• The Box Tops interview

    By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on May 8, 2017


    HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) —   The BOX TOPS recorded a string of hits including the worldwide #1 megahit song, THE LETTER, and others including CRY LIKE A BABY, SOUL DEEP, NEON RAINBOW, CHOO CHOO TRAIN….and more.

    In 2015, original bassist/vocalist BILL CUNNINGHAM, and original guitarist/vocalist GARY TALLEY teamed up with veteran music industry bandleader/manager RICK LEVY to bring the BOX TOPS music back to waiting audiences.

    2017 marks the 50th anniversary of both the group, and their first hit, THE LETTER.

    Herald de Paris’ Consulting Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, had an opportunity to speak to William “Bill” Cunningham is the original bass guitarist, keyboardist for the Box Tops.

    Cunningham was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He remained a member of the Box Tops until August 1969.

    Bill reflecting on the early days said;

    “My brother and father were both active in the Rock N Roll scene of the 50s and 60s. My brother collected a lot of Chuck Berry and Little Richard recordings, to which I’d fall asleep (we shared a bedroom). My brother began his musical career as a session guitarist. Regarding my father, he would bring home the latest Sun recordings from the studio or the pressing plant. He worked with Sam at Sun from about 1953-1961. Also, he was a singer and released a few singles.

    “In the early days of Sun, Sam turned to my father for advice, since my dad had already had a certain level of success in the music business. As for my mother, she played classical piano, backing my grandfather, who toured the country playing violin and who also played in the Detroit Symphony, so I heard classical music too. My first instrument was piano (classically trained as a kid). Around 1960 I took up guitar, but in 1963 my brother brought me a bass from Europe and insisted that I play it in duets with him. He taught me the basics of bass playing. During my teenage years, I played bass and keyboards with various groups, depending on the need. That carried over into the Box Tops years.”

    In the beginning Bill said, “I took private piano lessons in grade school. My truly first public performance was around 5th or 6th grade, playing a duet with Ron Easley, later Alex’s bassist with his solo group. Three years later I played with a band in middle school. In a battle-of-the-bands event, we played the Rolling Stones’ “Last Time,” which had just been released a week or so before the show; we were a big success. I think the girls screamed, which was reason enough to continue playing for the rest of my life. Shortly afterward, I joined up with Chris Bell (later of Big Star) to form a group called The Nerels. We played a great deal and were a tough-sounding little band. Crowds responded well.

    “’The Letter’ started it all for us. We quickly transformed from a local dance band to a nationally- and internationally-recognized band. Before the release, I think we hoped the record would lead to local or regional recognition and gigs, but we didn’t think about large-scale national or international activity…or at least I didn’t. (I had to quit high school to tour, something I thought my parents wouldn’t let me do, but they did, based on the recommendation of my school!) The record sounded good, but there were so many other good records being released at the time.”

    “Follow up studio work was hard to do, due to the demand for live shows. But song material was not much of a problem, since Dan Penn, our producer in the early days, as well as various writers, including Wayne Carson, pitched songs. Box tops single 2 Recording tasks became distributed between us and the studio session band in various combinations. In any case, for the most part, the focus remained singles, not albums.”

    “In 1969, went back to college and study music I returned home to study classical music because I recognized the need to move forward and the desire for technical challenge that classical music offered. I cherish those years. I played in opera orchestras, symphonies, ballet companies, etc. I held a permanent position with the Memphis Symphony for a number of years while going to school. I was even active as a “B” team string ensemble player (our professors were the “A” team) at STAX and Ardent. BTW, my teachers played the string parts on “The Letter;” I played upright bass in the string ensemble on Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft.” Eventually I moved to Washington, after winning a competition for a position in the White House orchestra.

    One benefit to working at the White House was that I got to eat the same food served to the guests at State Dinners.

    At the White House celebration of the bicentennial, I got to entertain Queen Elizabeth, Cary Grant, and a hold host of other British notables, reportedly including George Harrison…but I don’t recall seeing him there”

    I asked Bill, “What were some of the magic moments?”

    BC:  There have been so many magical moments that it would be hard choose. But playing my last classical performance in a quintet with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman has to be among the greatest thrill. For rock music, playing with The Box Tops can’t be beat! And memories of our tours with The Beach Boys still bring a smile to my face.

    AC:  Why the name Box Tops?

    BC:  When we were about to release “The Letter” we checked to make sure there was no other group with our name – The Devilles. We found that there was already a group with that name, so we needed a new name. We thought about what to call ourselves, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, someone suggested having a contest where people would mail in names similar to a contest method where people mail in box tops cut from breakfast cereal boxes. Someone said, “That’s it! The Box Tops.”

    AC:  Who were the primary song writers which bands from the British invasion did you like the best, why?

    BC:  British groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Manfred Mann, Them, The Who, and The Hollies certainly had a significant influence on me and other teenagers in the early and mid 1960s. Each brought something special, whether it was reintroducing a blues sound to white teens, creating a unique high-energy youthful sound, or leading a revolution in recording techniques and cultural attitude, as in the case of The Beatles. In Memphis, many of us merged our local sounds with that British invasion approach. In some way, I think The Box Tops sound is an example.

    AC:  Who were your musical heroes, who did you listen to that informed the music of the Box Tops?

    BC:  Let me answer this question in a bit different way. In Memphis and surrounding area there were numerous heroes in the music industry. I tend to think of the Memphis sound in movements or waves. At the beginning of Rock N Roll in the 1950s, we had Sun recording artists, e.g., Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Billy Lee Riley, and many others. They represented the early Rockabilly and Rock N Roll of the 1950s. They showed us how it could be done and taught us to dream that success was possible. STAX artists followed and proved that Soul Music, which flowed throughout the city, could be successful on the national scene by creating great grooves and “pockets” of rhythm that people would fall into on the dance floors, without understanding what was going on. The third wave American studios ushered in and was the one in which groups like The Box Tops Combined Soul Music, Rockabilly, and British sounds to create an evolved feel and sound.

    AC:  Where were you and how did it feel to hear The Letter on the radio the first time?

    BC:  Probably the first time was in a car traveling to a show. That record (in mono) had such punch that it jumped out of the radio. I don’t recall how I felt the first time I heard it on radio. But it always sounded special blasting from the speakers.

    AC:  How did fame effect you? Why do you think many of your contemporary’s succumbed to substances abuse?

    BC:  I don’t think “fame” affected me. Certainly, the places I’ve gone, the people with whom I’ve dealt, and the opportunities I’ve had as a result of being in a successful group is different from what might have otherwise been. But because I didn’t experience what might have been, it’s impossible for me to know how I might have been effected. I never thought of myself as famous. It’s best not to take oneself too seriously.

    Regarding other artists who succumbed to substance abuse, the pressure, particularly being a well-known artist, could easily drive one to substance abuse. The combination of that pressure with easy access to drugs leads many toward a downward spiral. Also, most artist suffer a downward trend as there art becomes dated and demand falls off. My situation has been different. I quit the group while we were on top to study classical music, and then moved on to international trade and other things. I never have gone downward in my career path.

    AC:  You were a major Top Forty band why do think you didn’t get bigger and last longer as a unit?

    BC:  We were kids. That fact combined with pressure and lack of control over our own work and schedule ensured a brief stay at the top. One could point to poor management too. In any case, I think the group’s catalog and reputation has held up pretty well. I think we’ve aged better than many other groups from that period.

    AC:  Why singles and not albums?

    BC:  Radio at the time was based on singles, not albums. Late 1969 – early 1970 FM radio ushered in longer recording broadcasts and played a roll in shifting attention to albums. Although there had been special album releases like The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers… and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in the mid 1960s, most artists during our time were focused on singles.

    AC:  If you had a chance to be in any other band of the era which would it have been?

    BC:  The Beatles…probably the most creative band and recording environment of the period!

    AC:  What are some of the most memorable gigs and TV appearances?

    BC:  Gigs: The Miami Pop Music Festival, touring with The Beach Boys. TV appearances: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett Show, Dick Clarks’ American Bandstand.

    AC:  What where other popular bands at the time saying about you guys?

    BC:  Probably that we weren’t very good at the start. We hadn’t been playing together long before The Letter started climbing the charts, so our sound wasn’t tight at first. My brother (a musician, too) saw us play early on and told me afterward, “You guys suck.” He saw us again after about three months of touring and said to me afterward, “You guys were great! I’d hate to have to follow you on a show!!!

    AC:  Why did the band break up in 1969?

    BC:  Before I quit there had been an effort to replace one or two guys for various reasons. I was always the abstaining vote that kept it from happening. Once I quick, members changed quickly. Within a few months, the group disbanded.

    AC:  How does it feel to get the old band back together, no doubt missing led singer Alex?

    BC:  I was determined not to play after Alex passed away. However, I was invited to record a track or two for a tribute album for Dan Penn, our first producer. Gary Tally lived in Nashville, where the recording was to take place. He and I had lunch and he ended up going to the session too. They invited Gary to play too. Once we started recording, I began to hear something familiar (I was playing keyboard on that session). People had been asking us to play live almost ever since Alex passed away. So, after the recording session, Gary and I decided to test pulling together some players we had known and worked with for years. The result was everyone at the rehearsal thought the sound was worth taking on the road. We spent 2016 testing the show and audiences and promoter’s shows are loving it! We still miss Alex and can never replace him. In fact, I refuse to attempt to replace him. Gary and I sing the lead vocals on Box Tops songs. To me it’s a more honest presentation that way. In any case, I think the audience still crave to hear our songs.

    AC:  Tell about the 50th anniversary of the group, what is planned?

    BC:  The 50th anniversary of the group is mostly directed toward participation in the Happy Together Tour 2017 with The Turtles, Chuck Negron (formerly of Three Dog Night), The Association, The Cowsills, and Ron Dante of The Archies.

    AC:  Touring?

    BC:  Everyone can check our tour page at boxtops.com to follow where we’ll be performing.

    RICK LEVY May 8, 2017

    rick levy here..manager and guitarist w THE BOX TOPS..its a joy to hear the catalogue played so brilliantly again..fans are loving the memphis sound, our multimedia show, and the authenticity we are bringing to the music..I am proud to work w Bill and the other founding member, Gary Talley..to keep the legacy and music of THE BOX TOPS alive and growing.

    Nancy Garcia May 9, 2017

    Bill Cunningham has had a great life starting off with a great family, like third generation musicians to start with.
    He lead an interesting life going back to school, traveling playing with symphonies and orchestras, and ending full circle, what a life.
    Thank you Alan another great article I usually learn quite a bit from your articles because they are so entertaining, and you can’t stop reading once you start.

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