The dB’s / Alex Chilton / Big Star Connection

Chris on bass — Alex on guitar — smile on face. CBGB, 1977 (S. Chernikowski photo)
The late Alex Chilton was a hero to the young members of The dB’s and their musically-minded friends while they were growing up in North Carolina. Like them, Chilton grew up in the South. Like them, he aspired to musical greatness in the pop music world without selling himself out. Like them, unfortunately, his success was limited — aside from “The Letter”, a huge pop hit he recorded with The Box Tops as a teen, and a few other Box Tops singles. 

Later, after Chilton’s group Big Star recorded and released its first two classic albums, members of The dB’s also grew to admire Chris Bell, Chilton’s chief collaborator in the early days of Big Star. Bell died in a car crash in 1978 at age 27. Chilton died of a heart attack in 2010 at age 59.

Chris Stamey, the first of the (eventual) dB’s to move from North Carolina to New York City, was also the first to meet and work with Alex Chilton. During the early days of The dB’s musical life, some members of the group made a pilgrimage to Memphis, TN, where Chilton and Bell grew up & often recorded at the renowned Ardent Studios. Chris, Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby all had a crack at recording and/or playing live with Alex.

Chris Stamey playing live with Alex Chilton and others, CBGB, NYC 1977

In my effort to capture this historic musical connection, I’ve collected info from several sources and tried to condense it all into the bullet points below. I’m indebted to Rob Jovanovic’s excellent book Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death & Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop (gotta love that subtitle!). About two-thirds of my info comes from him. If you want to get the whole story, buy his book! Since I first wrote this, Chris answered a bunch of questions from Uncut magazine about his musical experiences with Alex Chilton.

      *Since this piece of musical history is a bit hazy now (even to those who helped make it), some of what I’ve written probably won’t jive with everyone’s recollection.*

Early 1970s — Chris, Peter and Will hear Big Star’s first two albums and conclude that Alex Chilton is a godlike musical genius (no one went on the record concerning Gene’s estimation of Mr. Chilton’s musical talents).
1973-’74 — Little Diesel, a Winston-Salem high school garage band featuring Peter, Chris, Will and future Let’s Active founder Mitch Easter, cover Big Star songs in their live shows.

   1976 — Sneakers, Chris and Will’s post-Little Diesel group, release their 6-song debut EP. (Mitch contributes to this first release and is a full collaborator with Chris for the second EP, In the Red, on Chris’ Car Records in 1978).) The debut EP is the first record to be described in published music reviews as influenced by Big Star.

   Dec. 1976 — Chris moves to New York City. Not long thereafter, he’s hired to play bass in a backing band assembled to tour with Alex Chilton. Chris plays with Alex for the duration of 1977. The shows are sometimes billed “Alex Chilton & The Cossacks”.

   Alex Chilton live in 1977 — two solo shows with Chris playing bass, posted on The dB's Repercussion blog for your listening pleasure.

1977 — Alex produces and plays on Chris’ first single “The Summer Sun” backed by “Where the Fun Is” on Ork Records. 

 1977 Chris plays on some of Alex’s recording sessions. 

 1977 — Ork Records tentatively agrees to release a single or EP by H-Bombs (Peter & Mitch Easter’s then-current band), produced by Alex -- but it never appears. 

 Late 1977 — Chris persuades the powers-that-be to give the support slot for Alex’s show at Max’s Kansas City in New York to the H-Bombs.

 Dec. 1977 — Chris quits The Cossacks, ready to move ahead with other musical endeavors.

   Early 1978 — H-Bombs fizzle out. Peter moves briefly to Memphis and later records demos there with Alex, who sings lead vocals on some material while Peter sings on others.

                    Here’s a link to some rather sketchy tracks from these 
                         sessions. Alt. Link  

   1978 The 3-track "Big Black Truck" EP is released on Chris' Car Records label, featuring "Peter Holsapple of the H-Bombs." Alex Chilton is thanked on the rear sleeve. 

    Late Spring, 1978 — Peter, Will and Mitch Easter travel to Memphis, hoping to encounter Alex and Chris Bell. After hanging out with Alex, they find Chris working at one of his father’s restaurants. (During their first encounter, Alex greets Will by asking him for his date of birth). Later, they visit Sam Phillips’ studio, where Alex is recording material eventually released on Like Flies On Sherbert. Read Will’s recollection of this adventure — including the inspiration for a song he recorded — at Ted Barron’s blog Boogie Woogie Flu.

    1978 — Will plays drums for a handful of Alex’s live dates.

    July 1978 — Chris Stamey releases Chris Bell’s first and only single as a solo artist, “I Am the Cosmos,” on Stamey’s Car Records label shortly before Bell’s untimely death. 

March 1979 — Chris agrees to play bass for two live dates at the Rome Inn in Austin, TX featuring Alex and Tav Falco. The first show proves musically frustrating  for Chris, who hadn't been briefed on songs played in the second set. Chris argues with Alex (who, presumably, tells Chris that musical chaos is part of the plan). Chris departs abruptly, leaving Chilton & Falco in the lurch for their second show. Chris sleeps under a bush and flies home the next day.

Dec. 1984 — Alex plays the support slot for the Peter-led dB’s at Irving Plaza in NYC. At the time of the show, Peter says he's amazed that Alex is opening for The dB's. He intends the comment as a "somebody pinch me", and "ain't-the-music-industry-nutty?" kind of statement. But Alex apparently thinks Peter meant it as a put-down, and does not speak to him again for years.

Early 1993 — Chris is contacted about playing bass for a one-off Big Star reunion gig at the University of Missouri. He declines, citing the meager compensation offered and sketchy organizational details, saying the proposal smelled “fishy.” The concert becomes the springboard for a reunited Big Star (augmented by members of The Posies), which releases a live recording of the show, tours, and later records an album of new studio material.

March 2010 — Alex Chilton dies March 17 after a heart attack in New Orleans. Days later, Chris joins a host of Chilton / Big Star musical alums and fans who pay tribute to Alex at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, TX. As part of the event, Chris sings on Big Star’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”

Chris rehearsing musical friends for the premiere of Big Star's Third Live in 2010.   
Jeremy M. Lange / IndyWeek

Dec. 2010 — Chris is the principal organizer of a live tribute to Alex and Big Star, featuring numerous selections from Big Star’s Third (Sister Lovers) album, complete with strings and woodwinds. After its premiere in Carrboro, N.C., the show is staged elsewhere in 2011 and thereafter, including shows in NYC and London. Other chief collaborators are R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, and Mitch Easter. To date, there have been numerous Big Star Third live shows, in the U.S. and elsewhere (including one in May 2012 in London that featured Ray Davies on "Till the End of the Day" and "The Letter"; rave review HERE). By early 2019, Chris said there will most likely not be any more Big Star's Third live concerts.