THE BOX TOPS: THE LETTER/NEON RAINBOW (1967)
1) The Letter; 2) She Knows How; 3) Trains & Boats & Planes; 4) Break My Mind; 5) A Whiter Shade Of Pale; 6) Everything I Am; 7) Neon Rainbow; 8) People Make The World; 9) I'm Your Puppet; 10) Happy Times; 11) Gonna Find Somebody; 12) I Pray For Rain.
In late 1967, The Box Tops consisted of Alex Chilton on vocals and guitar, Danny Smythe on drums, John Evans on keyboards, Bill Cunnigham on bass... actually, I am not even sure if anyone on that list other than Chilton actually matters, since on most of these tracks The Box Tops did not even play their instruments, but were replaced in the studio with unknown professional players, courtesy of producer Dan Penn who, apparently, had little trust in the playing skills of these white youngsters from Memphis.
The only trust, so it seems, was placed in the vocal gift of Alex Chilton, who was only sixteen years old when he got to record Wayne Carson Thompson's ʽThe Letterʼ during his band's first recording session at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Now if your first genuine exposure to Alex Chilton has been via his later, more revered band Big Star, and if you have somehow missed out on the ubiquitousness of ʽThe Letterʼ in its original version, you might very well be stricken by the difference in vocal styles. For Big Star, Alex would sing clearly and cleanly, putting the same youthful gloss on his vocal chords as he would on his guitar sound. But here, despite being five years younger, he sings as if he were fifty years older — there's a rasp and a gurgle in his throat that implies «soulful world-weariness», and it certainly does not sound like he's faking it: by all means, this is not the kind of voice that would be naturally associated with 16 years of age. (Unless you start smoking at age four and catch your first STD at age twelve, of course).
I do not count myself as a big fan of Chilton's «blue-eyed soul» voice, but the very fact that a 16-year old white kid was so readily accepted in the heart of the soul kingdom of Memphis sort of speaks for itself. As a song, ʽThe Letterʼ is quite a moving composition, but perhaps not as nearly deserving of its sky-high reputation as the immense number of succeeding cover versions would have us believe — after all, it is a very short, simple, and straightforward number that accurately conveys the link between love and insanity, but that's about it. Mad props to Thompson and Chilton, though, for being able to turn the line "my baby wrote me a letter" into a haunting hook for generations to come.
Actually, I might be even more partial to the band's second single, also written by Thompson: ʽNeon Rainbowʼ does a great job taking a verse melody reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel, one of those quiet, boppy, slightly childish folk-pop ditties, and letting it effortlessly flow into a full-fledged R&B chorus, with optimistic brass backing and Alex really belting it out. The difference is that ʽThe Letterʼ is a dark and paranoid song, while ʽNeon Rainbowʼ is a light, colorful, optimistic song — and people tend to remember darkness and paranoia for longer periods of time, especially musical critics. But on their respective scales, both tunes, I think, should occupy comparatively respectable spots in the busy ledgers of 1967.
Of course, by late 1967 the «LP era» was not yet properly recognized in the USA — and so, instead of giving The Box Tops and their songwriting partners enough time to put together a proper, cohesive record, their label made them quickly scramble together a full-fledged follow-up, for which they did not even dare suggest a more interesting title than the names of the two hit singles (the same tasteless strategy that also marred The Left Banke's debut album from the same year, and God knows what else). Since the songwriting partners weren't total hacks, and since, if you had any talent at all, it was pretty damn hard to put out a complete suckjob in 1967, The Letter / Neon Rainbow came out much better than it could have been — still, it certainly ain't The Doors or any other such 1967 debut that had a cohesive «plan» behind it, let alone «concept».
The main contributing team for the album were Dan Penn himself (who, other than producing, was a major songwriter and even singer in his own rights) and his partner Spooner Oldham — in between the two, they place no less than four originals in the hands of Chilton here, including one catchy, fast, prickly soul-pop number (ʽHappy Timesʼ — and by «prickly» I mean that its main hook, the vocal-call-brass-response of "times!.. times!" makes some of your brain neurons jump in excitement) and three slower, bleeding-heart-mode soul confessions, of which ʽI'm Your Puppetʼ is probably the best known one, since it had already been an earlier hit for the duo of James & Bobby Purify — and it works better for The Box Tops, since it makes more sense for one guy to sing "I'm your puppet" than two guys at the same time (not to mention that Chilton slurs the words a bit as if in a druggy haze — getting into the puppet character, no doubt).
These are good songs in good hands, mostly. More questionable is the inclusion of ʽA Whiter Shade Of Paleʼ, a great song with which, however, Alex cannot do anything that Gary Brooker has not already done — other than, perhaps, popularize early British prog-rock and J. S. Bach a little bit among the local Memphis crowds. Then there are some truly questionable inclusions, such as the laid-back country-rock ditty ʽBreak My Mindʼ, in a style to which Chilton's voice is not suited at all, or Burt Bacharach's ʽTrains & Boats & Planesʼ, which has the misfortune of finding itself way too close to ʽThe Letterʼ to count as an equally mind-blowing song about one's means of travel. But even the questionable inclusions aren't cringeworthy as such, it's just that they do not exploit the band's (actually, the lead singer's) talents to full capacity.
On the whole, the album ain't no masterpiece, and I can even picture myself a serious Big Star fan who could be seriously disappointed in these first steps of Alex Chilton's career — no original material, a distinctly different vocal style, rather perfunctory musical backing from anonymous session guys, etc. But the presence of two strong singles, the lack of anything particularly dreadful, a generally sensible taste in covers, and the auxiliary fact that THIS IS 1967!! altogether make it well worth a friendly thumbs up.