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'The Letter' was the group's massive hit in 1969. They have now reformed.

The group's bassist Bill Cunningham talks to GARY JAMES

Box Tops

The Box Tops were the first recording artists to have a Memphis-recorded nationwide number 1 hit. This includes all the previous Sun, Stax and Hi Records up to that time.

"The Letter" was Number 1 on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 for an entire month. It went on to become a worldwide Top 10 hit. It was Cashbox magazine's 'Record Of the Year" for 1967.

The Box Tops received two Grammy nominations in 1967 - Best performance by a Vocal Group(The Letter) and Best Cotemporary Group performance, Vocal or Instrumental (The Letter). The group was awarded two gold records for 'The Letter' and 'Cry Like A Baby'.

GJ: The Box Tops formed in 1966 and a year later 'The Letter' was riding high in the charts. You guys didn't have long to wait for success did you?

BC That's right. When I joined the band was called The Devilles. That was early 1967. 'The Letter' was recorded and put out very quickly and took off very quickly. I think here in the States we played our first gig in July 1967b as the Box Tops.

GJ: What were the Devilles doing before the name change?

BC Playing dances around Memphis, parties that sort of thing.

GJ: How did the band get a record deal with Bell Records?

BC Well, the band had already recorded a couple of songs as the Devilles and therefore had some contact with American Studios at that time. Bell Records just happened to be down at the studios picking up some James and Bobby Purify recordings and happened to hear 'The Letter'.

GJ: How did life change for you and the group when 'The Letter' went to Number One?

BC Well it took us to different places outside of Memphis and we eventually stopped travelling in cars and vans and started travelling by bus. So as we became more popular the distances between gigs changed and we employed more staff to cope with it.

GJ: Alex Chilton (the band's vocalist) described the group's live abilities as 'terrible' Is that true?

BC I would say there's an element of truth in that and some fiction. We were gigging almost every day at the height of our success, sometimes we played three times a day.

GJ: How did you do that?

BC We would play an afternoon performance, an early evening show and then a very late performance. Sometimes in different states. The group hadn't been together long at the start but over time we got better. We also had band changes which upset any continuity.

GJ: When you'd go out on the road, were you support act or headliner?

BC We started out as a support act. One of our first really big tours was the Wilson Pickett revue and we were the only white act on the show. We were thrilled because most of us really liked black music. After the Pickett tour, Brian Wilson had heard 'The letter' and wanted the band very much to go out on tour with The Beach Boys and we did that and became friends with them. We toured with them annually for about a month every year that we were together. We played all kinds of venues from small clubs to arenas.

We played with 'The Doors' about the time of 'Light My Fire' and that was very interesting because it was one of the first times we got out of the Memphis scene into the hippie scene. It was a real education and a lot of fun.

GJ: Did two of the group members quit at the height of your success, and return to college?

BC Yeah. they reacted in a very big way to the Vietnam War and the draft situation at the time.

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© 2002 Gary James. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.


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