Monday, April 30, 2018

Forgotten Hits Interviews The Box Tops

We had a chance to visit with The Box Tops the other day and wanted to share our conversation with our readers. 

The band currently consists of original bassist Bill Cunningham, original guitarist Gary Talley and our long-time friend of Forgotten Hits, Rick Levy, who acts as both manager and musical director for the band.  Ron Krasinski on drums and Barry Walsh on keys round up the current-day line-up and the band perform with a full horn section, helping them to recreate the true Memphis sound. 

The band broke through in a VERY big way in 1967 with their first hit record, “The Letter.”  (You can't have a much bigger debut record than "The Letter" … it topped the national charts for four weeks and ended up as The Record Of The Year on many year-end charts.  Here in Chicago, I think it was #1 for something like seven straight weeks!) 

The hits kept coming … “Neon Rainbow” (#16, 1967); “Cry Like A Baby” (#2, 1968); “Choo Choo Train” (#17, 1968); “I Met Her In Church” (#29, 1968); “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March” (#22, 1969); “I Shall Be Released” (#67, 1969); “Soul Deep” (#11, 1969); “Turn On A Dream” (#31, 1969) and “You Keep Tightening Up On Me” (#70, 1970) … ten chart hits in all including eight that made The Top 40 and two that made The Top 10, one of which went all the way to #1. 

And then it was all over. 

Although The Box Tops initially split up in 1970, these guys have not been strangers to the music scene in the years that have passed since. 

Bill's father Buddy was a studio drummer for Sun Records in the '50's and even performed on a couple of early Elvis Presley sessions.  Bill’s brother, B.B. Cunningham, Jr., was a member of The Hombres and sang lead on their Top Five Hit "Let It Out" in 1967. 

The list of artists Gary has worked with over the past three decades is astounding … everyone from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to Tim McGraw to Billy Joe Royal to Hank Ballard to John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas) to Pat Boone to Sam Moore (of Sam And Dave) to Tammy Wynette … and dozens and dozens more. 

The Box Tops got back together in 1996 to record some new music and started gigging again with Bill, Gary and Alex Chilton on board.  (Original organist John Evans and drummer Danny Smythe left right after they broke big … and were replaced by Rick Allen and Tom Boggs respectively.) 

Without question, The Box Tops were defined by the soulful sound of lead singer Alex Chilton … but sadly, he passed away eight years ago of heart failure.  Their music is still heard on the radio every single day, some fifty years later, and still sounds just as bright and innovative as ever. 

A couple of years ago Rick Levy got the idea to see if there might be any interest in putting the band back together and contacted Bill Cunningham and Gary Talley to see if they might want to give it a shot.  Everything clicked immediately and they have been performing ever since, landing all kinds of gigs on the casino circuit, some of the oldies “Flower Power” and “Where The Action Is” cruise ships, a key spot on The Happy Together Tour and a number of headlining solo gigs.  (They’ll be appearing this Friday Night, May 4th, at The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL, along with Chuck Negron, formerly of Three Dog Night.) 

kk / Forgotten Hits:  Let’s go back to the beginning.  We hear stories all the time about these bands who toiled in bars and on the circuit for YEARS before finally earning their big break and then being perceived as an “overnight success” by the fans out there buying their music … but The Box Tops couldn’t have been together all that long when you made your first record.  Bill, you were all of 17 when this was happening!  And Gary was 20.  What was it like to be thrust into the spotlight at such an early age – literally overnight … and how did you deal with it? 

GARY TALLEY:  We all still lived with our parents!  I had the same friends, went to the same church, etc. The demands of being on the road constantly were difficult ... lack of sleep, inconsistent diet, etc.  Having money was great ... I paid cash for a ’68 GTO and bought too many guitars. 

BILL CUNNINGHAM:  Growing up in Memphis and around my dad and brother, both of whom were in the music business, made my progression imaginable. Of course, I felt extremely lucky. 

kk:  How did The Box Tops come to be signed to Mala / Bell Records?  Was it a “discovery” process or did your management team bring you into the studio to see what you’d sound like on a record? 

BILL:  Reportedly their representative stopped by the studio to pick up tapes from another artist, heard The Letter, and made an offer immediately. Studio connections were already established. Our manager was a DJ and had worked with The Devilles to record a couple of locally distributed singles during the mid 60s, before we morphed into The Box Tops. 

GARY:  Larry Utall, President of Bell Records, came to hear the new Sandy Posey tracks.  Chips Moman played him “The Letter” and he wanted to sign the group immediately. 

kk:  Did you know once you’d recorded it that “The Letter” was going to be a big hit?  (Sometimes after a particularly good recording session, the artist just KNOWS that they’ve cut something special. We hear stories all the time about the producer or engineer declaring something to the effect of “Gentleman, you just made a #1 Record.”)  Personally, I like several of your other singles better than this one … but clearly I am in the minority in this regard.  THIS is the record that pushed you guys over the top.   

BILL:  I thought it would do well in Memphis and generate a number of local gigs, but I never considered it might do more.  

GARY:  I had no idea. I was shocked when it climbed the charts and hit #1.

kk:  Suddenly you’re out on the road touring … doing television appearances … and laying down new tracks in the studio.  What are some of your favorite memories of this era … and who are some of the other artists you worked with back then, sharing the stage?   

BILL:  We strived to improve our live shows to better compete with the other artists with whom we shared the stage. In those early days, The Beach Boys and The Doors were two groups with whom we played  that I held in high regard. However, there were so many sounds and artists.  I took it all in. It was an exciting and busy time.   

GARY:  It was a thrill to work with the Beach Boys and get to know them. Other highlights were meeting Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Lovin’ Spoonful and seeing Cream, Procal Harum, Delaney and Bonnie, Steppenwolf and so many others.   

kk:  The pressure of this pace had to be taking its toll.  Shortly after those first recordings were made, John Evans (organ) and Danny Smythe (drums) left, right after the band broke big.  Suddenly half the band is gone!  What was it like trying to find replacements for these members while all this success and commitments were going on?   

BILL:  I wondered if Danny and John’s leaving would destroy our sound and wondered about the potential impact. The replacements were selected by our management; the group had no say about the matter, or so it seemed. That said, both Tom Boggs and Rick Allen came from well-known Memphis groups:  Tom from Tommy Burk and The Counts and later Flash and The Board of Directors; Rick from The Gentrys. Most of the perceived change came from various personality mixes and group interaction. Looking back, I now see the important contribution that Gary and I offered to our sound, in addition to Alex’s voice. In a way, the three of us formed the foundation of the group.   

GARY:  All of the hiring and firing was basically left up to our manager, Roy Mack.   

kk:  The band split up within a few years of their initial success.  What were some of the internal pressures that led to the break up of the band?   

BILL:  From my perspective, there were tensions, aggravated by grueling schedules and bad management.  A couple of the guys wanted to replace one of the others; two others wanted to replace another. I always abstained, fearing that changing members while on top of the charts was risky at best. Later, I left the group to return to school. Within a few months, they had replaced those members (and me, of course). Maybe Gary can fill in some of the remaining months’ pressures.   

GARY:  Some of the new members didn’t get along with each other. The band didn’t sound as good live and it was frustrating.  I was literally sick from touring. When Alex decided to quit in early 1970, I quit, too.   

And then suddenly, within the blink of an eye, fifty years went by!  

The Box Tops did reunite briefly in the late ‘90’s to do some shows and record a new album … but then lead singer Alex Chilton died and once again everything ground to a halt.  

Then, a couple of years ago, Rick Levy (who has worked with a number of big '60's acts, such as Tommy Roe, Herman's Hermits, Jay and the Techniques, Freddy Cannon and several others) comes along and says "Hey, let's revive the band."   

kk:  Rick, I guess the first question would have to be "How'd you even find these guys???"    

RICK LEVY:  I met Gary in 1996 in Nashville while shooting a TV show with Jay Proctor (Jay & the Techniques) at Union Station.  We chatted, and he told me of plans for all the original founding members of the BOX TOPS (Alex, Gary, Danny, John and Bill) to cut some tracks in Memphis.

We met for lunch, and had a long conversation about my involvement in the business as a player and manager / booker (Jay, Freddy Cannon, Dennis Yost, Barbara Lewis, etc.)  The Techniques’ calling card was that we were such a tight, good band that we usually backed up the other acts on a package.

I went to Memphis, stayed for a few days, listened to the sessions ... which became TEAR OFF, a great album … and talked with the guys about my helping them get some dates.  Well, that turned into 14 years, right up until Alex's death.  All of this was going on through my tenure with Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone, Jay & the Techniques, Tommy Roe, etc., so I did not perform with the Box Tops from 1996 – 2010 … I was strictly their manager, handled their bookings, etc.  It wasn’t until 2015 that Bill, Gary, and I discussed putting the act back together.

Bottom line ... We hit the road in 2016. Gary got some fabulous sidemen, Ron Krasinski on drums and Barry Walsh on keys … plus we use horns that we get locally for each show for the true Memphis sound. 

My role is manager, liason with Paradise Artists, our agency (they signed us after seeing us several times on the HAPPY TOGETHER TOUR ... I’ve known them for years and things are moving along nicely) and, as an added bonus, I get to perform every night with the band!  

kk:  Had you two stayed in touch during all this time?  I know Rick talked about a Box Tops reunion in the late '90's but after Alex's death had the two of you been talking about reviving the band again … or did that almost seem insurmountable in light of his passing?   

BILL:  Alex’s passing shut me down for years. People would ask us to play shows, but I didn’t think it worth the effort, and I was uncertain whether we could produce something worth seeing. Years later I saw Gary in Nashville before a session I was to do. Gary came along and the producer invited him to play, too. As soon as we started to play together on the first track, I could tell there was something special. After the session, Gary and I discussed working together again.   

GARY: I really didn’t think we’d ever play again after Alex died.  His voice was the most identifiable part of our sound. Six years went by, Bill and I played an a session in Nashville and we began to entertain the idea of playing together again.  We set up a rehearsal with drummer Ron Krasinski, and keyboardist Barry Walsh, who’d played with us before and it went really well.   

kk:  The most obvious question has to be regarding the missing element of lead singer Alex Chilton.  His sound was SO unique … for most of us, The Box Tops were defined by that sound.  You had to know going into this that there would be a lot of flack about not being able to create that sound on stage with the new band.   

BILL:  I thought Alex’s voice was critical to our sound … and it was. However, once I recognized what Gary and I had brought to our sound, instrumentally and vocally, I began to believe we could indeed offer something. It was an awakening that was hard for me to accept. Basically, the decision for me was affected by the answers to two questions:

1) Do we let fake groups cover our songs and dupe audiences, if we aren’t playing?  And …

2) Can we offer the songs in a respectable and entertaining way?   

GARY:  I was worried about being accepted as a singer and being compared to Alex.  I think Bill and I have become more comfortable in performing the songs, and there has been surprisingly little criticism about doing the songs without Alex as lead singer.   

kk:  One thing people have to realize is that at this point having Alex upfront is no longer an option.  It’s sad and unfortunate ... but also a very simple and true fact.  So in order to keep this great music alive, you guys have done the next best thing … and who better to present it than two of the guys who were there at the beginning?   

BILL:  Every night, before we perform “THE LETTER," I make it a point to thank all the fans on behalf of the original BOX TOPS … Alex Chilton, Danny Smythe, John Evans, Gary and myself.

We loved those guys ... but in the almost 100 shows we have played during this short 2 1/2 years' renaissance, I can count on one hand the number of comments I’ve hear expressing disappointment that Alex wasn’t there or that something was missing. His widow saw us in California, and hugged us all afterwards, saying how fantastic we sounded, and Alex would be proud and happy.    

kk:  Well, let me just say that the reaction to the reunion has been immediate … phenomenal … and even a bit overwhelming!  The Box Tops are already playing oldies cruises, partaking in The Happy Together Tour, the upcoming American Pop Tour with The Buckinghams and The Grass Roots as well as headlining their own shows.  (They'll be appearing at The Arcada Theatre this Friday night, May 4th,co-headlining with Chuck Negron, formerly of Three Dog Night … and tickets are still available at  What are some of the things you're hearing from the fans now that you're back in front of an audience again?   

BILL:  The audience and fan reaction has been very positive, which gives us the energy and confidence to continue. Even Alex fans have remarked how fun the show is! It’s such a pleasure to bring a smile to the faces and memories to the minds of those who come out to see us.    

GARY:  I’m really glad the audiences have been so receptive. It has been wonderful to be performing again. I’m happy about the cohesive sound of our rhythm section and the addition of Rick Levy on guitar and vocals is a definite plus.   

RICK:  As a long time manager and bandleader, I have never seen a group ... that has been out of the public eye for a significant period of time ... come back with such a rapid rise and critical acclaim from fans and promoters alike. The show is well-structured and well-paced, covering many aspects of the ‘60s Memphis music scene that soaked into the blue-eyed soul sound of the BOX TOPS.   

kk:  I've seen The Box Tops perform a couple of times now and it is a very satisfying show.  They don't hide from their past … in fact, they celebrate it with movies and slides playing on the backdrop behind them while they perform their hits (and the hits of other artists from this era, many with a strong Memphis sound.)  They admirably handle the vocals without trying to imitate Chilton … yet still retain much of the same feel of the original recordings.  If you’re able to catch these guys in concert, you won’t be disappointed.  Of course, you can keep up with all of the latest Box Tops news (including upcoming tour dates) here:

RICK:  Here’s what we know so far …  

May 4th – The Arcada Theatre with Chuck Negron

June 10th -  Ramshead ... Annapolis, MD ... headliners

June 15th – The Golden Nugget … Las Vegas ... headliners

June 16th - Dosey Doe … The Woodlands … Houston, TX … headliners

August 4th – Daryl’s House / Club ... Pawling, NY … headliners

August 8th - Cape May, NJ, Convention Hall ... headliners

August 25th - Kool Deadwood Nights, Deadwood,  SD ... headliners  

Plus March 30th - April 6th, 2019 - Flower Power Cruise with The Beach Boys, Tommy James, The Yardbirds, Jefferson Starship and more …

plus they also have several American Pop Shows in the works, and headline shows are being negotiated in NYC and Dallas.  

Be sure to check the website for updates as new shows are being added all the time.

left to right:  Gary Talley, Barry Walsh, Rick Levy, Ron Krasinski, Bill Cunningham

Gary, Bill and Rick