We spoke with guitarist Gary Talley, one of two original members of The Box Tops on tour supporting their body of work including “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby,” “Soul Deep,” and more, and looked back on vocalist Alex Chilton.
By Warren Kurtz
1967 promotional photo, clockwise L to R: Bill Cunningham, Danny Smythe, Alex Chilton, Gary Talley, John Evans
GOLDMINE:My wife Donna and I are looking forward to your return to Daytona Beach in February, as part of Joe Mirrone’s Stars of the Sixties show. We enjoy the stories that you and Bill share and, of course, hearing you perform the music that we grew up on in the 1960s.
GARY TALLEY: Thank you. Our Florida four show tour kicks off on Friday, January 30. There may be a slightly different roster of acts on the bill in each city. In addition to Bill on bass and me on guitar, Rick Levy will also be on guitar, along with our drummer Ron Krasinki and on keyboards, Barry Walsh.
Daytona Beach lineup
GM:Our daughter Brianna and I met Barry in Winter Park, Florida in October when he was performing with his wife, singer/songwriter Gretchen Peters, who I interviewed for Goldmine. It was a treat seeing the both of them together.
GT: That’s so cool. They’re great.
GM:Let’s go back to 1967. Where were you when you first heard “The Letter” on the radio?
GT: We were on the other side of Tennessee, away from our Memphis home, going through Knoxville, and they had a radio station that was the first to play “The Letter.” We heard it in the van on the way to a concert and it was a big thrill.
GM:That year you were on a television show in my hometown of Cleveland, called Upbeat.
GT: Oh sure. The host was Don Webster. We loved that show. Don was so nice and there was Jeff Kutash and the Upeat Dancers, too. They were my favorite. We did Upbeat about three times. We went to Cleveland a lot.
GM:The flip side of “The Letter,” which is “Happy Times,” is another one of my favorite Box Tops songs, with its up-tempo drive and harmonies, contrasted by a moody bridge.
GT: Oh really? Most people don’t remember that one. I remember being in the studio for the vocal sessions, all getting together, singing “times, times” at the end of the “happy times” lines, which was fun.
The Box Tops
Flip side: Happy Times
A side: The Letter
Top 100 debut: August 12, 1967
Peak Position No. 1
GM:“Happy Times” was written by the same songwriting pair, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, who co-wrote your second gold single, “Cry Like a Baby,” in early 1968, which featured Reggie Young on a Coral electric sitar. Then he brought that same sound later in the year on B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling.”
GT: I worked with Reggie all the time, and got to play with him many times over the years. He was one of my guitar heroes and a good friend. Sadly, he passed away a year ago.
GM:Your third highest charting hit single happened in the summer of 1969, and I don’t know how I missed it then, “Soul Deep,” written by Wayne Carson Thompson, like “The Letter.” I learned of this song through a cover version, that I love, by Lisa Burns in 1978, as the opening number of her debut album, when I was writing her album review. Then I went back and learned your original version.
GT: It didn’t hit the Top 10 like “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” It did okay but wasn’t a huge hit.
GM:Between “Cry Like a Baby” and “Soul Deep” is your album Non Stop with so many great tracks on it and two Top 40 singles included, “Choo Choo Train” and “I Met Her in Church.”
GT: I love “I Met Her in Church.” I thought it was a fun song and it reminded me of my mom and dad, because they met in church, and was kind of their story. “Choo Choo Train” was another of my favorites that we did and now it is in the new Quentin Tarantino movie, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.
GM:On Non Stop, ���Sandman” was another one that recently caught my ear.
GT: Oh yeah. We had such great songwriters to work with including Wayne Carson Thompson for that one, and all the Muscle Shoals guys. We were constantly getting great new songs. We were in a very lucky position.
GM:Did it catch you by surprise when things tapered off?
GT: It was disappointing. In our first two years we had the biggest hits, then in 1969 it sort of tapered off with “Soul Deep” not being a big hit. Then the next two singles, “Turn On a Dream” and “You Keep Tightening Up on Me,” made the Top 100, but didn’t do well. We kept hoping we would have another hit, but by the end of 1969, Alex Chilton and I were the only original guys left in the group and were worn out from being on the road so much. Alex decided to quit in February of 1970, so I decided to quit too.
GM:Then Alex went on with the group Big Star and did solo work too, all now available on Omnivore Recordings, highlighted on page 11 of our new Goldmine March 2020 issue. I learned of his Big Star pop song “September Gurls” through a Bangles cover in the next decade on their Different Light album, which featured “Manic Monday.”
GT: Yes, Alex continued to make records after The Box Tops.
GM: And you went on to play guitar for many other acts.
GT: Yes, I began playing guitar for Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave, Billy Preston, and others which was great fun. I played in Brenda Lee’s band and with Tim McGraw when he was just a new artist. Tim had a development deal, not even signed to a label yet. We did three songs and he was so nervous. We felt sorry for him. He got a lot better, fortunately.
GM:I met Brenda a couple of years ago and I mentioned to her one of my favorite songs of hers, “Is It True,” from 1964, that has a rock edge and she gave me a music quiz on the spot. She said it was recorded in England, and then she sang the electric guitar part, and asked if I knew who played that. Fortunately I guessed correctly, answering like a question, “Jimmy Page?” She is certainly entertaining and funny. I also met Pat Boone at that same Florida venue.
GT: I played with Pat when he came to Atlanta in the 1970s.
GM:You have also spent time with another one of my favorite acts, The Cowsills.
GT: Oh yeah. We did the Happy Together Tour with them in 2017 and got to know them very well and then we did a cruise with them last year. We have worked with them a lot in the past few years.
GM:You have also played with The Cyrkle in recent years.
GT: And we also played with them way back in 1968.
2001 promotional reunion photo, L to R: Gary Talley, Alex Chilton, Bill Cunningham, Danny Smythe
GM: You were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
GT: It was a big thrill and honor for us. Aretha Franklin and Eddie Floyd were inducted at the same show, too. We had a great time. By then Alex Chilton and Danny Smythe had passed. When Alex died we thought we wouldn’t be going back out again. Then Bill and I did a session together and thought, well maybe we should try again. We hired Ron as our drummer. I have worked with our keyboardist Barry for many years in Nashville and we have Rick on guitar.
GM:I look forward to seeing all of you. Before we end today’s session, please tell us about Bella.
GT: Bella is a rescue pit bull from Memphis who is about three years old. She is the second rescue pit bull that I have had. I had another female a few years ago, Bee, but she died from cancer. I liked her so much that I was looking for another female pit bull and I saw Bella’s picture from a rescue group here, who run between Memphis and Nashville. She has turned out to be a great dog and it has been really fun. I am a big dog fan. Thank you for your support of our music and we’ll see you in Daytona Beach soon.
Gary Talley, Bill Cunningham, Rick Levy today, courtesy of Rick Levy
The Box Tops tour dates
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, writing the In Memoriam and Fabulous Flip Sides series. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.