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Beautiful Sounds and Memphis Blues

CHAPTER FOUR: Delusion and Dissolution...

"We made the decision that those four guys (Bell, Chilton, Stephens and Andy Hummel) would be Big Star," Manning disclosed, "would be shown as the name, would be shown as the pictures even though, yes, I played a bunch of keyboards, Tom Eubanks played some bass and by the second album, Richard Rosebrough played some drums and percussion. It was a conscious decision at that time." In other words, there was more there than what was advertised, but it was okay. It was their record.
The perception today was that the pop scene in Memphis was a cohesive movement, but interaction was limited according to the people within and attached to Cargoe.
Jim Peters remembers Chilton and the members of Big Star hovering on the fringe. "Chilton had, at the time, really lost interest in The Box Tops and he began playing with this new little band no one thought much about which eventually became Big Star. Because Cargoe had gone into Ardent, Alex was aware of them, and because of personal connections starting to develop with people back in Tulsa (Fry and Chilton had taken to visiting Tulsa, looking for new bands to record, and Chilton became enamored of a beauty who had once seriously dated Tim Benton), became fascinated with the music Cargoe was making. And that's partially how Big Star found its sound.
"They were at first an almost nebulous band. They really didn't know which direction to go. Alex was still singing with that big throaty voice he'd had with The Box Tops. By the time they had finished listening to Cargoe recordings over the course of several sessions, both at home and at Ardent Studios, Alex was singing in more of a Beatle-esque style."
As for a relationship among the members of the two bands, none really developed. "We really didn't talk a lot with Big Star," Wisley related. "At least, I didn't. They kind of came off like snotty rich kids, like they were better than everybody. They'd just come in and do their studio thing. I only saw Alex once in awhile. I'd hear weird stories about how somebody would be recording in one of the studios and get everything set just right and then Alex would come in at night and change all the mixing settings. They'd come in the next morning and find he'd changed everything on the board."

Cargoe and #1 Record were ready to go at about the same time. The artwork was exceptional and tasteful and ad campaigns were readied. But behind the scenes, decisions had been and were being made which precluded any real success. But Cargoe and Big Star, anxious to bust out of the gate, neither knew nor cared. They just wanted to play.

Cargoe promo ad

"We get back to Memphis from Seattle and everybody started going, you know, if this is what being a successful rock star is, I don't want to be it."
-- BILL PHILLIPS, keyboards, Cargoe

Like the calm before the storm, the release of the album provided the band with their finest moments. It also provided the worst.
Terry Manning and John Fry, aware that they were rowing against the current, decided that a showcase tour was in order, and where better to do it than the West Coast. A short, intense link of gigs was set up and Manning and the band headed for Los Angeles.
"We flew into L.A.," said Wisley, "and we went and stayed, where else? Chateau Marmont. That's the place John Belushi died. That's where all of the rock stars used to stay. We get there and there was this piano down below, so we were playing the piano in the lobby, singing some of our own tunes like we owned the place. It was really comfortable.
"We rehearsed at Studio Instrument Rentals, in the same room that the Stones were in a few weeks earlier. We had a couple of tunes we did from the Flo and Eddie period of Zappa and they happened to be in another room there. We were big Zappa fans. BIG. We did a couple of Zappa songs and they were standing outside, listening. They told us later that they thought it was great, that they thought we were awesome.
"We were in town the same week as Led Zeppelin. Terry got us tickets to the show through his friend, Jimmy Page. We didn't meet them or anything, but it was a great show just the same."
"We were pushing it hard," said Manning. "When we took the band to Los Angeles, they went on KHJ-TV, one of the biggest stations there, before potentially millions of people. We played the music video we had made on them at that station." It would be one of the very few stations which would air it.
The video was almost an afterthought to most people. MTV was a few years distant and getting airplay for such things was next to impossible. Still, Manning and Fry had decided that the effort might pay off and pieced together a video segment to complement Feel Alright.
"I think the video was taped outside as they were building the new Ardent studios on Madison," Wisley recalled. "We were set up in the parking lot while they were building that."

The band did play The Whiskey, but the memories were distant. The only thing that sticks out after all these years is that the managers kept telling them to turn it down. A few years later, they would be telling the same thing to Van Halen.
The next stop was San Francisco, where they played the grand opening of the new downtown Tower Records store. A few radio interviews later and it was off to Seattle.
"Somewhere in there," mused Wisley, "somewhere between the cities, we were in Houston to play The Real Don Steele Show on TV. I thought this was so cool. We took a premixed tape of the instruments without the vocals and we sang the song live. It was Feel Alright, but just the backing track. I remember seeing a video of it afterwards and thinking, this is awesome. Great camera angles and all that stuff.
"Our record also was on American Bandstand," he added. "On Rate-a-Record. They played Feel Alright against who knows what and we won. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember that when they asked the kid why he liked it, he said 'it's got a good beat.' It was so classic. I've never been able to find any reference to that, even on the Internet, but I saw it."
"By the time we got to Seattle," Phillips said, "the bottom had dropped out of everything, but we didn't know it at the time. Everybody was pretty much still giving us the star treatment, but basically we're just another garage band that ended up in Seattle, at that point, with no backing or anything except we've got this album, and we've got these pretty cool songs, and we've got this single that almost did something in several cities, but it's going down the charts now, because it can't go up the charts if you don't have any records to buy."
"We were really feeling the emotion," added Wisley. Here we were in Seattle at the Ace Motel, which was all these little bungalows that were like ten bucks a night. I mean, it was really crappy. We'd gone from the Chateau Marmont in L.A. to this really cheesy motel in Seattle almost overnight. And Tim some way had found out -- this was when we were way into Captain Beefheart and Zappa -- that Jimmy Carl Black (who had been playing with Zappa) had said that this was what is was really like on the road. This was what the music business was really like. I think Tim was already getting jaded.
"So we played this outside drive-in theater in Seattle that was set up for a weekend fest. I remember this local band, two girls frontlining and one was doing these wild kicks and stuff and I was going, wow, this is too hot! We left Seattle and not too long after, there was this Dreamboat Annie album."

"What this whole thing was leading up to, when we got back to Memphis from Seattle," according to Phillips, "was the beginning of the end. Everybody going, you know, we have an album out. We had a single out and it's falling down the charts. What's going on here? I thought we had people behind us. And this is the place where I know John and Terry didn't know what the hell to say to us."
Cargoe struggled to stay together, in spite of the obvious troubles at Ardent and their own troubles within the band. Everyone tried to put a good face on, but the pressure on the four very different personalities created ever-widening cracks in the makeup of the group.
Finally, it became too much and Benton said he was leaving. They had a scheduled gig playing second on the bill to Poco at The Shell in Overton Park on Halloween night of 1972. It would be the last time they would all play together.
On stage, it was intense. "I thought, well, this is the last time we're going to play this together," lamented Wisley, "and it was really sad. I actually remember crying in the middle of some of the songs, thinking, this is it. I mean, we were so good. It was really hard for me."
"We came on the scene at a time when sincerity in music, rock anyway, was fading," Tim Benton wrote a few years after the breakup. "We had hopes of being a very positive element, but I was really becoming disillusioned with the rock scene. 
"The band split for several reasons. I think the biggest was our disappointment over how things were working out. There were increasing conflicts within the band and I decided that my girl, who had been pressuring me to quit, was right, so I was the first to quit. A month later, Tommy quit and two months after that, they quit trying replacements and broke up."
"It was the domino effect," admitted Phillips. "Tim started thinking that way and Tom's saying I don't want to be in this band unless Tim's here."
Wisley took it from there. "After Tim and Tommy left, Bill and I tried to do a few things, but here we were, trying to hold together the first Cargoe album with two guys who were okay studio musicians, but we had lost the soul that was there. With them, the songs were flat. They had no dimension to them.

"We had a rehearsal studio. We would go there every day for hours and work up tunes. The guitar player was a really eclectic John McLaughlin kind of guitarist and the drummer was ..."
"...a rhythm and blues kind of guy," Phillips interposed.
"I mean, it worked," Wisley said, "but it wasn't the magic. In my mind, we were at the point where we sit back and punt and get new jobs and try to write songs and start it all over again. Or, I just split and go back to Tulsa, get a real job and take it from there. And for whatever reasons, that's just what I did. We were broke, poor, no job. I said I can't do this anymore. That's when I split and left Bill hanging by himself."
"And I said, I'm going to stay in Memphis and be a musician, regardless," Phillips said, "and that's when I really learned about the glamour of the business, because I started hooking up with bands that were real inferior to what Cargoe was, just to make a living. And I was going, man, these idiots are out here playing music -- at least, they think it's music.... It was kind of demeaning. Those were some pretty dark days for me."
Benton, meanwhile, had hooked up with the Memphis Symphony. "I didn't take lessons seriously until I began taking them from the teacher at Memphis State, Terry Hulick, in 1971. He was an orchestral player (tympani) and didn't play a drum set, but he played all of the orchestral percussion instruments. He got me into legit music. Eventually, I became good enough to join the Memphis Symphony for one season. I still played the drum set, mainly with records, but I didn't play with anyone else for a little over a year. The girl I was living with didn't want me to. She was having a lot of problems and in '73, was involved in this intense situation and there were threats and we split Memphis real fast and moved back to Tulsa. 
"There, I worked in jobs which were time-consuming and very exhausting, so I had no time or energy to play and I started freaking out. I realized that I needed to play drums more than anything, so I worked part-time and played.
"When my girlfriend and I split up, I ran into another girl who was a junkie and she turned me on. I was playing in a group called Jazzoo at the time and I was really enjoying life, for a change, but I was getting pressure from my dad to go back to school. I opted for North Texas State in Denton because it was considered the best jazz school that wasn't a conservatory.

"When I moved to Denton, I quit the drugs. I practiced on the drum set four hours a day and was very depressed for about three months, but everything finally came together." 
At the time the letter was written, Benton was still in Texas, married to a wife supportive of his music and playing in a jazz group.
Wisley, of course, returned to Tulsa, got a job at a computer company of some sort, and married his childhood sweetheart.
Phillips spent stints with a number of bands, most notably variations of the Hot Dogs, and eventually worked his way back to Tulsa where he was reacquainted with Wisley.
"When I got back to Tulsa," Wisley said, "Bill and I got together in a very fateful way. I hadn't been playing music except on my acoustic guitar in my bedroom and Pam, my wife, hadn't really followed music except a little with her kids. Well, one day she said 'why don't you get with Bill?' I said, 'he's always got an unlisted number and I could never find him.' One day, Pam and I were at an antique mall and they were closing up and somebody says, 'Hey, Max.' I look up and it's Robby, Bill's brother. Well,  he gave me Bill's phone number and I called and here we are, four years later."
Those four years have been filled with music and collaborations with old and new friends. Phillips and Wisley tied up with an old friend, Peter Mayo, in an effort now called The Brady Orchestra. Mayo owns the Brady Theater with his brother and has pieced together a band which changes to fit their needs.

CHAPTER ONE: Living On Tulsa Time...
CHAPTER TWO: Into the Mystic...
CHAPTER THREE: The Things We Dream Today...
CHAPTER FIVE: The Painful Look Back...
CHAPTER SIX: Such Is the Power of Music...

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