The Box Tops

TrackSingle / Album
The LetterMala 565
Neon RainbowMala 580
Trains & Boats & PlanesThe Letter/Neon Rainbow
Cry Like A BabyMala 593
The Door You Closed To MeMala 593
Choo Choo TrainMala M-12,005
I Can Dig ItNon-Stop
I Met Her In ChurchMala M-12,017
Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward MarchMala M-12,035
Soul DeepMala M-12,040

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The Box Tops photo 2

The Box Tops (l to r): Bill Cunningham, Danny Smythe, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley, John Evans

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Alex Chilton

Musical super hero or over hyped limited talent?

I know which side I’m on and you might well be too or you wouldn’t be reading this. Much, but not all, of his claim to legendary status has been based on the all too brief life of Big Star. Chilton’s early years spent in the Box Tops attract little critical attention (with only a few honourable exceptions), probably because it’s hard to avoid that dreadful word ‘pop’ when discussing them. The Box Tops were never really fashionable, instead they were viewed as a disposable, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t pop band, and that attitude hasn’t changed over the years. In fact, were it not for the ascendance of Big Star to a band you have to have heard of if not purchased, they’d probably be forgotten with the occasional radio plays of The Letter and Cry Like A Baby leading to a scratching of head, puzzled look and a “who was that band?” query.

Let’s get something straight. The Box Tops made some great records. Great pop records. Artistic merit? Perhaps park that question for a moment, but in response to the first judgement call, continuing the metaphor to skating or diving, there were some tens in there along with several eights and nines.

When The Letter was released in a rather cool English September,1967, I was far from alone in being captivated. The unique blend of pop and R&B, a highly unusual melody line starting off in a minor key, topped with an unforgettable voice, all combined to create a record that was utterly unlike any other 45 that appeared that year, and that year, as we all know, was one of massive variation and experimentation. I didn’t really follow the Box Tops after that; there were just too many competing for attention and, like a few other folk, I was starting to turn more and more to LPs. Jump forward a couple of decades or so when my work was London based (Centre Point) and I’d regularly frequent a shop that specialised in cheapo records on the eastern side of Oxford Circus. Among my many purchases from there was The Box Tops – Super Hits, a 12 track set containing 9 A-sides, one B- and two album tracks – it hadn’t occurred to record labels to tempt the buyer with things like unreleased goodies back in those days.

The album didn’t immediately register as anything special but over the next year or so it found its way onto my turntable with increasing frequency and a few years later I transferred it to tape when work switched to out in the sticks with lengthy car journeys involved. The cassette was always a good ˈun to put on after a wearying day, soothing away some of those not always positive thoughts that might have entered the brain in the immediately preceding hours.

I didn’t know at the time but I’d probably discovered the best way to listen to the Box Tops. They were very much a singles band. Their four LPs – there was an added reunion set, Tear Off!, in 1998 which I haven’t included in that number – weren’t exactly overflowing with undiscovered gems, though that’s not to knock the musicianship which throughout was of a high standard. While the world led by the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Dylan was now avidly buying albums, the Box Tops seemed to be something of a throwback to an earlier era.

The band originated as a white R&B outfit in Memphis, Tennessee and their first chosen name was the Devilles. The name change came about because of another band already recording with that name. The composition of the group at roughly the time of The Letter, their debut single, was: Alex Chilton on lead vocal and rhythm guitar, Gary Talley on lead guitar (and electric sitar and sometimes bass), John Evans, also lead guitar plus keyboards, Bill Cunningham on bass guitar and Danny Smythe on drums. Backing vocals to Alex’s lead were supplied by all the rest of the group. I may have slightly over-simplified the guys’ instrumental abilities but it’s of no real account since Dan Penn, their producer in the early days, got into the habit of largely (sometimes completely) using the session guys at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios for virtually all the instrumental support. Penn is more likely to be known to the reader from his role as a very fine songwriter, often, but not always, in partnership with Spooner Oldham.

The Letter was included in a demo tape that budding writer Wayne Carson gave to Chips Moman at American Sound. The latter felt that the song had some merit and handed the tape to Dan Penn along with the suggestion of local group, the Devilles. At this stage in his career, Penn, who’d already achieved some success with his writing, was working with Moman and attempting to get more involved in production. The boys stuck pretty closely to the Carson demo but after the basic track was laid down, Penn went to Mike Leach, also a relative beginner, to cook up a strings and horns arrangement. In order to echo the opening line, Penn also overdubbed the sound of a plane taking off at the key change lead-in to the fade – had he heard Jim McGuinn’s Lear Jet Song one wonders. Chips Moman was reportedly (Wiki) underwhelmed with the addition but it stayed. Mention of beginners reminds me that Chilton, hoarse and lived-in voice not-withstanding, was but 16 years old at the time.

The record was a mammoth hit: number 1 in the US, number 5 in the UK and top ten in other countries. They were never to achieve quite this level of success again. The closest they got was the number 2 spot with record #3, Cry Like A Baby. From there on it was downhill with the final Top Twenty flourish & farewell achieved by Soul Deep in Summer ’69.

There were departures and replacements throughout the recording career of the Box Tops but in February 1970, the last remaining founder members, Gary Talley and Alex Chilton decided to call it a day. Talley became a session musician and songwriter; Chilton went solo for a spell and then in 1971, formed Big Star with Chris Bell: that splendid story is told elsewhere in the Toppermost chronicles (and a fine telling it is too).

There was a one-off reunion of the band including Chilton for a charity concert in Nashville in ’89. Then in 1996 there was a second reunion with greater permanence, again with Chilton participating which resulted in an album, Tear Off!, on which the Memphis Horns provided support on several tracks. Included in the album was a new version of The Letter.

On March 17th 2010, Alex Chilton died of a heart attack. He was 59.

That wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 2015, in response to requests, there was a third reunion and the boys, or at least the ones that were left from the multiplicity of membership iterations, joined the oldies circuit.

And that’s more than enough waffle and a serious shortage of music which needs rectifying.

I have absolutely zero intention of wading through each album in order. Critics frequently comment that the first LP showed signs of being put together with too much speed in response to a desire to cash in on the success of the first and second singles – the title The Letter/Neon Rainbow rather gives the game away I’d have thought. LPs number 2 to 4 didn’t demonstrate a higher level of forethought or linear or even non-linear development. Mind you given the self-evident quality and lasting power of The Letter, raising one’s game couldn’t have been that easy. Bearing all that in mind I’m going for a set of headings which should be self-explanatory, kicking off with …

 

THE ABSOLUTE CRACKERS

And you didn’t really think I was going to pass up the opportunity of even more raving about The Letter:

Drumshots then a guitar flourish giving an aural sniff of what’s cooking, that voice accompanied by choppy acoustic guitar plus an urgent bass. By the second verse the brass are in there too, imparting something of a Germanic oompah feel and the strings are not far behind. There’s something of a contrast between the staccato almost spat out lines of the verses and the more flowing middle eight where the swirling strings briefly hold sway. Then it’s back to that urgency.

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain’t got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter

Chilton had to be coached to sing aer-o-plane reportedly (Wiki) rather than the more typically American airplane.

If you hum it the song sounds vaguely country, less obviously R&B but definitely pop. I commented that the melody line was unusual and in checking out the guitar tabs for this piece, realised that the chords bore strong resemblance to the sequence used in the House Of The Rising Sun. I do wonder whether Wayne was fooling round with the chords from that number and happened upon his melody line.

Single #2 bore little resemblance to its predecessor though the group, or Dan Penn, or more likely the record company, Mala Records, stuck with the same writer. (The astute researcher might notice that Wayne Carson turned into Wayne Carson Thompson for this number, though his actual name was Wayne Carson Head. He went on to write more hits for the group plus several near hits for Bruce Channel and was also co-writer on the country ditty, Always On My Mind.) Neon Rainbow came from somewhere in that middle ground between folky singer/songwriter and easy listening. Lyrically it pondered the difference between the welcoming glow of the night lights with “all the people going places” and the day time when “no one smiles any more”. Alex puts on his best soft and dreamy voice and the whole thing slips down like a dose of warm Dean Martin. Total contrast to The Letter and I confess, it did take a few plays to worm its way into my heart. The UK reader is unlikely not to have heard this record since it featured in an oft-played TalkTalk TV ad a few years ago.

Cry Like A Baby, the third single from the boys, was the first of theirs to be penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. It was also the first one for which the label ‘blue-eyed soul’ for the band was really justified. Penn and Oldham had written it to order and were apparently struggling until Spooner came up with the remark, “Dan, I could cry like a baby”. To which Dan responded with “What did you say?” and Spooner repeated it and everything started to flow. Mid to fast tempo and featuring a typical American Sound soul arrangement but with an utterly untypical electric sitar (played by Reggie Young) playing a prominent role. The Beatles and Harrison in particular had something to answer for.

Dave Marsh uses the words “majestic sweep” to describe the arrangement and refers to the tears that fall in Alex’s vocal as “mannered and controlled, and perhaps the more explosive for all that”. Here’s Alex doing the lip synch thing. Note the title quote from another Dan Penn co-write “You left the water running” during the fade.

The song (and record’s) soul credentials can be judged by the fact that both Betty Wright and Arthur Alexander covered it though my vote still goes to Alex and co.

Single #4, Choo Choo Train, written by Donnie Fritts and Eddie Hinton is mighty close to being a pastiche of the Box Tops. Chilton is the hoarsest he’s ever been, at least 40 cigs a day level. The song is a kind of variant/sequel to The Letter only Alex is going on the choo choo not the aer-e-o-plane – that’s what he sings, an exaggeration almost running to a piss-take on the three syllabled Aeroplane from “Letter” – and he’s going to squeeze in seeing his mum and his bro as well as his baby who’s waiting at the station. However, the American Sound guys are positively oozing funk so it all rolls along at a cracking pace – like a choo choo train I guess. I’ve seen people being a bit sniffy about this record. Was it being a little too post-modern for them? Ignore all my words if you like; just try and stop that foot bopping up and down.

Composers Penn and Oldham were back for I Met Her In Church but Alex retained his real or affected cigarette habit. While the OTT nature of the Chilton delivery sometimes leaves me with mixed feelings there are too many positives about this one to make it anything other than a great record: the solitary almost Ray Charles-ish piano that opens it all (from Spooner perhaps), the first appearance of that fabulous choir after Alex gives them their introduction, the churchy organ that weaves its way in on the second verse and the reappearance of the choir this time with hand clapping after the rather stage managed middle section wherein Alex lets us know that he “found love on a back row seat/in a little church just down the street”.

My penultimate selection from the singles (A-sides that is) is Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March from Bobby Weinstein and Jon Stroll, a couple of song writing pro’s and session men who’d had hits for a load of people including Little Anthony & the Imperials, the Four Seasons and more. Quite what prompted the label to go for the song I don’t know; it’s probably the most curious in what has to be seen as a pretty curious canon. Not a hint of blue-eyed soul anywhere. In terms of melody and arrangement it’s back to the Neon Rainbow approach but upbeat and slightly more oompah garlanded. Alex takes a sotto voce approach to the lyrics which, at first listen, sound relatively innocuous if a little mysterious. But ponder more closely on:

They will love you in the darkness,
Take advantage of your starkness,
And refuse to recognize you in the light

Yup, the song is a paean to prostitutes. Apparently “sweet cream ladies” is a slang term for the ladies of the night in the US. Am I worried? Not unduly. I see it as a harmless but devilishly catchy pop ditty. They followed it with a very straight and probably too respectful version of I Shall Be Released. Possibly the punters preferred the more OTT Box Tops; the record was their first so far not to reach the Top Fifty.

Soul Deep brought that blue-eyed soul thing back with a bang. The song reunited the boys with Wayne Carson and the fact that Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman were behind the production console this time made the whole affair much more of a conventional soul record that you could imagine a black artist doing. Alex pitched it just right (probably due to the presence of Cogbill and Moman) and the backing was sympathetic without any undue attention seeking. It was one of only two Box Tops records – the other was Cry Like A Baby of course – that Dave Marsh included in his “1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made” (see also quotations from that tome earlier).

There were more singles but only one while the group were still together. That was Turn On A Dream, a decent effort in mild white soul mode. The single might be more significant in historic terms for the presence on the flip of the first Alex Chilton written song to appear on 45. The slow to medium temp ballad, Together was so good it almost made the ten. Only the occasional irritating suggestion of someone talking in the background kept it out.

One thought that might be worth conveying before moving on: while writing about Soul Deep I compared it to “a conventional soul record that you could imagine a black artist doing”. I found myself in a quandary: was the comparison to an artist, singular, or artists? In reality it was singular. In effect Box Tops productions were very often Chilton and session guys with the other lads in the group relegated to the role of playing the songs on the road and putting on an appearance of performing in television studios. A group that had started out as something like an American version of the Animals had turned into a solo artist who was putting various different musical hats on depending on what he was asked to interpret. Okay there’s nothing new in the statement but listening to a load of the singles doesn’t half reinforce that premise.

 

THE INTERESTING ODDITIES

(For identification on where the records in these sections can be found, I’ve used the following abbreviations: Album #1 The Letter/Neon Rainbow (TL); Album #2 Cry Like A Baby (C); Album #3 Non-Stop (NS); Album #4 Dimensions (D) – and I’d add that that CD versions of these albums have extra tracks in order to mop up what otherwise hadn’t appeared at all or hadn’t appeared on album.)

She Knows How (TL) gets itself going with such a delicious dirty riff that you feel that this one’s going to be an absolute cracker. Unfortunately, the chorus or climax to the verse, depending on how you view it, is so anticlimactic – soft and squishy would be good terms for it – that interest evaporates at a rapid rate. Should have had the courage of their convictions and stuck with the style of the first few bars.

The Door You Closed To Me (C and flip to Cry Like A Baby). Whilst elsewhere, Dan Penn, the group’s main but not sole producer, seemed to have the letters P – O – P firmly in the forefront of his brain this one is almost the antithesis; anti-pop might be one way of describing the record. It’s a Penn/Oldham song, yes, but given such a downer arrangement – not a lot more than sombre organ and drums – plus Alex giving vent to such moody theatricals that you hardly would have thought that this was the same guy and team that gave you the A-side. And if any Box Tops track prefigured some of the agony we would hear in Big Star’s Third, it was this one.

The shadows hide my tears
And it’s cold, it’s cold out here
I’m lost, lost in the darkness of the night

Midnight Angel (D) is perhaps the closest the band got to ‘rock’ in the sense of mid/late sixties groups. It’s the Doors and Ray Manzarek in particular that come to mind though the fruity brass section does its best to dispel images of Morrison. The record bears comparison to She Knows How but the first few bars of each verse aren’t quite so raunchy while the climax to each escapes the squishy description but isn’t entirely devoid of poppy aspects. The key thing for me on this one though is that this track has resonance, not something you could say about every one of the group’s album tracks.

 

COVERS

They did loads of them so the tracks below are only the ones that I felt stood out from the crowd.

Trains & Boats & Planes (TL). On the assumption that the simplest explanation was probably the most likely one, then this one got selected for the first album due to planes & trains connections from The Letter (and the sound effects intro does its damnedest to echo that connection). No matter, it actually comes off very well indeed and it’s a reminder of the quality of the Bacharach/David song. Easily a match for the Billy J. Kramer track and thankfully minus that percussive sound which largely ruins the otherwise fine Dionne Warwick version. Alex puts a capitol Y into Yearning.

Georgia Farm Boy (TL but one of the extras) is actually Mickey Newbury’s San Francisco Mabel Joy but the writer’s own version didn’t see release till ’69 so it’s quite probable that this version wasn’t actually a cover. It now tends to be forgotten that Newbury hawked his songs around like any other jobbing writer in his early days. The Box Tops version is low-key and minus much of the drama that characterised Newbury’s own plus several later ones which followed the Newbury approach.

Good Morning Dear (C). Another Newbury song and it appeared on his Harlequin Melodies in ’68, the same year as Cry Like A Baby. It starts off very well but does get dragged down by the poppy nature of the arrangement. Unfortunately, in terms of comparison, the man himself does take it to another level when he gets around to re-recording the number in a more sympathetic environment years later.

I’m Movin’ On (NS) appeared as track #2 immediately after Choo Choo Train on Non-Stop, so once again the connection – the “big eight wheeler movin’ down the track” – was more than obvious. However, for a number that’s been done to death by almost everyone you can think of, it’s a very enjoyable listen. The support team have a whale of a time and Alex underplays it all beautifully which turns out to be a good approach. Very nearly made the selection.

Elsewhere on Non-Stop, there’s a version of Randy Newman’s Let Me Go which was an interesting song to go for but for me is rather marred by the Chilton take on the Newman voice. I’d echo that comment too for the same album’s Yesterday Where’s My Mind which is a not very well disguised version of Tim Rose’s Morning Dew.

 

THE OTHER ORIGINALS

Everything I Am (TL and flip of Neon Rainbow) is a Penn/Oldham ballad (and a big hit when it was covered by Plastic Penny in the UK in ’68) and it’s a chest-beating one, “Everything I am. I am because of you”. It’s not a category that I get wildly enthusiastic about but I can’t deny that they do it well with producer Penn resisting the temptation to throw the complete kitchen sink at it. Can’t help feeling that this would have been a hit if it had been an A-side and received appropriate plugging.

I Pray For Rain (TL). Penn and Oldham again but hardly typical of their output. The narrator is praying for a downpour while his heart’s desire and her new love are having a picnic. Alex has his dreamy hat on for most of the time to the extent that if you weren’t concentrating on the lyrics, then those few seconds – roughly 5% or less – when the mask drops and the emotion pours out, will come as a shock. Metaphorical of course but there’s a suggestion of real experience in there.

People Gonna Talk (NS and flip of I Met Her In Church) is not the Lee Dorsey number, no this is Penn and Oldham again and, yes, this is an R&B affair with one of those ultra long melody lines which gradually draws the listener in. Good as it is I do think a better arrangement and production could have led to the boys having another major hit on their hands. One of the commentators on YouTube evokes the name of Otis Redding and that might have been what Dan, Alex and company were aiming for.

I Can Dig It (NS) is the first Alex Chilton composition to be recorded and it was a funky kind of mid tempo strut with punchy horn interjections, conjuring up an image of our young hero commanding the stage with dominating stance. Mind you he’s more Roy Head than James Brown but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The CD release of Non-Stop included a second Chilton authored song, I’ve Been Gone, but it doesn’t have the sheer sass of this little baby.

Nothing from Tear Off! you’ll note but that’s not to decry the quality of the album. If anything it was more consistent than any of the original Box Tops LPs. For a 1998 release it was determinedly retro with that adjective applying to treatment as well as songs. Sources ranged from Sam Cooke and Willie Dixon to Billy Lee Riley (Flying Saucers Rock & Roll) and a man I mentioned earlier, Roy Head –whose number just had to be Treat Her Right. Given white Texan Head’s propensity to mix soul, R&B, blues, country and 60’s Brit Beat, I do wonder whether the man was something of a hero to Chilton. Both Big Bird originally from Eddie Floyd and Last Bouquet, a slow country ballad cut in the fifties by Clyde Owens & his Moonlight Ramblers, were temptations when it came to selection time but neither made the final cut.

Which brings me neatly to an issue I had with the selections. I discovered when I’d put most of this document together that I’d ended up with eleven not ten. This isn’t the first time I’ve managed this trick but I’ve never had such a problem eliminating one before. Maybe those early comments re lack of depth of quality need some revision. I’ll leave that with the reader.

But there’ll be no fence sitting from me in terms of the question I sort of posed at the start: did this slab of Alex Chilton history have merit in its own right or was it no more than a mildly interesting antipasto prior to the main course? I have no reservations in answering with a big fat YES. If for whatever kind of reason Alex had made no music at all after the Box Tops split, he should still be looked on as a significant part of our musical heritage.

Alex and the Box Tops don’t need footnotes. The music says it all.

 

The Box Tops photo

 

Alex Chilton (1950–2010)

Danny Smythe (1948–2016)

 

The Box Tops official website

Alex Chilton official facebook page

Gary Talley facebook

Big Star toppermost

The Box Tops biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #738

5 Comments

  1. Tony Thompson
    Sep 5, 2018

    This made my evening. A thoughtful and informative piece on a fascinating band. Thanks Dave!

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 5, 2018

      Thank you Tony. Pleased to know that I’m not the sole admirer of the Box Tops.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Sep 5, 2018

    Dave. thanks for this great piece. Really only knew The Box Tops through ‘The Letter’ up to now but this is a perfect introduction to the rest of their work. Maybe worth mentioning the importance of Alex as an influence on other people’s work – most notably, perhaps, in the case of Paul Westerberg…

  3. Peter Viney
    Sep 17, 2018

    I liked the Box Tops more than Big Star- I’ve tried but never really got into Big Star. The “Big Three” – The Letter, Cry Like A Baby, Soul Deep – are ahead of the rest to me. I have a few singles – “You Keep Tightening Up On Me” from 1970 has the swagger and fuzz sound and is by Wayne Carson. It loses it a touch on the middle bit, and didn’t get on the “Best of” but is a contender for number 12 in your ten.

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 23, 2018

      Peter, we all have different tastes. If we didn’t the world would be a pretty boring place. I’m far from the first person to say that but so what! And yes, “You Keep Tightening Up On Me” does have some merit. It also got included in my CD “best of” which effectively replaced the worn vinyl.

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