Born in Memphis in 1950, Alex Chilton quit school at the age of 16 to join Ronnie and the De Villes, a local group who had recently lost the services of their singer. Chilton’s musical tastes leaned more toward rock’n’roll and R&B than the white soul of the De Villes, but the group had built up a large local following.
The De Villes became the Box Tops and were soon spotted by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who, though more impressed by Chilton’s enigmatic presence and forceful voice than the talents of his colleagues – Bill Cunningham (bass), Gary Talley (guitar), Danny Smythe (drums), and John Evans (organ) – secured the group a contract with Mala Records.
Clocking in at just under two minutes, The Letter – the work of a hitherto unknown writer, Wayne Carson Thompson – is one of the shortest #1 hits in rock history.
And the gruff, raspy vocals heard on the song belong not to some grizzled veteran of the chitlin circuit but to a young kid on his first visit to a recording studio – Alex Chilton was only 17 when he sang on The Letter.
The single was recorded at American Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1967. Though it was launched against the prevailing winds of psychedelia in the summer of 1967, the single would not be denied its place on the charts, holding down the #1 position for four weeks.
The follow-up single, Neon Rainbow (also a Thompson composition), lacked the verve and immediacy of its predecessor, and it became obvious to the other band members that Penn and Oldham were only really interested in the voice and face of Alex Chilton.
John Evans and Danny Smythe left to be replaced by Rick Allen of The Gentrys – Memphis’ other successful white soul outfit – and Tom Boggs.
For the third single, Penn and Oldham came up with Cry Like A Baby, a brilliantly conceived blend of pop, soul and country – with a hint of psychedelia – featuring an immaculate, rasping vocal delivery from Chilton. The record went to #2 in February 1968 and became the group’s second million-seller.
Following this success, however, Penn and Oldham seemed hard-pressed to find material of equal strength; though Choo Choo Train and I Met Her In Church both made the Top 40, both were sluggish and half-hearted efforts. On album too, the producers could not channel Chilton’s vocal talents into a definable style.
The Letter, Neon Rainbow and Super Hits were padded out with fillers, including lame covers such as A Whiter Shade Of Pale, Burt Bacharach’s Trains And Boats and Planes and a bizarre re-working of You Keep Me Hangin’ On. The subsequent Nonstop revealed a similar lack of direction, veering between soul, the blues of Rock Me Baby and Chilton’s I Can Dig It, and the country and western of I’m Movin’ On.
The novelty tune Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March (a US #28 in January 1969) was followed by a feeble version of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, which crawled to #67 in May, but a third Wayne Carson Thompson composition, Soul Deep, restored some of the magic, deservedly reaching #18.
But the album Dimensions, released soon after, showed that ideas were still thin on the ground.
Early in 1970, Alex Chilton – tired of playing the (now somewhat fading) teen idol and fronting a hostile band – stormed off stage during a Box Tops performance, never to return.
The Box Top were together just three years, long enough to give us two classics and long enough for frontman Alex Chilton to begin one of the most remarkable journeys in American music, beginning when he formed the critically acclaimed Big Star with old school friend Chris Bell.
Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in New Orleans on 17 March 2010.