The Box Tops Defined ’60s Pop to ‘The Letter’
WARREN, Ohio – Every conversation about The Box Tops begins with “The Letter.”
The 1967 song hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts and then went global, cracking the top 10 in several countries.
“The Letter” continues to reverberate, but these days it’s because of the memories of the era that it stirs.
It will be the ’60s all over again when The Box Tops come to Robins Theatre on Friday, Jan. 6, along with two other hitmaking bands – The Buckinghams and The Association.
The show – part of the theater’s 100th anniversary celebration weekend – is a stop on the three bands’ American Pop tour. Each act will get about 40 minutes on stage to play a set that will include one hit after another.
The Box Tops recently recorded about a dozen of their old songs so that fans can keep the experience going long after the show ends.
Bill Cunningham, bassist and – along with guitarist Gary Talley – one of the two original band members still performing, explained the impetus behind the album in a phone interview.
“People come to the show, love it and want to take it home with them,” Cunningham said. “They know our recordings, but when they see our show, they’re reminded [of the past] because a couple of [original members] are still playing. They want to hear what they heard at the show, so we got in the studio.”
Cunningham stressed that the album, which is also available at boxtops.com, was not recorded live in concert but captures the essence of the live show.
“We recorded it so that it sounds like the show,” he said. “It has the same arrangements, verses, breaks, horns and solos, and will remind you of the show. It also sounds like the original recordings, too. It’s somewhere between the two.”
One song on the album was recorded at the home of Darryl Hall of Hall and Oates, as part of his “Live from Darryl’s House” video series.
In addition to “The Letter,” the band’s Top 40 hits include “Cry like a Baby,” “Soul Deep,” “Choo Choo Train,” “Neon Rainbow,” “I Met Her in Church” and “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March.”
For those who are still in the holiday spirit, The Box Tops also just recorded its first Christmas album, “Happy Holly Daze,” which can also be ordered from the group’s website.
Talking with Cunningham can be a pop-rock history lesson. The son of a session player at the famed Sun Records in Memphis who played on early Elvis Presley records, he was in the right place at the right time.
The band that would become The Box Tops was founded by 16-year-old singer Alex Chilton at a Memphis high school. Chilton brought in his school mate Cunningham, who was 17 at the time. They became part of the city’s heyday as a rock and soul capital.
“Memphis was special,” Cunningham said. “It started in the ’50s. You could argue that the first rock song was recorded there – ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenton. [Record producer] Sam Phillips had Sun Records there, and a lot of Black artists from the delta, like Howlin’ Wolf, recorded there.
“Sam was always looking for crossover acts, and Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins turned up.”
When the second Memphis movement arrived, buoyed by the soul acts on Stax Records, Cunningham became part of the scene, which included legends like Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.
In fact, Cunningham played bass on Hayes’ landmark song “The Theme from Shaft,” which was recorded in Memphis in 1971. It became a national hit and part of the soundtrack of the 1971 movie.
The Box Tops recorded their hits in the mid- to late 1960s at American Recording Studio in Memphis, amid the British Invasion era.
“We put [American Recording] on the map,” Cunningham said.
Other major artists, including Presley, Neil Diamond and BJ Thomas, would later record there.
As for the stunning early success of “The Letter,” which came when all of the members of The Box Tops were still teenagers, the memory remains as fresh for Cunningham.
He’s still a little stunned.
“I thought it would get us gigs at skating rinks and church festivals,” he recalled. “Then it became a national hit and then an international hit.”
Pictured at top: Gary Talley, Bill Cunningham, Rick Levy and Ron Krasinski perform during a Box Tops concert.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.