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Spotlight Artist - The Box Tops

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The Box TopsA blue-eyed soul rock band is how the Box Tops are described. The Box Tops began as The Devilles, who had started playing in Memphis in 1963. As the band's personnel changed from time to time, so did the band name on occasion, which at one point became "Ronnie and The Devilles" and then later changed back to "The Devilles".

The Devilles leaped to further local prominence when they won a weekly Battle of The Bands contest at Memphis' T. Walker Lewis YMCA, finally beating Bobby and The Originals, who had won the previous nineteen weeks. One member of The Originals was Terry Manning, who would later serve as engineer for some Box Tops recordings.

(Photo  above: Depicts the original Box Tops line-up from 1967: (left to right): Bill Cunningham, Danny Smythe, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley and John Evans Source  


By January 1967 the group was composed of founding member Danny Smythe (drums) (born August 25, 1948, Memphis, Tennessee), along with newer arrivals John Evans (guitar, keyboards, background vocals) (born June 18, 1948, Memphis), Alex Chilton (lead vocal, guitar) (born December 28, 1950, Memphis—died March 17, 2010, New Orleans), Bill Cunningham (bass guitar, keyboards, background vocal) (born January 23, 1950, Memphis), and Gary Talley (lead guitar, electric sitar, bass, background vocal) (born August 17, 1947, Memphis). They were soon renamed a final time. They changed their name to "Box Tops" to prevent confusion with another band recording at the time with the name "The Devilles".

The Box Tops recorded "The Letter" in 1967 and although it was under two minutes long it was an international hit and remained at number one for four weeks. An album called The Letter/Neon Rainbow appeared in November, 1967 - The Box Tops would actually release three albums over a nine-month period from late 1967 to mid-1968. Some of the Box Tops' instrumental tracks were performed by session musicians like Reggie Young, Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chrisman, and Bobby Womack at American Sound Studio, and by future Chilton producer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios. However, the actual group members performed on a number of their recordings including their first hit, "The Letter," and on all live performances.

The hits continued and "Cry Like a Baby" was a major hit in 1968, peaking at number two on Billboard. The song was another million selling release. It has been covered by the Hacienda Brothers and Kim Carnes. "I Met Her In Church" and "Choo-Choo Train" were smaller hits released later that year. Towards the end of 1968, the band switched producers, with Dan Penn being replaced by the team of Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill. This team was responsible for producing the band's final 1968 hit, "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March", and all the band's future releases through 1971.

By January 1968, John Evans and Danny Smythe returned to school, thereby avoiding the draft. They were replaced by bassist Rick Allen (born January 28, 1946, Little Rock, Arkansas) (from The Gentrys) and drummer Thomas Boggs (born July 16, 1947, Wynne, Arkansas, died May 5, 2008, Memphis, Tennessee) (from the Board of Directors).

Wayne Carson Thomspon's "Soul Deep" was the group's final US Top 40 entry in the summer of 1969. The follow-up single, "Turn On A Dream", would peak outside of the US Top 40, but would be a #29 hit in Canada.

Cunningham left The Box Tops to return to school in August 1969 and was replaced by Harold Cloud on bass. But eventually, the group's tolerance for the disrespect and fleecing they had endured as teen musicians from managers, lawyers, and promoters came to an end. According to a 2004 article in by Talley, a December 1969 British tour was cancelled by the band after arriving in London to discover that instead of respecting the rider agreement, the local promoter insisted they play the tour with the opening reggae act's toy drums, public address system amplifiers (instead of proper guitar amplifiers), and a keyboard with a broken speaker.

Finally, in February 1970, the remaining founding members, Talley and Chilton, were ready to move on and disbanded the group. However, the Bell record label kept releasing new Box Tops singles through early 1971, using material that had already been recorded by Chilton and company. February 1970's "You Keep Tightening Up On Me" scraped into the US Hot 100, and was a slightly bigger hit in Canada. Two further Box Tops singles failed to chart nationally in either the US or Canada, although the original band's final single "King's Highway" (another Wayne Carson Thompson-penned track) was a regional hit in Dallas in the spring of 1971.

Each of the original members went on to work in the music industry in subsequent years after leaving the Box Tops. Chilton's career path included work performing with Big Star, Tav Falco's Panther Burns, and his solo trio, as well as briefly producing groups like The Cramps. Guitarist Talley went on to work in a variety of styles as a session guitarist and songwriter in Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville. Artists and producers he has worked with have ranged from Billy Preston, Hank Ballard, Chips Moman, Billy Lee Riley, Billy Joe Royal, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Nelson, Willie Nelson, and Tammy Wynette to Sam and Dave's Sam Moore, and others. Bassist Cunningham (son of Sun Records artist Buddy Blake Cunningham and brother of B.B. Cunningham Jr., lead vocalist for 1960s Memphis group The Hombres, of "Let it All Hang Out" Top 40 hit fame) won a spot in the White House orchestra in Washington, D.C., after completing his master's degree in music. During his classical music career, he played with some of the world's best performers; at Cunningham's last public classical music performance, for instance, he performed at the White House with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. In the 1980s, he earned an MBA and changed careers. Evans played occasionally in Memphis groups after the Box Tops, while working as a luthier, eventually switching to a computer network administrator career. Smythe performed in Memphis soul and blues groups in the 1970s, later changing to a career in art by the 1980s, but returned to music performance in the 1990s.



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