The Box Tops
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The Box Tops
The Box Tops in 1967 (clockwise from left): Bill Cunningham, Danny Smythe, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley, John Evans
|Also known as||The Devilles|
|Origin||Memphis, Tennessee, United States|
|Years active||1967–1970, 1996–2010, 2015–present|
|Associated acts||Big Star|
The Box Tops is an American rock band, formed in Memphis in 1967. 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 power pop 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
The Box Tops began as The Devilles, who began playing in Memphis. By January 1967 the group was composed of founding member Danny Smythe (drums, background vocal), along with newer arrivals John Evans (guitar, keyboards, background vocal), 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), and Gary Talley (lead guitar, electric sitar, bass, background vocal). They would soon change their name to The Box Tops to prevent confusion with another band recording at the time, The DeVilles of New York.
"The Letter" and international success (1967–1969)
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 by September 1967, reaching Billboard's number-one position and remaining there for four weeks. The record, produced by Dan Penn, sold over four million copies, 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 (AM) Silver Dollar Survey, marking a rare quinella involving two brothers of the same family (the Cunningham brothers), each in a different top 40 act.
The band followed up "The Letter" with "Neon Rainbow", another tune written by Thompson and produced by Penn. An album called The Letter/Neon Rainbow appeared in November 1967. The Box Tops released three albums over a nine-month period from late 1967 to mid-1968. 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. 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, 1944, 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 1970.
Personnel changes and winding down (1969–1970)
In the summer of 1969, Thompson's decidedly upbeat "Soul Deep" became the group's final US Top 40 entry, peaking at #18 on the Hot 100 in late August. The follow-up single, "Turn on a Dream", peaked 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 1970, such as "You Keep Tightening up on Me" (#92 on the Hot 100 on 21–28 March 1970), using material that had already been recorded.
Chilton activity (1976)
In 1976, Pickwick Records recorded new versions of "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby" using studio musicians, and credited them to The Box Tops, though Alex Chilton was the only group member involved. Both recordings were released in the UK on a various-artists Lp set called The Heart Breakers and Tear Jerkers Collection.
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. He recorded two albums for Appaloosa Records with the group Fish Heads & Rice, Certified in 1991, and 4 Heads in 1994. 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.
One-off & reunion (1989 & 1996–2010)
There was a one-off Box Tops charity concert in Nashville, Tennessee, at a venue called Ace of Clubs in 1989 for Harold Cloud's family member. 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"); covers of Bobby Womack's "I'm in Love", Eddie Floyd's "Big Bird" (often covered in solo concerts since the 1980s by Chilton), and 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. Evans is employed by the University of Memphis.
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.
Return of The Box Tops
In mid 2015, Bill Cunningham and Gary Talley reformed The Box Tops in response to continued requests by fans.
On July 6, 2016, Danny Smythe died aged 67.
23 September 2017 marked the 50th anniversary since "The Letter" reached #1. Cunningham, Talley, and Rick Levy joined the Happy Together Tour performing to sold out shows across the U.S., together with Flo and Eddie of The Turtles, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, The Association, The Cowsills, and Ron Dante of The Archies.
In 2018, the Box Tops were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Band member history
Return of the original lineup
|US Release Date||A-Side / B-Side
Both sides from same album except where indicated
|Label & Cat No.||Chart Positions||Album|
|Cashbox||US Hot 100||Australia||Canada||UK|
|July 1967||"The Letter"
b/w "Happy Times"
|Mala 565||#1||#1||#4||#1||#5||The Letter/Neon Rainbow|
|October 1967||"Neon Rainbow"
b/w "Everything I Am"
|Mala 580||#24||#24||#30||#17||failed to chart|
|February 1968||"Cry Like a Baby"
b/w "The Door You Closed to Me" (Non-album track)
|Mala 593||#2||#2||#46||#3||#15||Cry Like a Baby|
|May 1968||"Choo Choo Train"
b/w "Fields of Clover" (from Cry Like a Baby)
|August 1968||"I Met Her in Church"
b/w "People Gonna Talk"
|November 1968||"Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March"
b/w "I See Only Sunshine" (Non-album track)
|March 1969||"I Shall Be Released"
b/w "I Must Be the Devil"
|Mala 12038||#72||#67||Failed to chart.||#51|
|June 1969||"Soul Deep"
b/w "(The) Happy Song"
|September 1969||"Turn on a Dream"
b/w "Together" (from Dimensions)
|Mala 12042||#36||#58||Failed to chart.||#29||Non-album tracks|
|February 1970||"You Keep Tightening up on Me"
b/w "Come on Honey"
|Bell 865||#74||#92||Failed to chart.||#68|
|August 1970||"Let Me Go"
b/w "Got to Hold on to You"
|Bell 923||Failed to chart.|
|March 1971||"King's Highway"
b/w "Since I've Been Gone"
|Bell 981||Failed to chart.|
|1972||"Sugar Creek Woman"
b/w "It's All Over"
|Hi 2228||Failed to chart.|
|1973||"Hold on Girl"
|Hi 2242||Failed to chart.|
|February 1974||"Willobee and Dale"
b/w "It's Gonna Be O.K."
|Stax 0199||Failed to chart.|
Original studio albums
- The Letter/Neon Rainbow (November 1967) – US #82
- Cry Like a Baby (April 1968) – US #59
- Non-Stop (July 1968)
- Dimensions (September 1969) – US #77
- Tear Off! (1998)
- Super Hits (December 1968) – US #45
- The Box Tops' Greatest Hits (1982)
- The Ultimate Box Tops (1987)
- The Best of the Box Tops – Soul Deep (1996)
- Playlist (2013)
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- "UK Top 40 Chart Archive, British Singles & Album Charts". everyHit.com. 2000-03-16. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
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- "Box Tops Biographies." Box Tops official website. Accessed June 16, 2005.
- "Box Tops Frequently Asked Questions." Box Tops official website. Accessed June 16, 2005.
- Editors of Rolling Stone (1971). The Rolling Stone Record Review. New York: Pocket Books, pp. 425–426. ISBN 0-671-78531-1 (December 31, 1969 review by Lester Bangs of Box Tops' LPs Super Hits, Dimensions and Non-Stop.)
- "Gary Talley Discography." Gary Talley website. Accessed June 16, 2005.
- Goldfein, Josh. (September 8–14, 1999.) "Box Bottom." Village Voice.
- Gordon, Robert (1995). It Came From Memphis. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-7434-1045-9.
- Smythe, Danny and Evans, John. "Box Tops: The Devilles Story." Box Tops official website. Accessed June 16, 2005.
- Talley, Gary (March 2004). "The Box Tops – Setting the Record Straight: a Firsthand Account." Puremusic.com. Accessed June 16, 2005.
- Whitburn, Joel (1983). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. New York: Billboard Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-8230-7511-7.
- "The Box Tops Biography" IMBd. Accessed April 2, 2019.
- "The Box Tops" Rate Your Music. Accessed April 2, 2019.
- "The Box Tops" Simple Wikipedia. Accessed April 2, 2019.