Chart-topping Boxtops to perform at Robins with Association, Buckinghams

The Box Tops -- which includes, from left, Gary Talley, Bill Cunningham and Rick Levy -- perform Friday at the Robins Theatre in Warren as part of triple bill with The Association and The Buckinghams. (Submitted photo)

Some bands toil for years trying to find that one song that clicks with audiences and radio programmers and becomes a commercial hit. Most acts never find one.

The Box Tops did it with its first single.

“The Letter” topped the charts in 1967 and took a band that was playing Memphis bars to touring with the Beach Boys and The Doors.

Fifty-five years later, original members Gary Talley, guitar and vocals, and Bill Cunningham, bass and vocals, still are playing “The Letter” and other hits in the current lineup with Rick Levy, guitar and vocals; Ron Krasinski, drums; and Mike Stewart, keyboards.

The Box Tops will perform Friday as part of a triple bill with The Association and The Buckinghams at the Robins Theatre as part of its 100th anniversary weekend.

Then again, it wasn’t “The Box Tops” that recorded “The Letter.”

“When I joined the band, it was The DeVilles, not The Box Tops,” Talley said during a telephone interview. “After we did ‘The Letter,’ we realized The DeVilles was already a trademarked name. Our manager, I think, found the name The Box Tops. We thought it was weird. We didn’t like it. Then the record got to be number one and I guess it’s not a bad name after all.”

Among the fans of the song were the soldiers stationed in Vietnam, many of whom received their own “Dear John” letters overseas.

“At the time of the recording, it never really occurred to me, but after it was released, I found out it was a big hit with the Vietnam guys,” Talley said. “I had friends over there and they said the same thing.”

The band still hears stories from vets about how that song helped them deal with a painful breakup.

“That’s a great feeling,” Talley said. “That’s beyond anything the music business itself could give you. It’s a wonderful feeling to know we helped in some way.”

Other hits followed “The Letter.” “Cry Like a Baby,” “Soul Deep,” “Neon Rainbow,” “Choo Choo Train,” “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March” and “I Met Her in Church” all were top 40 hits.

Talley said the band toured pretty much nonstop from 1967 until 1970, although he tells an all-too-familiar story that the band’s management saw far more money from The Box Tops’ success than the musicians did. Talley made more money from a radio commercial the band did for Coke than he did from many of the records.

“Our manager was kind of a crook,” he said. “He cheated us out of a lot of money. I guess the Coke money was something he couldn’t get his hands on. It didn’t get siphoned off.

“We didn’t know anything about the music business. It wasn’t really until late ’68, early ’69 that we realized there wasn’t much we could do about it. That’s part of the reason some of the guys quit. Alex (Chilton) and I were still in the band in February 1970. All the original guys had quit because they realized we weren’t going to get our money, and we were exhausted from being on the road. Our manager kept us out making money for him. Alex was writing his own songs, and that was a big reason why we quit, because we were getting cheated.”

Chilton, who died in 2010, went on to form Big Star, which didn’t match The Box Tops’ commercial success, but it influenced acts like R.E.M., Wilco, The Bangles and The Replacements (who have a song called “Alex Chilton”).

Talley worked as a studio musician and songwriter and toured as a backing musician for different artists. The one he enjoyed the most was Billy Preston.

“I got to play with Billy Preston in the ’90s,” Talley said. “He was just the most joyful musical person I had ever met. Any time he was playing music, he was on top of the world, very happy. It was so infectious playing with him. It was just a blast because he was so into the music and so good and so soulful and enthusiastic. I just loved playing with him.”

Talley also became a guitar teacher, helping songwriters improve their craft by improving their guitar skills. He created an instructional DVD and wrote for American Songwriter magazine for 12 years.

“So many songwriters in Nashville that play guitar, there are pretty common things that most of them didn’t know that professional guitar players knew,” he said. “I started teaching guitar to songwriters in Nashville. There was a huge market for that … Most of the beginning songwriters and even a lot of the older songwriters, they’re not good on guitar and getting good on the guitar and understanding music and chord progressions, it can really help your songwriting a lot.”

Talley rejoined The Box Tops in 1996, and the band released the album “Tear Off” two years later.

The band has done some package tours, like taking part in the 2017 edition of the “Happy Together” tour organized annually by Flo & Eddie of The Turtles, but these days the band mostly plays weekend dates, sometimes as lone act and sometimes playing with other hitmakers from the ’60s, which is what it will be doing Friday at the Robins.

“Any time you work with other bands you know, people you know, it’s a lot of fun. The shows are fun and hanging out in the green room is a lot of fun.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today