Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Memphis Pop Scene – Part One

Ardent Logo B&W

With the band Big Star currently in the spotlight thanks to the long-awaited documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story, it seems an appropriate time to shed some reflected light on their lesser-known contemporaries in the Memphis Power Pop scene.

Ardent were the epicentre of this late sixties-early seventies scene. Through their recording studio and record label, they fostered young Memphis musicians who were interested in learning the ins and outs of the recording studio. One of the most eager was teenager Chris Bell.

Bell, along with Jody Stephens, formed Rock City with Thomas Dean Eubanks and effectively created the nascent Big Star. In fact, My Life is Right, later released on #1 Record, was co-written by Eubanks and recorded at this time. A little later, former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton moved back to Memphis after an unsuccessful attempt at a folk career in New York City and became the missing piece of the Big Star puzzle.

This part of the story is fairly well known. However, there were several bands working in the studio at the same time, creating similarly transcendent pop music, that have unfairly lived in Big Star’s shadow.

In fact, Cargoe were the best known Ardent band at the time and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens recently reflected that Cargoe were a better live band than his group. Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma they moved to Memphis in the late 60s and recorded the scorching single Feel Alright for Ardent Records (after an early flirtation with Dan Penn’s Beautiful Records). Sounding like a cross between The Raspberries and Big Star, the single is full of arching harmonies, meaty guitar and a rhythm section that would give The Who a run for its money.

Their self-titled record is full of similar gems, including the gorgeous I Love You Anyway.

Ardent Records released The Hot Dogs’ Say What You Mean LP in late ’73 right after Cargoe and Big Star’s debuts. Though the band initially consisted of only two members: Bill Rennie and Greg Reding, in the studio they were helped by quite a few Ardent personnel. Producer Terry Manning played lead guitar, while Big Star associate (and I Am The Cosmos drummer) Richard Rosebrough was on drums. While exemplary in many ways, Say What You Mean isn’t quite up to the Chilton/Bell songwriting standard. But… it’s immediately sonically clear that it was recorded at Ardent Studios. The crisp acoustic guitar sound mixed with impeccable backing harmonies could be straight from #1 Record. The standout track is Another Smile, released as a single, which has a very Big Star feel, with crisp acoustic guitars, compressed handclaps and strings. Have a listen here…

Perhaps the least-known participant in this story is Gimmer Nicholson, who recorded a number of songs at Ardent Studios just prior to the making of Big Star’s # 1 Record. His acoustic guitar style greatly influenced the Big Star sound, to the point that at certain times, it’s possible to hear exact riffs taken directly from these sessions. Regrettably they were not released to the public until 1994 when Lucky 7 Records finally brought them into the light of day.

Millenial Harbinger from the Christopher Idylls has all the hallmarks of this sound and gives you an idea of where Chris Bell and Alex Chilton received the inspiration for songs like The Ballad of El Goodo and 13. The record is often described as New Age guitar music before that term came into vogue. It certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on the Windham Hill label a decade later.

In 2016, Light in the Attic records issued the first vinyl version of Christopher Idylls to be taken from the original master tapes (there was a 1981 release on Sid Selvidge’s Peabody label that sonically wasn’t up to scratch according to producer Terry Manning).

Of course, most of these songs and more gems from the Ardent catalogue can be found on The Ardent Records Story, coincidentally called Thank You Friends. Imagine that…

If you’ve enjoyed this, please stay tuned, for part two, where we’ll venture outside Ardent Studios’ hallowed walls and explore the mean streets of the Memphian pop aftermath…