Few artists we can think of launched careers with the gritty promise of:
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain't got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home
My baby just wrote me a letter
That was the voice of Alex Chilton, who was only 16 in 1967 when "The Letter" became the No. 1 song in America for the Box Tops. We had never heard anything like it at the time, and we perked up in a hurry.
The Box Tops had a sound and a beat -- blue-eyed soul pop delivered straight out of Memphis --that was likeable, even seductive. "Cry Like a Baby" made it to No. 2 a year later and we knew: These are no One Hit Wonders:
I know now that you're not a plaything
Not a toy or a puppet on a string
Today we passed on the street
And you just walked on by
My heart just fell to my feet
And once again I began to cry ...
And yet there was not much more in terms of commercially successful output from the Box Tops. "Neon Rainbow," "Choo Choo Train" and "Soul Deep" were probably appreciated more years later as cult favorites. Producer Dan Penn often receives credit for the sound and the success of the band, but those who followed the career of Chilton would want to make a case for his contributions, which were not insignificant.
You can't say success spoiled Chilton; it only inspired him to find his true groove. To do that he would later front Big Star, a project that became the rage of the underground but never really gurgled into the mainstream. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock describes Big Star as "Beatles-style melody, Who-like punch and Byrdsy harmonies."
We regret we can find no no Big Star in the Sanctuary library, but it's never too late to fix a fault. Alex Chilton has died at 59 of an apparent heart attack and it's time to show some overdue respect.