In the early 60s, bassist Bill Cunningham performed at home in Memphis, Tennessee alongside guitarist Chris Bell and vocalist/guitarist Alex Chilton in the British Invasion-influenced group The Jynx.
Chilton would go onto form The DeVilles, who would cut the early demos for tracks like “The Letter,” one made famous shortly thereafter as Cunningham and guitarist Gary Talley joined him in the soulful yet poppy Grammy-nominated group The Box Tops.
The group’s rise was fast. “The Letter” went to #1 in September of 1967, in heavy radio rotation in Chicago and throughout the country via then trendsetting AM powerhouse WLS.
Cunningham was just 17 when “The Letter” charted, quickly following up that success with “Cry Like a Baby,” which hit #2 about seven months later. But by 1969, he made the decision to leave the group and go back to school. Chilton and Talley would disband The Box Tops early in 1970.
Chilton and Bell would continue to push pop music forward following the release of the ironically titled debut Big Star album #1 Record in 1972, setting the stage for a group whose influence would take decades to fully reveal itself through alternative acts like R.E.M., The Replacements, The Lemonheads, The Posies and Teenage Fanclub.
Cunningham would later work with Bell on the single “You and Your Sister,” first reuniting with Chilton and Talley as The Box Tops in 1996, while revisiting the group again in 2015 following the untimely death of Chilton in 2010.
Today, Cunningham and Talley keep The Box Tops’ legacy alive on the road as the group’s only remaining original members, touring as a 5-piece group complete with a live horn section.
“Alex was one of my best friends. It screwed me up so badly when he passed,” said Cunningham ahead of a U.S. tour which kicks off Wednesday night, July 21, 2021 at City Winery. “I can’t bring Alex back – I’d give anything if I could. But I can’t… So, if there are Alex fans hesitating to go see the show, the only thing I can do is do what we’re doing. Gary and I were there and we sang on that stuff and that’s who’s singing on these songs.”
I spoke with Bill Cunningham about Joe Cocker’s take on “The Letter,” Quentin Tarantino’s use of The Box Tops in the era appropriate recreation that defines the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, first discovering Big Star and fond memories in Chicago ahead of Wednesday night’s tour launch at City Winery. A partial transcript of our phone call, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below…
What kind of lineup are you touring? I’m told there will be live horns…
BILL CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, we always press for live horns. Because it makes a difference to us. Growing up, the Memphis Horns was important. So we have the five of us in the core band. Gary and I are the only two living members now of the original band. But we have five guys and we usually have two horn players.
Any fond memories stick out for you over the years in Chicago?
BC: Oh there’s all kinds of fun things remembering Chicago back from the old days.
I remember landing in Chicago – we were always there anyway it seemed. But we were driving to one of the major Chicago reps there for us. We were going to do autograph signings. The Doors had come out with their second album: Strange Days. I was a big fan so I mentioned it to this guy and he took us immediately to a record pressing plant where they were pressing copies and I got a copy. I actually asked him if we could go back to his house to listen to it – because we didn’t have record players or mp3s or anything like that. So we went there. And I remember listening to that album there.
Memphis, to me, has always had such a uniquely soulful sound that would emerge in any form of music coming out of that city – not just the Stax Records stuff. How did Memphis itself kind of inform the music The Box Tops would go on to make?
BC: It certainly had a major influence. I think [our producer] Dan Penn also had a major influence. Because, stylistically, he came from down in Alabama – he was working at Muscle Shoals down there at Fame [Studios] as a songwriter and staff writer and singer. So he brought with him that kind of influence – which was not so different from what was going on in Memphis. It was almost like a sister city in some way musically.
You couldn’t escape it – even if you didn’t play soul. Because of our age – we were young – the British Invasion had influenced us greatly too. But we saw the roots and grew up watching all of the Sun Records artists and Stax artists beginning to take off – we didn’t ignore that. So all of that stuff influenced us.
We certainly heard on the radio New York and L.A. and other big productions and stuff throughout our lives – but it’s hard when you’re living in the middle of something to ignore it or for it not to have a major influence on you. So I think it was just natural.
In a way, maybe we’re poppish because of the British Invasion and maybe we’re soulful because of what Memphis brought to us.
I was looking at this time line this morning… It’s kind of incredible. You’re 17 years old with a #1 single in “The Letter” in 1967. A #2 hit a year later with “Cry Like a Baby.” And by 1969, you’re leaving the group to go back to school. What was it like processing how quickly all of that happened?
BC: Well, it doesn’t feel quick when you’re on the road all of the time and when you’re at the studio. It really wears you down. Even as teenagers, I think we were all getting burnt out pretty fast.
But… It was great to be able to do something. I had to quit high school, as did Alex, in order to go on the road and be away. You can imagine what that’s like. “Oooh, I get to get out of high school. Oh yeah!” But I went back and did high school and then went on and got Masters degrees and different things.
So while you’re in school, Gary and Alex disband the group in 1970. But the label keeps releasing singles anyway. The band is broken up and yet songs are still charting while you’re going to school. How strange was that experience?
BC: I always thought Alex and Gary had just continued on. It wasn’t until 1996 when we got back together with the original members [that I found out they disbanded].
I called Alex [in 1996] and said, “I haven’t been in the studio for years, I’m just sort of curious what it’s like. Do you want to go in and record something?” And he said, “Sure. Who should we get to record with us?” I said, “I don’t know. Let’s get all of the original guys.” He said OK. So I called each one of them and they said, “Well, yeah, I’ll do it. But I’m sure Alex won’t.” And I said, “Well, I started with Alex. He’s already on board.” And they all said, “Oh. Yeah!”
So we got together. And we started talking. And we found out that “The Box Tops” were playing here or there or something – very low key stuff back in the 70s or 80s. And I think each of us assumed it was one or more of us. Then we found out it wasn’t any of us. It was fake groups that were out there.
What were your initial thoughts upon hearing the way Joe Cocker turned “The Letter” on its head?
BC: I liked it. But I liked a lot of Joe’s approach to songs – because they weren’t like everybody else’s approaches, right? “With a Little Help from My Friends” or “The Letter,” he always had an original approach. And I liked that. I always thought he did a great job.
Putting sitar on “Cry Like a Baby” – I’m guessing that had to be a little unconventional at the time. How important was it to you guys to kind of push the idea of what pop music could be forward?
BC: The way I remember that is that there was an instrument sitting in the corner that the studio had. I think it was Tommy Cogbill’s but maybe not. But it belonged to the studio. It was sitting there. And we were looking for something different. A guy named Reggie Young, who was a session guy at the studio, picked it up and started playing it. And that’s how it ended up on the record. “Hey, what’s this thing over here in the corner that nobody is using?”
What was it like seeing/hearing a Box Tops song, “Choo Choo Train,” in the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? What was it like having your song play a role in the recreation of that era which he conjured up in that film?
BC: First of all, I thought the film soundtrack was fantastic – he’s always good at picking songs for his films anyway. But, for that L.A. scene at that period, he did such a good job of listening through all of that radio broadcast – and using that radio broadcast as opposed to the clean recordings to make it sound real and make it sound like it did in the front or back seat of the car in the 60s.
By 1971, Alex and Chris Bell have Big Star going. Decades later, everyone else would legendarily figure that out. But you obviously played with both Alex and Chris and I’m guessing you heard about that band much quicker than most people did. What were your initial thoughts upon hearing the new musical direction Alex was taking with Big Star?
BC: This [story] has a lot of very strange, oblique ideas and concepts…
The first time that I realized that Alex was doing Big Star was when the second album, Radio City, came out [in 1974]. In Memphis, they were playing “September Gurls” on the radio. Which is a fantastic song and a great performance.
Alex or someone at Ardent Studios [in Memphis] – I was always recording or doing stuff at Ardent anyway so I’d see everybody – but Alex or someone gave me a demo version of the Radio City album. So I was aware of that. But that only had Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel and Alex on it – not Chris. So I went on. Then Third came out and I didn’t really hear it until later.
But it wasn’t until after [The Box Tops] got back together that I discovered two things: [the first Big Star album] #1 Record – which I didn’t know was ever out. I’d never heard about it. And then Chris Bell’s solo album [I Am the Cosmos, which was recorded in the mid-70s but wasn’t released until 1992].
Alex said something about, “You and Your Sister” – which was the b-side of [Chris’s single] “I am the Cosmos.” Alex said, “You did the arrangement for that.” And I said, “No, no. Isn’t that weird? I got the album and it says Bill Cunningham on there. That’s really strange that he would’ve worked with somebody else with my name…” I went on believing that and telling Alex I didn’t have anything to do with that.
Then one day around 2001, I happened to contact David Bell, Chris’s brother [who wrote the liner notes for Chris’s posthumous 1992 album release]. And I said, “I’m so sorry I left Chris. I know he was mad at me for going with Alex to do what would eventually become The Box Tops. And I never got a chance to say I’m sorry.” And he said, “Oh yeah you did. You did the arrangement and played upright bass and brought in the string players and stuff for ‘You and Your Sister’ and ‘Better Save Yourself.’”
My mind just opened up and then I remembered David Bell there in the studio sitting in the corner and Chris and I setting up the mics – me telling Chris how to mic the upright bass and going in to listen in the studio control room to the playback for the strings. We were doing sweeteners. And Chris said, “You know, Alex told me he was going to sing on [‘You and Your Sister’]…” At that time, Alex hadn’t [yet].
I knew Chris knew Alex because he had sung with us in The Jynx, which was Chris’s first group. I didn’t think much about it. And then I found out, later in the 90s, that Alex had sung on [“You and Your Sister”] and heard that.
And Alex, Chris and I had all grown up together. We were all in the same little group of people that stayed and went to parties together all of the time when we were 13 or 14. So I just thought that was nice.
So I didn’t really discover Big Star until 1996 – other than Radio City which was handed to me before it was released.
THE BOX TOPS
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Tickets: $28 – $38
Also performing: Pete Muller & The Kindred Souls
To purchase tickets, click HERE