by Andria Lisle
Last week, I got to catch up with Bill Cunningham, the original bassist for the Box Tops, who, along with the group's enigmatic lead singer Alex Chilton (best known, of course, for his post-Box Tops work with the band Big Star), guitarist Gary Talley, and drummer Danny Smythe, is slated to perform at the Memphis Italian Festival at 9:45 p.m. tonight.
Some 40 years after their biggest hit, the American Studios-recorded smash "The Letter," hit the top of the Billboard charts, the Box Tops (seen here in their heyday, with rhythm guitarist John Evans) occasionally regroup; their last local appearance was at the Cannon Center four-and-a-half years ago.
In the downtime, Chilton catapulted to cult hero status, bouncing between Memphis, where he formed Big Star and produced the Cramps' debut album, and New York City, where he alternately drove a cab and performed alongside Chris Stamey and Richard Lloyd during the then-nascent CBGBs scene. After landing back in Memphis in the late '70s, Chilton joined Tav Falco's Panther Burns and went on to record his gloriously messy roots-mined epic Like Flies on Sherbert and several subsequent critically acclaimed albums, including A Man Called Destruction and High Priest.
The 59-year old Cunningham's non-Box Tops career has been no less stellar. After his stint in the Box Tops, he went on to have a career as a classical bassist, performing behind-the-scenes with Jim Henson's Muppets and playing for the likes of Henry Kissinger and President Jimmy Carter. Today, Cunningham works in the international trade division for the federal government. He was happy to fill me in on his life, in — and outside of — Memphis.
Q: I know that your brother is Memphis musician B.B. Cunningham, and I read somewhere that your dad was Buddy Cunningham, a local rockabilly singer. Didn't he play on one of Elvis' sessions?
A: He played on the "Good Rockin' Tonight" sessions. He helped out Sam Phillips, but he was mostly tied into Sun Studio through Plastic Products [a company based on Chelsea St. that originally pressed Sun Records]. My dad would take me down to Sun for Elvis sessions. I was just a squirt, and they'd sit me out front with Marion [Keisker, Phillips' secretary] for hours on end, waiting for them to get finished. I haven't been in that building since back then!
I remember Roland Janes [Phillips' engineer] too. He was the first one who cut me with the Jynx, with Travis Wammack doing the mic-ing over at Sonic Studio. And later, I remember when Sam opened Phillips' Recording Studio. He got my family together, and we all went down to check it out. Back then, it was the latest and the greatest. I remember it so clearly, but I haven't been back there either.
To look back at what happened historically, and at the importance given to it, we were all just living in a particular time and period. We were lucky, in a way, to be at the point we were. Whether we were in garage bands playing pool parties, or playing at the Tonga Club or the Go Go Club, it was just the next gig and the next thing to do as we were growing up. It wasn’t a big deal 'til "The Letter" took off.
Q: How did you hook up with Chilton?
A: It seems to me like Alex knew me for a long time even prior to the Box Tops. He hung around with Chris Bell and all the other kids we hung around with ... We went to the same parties. He went to same elementary school that I did, Sherwood Elementary, and he lived one or two blocks away from me. I was a grade ahead of him.
Q: And then you and Chilton went on to Messick High School?
A: When I got to Messick, they already knew about me, because I was B.B.'s brother. I quit after 11th grade to go on the road with the Box Tops. I was already playing at El Toro Lounge in West Memphis, filling in on the bass in B.B.'s group, Ronny and the Daytonas. Or I would pull my group in, the Jokers, which had Richard Roseborough [who would, years later, go on to back Bell and Chilton in various groups] as the drummer. There were all kinds of weird tie-ins. If we didn’t play with 'em, we were always playing against 'em, at parties in competing groups.
Q: Why do you think "The Letter" has remained so popular with mainstream music fans, and simultaneously held its own as a cult classic?
A: About that song specifically, I can’t say. But I think part of what makes a good song — besides the lyrics and the storytelling and the succinctness — is the performance, the way the song is written, and the structure. Most of our songs were modeled off the Brill Building stuff in New York in the late '50s and early '60s. Maybe because of the vinyl, the actual 45 rpm record, and the airwaves and commercial aspect of broadcast system, everything was forced into this special framework. Maybe that's what made it what it is. A song has to have a reason for being. Preferably, it has to have a good rhyme scheme, the lines have to be relatable, and the music and the performance has to support it. Put all that together, and you've got something people want to hear. Of course, I'm not talking about "The Letter" — I'm talking about songs in general.
Q: I last saw the Box Tops perform at David Gest's All Star Holiday Extravaganza at the Cannon Center in 2004. Behind the scenes, what was that event like?
A: Working with David Gest is such a pleasure. He’s such a character, and I mean that in the nicest way. He's bright, funny and he treats artists very nicely when he asks them to do things. Performing there was much a thrill for the artists as it was for David.
Q: From your vantage point in Washington, D.C., how has Memphis changed since you lived here?
A: Growing up in the '60s and going back today, it doesn’t strike me as the same city. Back in the '60s, it was like living in two different worlds at the same time. Memphis was so progressive and yet so backwards. At the same time, Memphis became a pocket that captured really good entertainers from the region.