The Box Tops came from Memphis with a number of top forty hits in the late 60's, including a very popular song that topped the charts for four weeks running.
Originally known as the Devilles, the group was formed in Memphis in 1963, and like many bands underwent some personnel changes. Alex Chilton (lead singer, guitar), Billy Cunningham (bass) Gary Talley (lead guitar), John Evans (keyboards) and Danny Smythe (drums) were all members of the Box Tops by 1966. (Cunningham's brother B.B. was a member of the Hombres.) They came to the attention of songwriters/record producers Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn and soon signed a recording contract wth Mala.
Their first recording was a song from an unknown (at the time) songwriter named Wayne Carson Thompson called The Letter. Featuring a lead vocal by sixteen-year-old Alex Chilton, it shot up the charts to number one in the Fall of 1967. They followed later that year with Neon Rainbow. Evans and Smythe returned to school and were replaced by Rick Allen (who had been with the Gentrys) on keyboards and Tom Boggs on drums. Harold Cloud and Swain Schaefer also spent time with the band during their run on the charts.
Their next song was Cry Like A Baby, which made it to number two. The Box Tops were drawing notice, and being compared to another pop-rock group, from New York City, the Young Rascals. Chilton's lead vocal on Cry Like A Baby gave rise to the group being known as a "blue-eyed soul" artist. The Box Tops recorded most of their songs at American Sound Studio in Memphis.
The Box Tops were releasing songs, but they increasingly included studio musicians on their recordings, although Chilton was known to definitely be included in the recording sessions. The original group remained intact and performed in all of the live shows, and on some of the recordings. Things began to change for the Box Tops. Oldham and Penn passed their production responsibilities along to Tommy Coghill and Chips Moman. Some of their songs went top forty, including Choo Choo Train, I Met Her In Church, and a popular novelty song Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March, all in 1968 or early 1969. Another recording that was reminiscent of their earlier hits, and which was written by Thompson, was Soul Deep late in 1969. It was the last top forty entry for the Box Tops, and would later be recorded by Gary U.S. Bonds. All of the hit singles from the Box Tops were issued on the Mala label.
By early 1970 lead singer Alex Chilton, still in his teens, and some of his bandmates were tiring of the grind and the hassles that come along with producing hit records. Chilton quit and the group disbanded a short time later. Chilton played the clubs in New York City for a time, then returned to Memphis in 1971 and formed a new group with his friend Chris Bell and others, calling it Big Star. Modeled to an extent after the British Invasion bands, Big Star recorded several albums and had a good sound, but sales were not what they had hoped. Bell left after the first album, and Big Star's record distributor Stax folded. The band became disillusioned and disbanded shortly before the release of its third album. Chris Bell lost his life in an automobile accident in 1978, adding to the woes.
Alex Chilton, whose voice contributed so much toward giving the Box Tops its distinctive sound, continued in the music business in various capacities for many years. He continued to record on occasion, worked sometimes with a group known as Panther Burns, and gave live performances. He also produced some records recorded by the Cramps. Most members of the Box Tops remained in the music business in one capacity or another for many years, a testimony to their excellence as musicians.
The phenomenal success of the Box Tops with two of their first three records, The Letter and Cry Like A Baby at number one and number two respectively, is a feat not achieved by many artists. The band staged a reunion in 1996 and continued to play together, recording an album and touring into the 21st century. On March 15, 2010, Alex Chilton died suddenly in New Orleans.
The Box Tops served their role well as a top-notch late sixties band in a great decade for rock music.
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