The Box Tops
Wayne Carson Thompson, a Grammy-winning songwriter for “Always On My Mind,” credits his father with inspiring “The Letter.” “He was a songwriter of sorts. He would come up with ideas and pass them on to me, and say ‘If you can do anything with this, then go ahead.’ All he had was ‘Give me a ticket for an aeroplane.” I took that one line and wrote the rest of the words and the melody.” (1)
Alex Chilton had spent his early Memphis years around music. Joining a number of bands but never really satisfied with a their direction, he skipped from group to group until he received an offer to join The Devilles, a top band around Memphis music scene. The Devilles had to fire their previous lead singer and were looking for someone to replace him that had a “black sound.”
Devilles’ guitarist Gary Talley, spotted the fifteen-year-old Chilton at a high school talent show where Alex sang In The Midnight Hour and Sunny. Talley, then nineteen-years old, remembered the event. “He reminded me of Eric Burdon of the Animals, definitely a soulful kind of sound.” Afterward he spotted Alex puffing on a Camel outside the school. “I thought he looked like a little punk.” (2)
Looks aside, it was guitarist/keyboardist John Evans who contacted Alex about the lead singer spot. Alex agreed to come to the audition at drummer Daniel Smythe’s house. There was only one problem. “Can you pick me up? I’m only fifteen, so I don’t have my license yet,” Alex told him. (3)
The lineup for this meeting included, Evans, Smythe, guitarist Richard Malone and bassist Russ Caccamisi. The band knew Chilton was a perfect fit when he belted out Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally and Bobby Hebb’s Sunny. With three gigs scheduled over the next few weeks, the Devilles had found their new lead singer. Alex believed he hit the Memphis big time. “I can make $100 every weekend! You could support a family on $100 a week in 1966.” (4)
In the fall of 1966, the previous incarnation of the Devilles cut a few sides at Chips (nicknamed for his predilection with gambling) Moman’s American Sound Studio. The records received some regional play but never broke nationally. With some bookings, the new group developed some chops and was ready to return to the studio in April of 1967.
Chips Moman was a guitar prodigy growing up in Georgia who hitchhiked to Memphis at the age of 15. He toured with Dorsey and Johnny Burnette, worked with Brenda Lee and replaced James Burton when Rick Nelson needed a lead guitar player. He also worked at Stax Records as a producer on the Mar-Kays’ hit, Last Night. Breaking with Stax after a dispute about money, he founded American Sound Studio.
Moman met Dan Penn, a songwriter from Alabama who wrote Conway Twitty’s hit, Is A Bluebird Blue. Penn was employed at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals as an engineer but expressed his desire to produce to Moman, who encouraged him to move to Memphis so the two could collaborate and Penn could produce cuts at American. Moman and Penn put their songwriting talents together and wrote Do Right Woman, Do Right Man for Aretha Franklin. Enter Wayne Carson Thompson.
Thompson arrived in Memphis in the fall of 1966 to make a recording and pitch some songs he had written. “I had three numbers on my little demo tape,” Wayne remembers. “The first song was called White Velvet Gloves, the second song I don’t remember, and the third one had a phrase from my dad’s story: ‘ticket for an aeroplane.’ It was called The Letter.” (5)
Moman handed the demos to the Devilles with instructions to learn one of Thompson’s songs. With Dan anxious to produce a group, Chips gave him his first-ever opportunity. “I wanted to produce a hit record, and that was in my mind day and night,” said Dan. “I’d told Chips, ‘You’re a great producer, but I want to cut my own record and I don’t even want you there. Find me somebody to cut around here.’” (5)
The Devilles listened to the three songs and chose The Letter. “We worked out the chords to The Letter,” said Alex, “and used the same opening guitar lick that was on the original demo—just voice and guitar.” (5)
At the studio, the Devilles expected Chip to be there. Instead they got Dan—dressed in Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt with one sleeve rolled up around a pack of Luckies. Not impressed, the group thought they were getting Chip who had produced The Gentrys’ Keep On Dancing in this very studio. The tension eased as Penn set the group through the paces.
The Box Tops around 1967. L-R: John Evans, Bill Cunningham, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley, Danny Smythe.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images.
The lineup for the group at the studio was Smythe on drums, Malone on guitar, Evans on organ and Caccamisi on bass with Chilton singing live as the band was playing. “We set up and started running the tune down,” Alex remembered. “[Dan] adjusted a few things on the organ sound, told the drummer not to do anything at all except the basic rhythm that was called for. No rolls, no nothin’. The bass player was playing pretty hot stuff, so he didn’t mess with what the bass player was doing.” Dan recalled, “The guitar player had the lick right—we copied Wayne’s demo. Then I asked the keyboard player to play an I’m a Believer type of thing.”
“After Dan got all the instruments sounding the way he wanted them to sound, we started running it down in earnest,” remembered Alex. “I was a little bit intimidated by my surroundings and I was singing kind of softly. Then Dan came out [of the control booth] and said, ‘I really want you to lay into this.’ And he started rocking back and forth and started singing it. Dan showed me what he had in mind for the song, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can sound something like that.”’ (6)
Penn recalled Alex in the studio. "I coached him a little ... told him to say 'aer-o-plane' and told him to get a little gruff. I didn't have to say anything else to him, he was hookin’ 'em, a natural singer.” (7) Penn later explained, "Alex picked it up exactly as I had in mind, maybe even better. I hadn't even paid any attention to how good he sang because I was busy trying to put the band together ... I had a bunch of greenhorns who'd never cut a record, including me." (8)
There is some discrepancy regarding the number of takes for the basic track. One source estimates “about thirty takes were required for the basic track.” (9) Another source claims the basic track needed five or six takes, lasting a minute and a half that made it to tape using two tracks of the three-track recording. (10)
The Box Tops around 1968. L-R Gary Talley, Alex Chilton, Bill Cunningham, Tom Boggs and Rick Allen.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images.
Dan Penn had some ideas on overdubs that would increase the length of the track to two minutes. Like other cities, Memphis had a group of go-to musicians for recording sessions. Chips Morman used a group known as the Memphis Boys. Unique among them was Mike Leech for his ability to read and write music. Leech was hired by Penn to write string and horn arrangements for The Letter. “My very first string arrangement was The Letter,” Mike told Roben Jones author of Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios. “Dan called me to come into the studio and play some things on the [Hammond B3] organ while he listened in the control room. When I played something he liked he would tell me to ‘write that down.’ . . . After he was satisfied with the arrangement he asked me if I had other ideas and I suggested the two trombones. He liked the idea and said, ‘Do it.’ The string section consisted of two violins and one viola.” (9)
Dan then hired members of the Memphis Symphony for the string section. “Dan liked the Memphis Strings because ‘they just had this barbecue sound,’ Mike remembered. “The Memphis Strings were a little sloppy. Downbeats were a matter of opinion. But they had a soulful sound. ” (9)
The mix was coming along but there was a problem at the end of the song where Alex stopped singing and the strings continued to play. It occurred to Penn that the sound of a jet plane was just what the track needed. Dan checked out a sound effects LP from the library that included airplanes. He overdubbed the sound of a jet taking off and soaring into the clouds during the last 20 seconds of the song with keys and strings as the backing track. “That was a big part of the record,” said Dan. “When I finished it up, I played it for Chips, and he said, ‘That’s a pretty good little rock & roll record, but you’ve got to take that airplane off it.’ I said, ‘If the record’s going out, it’s going out with the airplane on it.’ He said, ‘Okay, it’s your record.’” (11)
The next step for producer Dan was to find a label to release it. Larry Uttal, who ran New York-based Bell Records, stopped by the studio to hear the latest tracks by Bell artists, James and Bobby Purify. Dan played The Letter for Uttal, who immediately wanted it for his label. A deal was struck with two conditions imposed by Uttal: First, he needed a B-Side. Second, a new name for the group as the Devilles was already in use.
The name change came first. Again, there are multiple versions on how the moniker was derived. According to songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson, “One of the guys said, ‘Let’s have a contest and everybody can send in fifty cents and a box top.’ Dan and me looked at each other, and Penn said, ‘Hell, that sounds great,’ and named ‘em the Box Tops.” (1) Russ Caccamisi recalled a different story. “I was sitting at the kitchen table at the Chiltons’ one Saturday morning, eating a bowl of cornflakes with Alex and John Evans. We were talking about the band name,” Russ said. “I remember Alex’s grandfather, Howard, coming in to get a bowl of cereal. He opened the cereal box and said, ‘Hey, your first album could be The Box Tops Tear Off!’ As he tore the top off this cereal box, we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah!’” (12)
Before the B-side could be recorded, the band had experienced a few roster changes. By late May, guitarist Richard Malone quit the group as his father, a Navy man, was transferred to San Diego. Bassist Russ Caccamisi quit to enroll at Mississippi State in June. Needing a track quickly, Dan enlisted the talents of his house band: guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons, and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill. This core unit would eventually play on approximately 122 hits recorded at American between 1967 and 1972. (13)
The song chosen was Happy Times, co-written by Dan. With the backing track recorded, all that was needed was Alex’s vocal and some background shouts by the rest of the group. “Nobody was happy about it,” Russ remembered, “but nobody gave a shit about the flip side. It was a dreadful song, but you had to have something on the back.” (12)
Richard was replaced by nineteen-year-old guitarist Gary Talley and Russ with Bill Cunningham, a bassist/keyboard player who was touring with Ronny & The Daytonas and The Hombres. With the personnel moves complete, Mala Records, a Bell subsidiary released The Letter.
Radio station programmers loved the song for its commercial sound and the fact it was under two minutes long. “We were driving through Tennessee, and our manager, unbeknownst to us, had arranged with a Knoxville disc jockey friend to play The Letter on the air just as we were passing through,” Bill Cunningham recalled. “Five days later we came back through town, and they were playing it every thirty minutes. So the manager calls his friend and tells him not to overdo it . . . and the DJ says, ‘No, no, this thing’s broken big. It’s a huge hit!’” (14)
The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 on August 12, 1967. (15) By September 23rd, The Letter landed the #1 spot where it stayed for the next four weeks. (16) “ “I remember we were on the road, and in Virginia,” said Gary. “Road manager Buddy Alfonso was on the phone with our manager, and he got off the phone and said, ‘Hey, guys, The Letter is #1 on the charts!’ We just couldn’t believe it. Like, this is crazy, this just couldn’t be true!” (17)
The Box Tops prepare for a TV appearance in New York on October 14, 1968.
L-R Tom Boggs, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley, Rick Allen and Harold Cloud.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images.
With the record’s ascent up the charts, Larry Uttal called from New York demanding an album. With session time at American Recording Studio booked, Dan made plans to record the album at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. With Talley suffering from migraine headaches, the sessions became an even larger headache for Penn. The members of the Box Tops weren’t accustomed to the rigors of studio work so Penn called in the Memphis Boys to finish the album. “Dan was just very frustrated with the band,” Alex said. “He wasn’t pleased with the outcome of that session, so the next thing I knew, the manager said, ‘Well, Dan’s gonna bring in the studio band for the rest of the album.’ So I went in and did the album with the studio band, singing live on the floor with the band.” (18) The resulting album, The Letter/Neon Rainbow hit the album chart on November 18, 1967 where it stayed for 15 weeks reaching #87. (19)
The Letter was everywhere—white radio, black radio, jukeboxes—even on Armed Forces Radio. It especially held a place in the memories of many soldiers in Viet Nam. "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane’ became the mantra for Marines getting discharged from the Corps, and I can’t remember any other lyric enjoying that much popularity until I got to Vietnam in ’68, where it was that song and The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place," stated former Marine Chris Paul. (20) On a segment of Entertainment Tonight from 1987, Alex remembered much the same sentiment. “It gives you a feeling of immediacy and movement. I think a lot of people were in Vietnam and that was their fondest dream—a ticket to get out and back home.” (21)
Not everybody was happy about the song. Writer Wayne Carson Thompson had a few words to say about his creation. He didn’t like the arrangement the first time he heard it. “I listened to it and said I don’t like it because the boy don’t sing it high enough,’ I told Dan Penn. Dan said, ‘Well, it’s a hit record.’ Then he added the jet and I thought he’d lost his mind. And it was still only one minute and 58 seconds long. I left the country on a USO tour. Six weeks later I got back and the damn thing was number four in the nation.”’ (1)
The Box Tops followed with Neon Rainbow. John Evans and Danny Smythe, fed up with touring, bickering and being snubbed on the recordings, decided to quit the group. Rick Allen and Thomas Boggs were hired to replace them. The next hit, Cry Like A Baby, was the last Box Tops single to hit the top ten.
Of the next seven chart hits released by Mala/Bell, only Soul Deep placed in the top twenty. In 1970, the Box Tops broke up. There were reunions with various members through 2009. On March 17, 2010, Alex Chilton died of a heart attack. On July 6, 2016, Danny Smythe died of unknown causes.
In 2017, the 50th anniversary of The Letter, Bill Cunningham and Gary Talley joined the Happy Together Tour with Flo and Eddie of The Turtles, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, The Association, The Cowsills, and Ron Dante of The Archies performing sold out shows across the USA.
Entertainment Tonight remembered The Box Tops on the series "The Making Of A Hit."
As advertised...live from The Bitter End!
1) Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, 1985, Page 230.
2) George-Warren, Holly. A Man Called Destruction, 2014, Page 82.
3) ibid. Page 84.
4) ibid. Page 86.
5) ibid. Page 91.
6) ibid. Page 92-93.
7) McKeen, William, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay: An Anthology (1st edition), 2000, Pages 495-496.
8) McNutt, Randy, Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll, (1st US edition), Pages 104–105.
9) Jones, Roben, Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, 2010, Pages 78-81.
10) George-Warren, Holly. A Man Called Destruction, 2014, Page 94.
11) ibid. Page 97.
12) ibid. Page 101.
13) ibid. Page 102.
14) ibid. Pages 105-106.
15) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 77-78.
16) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties,
17) George-Warren, Holly. A Man Called Destruction, 2014, Page 115.
18) ibid. Page 107.
19) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Albums 1955-2001, Page 95.
20) George-Warren, Holly. A Man Called Destruction, 2014, Page 116.
21) Entertainment Tonight, YouTube interview, Link.
Photo courtesy of Sony/Legacy.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss