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The Memphis-based blue-eyed soul group the Box Tops released a string of hit singles in the late 1960s, and is perhaps best known for launching the career of alternative-music icon Alex Chilton. During the band's brief career, the Box Tops became a sensation with their 1967 hit single "The Letter," followed by 1968's "Cry Like a Baby" and 1969's "Soul Deep." Known for its soulful R&B sound, the youthful quintet infused its music with accents of pop and psychedelia. After the group disbanded in 1970, Chilton went on to achieve cult status as the voice of the power-pop band Big Star. Reuniting on a lark in 1996, the Box Tops recorded a new album, Tear Off!, in France, which was released in 1998, and went on to perform in music venues and nightclubs throughout the United States.

Originally known as the Devilles, the group was founded in the mid-1960s by four friends from Memphis, Tennessee: guitarists Gary Talley and John Evans, bassist Bill Cunningham, and drummer Danny Smythe. After the band achieved local popularity, teenage singer Alex Chilton joined, giving the Devilles a distinctive sound that attracted the attention of songwriters and producers Chips Moman and Dan Penn. Seeking a talented, gritty "white soul" singer, Moman and Penn found what they were looking for in Chilton and his group.

Signing with Bell Records, the group changed its name to the Box Tops after learning that another band had recorded as the Devilles. In 1967, when Chilton was only 16 years old, the group recorded its first single, "The Letter" at Moman's American Studio in Memphis. The one-minute, 58-second song, written by Wayne Carson Thompson, would change the young musicians' lives. Upon its release, "The Letter" soared up the charts, staying at number one for four weeks. The single sold more than four million copies, earned two Grammy nominations, and was named the number-one single of the year by Billboard magazine.

After the smash success of "The Letter," the Box Tops recorded a full-length album of the same name. Most of the songs were written by either Thompson or Dan Penn and his songwriting partner Spooner Oldham; none were by Chilton. It was later revealed that most of the album's music was not performed by Chilton's band mates but by session men, who perhaps offered a more professional sound. None of the new songs equaled the success of "The Letter," though the follow-up hit "Neon Rainbow" enjoyed airplay and solidified Chilton's reputation as a vocalist of uncanny strength.

In 1968 the Box Tops landed a new hit single, "Cry Like a Baby," which rose to number two on the pop charts. Written by Penn and Oldham within hours of a recording session scheduled for the group's sophomore album, "Cry Like a Baby" epitomized the gritty sound of blue-eyed soul. The single was a success, selling two million copies. The full-length Cry Like a Baby album did not contain any follow-up hits and rode mainly on the success of the title song. Hints of a British Invasion sound--the influence of The Beatles, the Kinks, and other English groups--found their way into this album with such songs as "The Trouble with Sam" and "Weeping Analeah." Yet an R&B flavor predominated, and the music fit squarely into the soul-pop genre in vogue at the time.

From the beginning of the Box Tops' fame, producers like Penn and Moman exerted tight control over the group's creative material, leaving the musicians frustrated and disillusioned. Evans and Smythe quit the band to return to school shortly after recording "Cry Like a Baby"; they were replaced by guitarist Rick Allen and drummer Tom Boggs. But creative discontent was not the only reason for the changeover. "We were all draft age and wanted to avoid being sent to Vietnam," Cunningham told David Yonke of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Some minor hits, including "I Met Her at Church" and "Choo Choo Train," followed "Cry Like a Baby," keeping The Box Tops in the public eye. "It was a pretty crazy time and we were just in the midst of everything," Cunningham told Yonke, "but I remember it with great fondness. It was a lot of hard work and we were on the road constantly."

Chilton, however, was becoming discontented with the material written for the Box Tops, and was eager to perform his own compositions. It was not until Penn moved on to other projects that Chilton gained more freedom. Penn left just before the group recorded its fourth and final album, Dimensions, in 1969. This LP contained three Chilton songs, including the powerful blues ballad "I Must Be the Devil." Yet the success of the album hinged on "Soul Deep"--another winner by Wayne Carson Thompson--which became the group's last big hit.

By August of 1969, Cunningham left the group, returning to school to pursue an interest in classical music; he was replaced by bassist Harold Cloud. Shortly thereafter, other group member changes followed, and the Box Tops disbanded when their contract expired in February of 1970. While Chilton went on to sing with the power-pop group Big Star, achieving cult status in the underground-music world, the remaining Box Tops members disappeared from the national pop music scene.

A few of the members kept up careers in music. Cunningham rose in the ranks of classical music as a double bassist, and Talley remained active as a guitarist and music teacher. Both Evans and Smythe continued to perform for several years, though Evans later trained as a computer network administrator while Smythe pursued a career as an illustrator.

In 1996 the Box Tops reunited at a Memphis recording studio after more than 26 years apart. "Cunningham ... got the idea and started calling people," Talley told Larry Katz of the Boston Herald. "I didn't think Alex [Chilton] would want to do it since he didn't have much good to say about the old days. But he thought it would be fun."

The musicians enjoyed the reunion enough to keep it going on a part-time basis. Avoiding the "oldies circuit," they toured at reputable venues throughout the United States, performing offbeat twists on old favorites. In 1998 the group released its Memphis recording Tear Off! on the French label Last Call Records.

The group continues to give occasional performances, though Evans left in 2000 to satisfy the demands of his computer career. "[W]e're back together for the fun of it," Talley told the Boston Herald's Katz. "When we made Tear Off!, we agreed in writing that if any one of us didn't want to release it, we'd take the tape and burn it in the parking lot. I'm happy to say none of us wanted to do it."

by Wendy Kagan

The Box Tops's Career

Formed as the Devilles, 1960s; released hit single "The Letter" as the Box Tops, 1967; released hit single "Cry Like a Baby," 1968; released hit single "Soul Deep," 1969; disbanded, 1970; reunited, 1996; released Tear Off! in France, 1998; toured in U.S., 1999.

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Genre:  Pop
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