When The Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton — also legendary for fronting Big Star — died in 2010, it seemed The Box Tops had also been laid to rest.
“It destroyed me and I just was determined not to play probably ever again,” says fellow founding member bassist Bill Cunningham. But when a chance recording session brought him and Box Tops guitarist Gary Talley together in Nashville — it was for a tribute to their first producer, Dan Penn — the unthinkable began to feel inevitable.
“Once I heard Gary and I together, I thought maybe there was something more than just Alex’s voice on our records,” says Cunningham, who along with Talley, Rick Levy, Ron Krasinski and Barry Walsh, will bring The Box Tops to Cafe Wha? in Manhattan on Aug. 3 and Daryl’s House in Pawling, NY, on Aug. 4. “Alex was a dear friend, we miss him, we wish we could bring him back but we can’t, and people wanted to hear the songs, so I figured if we could put together a show that was meaningful and something that I’d like to go to and see, then I can do it. If it’s anything less than that, I couldn’t do it.
“When we first started talking about or actually trying to do a rehearsal, people were always in my ear about how’s so and so, or this guy sounds like Alex, or this guy won ‘The Voice,’ and I just refused to take on any kind of lead singer to replace Alex. First of all, you can’t replace Alex in my life anyway, and I just figured if people want to hear our catalog, then Gary and I are going to sing The Box Tops’ songs.”
It’s not the first Box Tops reunion; the group, founded in 1967 and lasting until 1970, reformed with Chilton in 1996 and played until he passed in 2010. But the current iteration, started in 2015, is the first Box Tops revival without him. The response from audiences, Cunningham says, has been “surprisingly great.”
“The show goes over really well, not only with people we don’t know. Even friends and family members that have seen the shows both with Alex and with Gary and me leading have been amazed at how good the show is and how satisfying it is. So it’s a lot of fun.”
The New York shows, Cunningham says, will be about more than the music.
“A lot of people in New York knew Alex and knew us; we did Tramps and it was packed, and we played a number of places in New York, and New Yorkers have always loved The Box Tops and The Box Tops’ songs, as well as Alex and his independent stuff,” he says. “The show is us playing our singles for the most part. There are maybe two covers, everything other than that we recorded and it’s done in a way that comes with sort of backline stories behind some of the songs and how things came about, which everybody seems to just love because it personalizes it.
“If you come to the show and you know ‘The Letter’ and maybe ‘Cry Like A Baby,’ when you leave this show you really sort of know us. So it builds us not only into the shared experience of doing the show but the recollections of hearing the tunes if you’re anywhere near my age or if you’re younger, whatever the tunes mean to you. You also get a familiarity with Memphis, with Memphis music and how we fit in.”
Coming together in Memphis and working with Penn, who not only produced the early records but co-wrote some of them, including the hit “Cry Like A Baby,” made The Box Tops stand out from their late-60s rock peers. “After those early recordings we didn’t always have an absolutely identifiable sound that we couldn’t change, but we were already being misunderstood and labeled,” Cunningham shares. “That was influenced a lot by Dan Penn, our first producer. He set the groundwork and showed us what to do and that actually led to a lot of problems as well. Alex wanted to be a lot freer and Dan had his ideas about what he wanted and that sometimes didn’t go down so well, but it certainly was AM radio-friendly.”
While trends in rock and pop, and the technology and business models employed to deliver music, has changed dramatically since the ’60s, the spirit of the decade remains as bands like The Rolling Stones and Dead and Company (featuring Grateful Dead members) fill stadiums. Ray Davies, frontman of the long-feuding Kinks, recently announced the band would be reuniting. Why does ’60s music have such staying power?
“First of all let me say that I think it’s great that Ray and his brother and the drummer are all getting together because Ray’s always been very creative, all of them have been,” Cunningham says. “The Kinks were one of my favorite bands as a kid so that’s meaningful to me, and Ray was a fan of Alex as well.
“I think the ‘60s can probably be broken down into three sections: the early ‘60s, which transitioned searching from where do you go from standard rock and roll and a lot of Brill Building stuff, then you end up in the middle part with the British Invasion, starting with The Beatles and of course The Beach Boys and everyone from here, and then the late ‘60s, the Summer of Love, where we came in with The Doors and Hendrix and all of this reshaping and all of the soul music that came out as well. All of that period was really, really magical. There was so much creativity and every band and every artist sounded different from others, almost every one of them. You listen to ‘Green Tambourine’ or you listen to something by The Rolling Stones, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ or something, and Jose Feliciano or Richie Havens. You had the folk stuff, you had the rock stuff, you had the blues stuff, you had the soul stuff. You had radio at that time that wasn’t so segmented. … You heard everything, and it was all coming at you, and I think the technology to record and broadcast improved greatly from the ’50s and it made it clear and good and listenable.”
In addition to touring the U.S., The Box Tops will be featured on “1968,” a German TV special, on Sept. 6. They’ll perform “The Letter.” Also scheduled to appear are folk legend Donovan and actor Peter Fonda.
The Box Tops will perform at Cafe Wha? (115 Macdougal St., New York, NY) on Friday, Aug. 3. For more info, visit the venue website. They’ll also perform on Saturday, Aug. 4 at Daryl’s House (130 Route 22, Pawling, NY). For more info, visit the venue website.