Although it might be an oversimplification, the term ‘blue-eyed soul’ has generally been used as a way to describe white pop singers who perform R&B. You can find examples in almost every decade, even the 1940’s, when Frankie Laine was often called the first of the blue-eyed soul singers, and it continued into the 1950’s, when Elvis and others often built their fame by singing black music.
The 1960’s brought the rise of blue-eyed soul groups, including the Rascals, the Righteous Brothers, and even a British group, the Animals. One of the very best of all the groups was the Box Tops, and although they weren’t around as long as some of the others, they left an indelible mark — and gave a start to a new star.
It all started when 16 year old Memphis singer Alex Chilton joined a burgeoning group called the Devilles. At that time, the group included John Evans and Gary Talley on guitar, Bill Cunningham on bass, and drummer Danny Smyth. All were older than Chilton, but before long his amazingly mature, gritty singing voice made him the center of attention.
It was about then that the group, after changing its name to the Box Tops, came under the guidance of songwriter/producer Dan Penn. He was looking for someone who might be able to tap into the success being enjoyed by other white soul groups.
The guys worked with Penn for a while and eventually began recording in a Memphis studio. Success followed when the group cut what was to be their biggest hit, “The Letter.” The tune rocketed to the top of the charts and stayed there for a while, ending up as Billboard’s top single of the year 1967.
Penn was firmly in control of the group’s career by then and knew that Chilton was the star attraction, but he often played musical chairs with some of the others, a practice that didn’t sit too well with the guys. Eventually some of them began drifting away to other gigs but the group kept recording, although their follow-up, “Neon Bible,” was a disappointment.
They hit pay-dirt with their next effort, “Cry Like A Baby” (video below), a tune that climbed near the top of the charts and helped keep the group in the spotlight. They later had decent record sales with “Choo Choo Train” and “I Met Her In Church,” but problems grew — not only because of constantly changing personnel, but also because Chilton began to get disillusioned. He didn’t like a lot of what the group was recording and felt that some of his own compositions were better.
In 1969 Penn moved on, and although Chilton and the ever-changing group had generated several albums by then, the end was in sight. They officially disbanded in 1970 and went their separate ways. Chilton has probably had the most noteworthy career in the intervening years. He spent much of the 1970’s as the star of the almost-mythic rock and roll group, Big Star, and in later years reinvented himself in a number of ways. I still think he was at his best in the early days.