The Box Tops - Biography

By NIck Castro


The Box Tops were one of the most successful American blue-eyed soul groups of the 60's. With hit songs like "The Letter", which as become an oldies station classic, the group have earned themselves a place in rock history alongside other groups of the time, like the Bee Gees and Spencer Davis Group. the band also spawned the talents of singer Alex Chilton, later of the band Big Star. The band hailed from Memphis, Tennessee, the hotbed of soul and r&b music. It is well known now that the band's recorded material was mainly comprised of session musicians from the American Sound Studio in Memphis, but regardless of this common practice, the records live on as testaments to the genre.


In the early days, in Memphis,  The Box Tops, began as a group called the Devilles, in a lineup that did not yet include Chilton. It was comprised of members Gary Talley and John Evans on guitars, Bill Cunningham on bass and Danny Smythe on drums. Soon though, Chilton joined the ranks and began singing for the band. They became extremely popular in their hometown and were spotted by producers Dan Penn and Chips Moman, who were seeking out a group just like  the Devilles. The band signed with Bell Records but were forced to change their name, once they realized that another group had already recorded with their name. The assumed the name, The Box Tops, and recorded the song, "The Letter" and it quickly went to number one. The band was an instant success and they sold millions of copies of the single. It is also one of the shortest pop songs, coming in at under two minutes, yet manages to fit in all of the parts needed for a success.


The Box Tops released their debut album in 1967. The Letter/Neon Rainbow (1967 - Bell), which was recorded by famous session players, such as soul singer and guitarist Bobby Womack and Reggie Young, later of Earth, Wind, and Fire. The album also produced their second hit single, "Neon Rainbow", which although a lesser hit, did help to maintain the popularity that the band had already gained for "The Letter". Their third single though, "Cry Like a Baby", went to number two and it seemed that the group were destined to be the next superstars in America. Their album Cry Like a Baby (1968 - Bell), only had the one hit song, but the record did well regardless of this limitation. Surely people were dazzled by Chilton's commanding and powerful vocal style. Although the group was mainly a soul and r&b one, they did begin have hints of straight rock and roll. There were some excellent songs on the album, such as "You Keep Me Hanging On" and "I'm the One For You". It was after this record that the group lost two of its members and they were forced to quickly find replacements. They did, with Tom Boggs on drums and Rick Allen on guitar. It has been rumored that Evans and Smythe left the group to return to college in order to dodge the draft.


The next record for The Box Tops was Non Stop (1968 - Bell), which some minor hits with songs like the album's opener "Choo Choo Train". They released a followup single called "I Met Her In Church", which was later released as a bonus track on the Sundazed reissue of the album. Up until the period of this album's release, the record label and producers had been making many of the creative decision on behalf of the band but Chilton was growing weary of this dynamic and was eager to perform and record some of his own compositions. When producer Penn left the project, it freed up Chilton to take the reigns. The single Chilton composition from the record, "I Can Dig It", is one of the record's highlights and he was able to prove himself on Non Stop as one of the premiere blue-eyed soul singers


The Box Tops released their fourth album, Dimensions (1969 - Bell), which finally contained a few Chilton compositions, like "Together", "I Must Be the Devil" and "The Happy Song". This proved to be the band's last album but also the one that showed a move towards more mature and mind expanding styles. They scored a mild hit with the song "Soul Deep", which would end up being their last and is also the album's opener. The Sundazed reissue of the album also includes some nice extra tracks, including "I See Only Sunshine", which is another forgotten gem by Chilton that, up until now, was only available in the original 45 format, and "Lay Your Sunshine On Me". The weakest point of this record is the album's closing track, "Rock Me Baby", which goes on ad nauseum reaching almost ten minutes. It is difficult to tell if the point of this song was meant to be filler or to be in competition with the extended jams of the times. Shortly after the release of this latest album, Cunningham departed from the band and Chilton was forced to find a replacement member once again. Cunningham went off to pursue a career in classical music, which he did with some notable success, and Harold Cloud was hired to play bass in his stead.


Now in the leadership position of The Box Tops, Chilton found it difficult to keep the group together and members kept falling out of the ranks. When their contract expired in 1970, Chilton was unable to find a new one. the band was no more and Chilton began his new band, Big Star. Chilton also went on to have a successful solo career and work with many younger bands, including The Cramps, whose first record was produced by Chilton.


The Box Tops did have a short lived reunion in the 90's, finding them touring and recording again. The released the album Tear Off! (1998 - Last Call). The band is also ready to embark on their 2009 tour, with many of the original members, though much Box Tops activity was haulted upon the death of Alex Chilton.

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