Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Andy was the first person I interviewed for the book. We did it in two stages. First I sent him a list of questions which he answered over several lengthy emails. Then we did a long phone interview. This was all in July 2007. Andy's wealth of information and good spirit really set the tone for the book and influenced its direction. I was always committed to writing about the music rather than the surrounding "drama" but an offhand remark by Andy, which you'll read below, about people who weren't in the room having an awful lot of say in the Big Star story made me think that the book would be best served if the interviews were confined only to those who actually had a direct hand in the creation of Radio City. So that was the seed planted by Andy and I think the book was far better for it.

As with any sequence of events nearly fort years ago memories can differ. One thing you Big Star experts will note is that Andy remembered Chris being part of the four song demo sessions between #1 and RC. This differed from what John Fry, Jody, and Alex remembered. In fact, they were adamant that it had just been the trio in the studio. A possible source of the confusion is that Andy heard background vocals on the reference tape he had saved and thought it must be Chris. However, Jody told me that he had done the background vocals. This is all perhaps a minor footnote but it involved a lot of research – including listening to the demo tapes at Ardent – and I came away certain that it was just the trio. Also keep in mind that these guys spent a lot of time together in the same studio so it would be easy to confuse one session with another. I wanted to publish this as Andy wrote it. (There were also some other things that people had different recollections of but there was always a very solid majority on one side and some external facts that made a final decision relatively easy.)

So here is Andy Hummel in his own words Part One. The italics are my questions, designed just to gather some basic facts to establish a framework for future interviews. Over a series of evenings, installments would arrive in my inbox. For a Big Star fan just starting to dig into the story, each one was a real revelation. I'll post the next installment in a few days. Enjoy.

Did you play any instrument besides bass on the album? Any of the keyboard parts?

The only instruments I specifically remember playing were the bass parts I did and the pump organ on Daisy Glaze. During the initial 3-piece period of the 2nd LP there could have been others though. We operated very collaboratively at this point. See below under the timeline discussion for more on this.

What bass(es) did you use (make / model / approx. age / origin). (We’ll talk about your influences etc. when we talk. I also want to talk about your development as a musician and how, with more room to work, you really delivered the goods on Radio City. Also, what you would have been working on at Ardent when during the hiatus after #1 Record etc.)

I love to talk about guitars, so bear with me as I tell the Big Star guitar story.

Chapter 1 – electrics:

When Chris and I first began playing together in our dorm room at UT in 1969 I had a cherry red Gibson 335-style hollow body bass with black nylon flat wound strings. It must have been a 1966 or so left over from my days playing R&B - a very cool, unusual bass. Chris played a cherry red Gibson 335 6-string guitar with P80 or P90 pickups. I’m pretty sure it had a Bigsby. It must have been mid-60s as well. I can’t remember Chris ever owning another electric guitar. He was a one guitar kind of guy with that 335 and he played the hell out of it. I had a Kustom bass amp I never liked or used to speak of and he had a Fender Twin Reverb he used all the time.

A little after we returned to Memphis I traded my Gibson in for a new, sunburst Fender Precision Bass (I believe they call them P-basses these days) with a maple fretboard. This must have been late 1970 or so. Chris and I were obsessed with the sound John Entwhistle got out of his bass and heard him say the words “Rotosound Strings” on one of the songs on “Who Sellout”. We figured he must be talking about guitar strings and, sure enough, I went out and found some. Of course Rotosounds were all round wound in those days – may still be – and no one I had ever heard of used them except Entwhistle. I put them on the Fender, turned the treble way up, and that was the sound. This became my primary bass throughout the Big Star years, and other folks’ at Ardent too for that matter. It was always in the studio and got used a lot. Precision Basses are very reliable and musically flexible. You can play any style of music on them. I flatter myself that I was one of the first folks (beside Entwhistle obviously) to kind of pioneer that trebly, twangy sound the Fender got with those strings which later became a mainstay bass sound, although I’m sure no one picked it up on my account since no one ever heard us.

When we hooked up with Alex he had a gold Les Paul and a Super Reverb. The Super Reverb was the most deafening thing I ever heard. I think the Les Paul had humbuckers but they may have been P-style pickups. It’s hard to remember and doesn’t matter anyway because he didn’t use it much. They both played it a little on the 1st LP but then Alex got a Fender Stratocaster which became his primary electric for some time. I’m pretty sure it was ivory colored.

So all those trademark trebly Big Star electric guitar sounds you hear on both LPs were primarily Chris’s Gibson and/or Alex’s Strat played through old Fender tube amps. Most of the bass parts are the Precision bass recorded directly through the console and one of two old vacuum tube compressors Fry had in the “B” studio. We hardly ever amped the bass. I’ll bet he still has those compressors. If not it’s a great tragedy.

The studio had an old tube Fender Dual Showman everyone used a lot for everything. It was a great amp. More on that later. When we were getting ready to go “on tour” Ardent bought us all new equipment. Chris and I got HiWatt heads because that’s what The Who used a lot. I can’t remember whether they were 100 or 200 watt. Alex had a Marshall he found somewhere. We had HiWatt speaker cabinets, I think with 4 12-inch speakers each. The original plan was for the guitar players to use two of these each with their heads like Cream or somebody. This was ridiculously loud so we backed down to one cabinet each. It was still too loud. I had two JBL bass horns John Dando built for me but they wouldn’t do the twang sound so I ditched them and used one of the HiWatt cabinets. The HiWatt head and speaker cabinet was a perfect stage bass rig. I don’t recall recording with any of this stuff much, except maybe the Marshall, but we kept it all in A studio quite a lot and it was the standard Ardent jam setup off and on for a while. More on this later.

While we were practicing to go “on tour” after the 1st LP I lucked into a Gibson Thunderbird which, of course, is precisely what Entwhistle used. I think I got it at Strings and Things back when it was a “mom and pop” operation on Cooper. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play it much because Chris and I got into a big fight at practice at Alex’s house and he smashed the bass. So I went back to the Fender. I always go back to a Precision Bass it seems.

Later while we were “touring” somebody gave me a Rickenbacker to play at that gig we did in New Orleans. I think it was a supermarket grand opening or something ;-). I loved it and got my own when I got back to Memphis. Unfortunately there was something wrong with the neck. The guitar wasn’t fret true. So, as usual, I reverted to the Fender.

This entire time there was always a Hofner at the studio – may still be. Hofners are great. There’s no other sound like it. They have that short scale which is very easy to play and they are very light. We used it some before and during the 1st LP. Later Terry Manning or somebody put round wound strings on it and ruined it I think. Hofners need flat wound strings. He bought a new one in the Bahamas or somewhere but he wouldn’t let anyone play it.

I didn’t own a bass at all from about 1974 until a couple of years ago. Not that anyone will care, but these days I play a black American Fender Precision bass with the extra Jazz bass-style bridge pickup, BassLine Quarter Pounders, and a rosewood fret board. I’m about to take the round wound strings off and put proper Beach Boys-style flat wound strings on it. I got it at a guitar show in Arlington about a year ago. I don’t like it much. It seems like the level is not well balanced across the strings and scale. Also, while the treble is nice I can’t get the bass tone I’m looking for. Maybe the new strings will be better. Or it could be the amp I’m using. It’s a newish 100 watt Bassman. I think I need a big tube Ampeg or a Trace Elliott. Or better yet, an old tube HiWatt like we used in Big Star days – good luck with that.

I also play a Hofner I bought new at Craig’s Music a couple of years ago. I love it but it’s hard to play at gigs because there are no dots on the upper edge of the fret board making it hard to know where you are in dim stage lighting with that short scale. Also there’s something about the way I hold it that causes the G-string to pop off of the bridge a lot. What I really want is a Gibson SG-style solid body. They used to call them EB3’s I think, with two humbuckers. The guy in Free played one of these. I’m sure I’ll wind up back on a Precision Bass but it’s fun to experiment and you can never have too many guitars. I’ve only got around 12 right now.

Lot’s of people have hundreds these days. I don’t know what they do with them all though. Also Japanese collectors are buying up all the nice old American guitars for ridiculous prices. I bet the dealers sell them a lot of fakes! I mean there can’t really be that many 1957 Les Pauls in this world. And it seems like you see a couple of hundred at every guitar show.

Alex told Patti (my wife) he has 20ish, but that was before Katrina. I’m guessing he may have lost some in the hurricane. Also he’s not sure where they all are. He travels quite a bit and apparently leaves them around or something. My current little band’s guitar player, Mike, only has 3 that I know of. I don’t really know anyone else that plays guitar.

I guess the interesting thing is that Big Star basically did the 1st two LPs with just 3 electric guitars - the Precision Bass and the Strat, plus the 335 on No. 1 - and a couple of old Fender amps. I don’t think people are that “efficient: these days.

Chapter 2 – Acoustics (this is a shorter story):

I taught myself to play guitar on an old Silvertone flattop I bought new at Sears, probably for $15 or so, in Junior High School. I don’t know how I ever played it. I must have had very strong fingers and thick calluses. Later on in Big Star days I studied classical with a gypsy named Rene Fusco or Fuste’ – something like that. He sold me a classical guitar made by a well-known transcriber named Frantz Schmidt. I still have both of them. I used the classical for some demos at Ardent and wrote India Song on it (for what that’s worth!).

When Alex joined the band he showed up in the studio to record 13 and Watch the Sunrise with two Martin acoustics, I think a D-35 12-string and a D-28 6-string. I’m sure he had used them there previously in his work with Terry but I hadn’t seen them. They were wonderful guitars. Apparently he had been doing a lot of folk music in New York right before he joined with us. They were used extensively on both LPs, especially the 6-string. I played both a lot.

Chris bought a Yamaha dreadnaught-style acoustic, I think while we were recording the 1st LP. It was a good guitar and used extensively on that LP and later on his solo stuff although it too was a victim of violence at one point. We were a very emotional band.

Prior to going “on tour” when Ardent bought us all those ampsI discussed earlier I also got a new acoustic. It was a Guild D-25. I put Schaler tuners on it, had the frets dressed down, and the action lowered. It turned out to be a pretty good guitar and the only serious guitar I had for many years after Big Star. Tommy Hoenn used it a good deal.

John Dando installed Barcus-Berry pickups on all the acoustics so we could play through the amps live. These were a very early version of internally mounted acoustic pickups. They fed back like crazy and had to have standalone preamps between the guitar and amp. John built some from scratch. We never used them much though. Nowadays that technology has advanced tremendously with Fishmans and some of the factory pickup systems people like Taylor use. It’s amazing. It’s suddenly practical to play amplified acoustic music with your neighborhood band.

By the way, Dando would be a good guy to talk to. He was sort of our technical manager. He knows a lot about the technology side of things back in those days. I think he’s still in Memphis. Fry will know.

Nowadays I have about a 7 year-old Taylor 314 Koa with a Fishman, which I love and play all the time; the Guild which now has a Fishman but is in the shop to be refurbished; a 1968 NOS Gibson J-50 I bought at a little shop on Madison Avenue the weekend of the NARAS awards, which I love but don’t play much because the strings are a little too close for finger picking; and the old acoustics I already mentioned.

I’ve played a lot of acoustic guitars in my time and I have to say Taylor has broken the code. Their guitars are to die for. Unless you’re just married to old school luthier methods Martin, Gibson, etc. hang their hats on your primary acoustic needs to be a Taylor. I don’t think the Martin and Gibson new technology guitars light a candle to the Taylors.

That’s my Big Star guitar story. Would you like to hear my Big Star piano story?

I’m trying to recreate as much as possible a timeline for how the album came together. Here are the key dates as far as I can tell. So even being able to place when songs were written and / or recorded within these blocks of time would be helpful.

June 1972 – #1 Record released

October 1972 – live dates wind down

Dec 1972 – Chris leaves the band

May 1973 – Rock Writer’s Convention

December 1973 – Radio City mastered

So many writers have micro-analyzed this subject that whatever you have must come from more accurate sources than my memory. Instead of addressing this directly, let tell you a bit about musical relationships. You should be able to overlay the timeline on this fairly easily. This might be somewhat helpful.

First, just for the record - In the early days, before Big Star, Chris and I were pretty inseparable musically as I recall. Outside the studio we both played with various combinations of folks occasionally. And, of course in the studio one went with the flow of who was present on any given evening. But our primary musical vehicle/core was the 3-piece of Jody, Chris, and me, with Tom Eubanks doing a stint as a fourth for a while. We actually played out quite a bit doing fraternity parties, department store openings and the like. The other people we, and especially Chris played with, like Terry Manning, Steve Rhea, etc. have weighed in so heavily on this subject that you get the impression early Big Star and pre Big Star was some sort of commune as opposed to a cohesive band. Of course they’re just going by their recollections and this is what they remember. At one point a few years ago I had read so much of that type of stuff I almost became convinced myself. But nothing could be further from the truth. Especially by the time we hooked up with Alex we were very much a committed 3-piece band with a decent amount of both gig and studio experience.

Anyway, as we recorded the 1st LP on National Street, and later Madison Ave, Chris and Alex became very tight musically. There was never any question we four were the band and we behaved as such, but Alex and Chris were just way more experienced than us so Jody and I were pretty much side men at this point. They each had songs they brought to the table, but when it came to producing and recording them they collaborated pretty seamlessly. I think they were rather surprised when I showed up with that horrible India Song. I never should have let Alex talk me into putting it on the record.

As we neared completion of the 1st LP however, for whatever reason, Alex and Chris became increasingly independent of each other musically. Alex was all about branching out and experimenting musically while Chris was going through a personal crisis which inhibited his ability to socialize musically.

So Alex and I began to hang together. By this time I had taken John’s Audio Engineering course and was competent to run the studio solo. Previously we had been dependent on John, Chris, or Richard to provide this skill set. For the two of us, like most of these folks, hanging out meant hanging out musically. We did all sorts of crazy things, recording until the wee hours of the morning, listening to all sorts of odd musical influences and the like. We recorded Do Right Woman at Dan Penn’s studio with Spooner at 4:00 one morning. I’m sure it was horrible. I guess this would all have been happening roughly throughout 1972.

Anyway, the reason for going into all this is that by the time we began R.C. there was kind of a concept of operations (ConOps) in effect. Alex and I did lots of demo type stuff in the middle of the night with whoever was around. I have a really cool demo I recorded one night of Vera singing DIVORCE with Alex playing all the instruments and singing backup. I usually ran the studio and Alex played the music. When we were ready to do a real band track we’d get John to record it if necessary, then we’d spend the next month or so doing all the overdubs ourselves – of which there were a lot as I’m sure you know. Most of what I call the “mainline” R.C. songs were done this way. Alex later used a similar ConOps for the Dobly Fuckers stuff, usually, but not always with Richard recording.

Anyway, all that stuff about early BS is just me venting a little about the perceptions past articles and books have created. But this latter stuff is how I remember R.C. happening, at least at the 20,000 foot level as we say in the aircraft business. And I think it’s useful to understand this ConOps of how we operated in the studio before going into details about each track and stuff.

As far as the specific timelines go for R.C. … and this is not my strong area … first I’ll have to download the LPs from iTunes. I don’t seem to have copies. In the meantime, please note the following disclaimer: It has been about 35 years since all this occurred and I do not pretend to remember it all perfectly. So if you run into other evidence which seems to contradict me, it is probably more correct.

As an interlude while we’re waiting I’ll tell the keyboards story.

I started studying classical piano in the 3rd grade. My mother had a small Knabe grand at our house she got about 1947. It was a great piano. It had easy action and a nice mellow sound. I studied formally with various teachers for about 7 years, until about the 9th grade.

But I played that piano constantly experimenting with all sorts of stuff including figuring out a lot of rock songs. I can’t think of anything better than growing up with a nice piano at your disposal like that. You can’t help but learn a lot.

I actually played organ for a while for a soul band during my R&B period.

When we first started going to Ardent on National they had what must be about a 5’5” Chickering grand. I think it had a walnut finish. It must have been early 60s vintage. This was also a great piano. It was brighter and with a bigger sound than the Knabe. Most of the piano on the 1st LP was this Chickering. Everyone used it for everything. When we moved to Madison we brought the Chickering with us and installed it in the B studio, the one we mostly used. So most of the piano on RC was also the Chickering. One hopes Fry still has it. Often I – and others – would go in and just play it for hours alone.

For the A studio they had to buy an additional piano. Fry, I expect at Terry’s urging, did not skimp. He got a brand new Yamaha concert grand. I think it was 7’ at least. It was solid black. It was a wonderful instrument. Smooth action, not the pronounced double action you get with Steinways, and a beautiful big bright tone. We used it some for recording but since it was in A studio, which we liked less and which was less accessible (all the big paying sessions were booked there) not nearly as much as the Chickering. But I – and a lot of others – loved to just go in there, close the door, and play and play, and play. Again, I hope it’s still there and in good shape. I liked that piano so much when it came time for me to by my own after I moved to Texas, I got a big black Yamaha C3 – with was their 6’ concert model at the time. I still have it and taught 3 kids how to play on it, not that it took with any of them. I taught myself to site read in the process though!

Alex had a Chickering at his house we played some too. I gather he grew up with this piano much like I did the Knabe. I remember it as being almost identical to the one in the B studio. His Dad was a jazz musician and used it when he jammed with his buddies,

I don’t believe Chris ever had a piano. I gather his family wasn’t musical like Alex’s and mine.

Also in B studio was a Hammond B3 organ with a big old tube Leslie. Hammonds are kind of a special case in the keyboard world to me. You play them kind of like lead guitar players play except on a keyboard. Also you have all those drawbars to manage. I never quite got it although I played it all the time trying to. Love B3s though. I wish I had one. I don’t think we ever used the B3 on a record but we used its Leslie all the time. Ever since Eric Clapton first ran a guitar through one, I think either on Abbey Road or Badge, everyone wanted to use that sound. And we did. It didn’t hurt that in addition to the rotating Leslie speakers it also had a great tube amp that distorted perfectly.

Other keyboards in the studio:

  • They had one of the first Moog synthesizers. The damn thing was so complicated to operate I don’t remember using it very much. Then they replaced it with an Arp. I didn’t think it was much better but the Beatles apparently did so we screwed with it a lot. It probably ended up on a record somewhere. I’ll listen for it when my download completes.

  • For a critical while they had an old pump organ out in B studio. I played this on Daisy Glaze. It belonged to someone though and they took it away finally.

  • Frequently Jim Dickenson would bring his tacky piano over. This was an upright and someone had actually stuck thumbtacks into all the hammers to get that tacky sound.

  • They bought an early Mellotron. We all loved it. Notionally you didn’t need to hire strings or horns anymore! They were very controversial with the musicians union as you can imagine. We used it a lot.

That’s all I can remember about keyboards so let’s resume with the timeline discussion.

As the Number 1 effort, and its very lame tour, wound down in mid to late 1972, new songs had already been written, both separately and jointly, mostly the latter. We hadn’t laid any tracks down to speak of but we had played many of the songs quite a bit in practice sessions, studio jams, and the like. Some writing occurred with the three or four of us in Alex’s bedroom. I know we did What’s Going Ahn there. Ditto Life is White and Back of a Car. It’s probably safe to say that the songs listed with both Andy and Alex writing credits were done this way. I’m almost positive Chris was present during some or all this. So it happened early on.

So we had these songs nearly ready to record. We also had a couple of Chris songs, Got Kinda Lost and another slow Chris song that escapes me right now. So there came a point where we were like, hey let’s record again. We were all getting kind of sick of the conventional method or recording; close miking everything, laying down 30 tracks before you settle on one, then millions of overdubs to get the final song. Plus we were really interested in mono. So – to make a long story short – we got Fry to engineer a session in B studio in mono, basically using one old big Neuman microphone in the middle of the room, with the whole band at once, and recorded four songs. I don’t remember how well we succeeded but the goal was to do them all in one take. I think we came pretty close. They sounded great. They were hot, fresh, full of enthusiasm, etc. and the mono sound Fry came up with was amazing I know we did Got Kind of Lost and the other Chris song. We also did Back of a Car. I’m not sure about the last one but it was probably Oh My Soul or You Get What You Deserve. I still have a tape of the Chris songs. I think Fry does too. You should listen to it. Anyway the master of this eventually got lost but it became the genesis of RC.

So after Chris left and we finally decided to do another LP, we started with these songs, subject of course to the deal Alex and Chris had cut on who would get writer credit on what, so we didn’t use the two Chris songs. Pity. But since the master was gone we had to re-record them. I recall a fairly long tortuous period during which we laid down the band tracks for Car, Soul, probably Life, Deserve, and later September and West. We then spent months producing and overdubbing them, often using the ConOps described above although eventually Alex took Fry’s course and started soloing on the console. This was sort of the Mainline part of the LP.

As we got well into this process Alex and Richard started up the Dolby Fuckers thing. I believe they/we did all that ourselves. Fry wasn’t needed to do the tracks because they were usually just a guitar and drums with everything else overdubbed.

The last two Alex songs were done way later right before mixing started.

Ok, now that you have the overall history of how the thing flowed we can start looking at specific songs. But that will have to be a subsequent installment.


John C. said...

Thanks Bruce. I never met Andy either, but your interview confirms what I always figured the guy was like - congenial and musical. Looking forward to part two.

~Kevin said...

Thanks for sharing; am really sad I've never gotten to see Big Star play out in any incarnation, and am very sad for Andy & Alex's families.

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