Chris Bell (musician)

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Chris Bell
Chris Bell
Birth name Christopher Branford Bell
Born (1951-01-12)January 12, 1951
Origin Memphis, Tennessee
Died December 27, 1978(1978-12-27) (aged 27)
Genres Power pop, rock
Occupations Musician, singer, songwriter
Instruments Guitar, vocals
Years active 1963–1978
Associated acts Big Star

Christopher Branford "Chris" Bell (January 12, 1951 – December 27, 1978) was an American singer, songwriter and guitarist born in Memphis, Tennessee. Along with Alex Chilton, he led the power pop band Big Star, which recorded albums during the early 1970s. Bell left the group after Big Star's first album, #1 Record (1972), failed to find commercial success. Bell recorded as a solo artist for the remainder of the 1970s; two of these influential solo recordings, "I Am the Cosmos" and "You and Your Sister", were released on a 1978 single on Car Records. These two songs became popular among collectors of Big Star-related items, and were later included on Bell's posthumously released 1992 solo album I Am the Cosmos. Still in Rock described Chris Bell as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.

Early career[edit]

Prior to his later, more famous work in the 1970s with Alex Chilton, Bell played in a number of Memphis bands beginning in the 1960s. He had started playing music at age 12, influenced heavily by The Beatles and other British Invasion groups like The Yardbirds and The Who. One of Bell's early groups included Memphis natives Richard Rosebrough and Terry Manning, with whom he continued to work for the rest of his music career. In 1964 and 1965, Bell played lead guitar in a British Invasion-influenced group called the Jynx (the name is a takeoff on The Kinks) with local musicians, including lead vocalist Mike Harris, rhythm guitarist David Hoback, drummer DeWitt Shy, and bassist Bill Cunningham, and later, bassist Leo Goff. Other lead vocalists at some of the group's shows and rehearsals (though not present on their recordings) included local teens Ames Yates, Vance Alexander, and Alex Chilton. Chilton, who attended nearly every Jynx show and sang lead vocals for a couple of weeks, soon joined the Box Tops with Cunningham, as the Jynx split up in 1966. Bell continued to perform and record in Memphis throughout the rest of the decade; by the late 1960s, he had turned his focus more toward writing original songs.

Big Star[edit]

The group later known as Big Star stemmed from two Bell band projects that began in the late 1960s while he recorded and performed live in groups named Icewater and Rock City. These groups featured a revolving set of musicians including Jody Stephens, Terry Manning, Tom Eubanks, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough, Vance Alexander, and Steve Rhea. Recordings by these groups appear on the various artists collection Rockin' Memphis 1960's–1970's Vol. 1 and Rock City, released in 2003.

Bell asked Chilton to join several months after the group had started performing. Eventually, during a period of recording demos and tracks for their first album, the group settled on the name "Big Star." The lineup for Big Star's first album was composed of Bell (guitars/vocals), Chilton (guitars, vocals), Hummel (bass, vocals), and Stephens (drums, vocals). Bell and Chilton wrote most of the group's songs, with occasional writing contributions from Hummel and Stephens. Bell was even more influenced by the music of the British Invasion than Chilton, and he steadfastly retained his Beatles-oriented pop influences throughout his career.

Along with Ardent Studios founder John Fry and engineer Terry Manning, Bell is credited with much of the mixing and engineering work done on the first Big Star album, #1 Record. After this album failed to achieve commercial success (partially due to confusion by its soul-oriented distributor Stax in marketing the album), Bell left the band in 1972. He struggled with depression for the rest of his life. He also dealt with drug and alcohol problems while also becoming deeply immersed in Christianity.[1] According to his brother David, Bell may have left Big Star due to a belief that he was overshadowed by the more famous Chilton.

Solo work[edit]

Bell concentrated on solo work after leaving Big Star, recording demos at Ardent Studios and Shoe Recording in Memphis with old friends including Rosebrough, Manning, Cunningham, Ken Woodley, and occasionally Chilton and Jim Dickinson. One of Bell's better known solo songs from this period is "You and Your Sister," featuring Bell's guitar work and vocals, Chilton's backing vocal, and Cunningham's string arrangements and bass work. In the 1970s, Bell also played in a group with local songwriter Keith Sykes.

During the late 1970s, a few of Bell's pop song lyrics began to reflect the influence of his interest in Christian spirituality. Although he released "I Am the Cosmos" backed with "You and Your Sister" as a single in 1978 on Chris Stamey's Car Records label, none of his solo material was released on a full length album during his lifetime. At this time, Bell worked at his father's restaurant and continued to grapple with clinical depression.

Almost 14 years after his death, the songs from his Car Records single and several of his other 1970s recordings were released on 1992's I Am the Cosmos full-length CD on Rykodisc. As with his work with Big Star, the album received highly favorable critical reviews. Giving the album an "A-", Robert Christgau wrote that it was "clear from Bell's very posthumous solo album . . . that Big Star was his idea."[2]

In 2009, I Am the Cosmos was re-released in a two-CD version by Rhino Handmade with alternate versions and additional tracks.[3]

Death[edit]

Bell died on December 27, 1978 at the age of 27 when he lost control of his small Triumph TR-7 sports car, sometime after 1 a.m. He was on his way home from a band rehearsal. The car struck a wooden light pole on the side of the road. The pole fell and killed him instantly. His death at the age of 27 earned him a place in the infamous 27 Club. His funeral was held the next day, December 28, the birthday of former band mate Alex Chilton.

Influence[edit]

Bell's music and that of Big Star became popular with alternative rock musicians in the 1980s through word of mouth. Eventually, well known artists including R.E.M., Ian Moore, Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements began touting the recordings of Big Star as significant works. This Mortal Coil, which had earlier recorded versions of post-Chris Bell Big Star songs, recorded versions of "I Am the Cosmos" and "You and Your Sister" on their 1991 album Blood. In 1992, The Posies released a 7" single featuring "Feel" / "I Am The Cosmos" on Pop Llama.

Big Star's pop gem "In the Street," which had featured the tight harmonies of Bell and Chilton, was chosen as a representative song of the 1970s decade by the producers of the television show That '70s Show in 1998. Cheap Trick recorded a version of the song for the show with revised lyrics in 1999, also included on That '70s Show Presents That '70s Album: Rockin'.

Later, Bell's song "Speed of Sound" appeared on the Flaming Lips album Late Night Tales: The Flaming Lips. Bell's version of "Speed of Sound" is heard over the opening credits to the film Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Discography[edit]

The Jynx
  • Greatest Hits! — (Norton Records, 10-inch vinyl EP, 2000)
  • Various artists: Garage Beat '66, Vol. 2: Chicks Are for Kids! — (Sundazed Music CD, 2004)
Icewater and Rock City
  • Various artists: Rockin' Memphis: 1960s–1970s, Volume 1 — (Lucky Seven Records CD, 2003)
  • Rock City — (Lucky Seven Records CD, 2003)
Big Star
Solo
  • "I Am the Cosmos"/"You and Your Sister" — (Car Records single, 1978)
  • I Am the Cosmos — (Rykodisc LP/CD, 1992)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hoskyns, Barney (February 2000), "The starts that fell to earth", Mojo: 62–73 
  2. ^ "Robert Christgau Consumer Guide: Chris Bell". Retrieved 2011-02-17. 
  3. ^ Klein, Joshua (2009-09-29), Album Reviews: Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos [Deluxe Edition], Pitchfork, retrieved 2010-03-24 [dead link]

External links[edit]