April 11, 2018 Interview – Bill Cunningham of The Box Tops
Back in the 1960s, Rock-n-Roll was blossoming into a cultural statement that no one could deny. With some of the genre’s most memorable acts born during the decade, there simply was no shortage of great music around every corner. Amidst it all were a bunch of the youngest out of Memphis, Tennessee, called The Box Tops, ready to take the scene by storm. Doing just that, while only in their late teens, they scored a number 1 single in the summer of 1967 with “The Letter.” A mix of Blues, Soul, and Rock-n-Roll, The Box Tops’ sound was born, leading to a string of successes with hit singles such as “Neon Rainbow,” “Cry Like a Baby,” and “Soul Deep.”
Now, fifty plus years later, the story of The Box Tops continues thanks to founding Bassist Bill Cunningham and Guitarist Gary Talley leading the way. Actively touring, the band are lighting up stages across the USA bringing smiles to Rock-n-Roll lovers of all ages. Recently we caught up with the multi-talented Bill Cunningham to talk the journey of The Box Tops, their decision to continue on in the wake of Alex Chilton’s passing, plans for the future, plus much more.
CrypticRock.com – The Box Tops celebrated a great deal of success in the late 1960s with hit singles such as “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby.” Now, over five decades later, the legacy of The Box Tops continues. First, tell us, what were those early days like for the band?
Bill Cunningham – We were all young and it was a sort of magical time – I think in the country, perhaps even in the world, but certainly in Memphis, Tennessee where we were all from. There was a lot of great new music coming out. The band was lucky, and fortunate, to be a part of that.
CrypticRock.com – It was a special time for Rock-n-Roll. The band’s sound has always been a distinct mix of Rock, Blues, and Soul. Was this a unification of each member’s influences?
Bill Cunningham – I think a lot of the influence from us growing up in Memphis. At the time, Sun Records had sort of hit its peak with Rockabilly and creating Rock in someway. Then Stax had come along and done quite well in the early and mid ’60s, even the period we were in, with a lot of the Soul music. Naturally we caught that. I think also the influence of the British Invasion music, not just The Blues based groups like The Animals or Rolling Stones, but also The Beatles and other more poppish kind of sounds affected us as kids. I guess the only part of the mix that helped explain our sound was our Producer Dan Penn, who was a staff writer down at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He worked with a number of different artists, including a number of black artists as well. He brought a lot of that feeling in with expectations as well.
CrypticRock.com – It all worked very well. The band has always had a very distinctive sound. Around 1970, The Box Tops parted ways, but returned 26 years later with the original lineup. What inspired that initial reunion?
Bill Cunningham – I had moved on from the group, went into Classical music, did other stuff in business. I hadn’t been in a studio for years. I called our lead singer, Alex Chilton, and asked him if he wanted to go back into the studio, basically for me to entertain myself to figure out what the studios were like in the ’90s. Alex said, “Sure, who should we get?” I said, ‘All the original members.’ I ended up calling everyone and they said they would do it. Everyone was on board and we did it more as a lark to satisfy my curiosity I guess.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting, and that studio experience led to the 1998 Tear Off! album, yes?
Bill Cunningham – Yes, that studio experience actually did result in the Tear Off! album. It was an interesting thing, one of the things was when we went into the studio, somehow people found out about it, even though I was trying to keep it a secret. They started asking to tour, promoters would take us to lunch and try and convince us that we should go on the road. That is actually why we even started going on the road. I wasn’t thinking of playing, I was just going to do the recording session, and that was it. The other thing, that album started with a song called “Wang Dang Doodle,” which was a big song in the ’60s that we always wanted to do, but they wouldn’t let us do it because it had reference to drugs or a rougher life. We did that one immediately just because they wouldn’t let us do it in the ’60s. Every other track on that album was something that was related to us, either one of our family members, people we knew, or our history itself. It is a personal album for the group and that is not explained in any album liner notes or explained anywhere.
CrypticRock.com – Very interesting! That led to over a decade of activity with Alex on vocals.
Bill Cunningham – Yes, for 15 years we went out. I was working full-time in what you would call a strict day job. I had a limited amount of time I could tour, but I used all my leave time in order to tour for that 15 year period. We did anywhere between 10 and 15 dates a year. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something. We had fun and I think it was nice because we enjoyed being together because we didn’t live together and we weren’t on the road constantly like when we were kids. We were in control, we didn’t have managers telling us what to do. We just really enjoyed playing, creating the music, and letting the audiences hear.
CrypticRock.com – It was a great return for The Box Tops! Tragically, Alex passed away at only 59 years of age in 2010. Was this a difficult time for the band, and what inevitably led to the decision to re-launch the band in 2015?
Bill Cunningham – Good question. When Alex died, it destroyed me. I couldn’t really function very well for quite a while. I refused to play, because his voice was so important to the sound and the group, plus he was just a good friend of mine. I had know Alex since elementary school. We had grown up and played a little bit in bands together before The Box Tops. We sort of tied together and enjoyed being together. When he passed, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I don’t know how Gary or the other members felt, but they all agreed we won’t do it.
People kept asking us, from promoters to fans, in different ways such as social media and direct contact, kept trying to get Gary and I to go back on the road. At this point, we are the only two still living and playing. I didn’t want to do it and someone called me for a tribute album for our first producer, Dan Penn. They were doing it with a bunch of people from Muscle Shoals, and a lot of famous people from all over. They were recording in Nashville and they asked me to play on it. I thought that might be interesting and nice.
Spooner Oldham, a friend, co-writer, and great keyboardist who worked with Dan and us was on the recording. David Hood was on bass. They said, “David’s on bass, but you could play bass if you want to.” I said, “No, no, leave David on bass.” So they asked me to play organ on that. I went to Nashville, and that is where Gary Talley, our lead guitarist, lives. I was having lunch before the session with Gary and he said he would like to come along. He drove his car and he had some guitars in the trunk and they invited him to play. We started to record one of the first tracks where Gary and I were both on it. As soon as we started playing, I recognized the sound, and it was us. That’s when I realized, maybe The Box Tops was more than Alex’s voice, even though that was always very important. I felt, maybe we should do something. If people want to hear the songs, it’s either a fake group or us. I put my foot down and said, “If we do it, you and I, Gary, are going to sing The Box Tops songs.” So that is what we’ve done and it’s gone over surprising well to me, because I didn’t know what to expect.
CrypticRock.com – It is great the band is still going. The band is a combination of all the parts, including Alex’s voice, but it is great you are playing on in his memory.
Bill Cunningham – I don’t know how he’d feel. It’s certainly important for me to feel correct about it and I didn’t for 5 years. This does feel right. It is with integrity, it’s not playing off Alex’s name, and if I could bring back Alex, I would give anything to have him there.
CrypticRock.com – Understood. You mentioned about the distinctive quality of Alex’s voice. When you listen to songs such as “The Letter,” it is astounding to think Alex was only around 16 or 17 when it was recorded. He sounds so much more mature and rich, it is really impressive.
Bill Cunningham – Yea, I played with him a little bit in a group in 1965. I think at the time he was probably 14, he sounded just like that anyway. (Laughs) He could change his voice, as represented on our second single, “Neon Rainbow.” That didn’t do as well as “The Letter,” I think because people couldn’t relate to it as the same group. Although, I am very proud of that because it meant we weren’t just pressing out every song that sounded like “The Letter.” Alex’s voice could change, he could be so sweet and so Otis Redding-like if he needed to. He was a chameleon as far as his voice goes. What a great voice.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, and if you listen to the discography of The Box Tops, you hear the diversity in his voice.
Bill Cunningham – Yes, and you look to Big Star, or his solo work afterward, you can see how eclectic and talented he was.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely! Last year marked the 50th anniversary of “The Letter” and the band’s debut record. In celebration, you joined The Happy Together tour. What has the reception from fans to seeing the band perform live again?
Bill Cunningham – People we saw on The Happy Together Tour, a lot of them probably didn’t know Alex particularly or his later career work, but some people did. That was kind of an unusual situation because promoters promoting someone who’s not there. I found a respective way to at least mention everyone’s name in the group at the end so that people are recognized that we do miss everybody and name everybody, which made me feel good.
Again, a lot of it for me is me feeling right about doing this stuff. We actually had some people come up to us at sequencing shows in different cities saying they came to see us the first show on the tour, and they didn’t know what to expect without Alex. These were Alex fans, and they said they came back, and this was hundreds of miles away to see second and third shows to see us because they liked us so much. I think that speaks well.
CrypticRock.com – That is a very high compliment. It has to be redeeming to hear that.
Bill Cunningham – Yes, well, again, it is satisfying to me. If I thought it was cheesy, or cheap, or using Alex, or using the group name in some way to make money, I won’t do it. I don’t need the money and I don’t need to do it, so I wouldn’t do it. The only reason I am doing it because it’s away to keep the fans satisfied as far as giving them an opportunity to hear a ’60s band and a good one. Also their demand and desire to hear the catalog of songs.
CrypticRock.com – It is exciting that people still love classic Rock-n-Roll! The Box Tops just completed a run of shows in January and will be back at it with select dates through the summer. Can we expect more dates to be announced?
Bill Cunningham – They are booking dates, and I haven’t put any big restrictions on them, but expect to do nearly as many dates as we did last year because of the celebration of the 50th anniversary. I think we will continue to do dates all over the country and perhaps different locations in the world from time to time. 2018 is not necessarily full.
CrypticRock.com – That is good news, and hopefully more shows will be announced. It has been 20 years since The Box Tops recorded the Tear Off! LP. Is there a possibility of some new music in the future from yourself and Gary?
Bill Cunningham – Well, I have toyed with what to do, if anything, in the recording studio. The only thing that comes to my mind is some old tracks that we had done in 1967, I think. I still have some things that haven’t been released, and some recordings of not even completed songs, some of us either goofing off, or either doing something in the studio that was never released. I have thought about maybe having that cleaned up or mastered and putting out something of that. To the listener, it is yea do that! To me, it means legal contracts, effort, money, all that other kind of stuff. It’s work for me to do that. (Laughs) That’s the only thing I am looking at as a possibility, pulling out some of the last bit of stuff that hasn’t been released that has all of us on there.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting. It would be fascinating to hear it if it ever did come to fruition. It is never as easy as it seems from the other end of the spectrum.
Bill Cunningham – Yes, if someone told me that was a group or artist I loved, or even listened to casually, I would be craving to hear it too. I understand that and will keep that in mind, but I just have to figure a way to do it and done correctly.
CrypticRock.com – Understandable. That is something to look out for in the future. Rock-n-Roll has changed a great deal over the years. The ’50s and ’60s were a great time for Rock. Sometimes it seems like the modern Rock has lost its soul. What are your thoughts on the modern Rock-n-Roll scene?
Bill Cunningham – Everyone’s a critic, so everyone decides for themselves what it means. I understand and I certainly, at my age, having gone through what I’ve gone through, believe there is something missing. I can explain maybe relatively quickly why I think it is such music has gone through the changes it’s gone through. I think there is some good music out there. I think there is some creative artistry being done, you have to look for it more than you would have in the ’60s. In the ’60s, it seemed like it was just blossoming and right in your face, because of the radio and the way radio played multiple genres all on the same channel. I don’t know what made it work, it just seemed like it was just there, it was real, and it was coming off the street.
Today, I think part of what is suffering of the music industry is the corporate organizations developing the artists in ways corporate things will sell. That doesn’t mean every artist, but a lot of them are coming out where they sound like some other artist that is selling well. Whether it’s The Voice or some of these other television shows developing artists. It’s almost like a Disney production.
That is not how everybody in the ’60s came up, everybody came up off the street. People had a following or people were fighting and scratching around the local scene in order to make some sort of headway, then they would get discovered and recorded. Everyone from the ’60s, whatever sounds we created, we created ourselves. I don’t think Hendrix had someone telling him how to play. I don’t think The Doors had anyone telling them how to write or how to play, and I don’t think anyone told us how to play. Everyone was creative and everyone was doing what they were doing off the street. That is one aspect.
Another aspect is I think recording technology became so good after the ’60s. People began to be able to do things in the studio with engineers handling a lot of it and not the artists themselves. You seized to have actual performances recorded, like what we did. If we fouled up we had to roll the tape back, because there was no way to punch in or do anything. Nowadays, it’s sort of spliced digitally. A lot of it has to do with the production techniques. You have the creation of the song now, opposed to an actual performance of the song.
CrypticRock.com – Those are very accurate assessments. Obviously the making of a band was very organic. Nowadays, some records sound almost too perfect. Sometimes the minor imperfections are what make a record what it is, it gives it the personality.
Bill Cunningham – If Alex were here, he would tell you the same thing. He went to the studio, everything he recorded, he did not build up. Maybe Big Star had a little bit of stuff, but they always did a root performance and built off that. Everything we have always done, the magic was in the notes that weren’t quite right or the beats that were a little bit missing, it gives it the character. The absolute perfection of the greatest recording can be really boring if you set every beat to the beat. There has to be what we call a pocket or a feel, a push and a pull that is happening. You don’t do that when everyone is trying to line up hits or notes exactly on a computer screen.
CrypticRock.com – That is exactly right. Also, what we have seen over the past 20 years is the mastering of a record is so damn loud. There seems many modern records are not very dynamic, they are all mastered at the same level. It used to be you could turn up a record, and all the parts would be dynamic and not ear piercingly loud.
Bill Cunningham – Yea, they do that in a way to attract attention particularly on radio. They used to do that a little bit in the ’60s, they didn’t have the technical skills nor the capability to do what they do today as far as maxing out the volume and keeping it all at one way, so as you said, there is no dynamic. There was always dynamic, but some pressings were pressed louder than others.
The Beatles used to complain about that until they got Geoff Emerick doing their engineering and actually going in to help the mastering engineer’s to push that sound a little further. You never really got that bigger sound from them until later on. That was a mastering technique. Ardent with John Fry, really knew what they were doing as far as the mastering of what they put out. “The Letter” sort of jumped out as well, but none of it was maxed out like it is today.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it definitely makes a difference in the recording as well. Last question. We also cover Horror and Sci-Fi films on CrypticRock. If you are a fan of either or both genres, what are some of your favorites and why?
Bill Cunningham – I am not particularly a fan of any particular genre in film, although I do respect a lot of different things. In the Horror stuff, and this is getting back to the old days when you would go see the B Horror movies in the afternoon, there were films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which scared me to death. I couldn’t sleep for probably a week after I saw that one as a little kid. Also, The Blob (1958), and then The Night of the Living Dead (1968) was another big one that came out that I thought was really good.
Richard Levy, who’s playing with us right now, his son, Jonah Levy works in the movie industry as a makeup artist. He has done a lot, he worked on Black Panther (2018), he worked on the latest Avengers, which is not out yet. He has done a lot of other Marvel work. The first thing I saw that he worked on was Zombieland (2009) and I really loved that too. Jonah is really great.
CrypticRock.com – That is very interesting! The Night of the Living Dead will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
Bill Cunningham – A great film! It was done on a cheap budget. I remember feeling such claustrophobia with the house they were stuck in.