This Friday, the Hi-Tone will host an all-star concert in tribute to one of Memphis' most revered underground heroes, the late Chris Bell.
Bell is best known as a founder of the legendary power-pop group Big Star, and one-half of the songwriting partnership (along with Alex Chilton) that spawned the outfit's magnificent debut album #1 Record.
After its release in June of 1972, #1 Record garnered positive critical reviews but ultimately flopped from a sales perspective due in part to both shoddy distribution and promotion. This disappointment led to dissent in Big Star's ranks, and Bell left the group - which would go on to record two more influential studio albums, Radio City and Third, in the '70s.
After his departure from the band, Bell spent the next several years working on solo recordings during off hours at Ardent, the local studio/label that was also home to Chilton and Big Star. However, only two of those recordings would see the light of day in his lifetime. In December of '78, Bell was tragically killed in a car accident, thus silencing one of Memphis' most transcendent rock-and-roll voices.
After Chilton's untimely death in 2010, Big Star's status rose again, and there have since been numerous tribute concerts staged around the world to honor the band. Until now, none have been focused primarily on Bell, who is often overshadowed by his more famous counterpart. That changes on Friday when a powerhouse group of local musicians (Jody Stephens, Van Duren, Vicki Loveland, Keith Sykes, Rick Steff, Stephen Burns, Richard Rosebrough, Paul Taylor, and many more) organized by Michigan-based journalist Rich Tupica and Ardent producer/engineer Adam Hill will take to the Hi-Tone stage to celebrate the entire Bell catalog. We sat down with Tupica and Hill to find out more about the show this Friday.
Flyer: How did the idea for a Chris Bell tribute show come together?
Rich Tupica: The idea was hatched, I think in January or February 2015. I had been planning a May 2015 trip to Memphis for quite some time, and the original plan was to have John Fry (Big Star producer/Ardent founder) give me a tour of Memphis. Fry was going to show me locations vital to Big Star or places we'd discussed over the phone for the past couple of years. Then, as we all know, sadly John passed away. That's when the idea for a Chris tribute came to mind. I figured if the John Fry tour wasn't going to happen, I would somehow still make this a Bell-centered trip and honor a songwriter I've been heavily researching since May 2012, when I started the book. The concert is a way to bring together Chris' fans, family, and friends. I'm really looking forward to it.
How did you put the band together?
Tupica: The musicians were chosen mostly by Adam. But we did decide early on to try and include friends of Chris Bell - musicians he actually played with at some point. There are other musicians I would have loved to have, but with a limited budget, we stuck close to Memphis for this one.
Adam Hill: Dan Shumake [drums/guitar], Chris Gafford [bass], and I had been playing with Stephen in the Scruffs, so I knew those were the guys to help me with this. Rick was a must as well. Is Chris Bell underappreciated within the legacy of Big Star?
Tupica: I think Chris Bell is usually a footnote in many of the magazine articles, and that's due to the short amount of time he spent in Big Star. Bell may have founded the band and its sound, but he left after the first LP, which makes it easy to write him off early on. But, for me, Big Star's fourth record is that I Am the Cosmos LP. That's his post-Big Star body of work, and, no matter what, I think Chris was always intertwined in the Big Star saga. Chilton, Stephens, and [bassist Andy] Hummel were even featured on some of the Cosmos tracks - they were still palling around. Sadly, though, Bell died very early. I think him not being around to take advantage of the Big Star resurgence didn't help matters. He died young.
Hill: Maybe so, Alex repeatedly stated that he joined Chris' band.
What are you hoping to accomplish with Friday's show?
Tupica: This show is an out-of-pocket, labor-of-love project. Both Adam and I are huge fans of Chris' sonic abilities and also his life in general, so it's been great to put together an event that will bring together like-minded fans.
Hill: We hope to do the material and Chris' legacy justice. I'm honored to have gone from a fan of the music to actually sitting next to John Fry and remixing some of Chris' work with him.
What songs are you most excited about hearing in a live setting?
Tupica: I am excited to see all of them live. There are no live recordings of Chris Bell's solo material, only studio versions and the outtakes. I've always been curious about how much energy his songs would have on a stage. He played very few shows and most of them were acoustic. He did perform some of his solo material with the Baker Street Regulars (a mid-'70s Memphis band that featured Bell, Stephens, and Duren), but they never recorded any gigs. In fact, this tribute show will probably cover more of Bell's catalog than he was able to do while he was on the planet. I hear the Bell family might attend, and I hope this set brings about happy memories for them.
Hill: All of them, this has never really been done before to my knowledge.