The Box Tops were a Memphis rock group from the 1960s. They are best known for the hits "The Letter", "Cry Like a Baby", and "Soul Deep" and are considered a major blue-eyed soul group of the period. They performed a mixture of current soul music songs by artists such as James & Bobby Purify and Clifford Curry, pop tunes such as "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Keith Reid, Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher of Procol Harum, and songs written by their producers, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, and Chips Moman. Vocalist Alex Chilton went on to front the powerpop band Big Star and to launch a career as a solo artist, during which he occasionally performed songs he had sung with the Box Tops.
The Box Tops' music combined elements of soul music and light pop. Their records are prime examples of the styles made popular by Moman and Penn at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Many of their lesser known Top 40 hits, including "Neon Rainbow", "I Met Her in Church", and "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March", are considered minor classics. As rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in a review of the group's Super Hits album, "A song like 'Soul Deep' is obvious enough, a patented commercial sound, yet within these strictures it communicates with a depth and sincerity of feeling that holds the attention and brings you back often."
Foundation and early years as "The Devilles" (1963-67):
The Box Tops began as "The Devilles", who had started playing in Memphis in 1963. As the band's personnel changed from time to time, so did the band name on occasion, which at one point became "Ronnie and the Devilles" and then later changed back to "the Devilles".
The Devilles leaped to further local prominence when they won a weekly "Battle of the Bands" contest at Memphis's T. Walker Lewis YMCA, finally beating Bobby and the Originals, who had won the previous nineteen weeks. One member of the Originals was Terry Manning, who would later serve as engineer for some Box Tops recordings.
By January 1967 the group was composed of founding member Danny Smythe, along with newer arrivals John Evans (guitar, keyboards, background vocals), Alex Chilton (lead vocal, guitar), Bill Cunningham (bass guitar, keyboards, background vocal; son of Sun Records artist Buddy Blake Cunningham and brother of B.B. Cunningham Jr., lead vocalist for 1960s Memphis group The Hombres), Gary Talley (lead guitar, electric sitar, bass, background vocal), and Larry Spillman (drums). They would soon change their name to "Box Tops" to prevent confusion with another band recording at the time with the name "The Devilles".
"The Letter" and international success (1967-68):
As the Box Tops, they entered the studio under the guidance of producer Dan Penn to record Wayne Carson Thompson's song "The Letter." Though under two minutes in length, it was an international hit in mid-1967, reaching Billboard's number-one position and remaining there for four weeks. The record, produced by Dan Penn, sold over four million copies and received two Grammy Award nominations and was awarded a gold disc. On 20-27 October 1967 "The Letter" and The Hombres' "Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)" were 1-2 on the WLS Silver Dollar Survey, marking a rare quinella involving two brothers of the same family (the aforementioned Cunningham brothers), each in a different top 40 act.
The band followed up "The Letter" with "Neon Rainbow", another tune penned by Thompson and produced by Penn. An album called The Letter/Neon Rainbow appeared in November, 1967. The Box Tops would actually release three albums over a nine-month period from late 1967 to mid-1968. Since at least one of the original members, Larry Spillman, left the band prior to the recording sessions to accept a college baseball scholarship, some of the group's instrumental tracks were performed by session musicians like Reggie Young, Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chrisman, and Bobby Womack at American Sound Studio, and by future Chilton producer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios. However, the actual group members performed on a number of their recordings, including "The Letter," and on all live performances.
By January 1968, John Evans and Danny Smythe returned to school, thereby avoiding the draft. They were replaced by bassist Rick Allen (born January 28, 1946, Little Rock, Arkansas) (from the Gentrys) and drummer Thomas Boggs (born July 16, 1947, Wynne, Arkansas, died May 5, 2008, Memphis, Tennessee) (from the Board of Directors).
"Cry Like a Baby" was a million-seller in 1968, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100. It has been covered by the Hacienda Brothers and Kim Carnes. "I Met Her In Church" and "Choo-Choo Train" were smaller hits released later that year. Towards the end of 1968, the band switched producers, with Dan Penn being replaced by the team of Cogbill and Chips Moman. This team was responsible for producing the band's final 1968 hit "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" (which debuted on the Hot 100 on Chilton's eighteenth birthday) and all the band's future releases through 1971.
Personnel changes and winding down (1969-70):
In the summer of 1969, Thompson's decidedly upbeat "Soul Deep" became the group's final US Top 40 entry, peaking at #3 on KHJ on 30 July and on WLS on 18-25 August and #18 on the Hot 100 in late August. "Soul Deep" was also part of the title of the group's 1996 anthology. The follow-up single, "Turn On A Dream", peaked only at #58 on the Hot 100 and was a #29 hit in Canada.
Cunningham left the Box Tops to return to school in August 1969 and was replaced by Harold Cloud on bass. Eventually the group's tolerance for the disrespect and fleecing they had endured as teen musicians from managers, lawyers, and promoters came to an end. According to a 2004 article in Puremusic.com by Talley, a December 1969 British tour was cancelled by the band after arriving in London to discover that instead of respecting the rider agreement, the local promoter insisted they play the tour with the opening reggae act's toy drums, public address system amplifiers (instead of proper guitar amplifiers), and a keyboard with a broken speaker.
Finally, in February 1970, the remaining founding members, Talley and Chilton, were ready to move on and disbanded the group. However, the Bell record label kept releasing new Box Tops singles through early 1971, using material that had already been recorded by Chilton and company. During this time, an entirely new group was formed with other well known musicians from the Memphis area. Chilton was replaced by Ron Jordan of Ronnie and the Devilles, Ronnie Hodges was hired as lead guitar and vocals, Joe Savage became the bass player as well as back up vocalist, Tom Rigsby (The Next of Kin, Ardent Studios, Sun Studios and American Studios) took over drums and more back up vocals. In February of 1971, this new group recorded "You Keep Tightening Up On Me" at Sun Studios and managed to get onto the Hot 100. It was a slightly bigger hit in Canada. This combination of players stayed together through early 1973. Two further Box Tops singles failed to chart nationally in either the US or Canada, although the original band's final single "King's Highway" (another Wayne Carson Thompson-penned track) was a regional hit in Dallas in the spring of 1971.
"The Box Tops" brand name continues (1972-74):
The Box Tops name (which was under the control of a management company) still had a certain amount of cachet and sales potential in the early 1970s - so, lacking original band members, beginning in 1972 new studio groups were assembled to record new Box Tops material in Memphis.
JJ Breeze was the stage name of one of the singers who toured with various versions of the group in the 1970s and later in the early 1990s when he billed the show as "JJ Breeze and the Boxtops" so that there would not be any confusion as to Alex Chilton's original Boxtops group. It is known that these later Box Tops records used some of the same production personnel that had produced and played on the group's earlier recordings. Willie Mitchell's Hi Records released two singles credited to the Box Tops, one in 1972 ("Sugar Creek Woman") and one in 1973 ("Hold On Girl"). In 1974, Tommy Cogbill co-produced one final single credited to the group, "Willobee and Dale", which appeared on the Stax label. None of these singles charted, or received much airplay, and the Box Tops name was retired.
Post-Box Tops careers:
Each of the original members went on to work in the music industry in subsequent years after leaving the Box Tops. Chilton's career path included work performing with Big Star, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, and his solo trio, as well as briefly producing groups like The Cramps. Guitarist Talley went on to work in a variety of styles as a session guitarist and songwriter in Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville. Artists and producers he has worked with have ranged from Billy Preston, Hank Ballard, Chips Moman, Billy Lee Riley, Billy Joe Royal, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Nelson, Willie Nelson, and Tammy Wynette to Sam and Dave's Sam Moore, and others. Bassist Cunningham won a spot in the White House orchestra in Washington, D.C., after completing his master's degree in music. During his classical music career, he played with some of the world's best performers; at Cunningham's last public classical music performance, for instance, he performed at the White House with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. In the 1980s, he earned an MBA and changed careers. Evans played occasionally in Memphis groups after the Box Tops, while working as a luthier, eventually switching to a computer network administrator career. Smythe performed in Memphis soul and blues groups in the 1970s, later changing to a career in art by the 1980s, but returned to music performance in the 1990s.
There was a brief Box Tops reunion for a concert in Nashville, Tennessee, at a venue called Ace of Clubs in 1989. The lineup for this show comprised Chilton, Evans, Talley, Harold Cloud (bass), and Gene Houston (drums). At this show the group was also augmented by backup singers Tracy Nelson, Jonell Mosser, and Kim Morrison and a full horn section.
Cunningham next organized a reunion of all the band's original members, including Chilton, in 1996. The group subsequently released a self-produced album of new material recorded at Easley McCain Recording, Tear Off!, and resumed performing concerts internationally. The Tear Off! album included a new original by guitarist Talley ("Last Laugh"), a cover of Bobby Womack's "I'm in Love," a cover of Eddie Floyd's "Big Bird" (often covered in solo concerts since the 1980s by Chilton), a cover of The Gentrys' "Keep on Dancing," and a new recording of "The Letter." Other songs on the album reflected the band members' varied soul, novelty, rock-and-roll, and country music influences. B.B. Cunningham Jr. played a guitar on the album version of "Trip to Bandstand," his 1959 Memphis novelty single. The album also featured horn arrangements and performances by The Memphis Horns, who subsequently participated in some of the group's concerts. By 2000, John Evans was no longer in the band and was replaced by Nashville session man Barry Walsh. John is employed by the University of Memphis.
In 2001 the group contributed a Blondie cover tune to a droll various artists collection of "songs you never thought you'd hear" called When Pigs Fly. Other representative selections on the album, whose organizer matched artists of one period with wittily chosen songs of a different period, included Don Ho's treatment of Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey," Herman's Hermits' performance of Billy Idol's "White Wedding," and a Jackie Chan-Ani Difranco duet of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable."
Sold-out Box Tops concerts in Germany in 2003 were aired on German radio, and the group's 2005 tour schedule showed a number of American dates planned despite the group members' busy careers outside the band. The Box Tops did their last Memphis concert on May 29, 2009, at The Memphis Italian Festival.
On March 17, 2010, lead vocalist Alex Chilton died of a heart attack.
Band member history:
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license