tribune story:
“Diana Stephens, wife of Big Star drummer Jody Stephens…was incredulous. "Of all the times people ever brought up a Big Star reunion over the years, who would've thought that this would be the place?" she said as she sold souvenir shirts out of the back of her van. "I still won't believe it till I see it."
But notoriously enigmatic frontman Alex Chilton actually performed with his old bandmate Jody Stephens plus Jonathan Auer and Kenneth Stringfellow of the Posies. They were ragged, and Chilton was unpredictable (among other things he interjected lascivious calls of "Baby!" and "You know what I'm talking about!" into the previously sweet "Thirteen"), but they also were glorious.
Still, this seemed like it would be a one-off event, especially given Chilton's answer here after a bearded me asked him (at 0:48) whether he'd like to do more Big Star shows:
Yet Chilton changed his mind, and this version of Big Star continued playing together for years. When I spoke with Jody Stephens for this Caropop episode, I was wearing the Big Star T-shirt that I bought from Diana out of the back of their van that afternoon.
Big Star was a brilliant, soulful power-pop band from Memphis with terrible luck that made their music ridiculously hard to find for years. The chief singer-songwriters were Chris Bell, who boasted an obsession for sculpting sound and a Beatles- and Byrds-like melodic sensibility, and Alex Chilton, who already was a celebrity who, as the Box Tops’ lead singer, sang one of 1967’s biggest hits, “The Letter.” The rhythm section of Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel knew how to hold down a groove, but Stephens also could deliver a Keith Moon level of wallop when needed.
Big Star’s name was aspirational, as was that of its 1972 debut album, #1 Record. That record featured such indelible songs as “The Ballad of El Goodo,” the much-covered “Thirteen” and “In the Street,” which years later would become the theme song of That ‘70s Show.
Yet thanks to the label’s distribution issues, #1 Record made it to few store shelves and went virtually unheard.
Chris Bell was so disheartened that he left and traveled down a dark path, and the remaining three—Chilton, Stephens and Hummel—went on to make the grittier, perhaps even more inspired Radio City. That album featured the should’ve-been-hits “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car” as well as the explosive album opener “O My Soul.” Yet distribution problems dragged down that album as well, and Hummel quit.
That left just Chilton and Stephens to make the harrowing, beautiful, dark-night-of-the-soul album that went by the titles Big Star’s Third and Sister Lovers when it finally came out years after it was recorded. Chilton’s songs reflected someone wrestling with powerful demons while Stephens wrote and sang one of the album’s prettiest songs, “For You.” Jody says his inclusion of a string arrangement on that song led to strings being used all over that album.
Although Big Star’s albums weren’t easily available, their work became championed and sometimes covered by such bands as the Bangles, R.E.M., the dB’s, Let’s Active, Game Theory and the Replacements, whose song “Alex Chilton” declares, “I never travel far without a little Big Star!”
Jody Stephens went to work at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star’s albums had been recorded. He still works there works today. He also has played drums with Golden Smog, a supergroup featuring Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of the Jayhawks, Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum and Kraig Johnson of Run Westy Run. Golden Smog is reuniting for two shows at First Avenue in Minneapolis in early April.
Jody is the only surviving original member of Big Star. Chris Bell was killed in a car crash in 1978. Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in March 2010 just days before he, Jody Stephens and original bassist Andy Hummel were scheduled to reunite on stage at the South By Southwest Music Festival. Four months later Hummel died of cancer.
Jody continues to play Big Star music live with the Big Star’s Third project, which includes Mike Mills from R.E.M., Chris Stamey of the dB’s and Mitch Easter of Let’s Active. Recently Jody has been writing songs and singing them with Luther Russell as the duo Those Pretty Wrongs. Their music not only sounds like the gentle acoustic stuff from #1 Record, but there’s a cool connection to that album that Jody talks about in our conversation.
Jody Stephens is one of the super-nice guys in rock. He takes us through what it felt like when Big Star had high hopes, what the creative partnership between Bell and Chilton was like and what happened when Chilton and Hummel came to blows and started smashing stuff. (After a reunion show at Metro, Stephens wanted to clobber Chilton himself.) And what did Chilton mean when he sang, "The drummer said you were not very clean, and I know what he means”? Whatever it is, Jody Stephens sure kicks up a fury behind that drum kit.
When you listen to Jody Stephens talk or play, you won't want to travel far without him either.