Box Tops reunion runs soul deep with Chilton

Garry Talley and Danny Smythe, founding members of the Memphis pop-soul combo the Box Tops, hadn't seen each other in nearly 30 years. And yet merely half-an-hour after they met to record a new album, the guitarist and drummer, along with original bandmates Alex Chilton (vocals), Bill Cunningham (bass) and John Evans (keyboards), were playing together again. The reunited band hunkered down at Easley Recording, the Memphis studio where such '90s indie-rockers as Pavement and Guided by Voices have done some of their most inspired work.

What the group was doing at Easley wasn't so much the question as why? With their biggest hits -- "The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby" and "Soul Deep" -- in heavy rotation on oldies radio, why risk self-parody with a pale imitation of their former glory? And why invite comparisons to Chilton's other band, '70s underground popsters Big Star, one of the most influential groups of the post-punk era?

Such considerations apparently didn't affect the Box Tops' decision to return to the studio. "Our bass player, Bill Cunningham, just started calling everybody," explains Talley. "He thought it might be fun to record together again.;"I had always wanted to get back together and do something," Talley continues. "I was kind of surprised that Alex wanted to do it again. Like when Bill called everybody, I said ‘Sure, if Alex will do it, I'll do it.' I didn't want to do it without him. His voice was the identity of the group."

Chilton's urgent vocals certainly galvanized the Box Tops' gritty mix of Anglo-pop, Southern soul and psychedelia; interestingly enough, though, he wasn't a part of the band's original lineup. According to Dan Penn, the legendary soul singer and songwriter ("Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "Dark End of the Street") who produced the band's first three albums, the group -- billed as Ronnie & the De-Villes -- had another singer in tow named Ron Jordan when Penn gave them a demo of Wayne Carson's "The Letter" to learn and record.

"The first singer they brought me had too-much attitude," remembers Penn, referring to his initial encounter with the group. Penn knew he needed a different singer, so the band left and came back with a 16-year-old Chilton. "He was a great little rock & roll singer. After we cut the basic tracks for "The Letter," I overdubbed strings, horns and the airplane on the fade. Then I mixed her down. I thought we had a pretty good little record, but I didn't know it was that good."

Indeed, "The Letter," a two-minute burst of lean, blue-eyed soul, topped the pop charts in mid-1967. The Box Tops went on to record four LPs, including five more Top 30 singles, before they called it quits in 1970. They toured with the Beach Boys and the Rascals and played dates with the Doors and the MC5. "We were just a bunch of high-school kids. I was the oldest guy in the band at 19," says Talley. "We went on the road in 1967 totally inexperienced. The only songs we could play were ‘The Letter' and some cover tunes."

Back then, the Box Tops were just finding their way musically. The group's live shows didn't always capture the energy of their recordings. "We're playing so much better now than we did back in the '60s," he says. "And we're touring with a horn section, something that we didn't get to do back then, even though we had the Memphis Horns on our records."

The group's new album "Tear Off!" reprises some of the band's original 1967 repertoire. The best material on the record -- affecting versions of hits by Percy Sledge, Sam Cooke, and Wilson Pickett -- approximates the Box Tops' best late-'60s recordings. The one new song on the disc, the Talley-penned "Last Laugh," would have been a terrific follow-up to "Soul Deep," the group's final chart hit. Despite a tepid remake of "The Letter" and a few too-many covers of overly familiar hits from the '50s and '60s, the album exudes looseness, good times and spontaneity -- essential elements when reuniting a legendary band with their fans.

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