Mid-October is proving to be another bonanza for fans of Memphis cult band Big Star. On Friday, a three-disc box set of the group’s 1974-75 sessions at Midtown’s Ardent Studios, “The Complete Third,” will be released by Los Angeles-based label Omnivore Recordings.
This weekend also rings the release of “Big Star – Isolated in the Light”a monograph containing more than 200 black-and-white and color images, many rare and previously unseen, from UK press First Third Books. Co-edited by Fabrice Couillerot and Donna Ranieri, the pictures — shot by noted photographers includingWilliam Eggleston, Michael O’Brien, Maude Schuyler Clay, Carole Manning,David Bell and John Fry — span both Big Star’s era in Memphis as well as later solo work by band principals Alex Chilton and Chris Bell (full disclosure: I penned the book’s intro and will be moderating a panel with Big Star’s Jody Stephens and several of the photographers during a release party Thursday, Oct. 20, at theMemphis Brooks Museum of Art).
While the book and the box set are a boon for lovers of the group’s music and myth, and should only further its reputation, one person whose contributions to both projects — to nearly all of Big Star’s recent releases — has been crucial, if overlooked, is Ardent Studios’ Adam Hill.
Hill — who co-produced the “The Complete Third” (along with Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski) and whose research helped lay the groundwork for “Isolated in the Light” — is a musician, having played with local pop bands Mea Culpa and The Scruffs, as well as a sometime producer and a longtime engineer. For much of the past eight years, he’s also been busy working as Ardent’s resident archivist, helping to collect, clean up and catalog the work of Big Star and its various offshoots.
The business of Big Star has proven something of a small industry since 2009 when Rhino records put out the Grammy-winning box set “Keep an Eye on the Sky” and a deluxe version of Chris Bell’s solo record “I Am the Cosmos.” Since that time, myriad releases have followed, including a soundtrack to the 2012 Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” various singles, vinyl reissues, and deep digs.
Back in 2008, late Ardent owner John Fry first tasked Hill with the job of going through the studio’s voluminous tape archive, to dig around and digitize every bit of Big Star. “John had made safeties of ‘#1 Record’ and ‘Radio City,’ and they’d done some work on ‘Third’ in the early-’90s. But all the 2-inch tape and outtake material only existed on analog. It pretty much hadn’t been touched since the ‘70s. It was all just sitting upstairs in one room.”
Going through numerous reels, Hill would dig up alternate tracks, outtakes and oddities from the band and related acts (like Icewater and the Dolby F*****s), as he transferred everything from lost songs to live recordings to studio chatter.
Serving as an archivist and detective in equal measure, Hill would also track down leads on loose tapes and other band-related items and ephemera. “While you’re calling around asking people for tapes, you also ask, ‘Do you have any photos?’ To a lot of people, even some of the band members, this stuff wasn’t really precious Rosetta stones. … It was just stuff they had in a box in their attic. But we found some cool things that way.”
Eventually, when First Third approached the band and Ardent about doing a photo book, “we had a pretty good place to start with images,” says Hill. “Of course, I’m not as organized as I should be, but I don’t have a librarian’s degree or anything. I’ve kinda had to learn how to do all this on the fly.”
For Hill, splitting time between the past and the present has offered the best of both worlds. “I love making new records, but the archaeological research is fun, too,” he says. “I mean, having access to this Big Star stuff was great for me — I finally learned how to play the guitar parts right because I could go in and listen to the tapes and solo the tracks!”
Big Star’s revived reputation has continued to feed Ardent’s studio business. “Half the bands that are coming in and that I’m working with are Big Star fans,” says Hill. “Generally, at some point if we have time during the session, I’ll get out the master hard drive and let them solo stuff and geek out like I got to.”
Most recently, Rhode Island rockers Deer Tick have been working on a new album at Ardent, using some of Big Star’s gear, including the band’s Hiwatt amplifiers and Chris Bell’s Gibson guitar. “Chris’ family has been kind enough to let us have it around the studio. We agreed the guitar should be played and just not be stuck behind glass in a museum somewhere,” says Hill. “That’s kind of the whole philosophy here — whether it’s the instruments or recordings or photos. … It feels like this stuff should be out in the world being enjoyed, instead of sitting collecting dust somewhere.”
‘Big Star – Isolated in the Light’ book release
6 p.m. Oct. 20, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar.
Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, photographers Michael O’Brien, Maude Schuyler Clay and David Bell, and editors Fabrice Couillerot and Donna Ranieri will be on hand for a reception (starting at 5:30 p.m.) and panel discussion. A book signing will follow in the museum’s Chandler Gallery, where the in-house exhibition “Selections from William Eggleston’s Portfolios” is currently on view. Copies of “Big Star – Isolated in the Light” will be available for sale at the event and can be pre-ordered at firstthirdbooks.com