Friday, August 27, 2010

The Box Tops - The Letter/Neon Rainbow (1967)


During their brief lifespan, the Box Tops earned a reputation as one of the best blue-eyed soul groups of the '60s, even if their recorded legacy wasn't as large or consistent as, say, the Righteous Brothers or the Rascals. Today they're remembered not only for their smashes "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby," but as the launching pad for singer Alex Chilton, who went on to become one of rock's most revered cult figures thanks to his groundbreaking power pop unit Big Star.

In his teenage years, Chilton was an amazingly gritty Memphis soul belter akin to an American version of the Spencer Davis Group's Stevie Winwood. The Box Tops' music also encompassed touches of pop and psychedelia, although the group's own lack of control over it eventually led to their split-up.


The Box Tops began life as the Devilles, a white R&B group featuring guitarists Gary Talley and John Evans, bassist Bill Cunningham, and drummer Danny Smythe. After the band's local popularity blossomed, teenage singer Alex Chilton joined up, and the Devilles quickly caught the attention of songwriters/producers Chips Moman and Dan Penn, who were on the lookout for a Stevie Winwood-type white soul singer. Changing their name to the Box Tops to avoid confusion with a different group of the same name, they signed with Bell Records and began recording at Moman's Memphis-based American Studio. The first single the group cut, "The Letter," rocketed to the top of the charts in 1967, not only spending four weeks at number one but ending up as Billboard magazine's number one single of the year. (Chilton was all of 16 at the time.) With a hit on their hands, Penn began to exert more control over the group; in the wake of "The Letter," he frequently used session musicians on the Box Tops' recordings, sometimes replacing the whole band behind Chilton, sometimes just individual members. Frustrated, Evans and Smythe both left the band to return to school in early 1968, and were replaced by Rick Allen (ex-Gentrys) and Tom Boggs, respectively.

The follow-up to "The Letter," "Neon Rainbow," didn't do nearly as well, but the Box Tops managed another massive hit in 1968 with the Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham tune "Cry Like a Baby," which went to number two on the pop charts. Although a couple of minor hits followed in "I Met Her in Church" and "Choo Choo Train," Chilton was rapidly growing dissatisfied with the inconsistency of the material the Box Tops were handed (which was clear on the three LPs the group had released through 1968). As a result, Chilton was chafing at Penn's extreme reluctance to allow him to record his own original compositions. By the time of the Box Tops' fourth and final LP, 1969's Dimensions (an attempt to make a more cohesive album), Penn had bowed out and moved on to other projects. Several Chilton songs appeared on Dimensions, including "I Must Be the Devil," and the group had one last minor hit with "Soul Deep." Cunningham subsequently departed, also to go back to school, and the Box Tops began to disintegrate. When their contract expired in February 1970, they officially disbanded, and Chilton moved to Greenwich Village for a while. Not finding the creative hospitality he'd hoped for, Chilton soon returned to Memphis and joined an Anglo-pop outfit run by his friend Chris Bell; they morphed into Big Star, one of the most revered and mercurial bands in power pop (or, for that matter, underground rock & roll) history.




It has since been revealed that most of the music on the Box Tops' records — with the exception of (ironically) "The Letter" — was done by session men. Even as early as the first album, this method cut both ways. It ensured a Southern soul professionalism that the young band likely couldn't have conjured on their own, but also worked against the development of a solid group identity, particularly as Alex Chilton was allowed to record very little of his own material. In fact, there are no Chilton songs on this debut, a spotty affair showing every indication of having been assembled very quickly in the wake of "The Letter" soaring to number one. Although "The Letter" author Wayne Carson Thompson and the Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham team wrote most of the songs, their blue-eyed soul compositions are surprisingly journeyman, with nothing nearly as outstanding as "The Letter," save maybe the follow-up hit "Neon Rainbow." Chilton's vocals are strong and, for the most part, as gritty as those on "The Letter." Has there every been another case in pop history when a teenager sounded like a wizened adult at the outset of his career, but his voice became higher and more youthful in subsequent years? The 2000 Sundazed reissue adds four bonus tracks: the mono single versions of "The Letter" and "Neon Rainbow," the routine non-LP 45 track "Turn on a Dream," and the previously unreleased "Georgia Farm Boy." The last of these, a plaintive country-soul tune, is credited to "Newbury," presumably Mickey Newbury (the liner notes don't give a first name or initial).
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