The Box Tops – “The Letter”


 Who are the Box Tops?

The Box Tops were a rock group, hailing from Memphis, Tennessee. Their first single was “The Letter,” which topped the Hot 100 in 1967, making the Box Tops international teen stars. Their second Top 10 hit, “Cry Like A Baby” came in 1968 and went on to become one of the band’s classic hits. They also had minor hits that also became classics such as “Neon Rainbow,” “I Met Her In Church,” “Choo Choo Train,” “Sweet Cream Ladies,” and “Forward March.”

Some of the group members left to continue school (therefore avoiding the draft), and replaced by other musicians; besides, the disrespect and fraud that this youthful group had endured from managers, promoters and lawyers were too much for them, and so the remaining members decided to disband the group and move on. They reunited in the late 80s despite having the members’ own careers, performing at a concert in Nashville, releasing an album of new material Tear Off!, and several other projects and collaborations and a series of sold-out concerts in Germany during the 2000’s. Alex Chilton, who had since become a respected cult music figure, passed away in 2010.

How the Box Tops got together…

One of the blue-eyed soul bands to emerge in the 1960s, The Box Tops gained prominence through their hits “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby.” They were formed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1963.

They were once known as mainly the Devilles, who won a local “battle of the bands” competition in Memphis. As the group’s lineup changed, so did the band name. They later changed back to the Devilles and finally to the Box Tops to avoid confusion with another band who had the same name. The final lineup just before the Box Tops reached their first taste of success: founding member Danny Smythe, guitarist/keyboardist John Evans, lead vocalist/guitarist Alex Chilton, bassist and keyboardist Bill Cunningham, multi-instrumentalist Gary Talley and drummer Larry Spillman.

Chilton was often compared to Stevie Winwood of another blue-eyed soul combo the Spencer Davis Group, not only because of their youthfulness (Chilton was also in his teens when he joined the band), but also on the account of their similar singing style — the gritty old Memphis vocal soul that sounded wise beyond their years.

Chilton and the Box Tops were exactly what songwriters/producers Chips Moman and Dan Penn were looking for, as they had been in a long search for a Winwood type of white blues/soul singer.

First big hits with “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby”

The Box Tops signed to Bell Records and recorded at Moman’s own studio in Memphis. The result of these sessions brought them their first single “The Letter,” written by Wayne Carson Thompson. It was released on Bell’s subsidiary label Mala.

“The Letter” went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967. It also went to #30 on the R&B singles chart and #5 on the UK singles chart that same year. Another, it earned a distinction as the first #1 hit to have been recorded in Memphis — this includes all the previous records by other Memphis-based labels such as Sun, Stax and Hi-fi Records, up until this time.

With a hit now, Penn began to exercise more control on the youthful group. He wrote (along with Spooner Oldham) another Top 10 hit for the Box Tops, “Cry Like a Baby” which went to #2 on the pop charts in 1968. Penn and Oldham also wrote “I Met Her in Church,” a lesser hit for the band (at #37 in 1968)

The band’s problems with the producer, and disintegration

The Box Tops also had earlier had another Top 40 hit with “Neon Rainbow” in late 1967 (#24 pop). Largely becasue of the success of these singles, the Box Tops rose to become teen idols for a time.

Penn began using session musicians frequently in the studio, sometimes replacing the entire group for the exception, of course, of Chilton. In frustration, the Box Top members began to leave one by one. Some of the group members left early to continue school (therefore avoiding the draft), and were replaced by other musicians.

Chilton too, was beginning to feel frustration with the inconsistency of the material that his band was being handed to. Besides, as they were still young, they were taken advantage by unscrupulous managers, promoters and subsequently their lawyers. The band members felt they were having too much of that deceitfulness.

After the release of the group’s fourth LP Dimensions (1969) Penn was out. Most of the original Box Tops members were out too, and the band had begun to disintegrate. By early 1970 the two remaining original members Talley and Chilton, were ready to move on. Despite this, Bell Records kept on issuing Box Tops material until 1971, including their last charting single in the US, “You Keep Tigthening Up on Me” which was a minor hit.

Alex Chilton’s career after the breakup, and the Box Tops’ reunion

After the Box Tops, in 1971 Chilton formed a new group, the power pop band Big Star, along with his good friend Chris Bell. Big Star may not have achieved the level of commercial success the Box Tops had. But Big Star launched Chilton into one of the most respected figures in the world of underground/alternative/indie rock.

Despite the individual members having their own careers, the Box Tops reunited in the 1980s, and since then they had been performing in the US and abroad. They released a self-produced album Tear Off! in 1998, and in 2001 the Box Tops contributed to a compilation album When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You’d Hear. Chilton, aged 59, died of a heart attack in New Orleans, Louisiana in March 2010.

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