Christopher Branford Bell (January 12, 1951 – December 27, 1978) was an American guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Along with Alex Chilton, he led the power pop band Big Star through its first acclaimed album, #1 Record (1972). He also pursued a solo career throughout the mid-1970s, resulting in the posthumous I Am the Cosmos LP.
All Music Guide praised Bell as "one of the unsung heroes of American pop music" and noted his lasting impression, saying: "Despite a life marked by tragedy and a career crippled by commercial indifference, the singer/songwriter's slim body of recorded work proved massively influential on the generations of indie rockers who emerged in his wake."
His catalog of proto-alternative rock has inspired the likes of Beck, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, Afghan Whigs, Pete Yorn, Wilco, The Posies, and The Replacements, all of which have covered his music or name-dropped Big Star in the press.
His life was documented in the acclaimed Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me documentary, released in 2013 on Magnolia Pictures.
In the winter 2017, Bell's life will be documented in the book There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star. The oral-history style bio is slated for a November 2017 release.
|Birth name||Christopher Branford Bell|
|Born||January 12, 1951|
|Origin||Memphis, Tennessee, United States|
|Died||December 27, 1978 (aged 27)|
|Genres||Rock, power pop, jangle pop|
|Associated acts||Big Star|
Prior to his more famous work in the 1970s with Alex Chilton, Bell played in a number of Memphis garage 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. Rosebrough, born on September 16, 1949, died on October 18, 2015 after a period of ill health.
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 many Jynx shows and sang lead vocals at a couple of gigs, 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, including a stint in the heavier psych-rock band Christmas Future with Terry Manning and Steve Rhea. By the late 1960s, after attending UT in Knoxville, he had turned his focus toward writing original songs, and Manning brought Bell into the studio for his first professional recordings as a session guitarist.
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, Rock City (2003), and Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star (2017).
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. Manning played the keyboards and several session horn players were employed. 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. According to his brother David, Bell may have left Big Star due to a belief that he was overshadowed by the more famous Chilton.
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. From 1975 to 1976, Bell co-produced recording sessions for the power pop group Prix, and contributed guitar and backing vocals. Bell also played in groups with local songwriter Keith Sykes, as well as the Baker Street Regulars with Van Duren and Jody Stephens in 1976.
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."
Bell died on December 27, 1978 at the age of 27 when he lost control of his Triumph TR-7 sports car, sometime after 1:00 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.
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; though the Big Star recording of the song was never featured, two different covers of the song were used over the series' run as the theme song to the opening credits. The second, recorded by Cheap Trick in 1999, with revised lyrics, was 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. Beck covers "I Am the Cosmos" in concert.