Chris Bell (January 12, 1951 — December 27, 1978)
was a musician from Memphis, Tennessee
. Along with Alex Chilton
, Andy Hummel
and Jody Stephens
, he was a founding member of the seminal
1970s band Big Star
Bell started playing guitar when he was 12 or 13 years old, and was heavily influenced by The Beatles. This in itself is unremarkable until you take into account that in Memphis in the 1960s, the sound was soul and R&B. Stax was cranking out hits, and Atlantic Records and Motown were in their prime. This made Bell with his anglo-leanings something of an outsider. Bell had known Chilton and Hummel since high school. They came together with Stephens in 1969 after Chilton left New York City and The Box Tops, returning to Memphis. They met up at Ardent Studios where Bell and Chilton impressed each other with their respective songwriting skills. Big Star was born, and #1 Record was recorded and released on Stax Records for distribution in 1971.
But all was not well. Discord among the band members and worse-than-poor distribution by Stax was tearing the group apart. Bell was near rock bottom by 1972, and attempted suicide. His brother David, in an attempt to pull Bell from this quagmire, took him to Europe as a distraction from the problems at home. Bell drank heavily while overseas, and was generally inconsolable. He attempted suicide again, and as a result had to be hospitialized. After several encouraging trips to L.A., Bell had a brief reunion with Chilton and Stephens that led to some involvement with three songs on Big Star's Radio City ("O My Soul", "Way Out West", and "Back Of A Car"). However, Bell's inner sadness and conflict remained unresolved, and by 1974 he was beginning to find escape through IV drug use.
His brother David again whisked Bell overseas, this time to France. There he set about recording at the Chateau D'Herouville, where Elton John recorded Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This led to the beginning of many recording sessions, both in France and at Air Studios in England, that would result in the major body of work Bell produced prior to his death. After months of shopping to A&R of a variety of labels and live performances in Berlin and elsewhere, all the available marketing options eventually ran out.
Bell returned to Memphis at the end of 1975 without a record contract and with little money. He worked a fast food job in his father's restaurant, and recorded a few more songs at Ardent, but the next few years saw a lull in Bell's music. He played live gigs from time to time, and eventually achieved the small label release of a single ("I Am The Cosmos") on Car Records following the 1978 EMI release of the first two Big Star records as a double album. New talks between Chilton and Bell about getting back together again for a Big Star tour eventually fell apart.
Bell's budding musical career was cut short by his tragic death in 1978 from an automobile accident. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to find published information regarding this accident, but the Memphis police report on it indicates that it was a single car collision, and alcohol was involved. Late one evening a few days after Christmas, Bell was driving home after a band rehearsal and ended up wrapping his white Triumph TR-6 around a utility pole on Poplar Avenue. His close friend Tommy Hoehn expressed to me in 1991 a belief held by many of Bell's friends and family: the car wreck was not an accident, but suicide. Bell, depressed about his career and his homosexuality, took his own life on that cold winter night in Memphis. Of course, no corrobrating physical evidence exists of this assertion, and I mention it here only because I trust Tommy's story, which is supported by Bell's numerous prior suicide attempts.
Chris Bell was a gifted musician, and his contributions to American music through Big Star have influenced several generations of musicians, from R.E.M. and The Replacements to Teenage Fanclub and The Posies (among many others). In 1992, Rykodisc released a CD of his songs entitled I Am The Cosmos simultaneously with Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers/Beale Street Green and a live Big Star album. Bell's talent and genius are evident on the fifteen tracks of the disc, compiled from recording sessions in Memphis, France and England.
Portions of this writeup were condensed from David Bell's liner notes to I Am The Cosmos.