The Box Tops would have been as pop mainstream as the Turtles if it weren't for one thing - Alex Chilton. Hailing from Memphis, along with the other Box Tops, he was one of those rare authentic voices. The group's biggest hit was "The Letter." A lean, economical song with a driving drum beat and acoustic guitar. The horns kick the way horns should without weighing things down. There was even a jet plane sound effect ("gimme a ticket for an airplane"). But it was Chilton's voice, riding over the top with equal parts force and desperation, that provided the hook. In less than two minutes it was a compact Rock 'n' Roll passion play.
The Box Tops followed with "Cry Like A Baby," paying homage to the experimentation of the late '60s, had the guitar sound like a sitar. This gimmick aside, it was Chilton's vocals again that delivered the goods. The band had minor hits with "Soul Deep," a funky mid-tempo song, the socially aware "Sweet Cream Ladies" and the psychedelic-pop "Neon Rainbow."
Constant personnel changes took its toll but so did the times. The Box Tops R&B/Rock fusion was out of style. Chilton eventually went on to Big Star, which earned great reviews but little else, before undertaking a haphazard solo career. Ironically, it wasn't until the '80s that Chilton got the respect due - people discovering or remembering, an exceptional talent.
As Big Star was preparing for an appearance at SXSW in Austin, Chilton complained that he wasn't feeling good. He was taken to a New Orleans hospital where he died (3/17/2010) of an apparent heart attack. He was 59.
1967 The Letter/Neon Rainbow
1968 Cry Like A Baby
1998 Tear Off!
Driven by Chilton's soulful Memphis vocals, the Box Tops were a singles band and "The Letter," "Cry Like A Baby" and "Soul Deep" were their hits. Box Tops albums contain Motown, Soul and pop covers. Not bad, but not real creative.
"The Best Of The Box Tops" provides the hits and other notable tracks. Chilton's post-Box Tops career - Big Star and solo - was never hugely successful he did have loyal and faithful fans. "Chilton's 19 Years: A Collection" is for them.