While four Memphis high school grads with their own band were well aware of the need for a strong lead vocalist, they probably wouldn't have consciously chosen a tenth-grader from Central High School to take the lead spot. But this guy they found had a sound too compellingly peculiar to pass on; after singing in a talent contest, he'd suddenly developed a female student-fan following and his mature-for-his-age voice sounded nothing like any frontman from any hitmaking mid-1960s rock or soul group, locally or anywhere else. The Devilles, circa 1966, revered the "newly improved" Cadillac Coupe de Ville and, after some lineup shuffling, comprised guitar/keyboard player John Evans, lead guitarist Gary Talley, bassist Bill Cunningham and drummer Danny Smythe (the only one who'd been part of an earlier incarnation, Ronnie and the Devilles, with lead singer Ron Jordan). As for that 16-year-old kid, the girl-magnet with the scratchy, occasionally guttural vocal chops, his name was Alex Chilton. By the time he'd had a chance to enroll in the eleventh grade, he was a big star.

Roy Mack (real name: Roy McElwain), a popular deejay on Memphis's leading top 40 station WMPS, had been aware of the band since 1965 and eventually became their manager; he tipped them to Chips Moman of American Recording Studios in Memphis, which had been in business for about a year. Moman had been on the lookout for someone who fit more of a rock profile, if for no other reason than to diversify his mostly-soulful roster. Dan Penn spent the 1960s making music (as a singer, songwriter and/or producer) at the FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and, later, Moman's ARS; he'd recorded "I'm Your Puppet" (written with frequent collaborator Spooner Oldham) in 1965 and watched it become a hit the following year for James and Bobby Purify.

A demo reel Wayne Carson sent to ARS had been gathering dust for awhile; one of the songs, "The Letter," piqued Penn's interest (Carson's dad, country singer Shorty Thompson, gave him a one-line idea for a song, 'Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane,' and Wayne filled in the rest). The Devilles laid down the track and at the end, Penn added the sound effect of a jet (that not everyone was fond of), total time under two minutes. One thing they all agreed on was the dire need for a new moniker (there had been at least two other previous or still-going groups using the Devilles' name). After throwing ideas around, all five members agreed The Box Tops sounded cool...soon there would be no turning back.

New York's Bell Records bought the "Letter" master and its Oldham-Penn-penned flip, "Happy Times," and released it on their Mala label late in the summer of '67. By mid-September it was number one on Billboard's Hot 100, an incredible feat for a song some in the industry considered simplistic. Radio programmers - and the record-buying public - obviously disagreed. "The Letter" contained a relatable urgency ('I don't care how much money I gotta ta get back to my baby again...') and Chilton's oddly scratchy delivery made listeners lean closer to their radio's speakers. They weren't the only act from the neighborhood to score a nationwide hit single that fall; bass player Bill's brother, B.B. Cunningham, sang lead for The Hombres, whose "Let it Out (Let it All Hang Out)" came within a hairsbreadth of reaching the top ten a month after the Box Tops topped said survey.

Penn (and Moman and company) began turning out hits for the Box Tops but called all the shots, giving the group little if any input. In some cases American's house band supplied the music, much like Jim Stewart's higher-profile lineup of core musicians were doing across town at Stax (it's no surprise that ARS guys were known to moonlight on Stax sessions and vice-versa). Alex softened his vocal technique on the follow-up single, "Neon Rainbow," also written by Carson, which reached the top 30 in December. The Grammy Awards nominations included two nods for "The Letter" that, in typically bewildering Grammy fashion, were in redundant categories: Best Performance by a Vocal Group and Best Contemporary Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental (each had the same five nominated acts, while the second had a sixth "bonus" nominee); oh well, at least the chances of winning were doubled. Never mind: The 5th Dimension won both awards for "Up - Up and Away."

Evans and Smythe made an early departure around this time and were replaced by keyboarist Rick Allen and drummer Tom Boggs. Penn and Spooner supplied the next single (as writers and producers), "Cry Like a Baby" (milking the title for all it was worth, using it for nearly half the song's lines), a sitar-and-horn serving of semi-psychedelia that peaked at number two in April '68. From an 'aeroplane' to the Southern Railway: the travel topic was revisited with "Choo Choo Train" ('I got me a one-way ticket home...'), its arrangement edging ever closer to the sound coming from McLemore Avenue. Written by session musicians Donnie Fritts and Eddie Hinton, the lyrics concerned more than just a lover but family as well. The Penn-Oldham tune "I Met Her in Church" suggested a good place for finding true love; an excerpt of "Hallelujah" midway through comes closest to modern composer Randall Thompson's "Alleluia" of the dozen or more compositions bearing the title or variations thereof.

John Evans, Bill Cunningham, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley, Danny Smythe

Early 1969 brought the BTs their sixth straight top 40 hit (Moman and bassist Tommy Cogbill produced this and the next two); "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" concerns a certain type of notorious woman ('...puritans ignore them!') ostensibly at odds with the subject of the previous hit. Like many of the era's acts, the Box Tops gave a Bob Dylan song a shot; "I Shall Be Released" was their first single to fall shy of the top 40. Carson (as Wayne Carson Thompson, a name he was sometimes credited with) came up with the unapologetically romantic "Soul Deep" and it placed the act back in the top 20 in August '69. Carson penned a few dozen hits for artists in various genres, ultimately getting the most mileage out of "The Letter." A slowed-down, atmospheric version was a hit for The Arbors in the spring of '69 and Joe Cocker gave it his own brand of live pizzazz a year later.

Cunningham called it quits in the summer of '69, various musicians drifted in and out, and the band began to disintegrate. "Turn on a Dream" made a mid-chart stand in the fall; composer Mark James had much greater success at the exact same time with "Suspicious Minds," a number one smash for Elvis Presley that had been recorded earlier in the year in the same Memphis space familiar to the Box Tops: American Sound Studio, the newer incarnation of Chips Moman's American Recording Studios. A switch to Bell (their albums had been on the parent label all along) resulted in one final chart single, "You Keep Tightening Up on Me," written by Carson (as Wayne Thompson this time). Chilton had reached the end of his rope where producer Dan Penn was concerned; he'd consistently been prevented from having any of his own compositions on singles, as only a few songs had found their way to the group's albums. Alex walked away in early 1970; he wasn't even out of his teens yet.

The Box Tops continued for awhile with Gary Talley the only remaining original member. After two additional singles on Bell ("Let Me Go" and "King's Highway"), the later configuration of Box Tops took more than a year off, then went to Hi Records and worked with producer Willie Mitchell on a couple of singles ("Sugar Creek Woman" and "Angel"). Chilton founded rock act Big Star in 1971 with close friend Chris Bell, who played guitar; other members were bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. The band was critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful (they're probably best known for "In the Street," remade by Todd Griffin and, later, Cheap Trick as the theme for the '90s and 2000s sitcom That '70s Show). In 1974 a newer Box Tops likely led by Ron Jordan recorded "Willobee and Dale" for Stax, giving them an uncommon distinction: in name at least, they had recorded for three of the top labels in Memphis.

Alex made other records over the years including a solo single, "Bangkok," in 1978. All five original Box Tops reunited in 1996 and performed for more than a decade, giving fans plenty of chances to see their show and relive the late-'60s memories. In 2010, at age 59, Alex Chilton died suddenly and somewhat mysteriously of what was diagnosed as a heart attack. The plug had been pulled too soon on the identifiably unique sound of The Box Tops.

- Michael Jack Kirby



The Letter Cry Like a Baby