Chris Bell was one of the unsung heroes of American pop music. 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. Born January 12, 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee, Bell grew up enveloped by the city's indigenous soul sounds -- typified by the prodigious output of the Stax label -- but his first love was the music of the British Invasion. Inspired by the Beatles, he took up the guitar in his early teens. Within a few years, Bell was writing and performing his own songs with friends Richard Rosebrough and Terry Manning, but his Anglo-pop leanings set him squarely outside of the Memphis musical community.
In high school, Bell struck up a friendship with another young performer named Alex Chilton who occasionally jammed with Bell's band but turned down an invitation to join on a full-time basis. While Chilton soon rose to fame as the frontman of the Box Tops, Bell became a fixture at Memphis' famed Ardent Studios, where he worked as a part-time recording engineer and also cut his earliest songs. While attending college, he roomed with former high school friend Andy Hummel, with whom Bell eventually returned to Memphis to form a new band with drummer Jody Stephens and, later, Chilton, who had grown frustrated with his role in the Box Tops and quit.
Together, the four musicians comprised the power pop band Big Star. Their debut album, 1972's #1 Record, eventually earned mythic status as an underground classic, but, sabotaged by poor distribution, was deemed a commercial failure at the time of release. Crushed, Bell became suicidal and left the band, although he did contribute his skills to a handful of tracks on the follow-up, Radio City. While Bell continued working on music, his depression worsened; to help revitalize his career, his brother David led him to France's Chateau D'Herouville studios, where a batch of demos were cut for a planned album. After skipping over to London, the Bell brothers mixed the songs with Geoff Emerick, the engineer on the Beatles' final albums, at producer George Martin's Air Studios.
The completed tracks were roundly rejected, however, and Bell returned to Memphis, where he cut a few more songs with Big Star's Stephens and local musician Ken Woodley in 1974. He ultimately returned to Europe and played solo shows in folk clubs; after plans for a Big Star reunion tour fell through, Bell returned to the U.S. and dropped out of music, taking a management position in his family's fast food chain.
In 1977, however, the tiny New York label Car issued a remarkable single, "I Am the Cosmos" backed with "You and Your Sister," on which Bell was supported by Chilton; the record was well-received, and spurred him to form a new band. But on the morning of December 27, 1978, his speeding car hit a tree and he was killed instantly. Over the course of the following decade, the legendary stature of Big Star continued to grow exponentially, and finally, Bell's long-unreleased demos were collected under the title I Am the Cosmos and released to wide acclaim in 1992. ~ Jason Ankeny