The Box Tops have announced that they will re-unite for a 2015 tour. Original members bassist Bill Cunningham and guitarist Gary Talley will once again bring the classic Box Top hits to the stage. The Box Tops are best known for their number 1 smash hit "The Letter." The success of the record made them a household name in America and they would wind up touring with major 60's rock and roll acts like The Beach Boys. The "blue-eyed soul boys" also recorded other successful hits such as: "Cry Like a Baby", "Soul Deep", "Neon Rainbow", "Choo Choo Train" and more. I recently corresponded with Bill Cunningham.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your musical career up until this point. I know it was a tragic loss with Alex Chilton passing away. After doing a tribute show at The City Winery and then taking a break... why did you and Gary decide to team up again to give it another go?
B.C. - We recognized that people wanted to hear the catalog of songs. Who better to perform it? The question was how to make that happen without Alex. Gary and I, the only founding members who are able to play at this time, recently recorded a couple of songs as guest artists on an upcoming tribute album for Dan Penn, and things sort of just clicked. We later rehearsed to see if we could do the Box Tops catalog justice; everything sounded familiar. It felt right.
R.V.B. - Can you give me an Idea of what music you were exposed to around the house growing up and why you decided to play the bass? Can you describe how your father influenced the family as far as music? Did your mom play?
B.C. - 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 Richards 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 (of the big band style) 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.
R.V.B. - Did you take music in grade school? What was your first band and how did some of the early gigs go?
B.C. - 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. (Alex may have been in the audience.) Three or four 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. We didn’t play many gigs before that band broke up. Shortly afterward, I joined up with Chris Bell (later of Big Star) to form a group called The Jynx. We played a great deal and were a tough-sounding little band. Crowds responded well. (Alex was definitely in the audience during many of these gigs. We even recruited him to sing with us, but that didn’t last.)
R.V.B. - Coming from Memphis, which has a reputation as a blues, soul and R&B town. Did you tackle these genres as you were developing your chops?
B.C. - For the most part, during my development years (so to speak), I played in bands that favored British Invasion music. That said, we couldn’t play gigs without a certain amount of local hits; so it was really a mix. Standards and new music…blues, R&B, and British Invasion.
R.V.B. - Did joining the Box Tops gradually happen from just networking around town?
R.V.B. - How did the song "The Letter" change your life?When you were recording it in the studio, did you imagine it would be a number 1 hit?
B.C. - “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!) Yes, the record sounded good, but there were so many other good records being released at the time.
B.C. - Perhaps an interesting way to describe what happened in those early days would be to talk about our transportation and set up. At first, we travelled in our individual cars (those who could drive, which excluded me), hauling our own equipment. There were a couple of out-of-town gigs that required flying (propeller airliner), but we quickly bought a vehicle and pulled the equipment behind. It wasn’t long before flying was the norm, with the equipment being transported and handled by others. Show set ups went from small clubs to festivals to arenas.
R.V.B. - What was the studio work like as you had to follow up with more songs?
B.C. - 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. 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.
R.V.B. - The mid to late 60's was a volatile time with Civil rights, the Vietnam war and campus chaos. How did this effect The Box Tops?
B.C. - Probably the most significant direct effect on us was the war. Each of us was draft age…or soon to be.
R.V.B. - In 1969, you decided to go back to college and study music. How did you enjoy these learning years and performing classical music? Where were some of these performances?
B.C. - 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 quests at State Dinners!
R.V.B. - Why did you go to Germany? When you were there did you see any classical music performances?
B.C. - I moved to Germany to experience another culture and better my German. I had made a number of European friends in school, and the change in culture interested me. Didn’t see many concerts, but later I got to see many of the great European orchestras perform in Washington.
R.V.B. - The mid to late 70's must have been a very exciting time period for you. Can you describe the process of getting residency in Washington D.C. and how it was performing at functions there, as well as the White House?
B.C. - (See response to question 10 above.) Just as an additional note, 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.
B.C. - Studying with Roger Scott was amazing. I learned much from him. Probably the most memorable skill development under him was bowing. He used to have me play entire pages with a single down bow or up bow. Note: The length of the bass bow is very short when compared to the instrument body size. Also, the bass strings are thicker and require more effort to initiate a sound. Could you image a violinist with a bow length proportional to that of a bass bow, when compared to the instruments’ body size? It would probably be only four or five inches long! Anyway, my bow control became a great asset.
R.V.B. - Can you describe some of your favorite performances that you've had in your career in both classical and rock music?
B.C. - 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.
R.V.B. - How was the first reaction and feeling when the Box Tops reunited in 1996?
B.C. - It is funny how reuniting in 1996 was similar to the early days! Personalities were similar; the music, similar. It was as though we were teenagers again.
R.V.B. - Do you still play piano, organ, Upright bass today? Any other instruments or hobbies?
B.C. - Yes, I still play classical piano at home. Upright bass I haven’t played in years, although I test my ability now and then. Organ I rarely play, although I have been known to play it on stage at Box Tops shows. I play a bit of guitar too.
R.V.B. - Good luck in your upcoming performances with The Box Tops and thank you for considering answering these questions.
B.C. - Thank you for the good wishes!
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Bill Cunningham and the Box Tops visit their website. http://boxtops.com/btnew.htm
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