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
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, Rovi