10/9/14 – The Box Tops – The Letter – 1967

Box Tops B:WThe blue-eyed soul of 1967 was immortalised in this classic tune featuring future member of unsuccessful seventies cult band Big Star, Alex Chilton as a 16 year old singer with a raspy voice.

The band are performing on the American TV show Upbeat out of Cleveland and cannot take it seriously (teenagers having fun). Hailing from Memphis, on the keyboards with the grin is John Evans, Larry Spillman on drums (I think, it could be Danny Smythe), Bill Cunningham on bass and Gary Talley on guitar. Spillman soon left for college as did John Evans and consequently avoided Vietnam. Cunningham went the same route – soldier in Vietnam or study? That was the choice being in a band wasn’t an option if you were drafted, even if your debut single was a hit.

The Letter was written by Country musician and songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson who also wrote Always On My Mind, a hit for Willie Nelson and also recorded by Elvis. It was produced by Dan Penn who was a blue-eyed soul singer in his own right. The Letter was a US No.1 selling four million copies (Uk No.5) and stayed at the top of the charts for four weeks. It was also a hit in Canada, Australia, Israel, Germany, France, Greece and so on! Other hits followed, Cry Like A Baby was the biggest (No.2), Choo Choo reached No.17, I Met Her In Church No.41 and two more Wayne Carson Thompson songs that also did well with high chart positions, Neon Rainbow N0.24 and Soul Deep No.18 (No.7 in Australia).

In 1970 the Talley and Chilton decided to break The Box Tops up but as the name was owned by the management company they released more tracks with Chilton singing and eventually reformed the band with non-original members. (The Box Tops released their records through Mala, a subsidiary of Bell records). All this success and puppeteering by labels and management must have had a profound affect on the teenage Alex Chilton and Big Star’s descent into obscurity must have hurt after the massive success of his former band.

Chilton died in 2010 of a heart attack and that was the same year I was playing at SXSW and was going to see him there, he never made it. I did see him twice live, both times in New York, one time there was hardly anyone there another time it was half empty. The last time I saw him was at The Knitting factory – “This is a Michael jackson song” he said. Everyone laughed. “Seriously” he said and went on to play Rock With You. He had the voice, he nailed it, he made it great, he made it his own, who else could do that to a song by Michael Jackson? RIP Alex we miss you.