After two years of cancer treatment, Big Star founding bassist Andy Hummel died July 19, just four months after the death of Big Star singer Alex Chilton. Both men were 59. But while the times of their deaths were remarkably close, these friends' lives could hardly have taken more divergent paths.
After Big Star's mid-'70s break-up, Chilton continued to chase a music career even as he had to take menial jobs to support himself during dry years until Big Star's slow-building cult status reached a point that fan demand supported a reunion in the 1990s. Hummel, on the other hand, never looked back on his decision to leave the band in 1974 for the stability of an engineering career at Fort Worth's Lockheed Martin facility, which eventually led him to settle down in Weatherford. By the time of the Big Star reunion, he was so entrenched in his career that he passed on the opportunity to rejoin Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens.
Just as Hummel's choice was vastly different from that of his bandmate, so was his stable lifestyle as a manager for a corporation making aircraft and weaponry for the military a stark contrast to the nomadic subsistence-level touring life of so many of the '80s underground, '90s alternative and current-day indie musicians claiming Big Star's power-pop as a chief influence.
Hummel was profiled in a November 12, 2009, Dallas Observer article ("Former Big Star Bassist Andy Hummel Doesn't Regret Leaving America's Most Influential Cult Band...") after the release of the comprehensive Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky. It was clear he was proud of his days in Big Star. Yet, while he continued to play on the side, music took a backseat to family and career. He didn't pursue opportunities to play live or record until the last five years or so, when he began playing with an informal band of work and neighborhood friends. Songs played by the band—which never settled on a permanent name, as Hummel hated the original moniker, Rocket 211—ranged from classic rock covers to Scissor Sisters covers to originals written by Hummel's friend and Lockheed Martin coworker Mike Terry. Hummel had wide-ranging tastes, enjoying everything from Red Dirt country to loud rock 'n' roll, Terry says. One of his favorite groups was a band that has long championed the influence of Big Star: R.E.M.
"It's just kind of fun, a way to keep your chops up and get the opportunity to play with other people," Hummel said at the time of the profile. One of Hummel's sons, Drew, played drums with the group for a time.
But while the band (which also included Susie Kreipe, Jeff Carr and Mike Pritchard) was just for kicks, Terry says Hummel took his playing seriously—whether on bass, keyboards, mandolin or his instrument of choice, finger-picked acoustic guitar—and brought his technical command to the studio.
"We did some recreational recording both at Roughwood Studios [in Weatherford] and at my home studio, and Andy displayed the considerable skills, attention to detail, perfectionism and engineering background that he developed when recording and helping produce the Big Star records," Terry says. "He understood what frequencies would punch up the drums or bring out the top end of an acoustic guitar in a mix."
Among the songs the band covered were Big Star's "In The Street" and "September Gurls," the latter of which Hummel believed to be one of the best pop songs ever written.
"To me, it's just a phenomenally good pop song," he said during our interview. "If you listen to all the old original Big Star stuff, it's just the one that really reaches out and grabs you. At least it does me...It's just so melodic and full of all that teen angst and all the things Alex was doing in those days...That may have been his best."
John Fry, a longtime friend and founder of Memphis' Ardent Studios, where Big Star recorded, shared memories of both Hummel and one of the most influential yet unheard power-pop bands in the world.
Fry says Hummel didn't tell him about his condition until last fall, and continued to work between radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
"That was Andy," Fry says. "He didn't want to worry people with his problems. Shortly after the Big Star box set came out, he just sort of blurted it out in an e-mail."
As sorry as Fry was to hear of the death, he said he is glad Hummel had the chance to perform one final time with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens at South By Southwest in March, after Chilton's death days earlier turned a South By Southwest panel discussion and subsequent performance—it would have been the first reunion by the three surviving founding members of Big Star since the band's initial breakup (Chris Bell died in 1978)—into an impromptu memorial. Hummel was too ill to perform at a follow-up memorial show in Memphis, where Stephens was presented with an inscribed "Brass Note" for the Beale Street Walk of Fame.
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"I'm terribly glad he got to live long enough to see his granddaughter and the box set and see one more chapter in this very unlikely story of 40 years of people discovering this music that he had a big hand in making," Fry says. "Andy was just a beautiful guy."
Fry and Terry both marvel over how Big Star's popularity built so slowly over the decades. Fry laughs about how people from Memphis University School (the private high school he, Hummel and Bell attended) were appalled by Fry's own decision to forego a conventional career path for a life in the music industry. Today, however, the school boasts Big Star memorabilia—and a music curriculum with facilities that include a recording studio. Yet Fry doesn't begrudge Hummel's choice to make music his hobby rather than his life.
Terry points out that at the time Hummel left the band, "there was nothing to walk away from." Hummel thought he was simply leaving behind a band that basically went nowhere to go on to college and career life—just as so many thousands of other musicians have done since before rock 'n' roll even existed. And it's clear he, too, believes Hummel made the right choice. Not just because Hummel was satisfied with his career at Lockheed—which included overseeing important design changes to the F-22 and F-16 jets—but because he was content with his musical accomplishments.
"Although he did not talk about it a lot, I know he had the peace of mind that comes from creating some timeless music that touched and inspired literally thousands of people over decades," Terry said. "That is an amazing legacy for a musician."