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Jeff Moehlis: The Box Tops to Deliver ‘The Letter’ to Chumash Casino Resort

It's one of many hit bands on the Happy Together Tour

Bill Cunningham, left, Gary Talley and Rick Levy of The Box Tops will perform at the Chumash Casino Resort on July 14 with other hit artists for the Happy Together Tour. Click to view larger
Bill Cunningham, left, Gary Talley and Rick Levy of The Box Tops will perform at the Chumash Casino Resort on July 14 with other hit artists for the Happy Together Tour. (Courtesy photo)

There was definitely something special in the air 50 years ago in 1967, arguably the greatest year of rock 'n' roll music. The bands, albums and songs from that year are truly far out, man!

One of the No. 1 songs from 1967 was "The Letter" by The Box Tops, a Memphis-based band that released it as their first single. Sung by the late Alex Chilton, this slice of blue-eyed soul was popular worldwide, including among the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

The Box Tops went on to release other singles such as "Neon Rainbow" and "Cry Like a Baby" before disbanding in 1970. Their current lineup, which includes original lead guitarist Gary Talley and bassist Bill Cunningham, will be performing as part of the Happy Together Tour, which visits the Chumash Casino Resort on July 14. Tickets are available online by clicking here.

Also on the program are two other bands with No. 1 songs in 1967 — The Turtles ("Happy Together") and The Association ("Windy") — plus Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night, The Cowsills and The Archies.

Cunningham talked to Noozhawk about the upcoming show and the history of The Box Tops.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming show?

Bill Cunningham: Hit after hit after hit.

JM: Did you know any of the other people on this tour in the '60s when The Box Tops were first together?

BC: Well, I guess the definition of "know" is the important thing. We certainly worked with The Turtles a number of times, and we also worked with Three Dog Night a number of times. We worked with The Cowsills at least once that I remember, and maybe more. Ron Dante — we didn't work with him as far as I know, but that doesn't mean we didn't, it just means I don't recall it. But we didn't really hang out with them when we did shows with them. We probably never spoke to them, or didn't say much. So this is our first real getting-to-know-one-another traveling around on buses together.

JM: I'm sure you're well aware that the song "The Letter" turns 50 years old this year. What do remember about how that song came together, and the recording of that?

BC: The most striking thing, I think, was just the way the record sounded once it was recorded, and then the strings and the horns were put on, and then Dan Penn put the airplane on the end of it. When it came out on a single, the single just jumped out of the speakers at the time. There were certain records, certain singles that would do that. Not too many, but "The Letter" was one of them, and I thought that was pretty cool.

JM: That was the band's first single and it went up to No. 1. Was it pretty crazy to have that happen?

BC: Well, it was shocking, because I was just expecting it maybe to do something locally in Memphis, and maybe around the region, and then we would get more sock hop dates. I don't think a lot of us thought that it would go to the top of the national charts, let alone internationally.

JM: What was it like to be in a band with Alex Chilton?

BC: Well, I could tell you what it was like to grow up with him. We went to the same elementary school. We were originally from the same neighborhood, and then he moved to Midtown because of a certain event with his family. Then we hooked back up. I guess we were 13 or 14. We were born the same year, but I was born at the beginning of the year and he was born at the end of the year. I was working with Chris Bell, who later was with Alex in the group called Big Star. We were working in Chris' first band called The Jynx. We tried to get Alex to sing with us, because he was always at the gigs and with the same crowds that we were. He was unreliable as far as turning up to rehearsals, but he always sang great. The Box Tops — he called me in to do what eventually became The Box Tops.

But what he was like? I mean, Alex to me was always Alex. He was the same when he was 13 as he was when he was 17 or 18, or later when he was in his mid-30s, 40s or 50s. A lot of people misunderstood Alex, I think. A lot of people will write things about him, saying that he could be cantankerous or avoided people, but he was actually a very kind soul in a lot of ways, just somewhat misunderstood in my opinion.

JM: After The Box Tops, you performed and recorded with some cool artists. Are there any that really stick out to you?

BC: I was doing a lot of classical work, rising through the ranks there. I was doing a lot of recording in string sections, like I played contrabass on Isaac Hayes' "Shaft," and then Isaac used me on a couple of live gigs together. Actually I ended up hooking up with Chris Bell later. I wrote some string parts for him, and played contrabass on some of his recordings. There were just so many artists, like Dionne Warwick.

JM: I love the song "Shaft." What was that experience like, working on that one?

BC: I was doing the string section, and the tracks had already been laid down. I just went in and recorded and read charts. There was me and about four other string players — two violins, a violist and a cellist.

JM: Did you realize that song would be a classic when you did it?

BC: No, no. I mean, no one knows what will happen. I have no idea whenever I lay something down. Even if I like it, it doesn't matter in some way. That won't tell you if it's going to be successful. I can tell you whether I like it or not, and I liked it, but I had no idea, and I don't think anyone else really understood it.

JM: Is it fun for you to be out there with Gary [Talley] revisiting those songs 50 years later?

BC: Yes, it's still fun to play those songs. For a long time after Alex passed I refused to do anything. But Gary and I got together — we were asked to do a session down in Nashville, and when we started playing there was something unique about it, and I thought that maybe there was something more to The Box Tops than just Alex's voice. Everybody had been telling us to play, to go out. I felt, if they want to hear The Box Tops songs, I'm not going to replace Alex, to just find somebody that sounds like Alex. Gary and I are going to sing the songs. And people have reacted well to that, and it is fun, and I'm happy that people are able to hear the songs that they're interested in hearing.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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