Recording session reopened the Box Tops
When Box Tops lead singer Alex Chilton passed away at age 59 in 2010, the band’s bassist and co-founder Bill Cunningham decided to quit playing music.
“Alex’s death, certainly, destroyed me psychologically,” Cunningham told The Park Record during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “I was committed to never playing again. When people kept asking me and our guitarist Gary Talley to do something, I kept saying no for about five years.”
Cunningham eventually went back to playing music, and the Box Tops will play the Egyptian Theatre this weekend.
Cunningham’s change of heart started with a call from a producer who was putting together a tribute album for Box Tops original producer Dan Penn and fellow songwriter Spooner Oldham.
“I thought it sounded worth doing,” he said. “I went to that particular session and Spooner was supposed to play keyboards on one of the tracks and David Hood, a session bassist, was on it.
“So, I asked why they wanted me and they told me that they heard I play great keyboards and wanted me to play organ.”
The session was held in Nashville, where Talley lived, and they had lunch prior to the session.
“He told me he would like to go and I told him he should because there would be some people who would be happy to see him,” Cunningham said. “Of course he had some guitars in the back of his cars and they invited him to play.”
The session band, including Talley and Cunningham, recorded a couple of Box Tops tracks.
“I always thought since Alex was gone, there was no point in doing it, because he was the main sound of the band because his voice was so unique and great,” Cunningham said. “When we were doing the session, we had different singers come in and do their thing, and even with different singers, while it wasn’t Box Tops, it sounded like us in a way.”
That stuck with Cunningham when he and Tally went to dinner after the session.
“He said maybe we should do something together,” Cunningham remembered. “I told him I would come back in a few months and if he put together some guys, we could try to do something.”
Nearly five months later, Cunningham flew back to Nashville and Tally had collected a group of musicians.
“I had also talked with one of the guys who was in Peter Noone’s band worked in booking and management,” Cunningham said. “I was looking for someone to help with all kinds of aspects, including playing music, so he came in and we did a two-hour rehearsal with our songs and other people’s songs.”
Everyone agreed that the songs still sounded great.
“I wasn’t wholly convinced, but I said we could try it,” Cunningham said.
The band booked some dates and the audiences responded immediately.
“It’s overwhelming to even think people are still listening to songs that were recorded almost 50 years ago, and that these songs still hold up and still get airplay,” Cunningham said.
The main thing the bassist wanted to ensure about these concerts is that the band would give an honest presentation of the Box Tops catalog.
“I didn’t want to get someone who sounded like Alex and put him up front,” he said.
The solution? Talley and Cunningham would sing the Box Top songs, including the hits “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby” and “Soul Deep.”
“Gary and I aren’t bad singers,” Cunningham said. “We used to sing along with Alex on the recordings. Alex was so good, that we had him sing in the front, and we regulated ourselves to the background vocals or harmonies.”
In addition to Box Tops songs, the band plays a string of covers.
“With the songs that are in our catalog, we will take people on a musical journey of Memphis and play songs by other songwriters and people we knew and grew up with,” said Cunningham, whose father worked with Sam Phillips at Sun Records Studio during the early days of Elvis Presley. “It will show how we fit into it all.”
The set will also feature other Box Tops songs including “Neon Rainbow” and some album cuts.
“I try to set up a lot of songs with background and tell what the songs mean to us and how they fit into the show,” Cunningham said. “That has seemed to work well, because we get a lot of people who tell us how much those stories mean to us.”
The band will also do something different during the Park City concerts.
“I also think we are going to do a little question and answer session,” Cunningham said. “We’ll take a few minutes and pass a microphone around the audience.”
The Box Tops will play the Egyptian Theatre from Aug. 25 to Aug. 27. The concerts will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday’s tickets range from $23 to $35 and tickets for Friday and Saturday run from $29 to $45. Tickets can be purchased by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com.