Box Tops

Box Tops

The Box Tops were a Memphis pop music group of the late 1960s. They are best known for the hits "The Letter," "Soul Deep" and "Cry Like A Baby," 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 and Bobby Purify and Clifford Curry, pop tunes such as "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Keith Reid and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, and songs written by their producers, Dan Penn 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 are considered minor classics; these include "Neon Rainbow," "Sweet Cream Ladies," and "I Met Her in Church." 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."

Early group history

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". By January 1967 the group was composed of founding member Danny Smythe (drums) (b.25 Aug 1948, Memphis, Tennessee), along with newer arrivals John Evans (guitar, keyboards, background vocals) (b.18 Jun 1948, Memphis, last seen 2000), Chilton (lead vocal, guitar)(b.28 Dec 1950, Memphis), Bill Cunningham (bass guitar, keyboards, background vocal) (b.23 Jan 1950, Memphis), and Gary Talley (lead guitar, electric sitar, bass, background vocal) (b.17 Aug 1947, Memphis). They were soon renamed a final time. They changed their name to "Box Tops" to prevent confusion with another band recording at the time with the name "The Devilles".

As the Box Tops, they recorded Wayne Carson Thompson's "The Letter." Though under two minutes in length, it was an international hit in late 1967, reaching Billboard's number-one position and remaining there for over a month. The record, produced by Dan Penn, sold over four million copies and received two Grammy awards nominations. Their single "Cry Like a Baby" was a major hit in 1968, peaking at number two on Billboard, and has been covered by such artists as the Hacienda Brothers and Kim Carnes. The album of the same name contained a song written by Spooner Oldham and Penn, "Fields of Clover." Some of their recordings' instrumental tracks were performed by session musicians like Reggie Young, Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chrisman, and Bobby Womack at Moman's American Sound Studio, and by future Chilton producer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios, although the actual group members performed on a number of the recordings, including their first hit, "The Letter," and on all live performances.

By January 1968, John Evans and Danny Smythe returned to school and were replaced by Rick Allen (b.28 Jan 1946, Little Rock, Arkansas) (from The Gentrys) and Thomas Boggs (b.16 Jul 1947, Wynn, Arkansas, d. 5 May 2008, Memphis, Tennessee.) (from the Board of Directors). The band recorded seven more singles, including the Moman-produced "Soul Deep," which was the group's final Top 40 entry. Bill Cunningham left to return to school in August 1969 and was replaced by Harold Cloud. But eventually, the group's tolerance for the disrespect and fleecing they had endured as teen musicians from managers, lawyers, and promoters they had made rich came to an end. According to a 2004 article in "" 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.

Later work

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 sessions guitarist and songwriter in Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville. Artists and producers he has worked with have ranged from 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 (son of Sun Records artist Buddy Blake Cunningham and brother of B.B. Cunningham Jr., lead vocalist for 1960s Memphis group The Hombres, of "Let it All Hang Out" Top 40 hit fame) 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) & Gene Houston(drums). At this show the group was also augmented by back up singers Tracy Nelson, Jonell Mosser, Kim Morrison and a full horn section. Cunningham next organized a reunion of all the band's original members, including Chilton, in 1996. Since then the group has released an album they produced themselves of new material recorded at Easley McCain Recording, "Tear Off!", and has 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's cover of "Trip to Bandstand," his 1959 Memphis novelty single. The album also featured horn arrangements and performances by The Memphis Horns, who have since appeared in some of the group's live concerts. By 2000, John Evans was no longer in the band, and has not been seen since. As of 2008, it is not known whether or not he is still alive.

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.

Band member history

Selected discography


Charted hits shown in bold.


*"The Letter/Neon Rainbow" (November, 1967) - US #82
*"Cry Like a Baby" (April, 1968) - US #59
*"Non-Stop" (July, 1968)
*"Super Hits" (December, 1968) - US #45
*"Dimensions" (September, 1969) - US #77
*"The Box Tops Greatest Hits" (1982)
*"The Ultimate Box Tops" (1987)
*"The Best of the Box Tops — Soul Deep" (1996)
*"Tear Off!" (1998)
*"When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You'd Hear" (various artists compilation, 2001)


* [ "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 0671785311 (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."] "". Accessed June 16, 2005.
* Whitburn, Joel (1983). "The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits". New York: Billboard Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-8230-7511-7.

External links

* [ Official band site, discography, and tour dates]
* [ Box Tops page at Last Call Records]
* [ Box Tops catalogue entry at Last Call Records]
* [ Classic Bands]

ound samples

* [ "Soul Deep" clips at Puremusic Audio Clips 20]
* [ "Tear Off!" clips at]
* [ "When Pigs Fly" artist profiles and sound clips; includes one Box Tops sound clip]


* [ PUNKCAST#76] live @ World Trade Center Plaza NYC - July 17, 2001. (RealPlayer)

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