Jody Stephens, Founding Member of Big Star and Those Pretty Wrongs: Interview

Photo courtesy of Jim Weber/Daily Memphian

This was more like a conversation than an interview. As you will see from the dialogue, the communication was great and the topics sort of developed organically. Jody discusses the benefit that was on January 24, 2021 for St. Jude’s Hospital and Church Health. This event was put on by In.Live at their own expense. Both charities have far reaching footprints, but they are both domiciled in Memphis, Tennessee where Jody is a life long resident. He really embodies the slogan, “Think globally, act locally”. Jody also discusses his new band, Those Pretty Wrongs, his former band, Big Star, and his work at Ardent Studios since 1987. He even threw out the possibility of a 50th anniversary event for #1 Record. Fingers crossed!

Twangri-La: I am talking to Jody Stephens, original member of the band Big Star and current member of the band Those Pretty Wrongs. Jody has just done a benefit for St. Jude’s Hospital and Church Health, both Memphis domiciled charities that was handled by a start up, In.Live to provide high quality audio and video streams and get as close as possible to a live, in person event. And they did a phenomenal job.

I was listening to the benefit concert yesterday. I thought it went well, extremely well. I thought the way you pieced it together was really good. There weren’t any long pauses; it was very fluid.

Jodi Stephens: We prerecorded the intros, of course, the musical performances, and that was a little strange, prerecording an intro, “Here’s blah blah blah,” and saying something, then coming out of it, responding to what had just happened without having just heard it. Of course, I saw the performances beforehand, but I was commenting on a memory rather than something that had just happened. It was a challenge, but it was kind of cool to get through it, and it seemed to work okay. There was one glitch, but it wound up being right in the middle where we just finished the performances, and we’re about to start the Q&A, so it was more like an intermission.

TL: And the Q&A was really good. I thought that was wonderful.

JS: I love those because the Q&A was live. I’d much rather do something live than prerecord it.

TL: I can understand that. But it was good, because I’ve covered these before, and sometimes the artists aren’t as receptive as they could be. But in this case, everyone was great, and gave the fans a really good experience.

JS: I do, too. Everybody came to the show with the right spirit. I was grateful to have Pat Sansone’s song, Every Day and Gary Louris’s song, Smile. Hopefully, this will set the vibe of what’s to come in 2021.

TL: We hope so. (laughs)

JS: And then, the other performances, as well. They were all special. Everybody certainly performed with the right heart for this thing, so that’s cool.

TL: Yes. It was for great causes, St. Jude, and Church Health, both Memphis charities.

JS: They’re Memphis-based, but St. Jude has a reach around the world. Its reach is international. And I think Church Health has been used for a template around the country, their model for providing healthcare for uninsured, working people and their families.

TL: Yes, they had a little commercial during the concert part, and it was really interesting, all that they do. I wasn’t aware.

JS: It is amazing. They’ve been a service to a lot of musicians here in town, and other people that I know, they work, and consequently, aren’t eligible for any public assistance.

But they don’t make enough, and Church Health steps in. I mean, we had a lot of cases, these folks aren’t charged anything for doctors’ visits or healthcare, for surgeries. It’s pretty amazing.

TL: That’s great. Similar to St. Jude, I don’t think anyone pays there, either.

JS: They don’t. No family pays anything out of their own pockets. They have insurance or something, they’ll tap their insurance companies, but nothing out of pocket for the families. Not only for their healthcare, but local businesses give gift cards for people in town, and they provide accommodations and every aspect. Even the child that’s being cared for at St. Jude, their parents are cared for at Church Health.

TL: I am definitely familiar with the work that St. Jude’s does.

JS: Yes, it’s so important. Jason Thomas Gordon set up a tour for me over here. He’s Danny Thomas’s grandson, and he heads up the music gigs to St. Jude Kids programs. They set up a tour for me and I actually sat in with a group called Star & Micey, and we did a couple of songs together at St. Jude. They did a full set; I did a couple of songs with them. That was fun.

TL: Were you singing, or were you on the drums?

JS: No, I was singing. All this is so rewarding, to be able to do something to benefit these charities.

TL: Yes, and speaking of singing, I like your voice a lot.

JS: Thanks, I appreciate that.

TL: But I guess you didn’t really sing much in the Big Star days, did you?

JS: No, I got to sing Way Out West, because Andy Hummel didn’t want to sing it. But I did a lot of background singing on Radio City, just harmonies and backing vocals. And on Third Album, I did background harmonies, and I wrote the song “For You,” so I got to sing that. But I didn’t really do any writing in those days, because Alex [Chilton], Chris [Bell], and Andy [Hummel] were so good at it, I didn’t need to be contributing anything.

TL: You contributed on “Daisy Glaze,” though, didn’t you?

JS: I did, yes. I think Alex brought that in as an unfinished idea, and we all worked on it.

TL: By the way, that’s probably one of my favorite Big Star songs.

JS: It is a cool song, isn’t it?

TL: Yes, I absolutely love it. Always loved it. For the last 20 years, whatever musical device I’m using, it’s there.

JS: Yes, I can even remember him describing it at times, in classical terms, with the round or the canon, and the bom bom bom…. [sings]

TL: So, speaking of your singing, though, you sing quite a bit now with your current band, Those Pretty Wrongs.

JS: Yes. I sing lead all the time because I wouldn’t have anything else to do, really. (laughs) Luther, when we toured for the most part—like, UK we did this past November—I lied. A year ago November. I sing lead and Luther plays the guitar and sings harmonies. I just wound up singing. It started out, Luther said, “Why don’t we do some writing together?” I was thinking it’d be the two of us doing something, and Luther was approaching it as just using my name, a so-called solo effort. I said, “No, I don’t think so, I think we’re contributing equally on this,” so we came up with Those Pretty Wrongs.

TL: Which is great. And you played a song Sunday at the benefit that’s going to be on the new album.

JS: Yes, “Something Beautiful.”

TL: I really like that.

JS: Thanks. We may add a cello or something, and something else to it, but we thought the vibe of it and the heart of it was there, so we thought we would just share it.

TL: I think it would definitely sound great with some other elements, but I think it stands alone. It was sounding really good.

JS: Cool, glad to hear that.

TL: Also the harmonies. Luther’s a great backup singer.

JS: He is. He’s not only a great backup singer, He wrote all those harmonies. We do a lot of them together, but not always. On the first couple of records, Danny De La Matyr helped a little bit with a couple of songs and harmonies, but Luther—it’s funny, to watch him lay down guitar parts and piano parts. He just gets out there and gets super focused and nails them. He doesn’t require too many takes to get it right.

TL: He’s a great musician. His album, Medium Cool, which came out in February of 2019 was fabulous.

JS: Yes. I was lucky to hook up with him back in 1991 or 1992, or whenever it was.

TL: I didn’t realize you went back that far.

JS: We did. The Freewheelers were signed by Gary Gersh, who also had signed The Posies, and Gary introduced me to John [Auer] and Ken [Stringfellow] and Luther, around the same time. And Luther, I met him, and he gave me this CD of some of the songs that his grandfather had written, Bob Russell, and on it was Jimmy Durante doing a version of “He Ain’t Heavy.” Rosemary Clooney was singing something, I think Bing Crosby was on there doing one of his grandfather’s song, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is one of them. But just a whole slew of them.

He did some writing; he cowrote with Quincy Jones on a couple of songs. They either won or were Oscar-nominated. “For the Love of Ivy” is one of them. But it just knocked me out. I made it a point to learn more about Luther, and then, that’s when I was introduced to just how talented he is.

TL: He comes from good musical stock.

JS: He does, indeed.

TL: You started working at Ardent Studios in ’87, right?

JS: Yes, January 12 of ’87.

TL: After you got your degree?

JS: Yes. I was a marketing major and did that. Actually worked a straight gig for a year just to get—I sold alarm systems.

There wasn’t much available, and I just wanted to get a job that was—it was more than 8:00 to 5:00, but you know, 8:00 to 5:00, and I could demonstrate that I could show up to work on time and get the job done. I’d been doing that a year when I actually put in a resume at a radio station for sales. I called John Fry to let him know that I’d used him as a reference, and he said, “Well, wait a minute. We’re creating a marketing position here, wave the flag for the studio, we’re going to start a production company.”

So, I came and interviewed with this guy named Joe Dyer, who ran the tele-productions and video department. He’s a coat and tie guy because all the video production stuff was corporate. Their clients were corporate, like FedEx and some other folks. He worked on this. But I interviewed, I think, three times, and I didn’t think I was going to be hired. Then, John overrode his decision. I could be wrong, but at any rate.

TL: Well, the rest is history, as they say.

JS: Yes, John hired me. And what a lucky guy. I’ve been here 34 years, now. Talk about longevity. Nothing like a consistent income.

TL: Yes, that’s true.

JS: And for the longest time, it was healthcare and stuff. We don’t get healthcare anymore and haven’t for a while, but I was lucky when it started skyrocketing. I’m on Medicare, now.

TL: Yes, that’s good.

JS: Hell yes. It’s amazing.

TL: I totally agree. When you were cutting #1 Record, did you learn anything about working in the studio at that time? Or did you have to learn it after you got your position?

JS: I know what all the gear is and what it does, and what its function is, but I never did take any kind of audio engineering courses. John Fry offered them in the 70s and I just went once and though, “Eh.” I was going to school, I was in college, and I was working, and had a girlfriend, so I didn’t really have time for that. And the band, as well. But I did certainly learn about the process and was just in awe of John Fry and what he could do at the console. And he had fun. We’d be out there in the studio, and we’d get what we thought was a take, and go in the control room and listen, and it would just sound so good.

TL: You knew all the gear, but you never really took any engineering courses, because at the time it wasn’t really a priority.

JS: Yes, I still can’t record a session myself. But I know enough to say, “Hey, why don’t we try this compressor or this mic?” But I usually work with Mike Wilson here at Ardent, and he’s brilliant.

TL: Yes, and you’re more in the business development area anyway, right?

JS: Yes. Early on, I did a lot of travelling. Went to New York about three times a year, I’d go up on a Monday morning and come back on Friday. I’d just make the A&R rounds because we were developing artists then, too. We had this incredible studio, and we also had an outreach to A&R folks all over the US. And that’s what my job was, establishing relationships with A&R folks, and then sitting down in front of them and sharing music that was being developed, here.

TL: That’s a pretty good job.

JS: Yes. It served a lot of purposes. The first artist was a guy named John Kilzer, Keith Sikes was working with John Hampton, and Keith producing at Hampton Engineering, and handed me that demo and I hit the road with it, waved the flag and got signed, and Tora Tora at A&M and then Eric Gales to Elektra, and this group called Jolene to Sire, and Skillet was the last one, really. Andy Karp signed them at Atlantic. That’s probably the biggest seller. Skillet were on our Christian label, and they were signed by a guy named DeGarmo and Key, and they would do 100,000 records for us, which was awesome for an independent label.

And then, I just felt like they could cross over to the mainstream world, so I was playing them for mainstream A&R folks, too.

They went from selling 120,000 records for us to, the first record we partnered with at Atlantic ran up to 350,000, I think. But it’s probably gone way beyond that, since. Then, the next record that was released was over 500,000, and then the next one was over a million.

TL: So, that’s pretty successful.

JS: Yes, we did well there. And we can only do as well as the artist can connect with people. Because I worked with a lot of people, but nobody had that kind of success, since I’ve been on the business side of things.

TL: So many artists have come through Ardent Studios, it’s amazing.

JS: Yes, the studio clients. These are just label and production folks that we worked with. The studio clients, yes, Terry Manning mixed Led Zeppelin here in 1970. I was around at the time, but certainly wasn’t privy to that session because I had just been introduced to everybody. It could have been—I was introduced to John at Ardent in probably April of ’70, but I don’t know, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan did Family Style here at the studio with Hampton Engineering. R.E.M. did Green in the studio. There’s so many people. Ken Power did The North Mississippi All Stars. ZZ Top, Afterburn, Eliminator. Eliminator sold over 10 million.

TL: Yes, that’s when they were at their pinnacle.

JS: Yes. Cheap Trick did demos here, that was cool. Not being released. They were demos done for their In Color record. Three Doors Down did that first record here and sold it.

TL: I read that Steve Earl recorded here, as well.

JS: He did, yes. He tracked and mixed “Copperhead Road” here.

TL: Wow, that’s pretty amazing.

JS: Joe Hardy Engineering. Joe coproduced and engineered Steve’s next album as well, The Hard Way.

TL: I know the album you’re talking about, The Big Bad Blues. It’s really good.

JS: Yes, it’s an amazing record. Joe Hardy did “Life is a Highway,” the Tom Cochrane record that did really well. Joe passed away two years ago at 66 and it was and is a tremendous loss.

John Hampton worked with Jim Dickinson’s at Ardent — you can just go on and on. It’s 50-plus years of recording.

TL: And successful recording. Which is pretty amazing, to be able to cross generations like that. Not many studios can do that.

JS: We’re lucky. And John [Fry] was a great mentor and passed his work ethic and his sonic sensibility along to each new generation.

TL: When I saw the Big Star documentary, “Nothing Can Hurt Me, John was very prominent. I think he said, or someone in the movie said that you guys had keys to the studio. You could just go in and record any time you wanted, outside of business hours?

JS: Yes, we could. We were lucky. And that’s what I was introduced to in April of ’70. I think Andy took me over to the studio, and Chris Bell and Steve Rhea were there, working on a song called, “All I See is You,” and they called themselves Ice Water. And that was after hours. And Chris and Steve were taking turns engineering because they both could do it. Andy could engineer, as well.

TL: Chris [Bell] was really good at it, I guess he had a real knack for it.

JS: He was, and he spent a lot of time in the studio just developing that, and getting guitar sounds, working with different guitar sounds. That’s why his leads, and not only the Big Star stuff, but on his solo record, that lead guitar and those riffs are just amazing.

TL: To me, “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” the beginning guitar part in that just floors me, every time I listen to it. Because it’s a little muted, and it sounds like it might be a slightly different speed, and it’s infectious.

JS: It is. I agree with you.

TL: I read that you play drums on the Afghan Whigs record?

JS: No, I didn’t play drums. I’m not quite sure what I did. I remember I was ecstatic to be asked to go in there, but it may have been playing tambourine or doing a little backing vocal part. I didn’t play drums on it.

TL: Percussion. (laughs)

JS: Yes, percussion. But that was really cool. I loved that band. During one of my business trips to LA, a friend of mine, David Katznelson, who had a record label (he was A&R at Reprise) said, “You want to go hear a friend of mine’s band tonight?” I said, “Yeah, who is it?” He said, “The Afghan Whigs.” About three weeks prior to that, I’d gone to see someone at Atlantic, in New York, and—I can’t believe I can’t think of his name, but he said, “Here’s what I like, so you’ll have some idea of what I like before you play me any of your demos that you’re shopping.” One of them was the Afghan Whigs. So, then, three weeks later I have a friend telling me, “Hey, you want to go see the Afghan Whigs?”

We went to A Club With No Name, that was the name of the club. And God, I was just floored. Greg Dulli walked out, he had this double-breasted, sharkskin jacket on, no shirt on under it, and he grabs the microphone and takes out his Zippo lighter, flicks it, lights up a cigarette. It was like watching Frank Sinatra or something.

TL: Yes, I got to see them a number of times in the DC-Baltimore area, and the album Congregation is one of my all-time favorites.

TL: You said during the Q&A, when things got back to normal, you’d maybe consider doing something for #1 Record for the 50th anniversary?

JS: That’d be fun. Yes, we would need somebody like Chris Stamey to spearhead it. I’ll have to give him a ring and see what he thinks.

TL: I’m sure he would do it. And I’m sure Luther would be involved, and Ken Stringfellow. You wouldn’t have to search too hard to get musicians.

JS: No, I wouldn’t. And that would be the people, certainly, to approach, John, and Ken, and Luther, and then if we did something like Third, that’s such a large-scale effort, that it would take somebody like—Chris, who is brilliant. And he will put the people with the right voice and the right spirit together for Big Star’s Third live, and his attention to detail and his obsession with getting it right? The only other person I can think that works at that relentless level is Ken Stringfellow.

TL: Yes, he’s a busy guy (laughs)

JS: God, he’s amazing. When I’d called him about contributing a video to the live stream, he said, “Yeah, I get back from Rwanda on the 24th,” it was December, and he said, “I can get it done after that.” So, he’d flown to Rwanda to play.

TL: To play? Wow. He had fans all over the world.

JS: He does. He sent me an email once from Qatar, Q-A-T-A-R, so I looked it up because I didn’t know where it was. And it looked like a country with a lot of money.

TL: Oh, yes. They’re in the Middle East. They’re an oil country.

JS: And apparently, it’s a small country, so everybody benefits from the oil, and they import people to do all their manual labor, they have so much money. At any rate, Ken had played on the top of a skyscraper there in Qatar. So, he definitely played all over the world. It’s amazing.

TL: I heard you say once that, some of your greatest drumming came out of, at one time, you would have perceived as a mistake. I can’t remember the song, but I think it was a Big Star song, you missed a turnaround.

JS: It was “Lady Sweet”. What are perceived as creative parts, are really, just a scramble to recover from something. And they come out so different and unexpected that—I don’t know, they’re some of my favorite parts. But yes, “Lady Sweet” I missed the turnaround and came back in, the first time, and then I missed it again the second time. Either innately, or intuitively, I played it the same way.

TL: So, it wasn’t really a mistake. I taught myself how to play piano. I don’t use the word mistake; I just call it “an unexpected result.”

JS: That’s a better way to put it, sure.

TL: And the other word I don’t use is “practice,” because I think that has such bad connotations to it, like something your parents made you do.

JS: So what do you call it?

TL: Exploration.

JS: (laughs) That’s good. I don’t know, when I go sit down—which I try to do daily—to play, I just put on a CD or play along with different things, like the Golden Smock record, or some Big Star stuff or other stuff. I don’t explore too much. I just get the coordination and maintain the muscle memory. It’s definitely a discipline for me because I hate it. Sometimes I enjoy it, but for the most part, it’s a discipline that I follow that really, just to stay in touch with other musicians and keep those relationships going and keep being able to play live.

TL: Jody, I want to thank you for doing such a candid interview, and I wish you much success on all your future projects.

You can keep up with Jody and Those Pretty Wrongs here.

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