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The Box Tops

Blue-eyed soul was a mid-60s phenomenon represented by several acts around the globe. While major artists VAN MORRISON, DUSTY SPRINGFIELD and BOBBIE GENTRY spread the gospel internationally, American AM-pop groups The RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS, The RASCALS and, indeed, The BOX TOPS were central to the genre’s progress. More or less, Memphis, Tennessee’s answer to British R&B specialists the SPENCER DAVIS GROUP (i.e. singer STEVE WINWOOD was similarly-aged to the BT’s 16 year-old Alex Chilton when he sprang from the starting gates), there was therefore pointers when The BOX TOPS gate-crashed the number one spot with Wayne Carson Thompson’s fresh Southern soul classic, `The Letter’.
Working back to 1963 when The Devilles (sometimes aka Ronnie And The Devilles) were on the scene, the group’s personnel fluctuated from time to time, until a win on a local “battle of the bands” contest, prompted founding drummer Danny Smythe and others to throw away the overused moniker to become The BOX TOPS. Settling the line-up by January 1967 with background vocalists John Evans (guitar/organ), Bill Cunningham (bass/keyboards), Gary Talley (lead guitar) and the aforementioned Alex Chilton (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), the quintet were picked up by songwriters/producers Chips Moman and DAN PENN, who almost immediately signed the teenagers to Bell Records (off-shoot Mala would deliver any 45s).
Spending a month on top of the charts that summer with `The Letter’, Moman (and PENN) were of the mind that they’d do even better with session players, but when the sunshine pop of sophomore single, `Neon Rainbow’ (a gem also scribed by Thompson), stalled at #24, and a debut LP barely touched the surface of the Top 100, dissension within the ranks grew louder. However, with the young Chilton surrounded by the likes of guitarist Reggie Young, bassist Tommy Cogbill, organist Bobby Emmons and drummer Gene Christian – all uncredited on the sleeve notes of course! – the attempted cash-in of album THE LETTER/NEON RAINBOW (1967) {*6} backfired. Producer PENN was now writing with SPOONER OLDHAM (namely `I’m Your Puppet’, `Everything I Am’, `Happy Times’ and `I Pray For Rain’), while other mighty session auxiliary BOBBY WOMACK was behind `Gonna Find Somebody’ and `People Make The World’; the covers were from BACHARACH-DAVID (`Trains And Boats And Planes’), JOHN D. LOUDERMILK (`Break My Mind’) and PROCOL HARUM (`A Whiter Shade Of Pale’).
Back on the right track, and the Top 3, with Dan and Spooner’s vinyl gold `Cry Like A Baby’, the Moman-produced Top 60 album of the same name, CRY LIKE A BABY (1968) {*6}, was recorded, in effect, without both Smythe and Evans, who returned to school to avoid the dreaded draft. Their more seasoned Arkansas-born substitutes, Thomas Boggs and Rick Allen, respectively filled in on tracks that included a few cuts from MICKEY NEWBURY and a cover of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `You Keep Me Hangin’ On’.
The conveyor-belt of Top 40 singles continued with `Choo Choo Train’ and `I Met Her In Church’ (both from 1968’s NONSTOP {*5}), but it was clear that the wrapping had come loose for the once-freshly-labelled BOX TOPS; guitarist Jerry Riley duly replaced Talley, who went into session work, but returned periodically.
Despite switching producers for the team of Moman and Cogbill (PENN and OLDHAM would find their own niche within the music biz), `Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March’, a cover of DYLAN’s `I Shall Be Released’ and Thompson’s dance-floor filler `Soul Deep’, one couldn’t keep The BOX TOPS away from the singles charts. It was indeed a different matter for fourth album, DIMENSIONS (1969) {*5}, a #77 placed record which allowed Alex to expand on the previous set’s sole contribution (`I Can Dig It’), to afford him credits on three tracks (`The Happy Song’, `Together’ and `I Must Be The Devil’) alongside contributions from NEIL DIAMOND (`Ain’t No Way’) and the Chip Taylor-Al Gorgoni team (`I’ll Hold Out My Hand’).
Cunningham also left to return to school (August ’69); his berth taken by Harold Cloud thereafter. The group was folded unceremoniously in February 1970, when Chilton headed back to Memphis, where he hooked up with his old schoolfriend, CHRIS BELL, to form the hugely influential but desperately unlucky BIG STAR. A makeshift BOX TOPS – featuring Ron Jordan (ex-Devilles) – was drafted in to perform on a series of singles, but the confusion and disarray left a public uninterested.
In the punk/new wave year of ‘77, ALEX CHILTON re-surfaced after a quiet period in New York, where his own makeshift band toured with the likes of TELEVISION and The CRAMPS, whom he went on to produce. A brief BOX TOPS reunion in 1989 (featuring Chilton, Talley, Evans, Cloud and drummer Gene Houston), played a one-off gig at the Ace Of Clubs in Nashville, but nothing happened for several years.
In 1996, Cunningham took control of organising another reunion, but this time with intentions to leave behind an album. Together with Chilton, Evans, Talley and Smythe, the self-produced TEAR OFF! {*5} was delivered, but only in France and Germany. The trick was to combine a plethora of covers and a few by Alex himself. With Evans out of the picture in 2000, The BOX TOPS quartet performed with session man Barry Walsh in tow, but only a cover of a BLONDIE classic (`Call Me’) from a V/A compilation renewed some interest in places such as Germany and, of course, Memphis.
Sadly, the great ALEX CHILTON died of a heart attack on March 17, 2010.
Amidst revival upon revival for many 60s act, The BOX TOPS were no exception as Talley and Cunningham (with Walsh, Rick Levy and drummer Ron Krasinski) continued to fire out their golden hits in 2015; Smythe, who’d left again in 2010, passed away on Jul 6, 2016.
© MC Strong 1994-1997/GRD series // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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