Jody Stephens has outlived every other member of Big Star, the commercially unsuccessful group of friends who produced three albums in the 1970s, crystallizing the genre of "power pop" and eventually becoming near legendary for having done so. The group had unreasonable expectations of pop infamy, fell short and ultimately splintered, leaving behind at least one tragic death, a heap of unanswered potential and an increasingly unimpeachable legacy encouraged by the quality of the music itself, which is ghostly and compulsively catchy and seemed dated-on-arrival in the most productive possible way. Stephens, the band's drummer and affable "anchor" (as he puts it) and director of A&R at Ardent Records, will be in town Friday, May 2, to introduce a screening of the recently released documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," and to participate in a post-screening Q&A. We spent an hour on the phone last week discussing awesome jackets, T.G.I. Fridays and Three Six Mafia. Here's our conversation:
Tell me about meeting Andy Hummel and Chris Bell.
I was still in high school and I was playing drums in the University of Memphis' production of "Hair." I'd somehow lucked into playing drums for that and my brother played bass. Andy saw the play and came up afterwards and said, "We're putting a band together, want to come over and play some?" And I said sure.
Turned out to be at Chris Bell's parents' house. They had this house that they'd moved to the back of their property. Like a small 1920s home. That's where we jammed, back there. It didn't have heat except for whatever electric heaters we would bring in. So in the wintertime it wasn't great.
Then, of course, I wind up over at Ardent, meeting [engineer, studio founder] John Fry. The first time I went there, Chris and Steve Ray were working. They had a project called Icewater, Steve and Chris. John taught them both how to engineer. They would hit record and then run out into the studio and record the basic tracks. The whole reason I was invited over to play drums was that Steve Ray was leaving for college and they needed a new drummer. Thank God for higher education.
We were pretty responsible kids, at least we were while Ardent was over on National [Street], because National was in the middle of nowhere, so there wasn't much trouble to get into. Nobody got into trouble until Ardent moved over a couple of blocks from Overton Square. That became the center of the music-slash-liquor-by-the-drink universe for Memphis. They lowered the drinking age to 18 in the midst of all the Baby Boomers — I mean, there were thousands of people down there. There was T.G.I. Fridays and three or four bars had music, and it was an opportunity to let your inhibitions go.
I talked to a friend of yours recently, Rick Clark, and he told me to ask you how you always managed to have the coolest rock 'n' roll jackets in the band in those old promo photos.
Because I worked at Chelsea Ltd.! It was a store just down on the square, a couple of blocks from Ardent. And I could borrow. That coat on the back of "Radio City" was borrowed. When Chelsea opened its doors we had access to all these cool clothes, but they were expensive, they were all imports. The owner of the store had been a model in London, so she had all these contacts with Granny Takes a Trip and all these cool clothing manufacturers. So we all started wearing these clothes, right around "Radio City." I worked there for maybe six or seven months so I got a discount.