Box Tops, The

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Box Tops, The

Box Tops, The, hit-making Memphis group that issued one of the shortest hits of all time and started the career of power-pop legend Alex Chilton (b. Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 28, 1950), formed 1965, Memphis, Term.

Alex Chilton is one of rock’s great underground legends, certainly revered among his peers. So much so, The Replacements once recorded a song called “Alex Chilton.” Not bad for someone who hadn’t had a chart hit for 15 years before the song (and hasn’t had one since).

Chilton, son of a Memphis jazz musician, was 16 when a local Memphis band called the Devilles—guitarists Gary Talley (b. Aug. 17, 1950) and Billy Cunningham (b. Jan. 23, 1950), bassist John Evans (b. 1949), and drummer Danny Smyth (b. 1949)—took him on as lead singer. The band’s management hooked them up with legendary producer Chips Moman, who had just left Muscle Shoals studios to establish his own American Sound studios. Moman’s partner, songwriter Dan Penn, produced the group’s first recording. They cut a song that ran a minute and 52 seconds, including a sound-effects recording of a jet engine grafted onto the beginning. That song, “The Letter,” topped the charts for a solid month during the summer of 1967. Over the next three years, the Box Tops recorded half a dozen more Top 40 hits: “Neon Rainbow” (#24), “Cry Like a Baby” (two weeks at #2), “Choo Choo Train” (#26), “I Met Her in Church” (#36), “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March” (#28) and “Soul Deep” (#18). However, after “The Letter,” the studio Box Tops were only Chilton and the American Sound house band. Live, when the original band played, they couldn’t live up to these standards. Several members opted for college and Chilton moved on.

Ironically, Chilton is less legendary for his work with the hit-making Box Tops than he is for Big Star, the band that he formed afterwards with guitarist Chris Bell (b. Memphis, Term., Jan. 12, 1951, d. there, Dec. 27, 1978), Jody Stephens (b. Memphis, Term., Oct. 4, 1952), and Andy Hummel (b. Memphis, Term., Jan. 26, 1951). Heavily influenced by “British revolution” bands like The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Who, their three records became word-of-mouth legends over the course of years, influencing artists ranging from Paul Wester-berg to The Bangles. On release, however, they sold very poorly, largely due to erratic distribution. In fact, the group broke up after the pristine pop oí #1 Record, when Bell became disillusioned with the poor sales. He died in a car accident in 1978. A gig at a rock writer’s convention lured the remaining band members back together, which resulted in the rawer, Bell-less record, Radio City. They went into the studio again with session players like Steve Cropper, but the record, 3rd/Sister Lover, didn’t come out until years later.

Chilton hit lean times after Big Star, turning to drink and working odd jobs like cab driver and yard man in N.Y. During that period, young musicians were discovering his music, but he wasn’t getting any offers to record, and his sporadic live shows varied with his level of sobriety. He recorded a couple of spotty albums, including Like Flies on Sherbert, played guitar in Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, and produced the Cramps’ Songs the Lord Taught Us.

Early in the 1980s, Chilton got clean and sober and started performing in his new home of New Orleans, working with a soul band playing four nights a week for tourists. A booking agent heard that he had become active again and offered him some shows in N.Y. This resulted in a new recording contract and the album Feudalist Tarts, which once again provided fodder for the critics and cultists, but earned no real sales. Still, it marked a comeback for Chilton, who went on to record High Priest in Memphis using mostly local musicians. It included a motley mix of material, such as “Come by Here” a gospel take on the campfire staple “Cumbaya,” and a cover of that hoary chestnut “Volare” Similarly, Cliches found him recording solo acoustic guitar versions of songs by Ray Charles and Cole Porter, and 1970 covering songs from the era of his greatest stardom. 1995’s A Man Called Destruction, named for the pianist in Howlin’ Wolfs band, demonstrated that Chilton could still write biting, bracing music of his own.

Chilton and Stephens revived Big Star, fleshing the band out with John Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, initially to play one show at the Univ. of Mo. that was recorded for release. This led to a continuing on and off relationship. The Original Box Tops have also gotten back together, playing about 20 gigs a year on the oldies circuit. Chilton also continues to tour, playing his own music, and the legend continues to grow.


Best of The Box Tops (1996). big star:Third (1978); Live (1992); Columbia-Live at Missouri University (1993); Nobody Can Dance (1999). alex chilton:Live in London (1982); Bach’s Bottom (1975); Live in London (1980); Like Flies on Sherbert (1980); Feudalist Tarts/No Sex (1985); High Priest/Black List (1987); 19 Years—A Collection (1991); Cliches (1994); Man Called Destruction (1995); 2970 (1996).

—Hank Bordowitz