Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Box Tops



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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                                                    

Until recently, I only knew The Box Tops for their huge hit, The Letter, so it has been interesting listening to this, their debut album from November 1967 (strangely given a double title).

It has been revealed over time that the music was played by session musicians, including Bobby Womack on guitar, giving the music a really professional sound, which, mixed with Alex Chilton’s unique vocals, resulted in a fine product, albeit a bit of a short-changing one, morally, or whatever. I have to say, though, that the sound quality is fantastic throughout. Ironically, The Letter was actually played by The Box Tops themselves. Genre-wise, the group were thought of as "blue eyed soul".

The Letter is the one track the group are really known for. It is an irresistibly catchy, soulful sixties groove of a song, full of great brass, bass, drums and a superb, gruff vocal from the (amazingly) teenaged (16) Alex Chilton. Only The Love Affair’s Steve Ellis had so mature a voice for one so young. The track was very short, however, not quite making two minutes. She Knows How is similarly soully in a Stax-ish, Southern way. Bacharach/David’s Trains, Boats & Planes is covered well (it was a hit for Dionne Warwick).

  

John Loudermilk’s Break My Mind has a growling, atmospheric vocal from Chilton, who sounds about fifty on it. Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale is an absolute revelation, for me, as one of my favourite songs of all time is done unbelievable justice, possibly, whisper it quietly, bettering the original. This was my late mother’s favourite song. She never heard this version, I know she would have loved it. Alex Chilton’s vocal is simply outstanding. It is one if the greatest little known cover versions around.

Everything I Am is a Stax-ish, gospelly brassy soul number while Neon Rainbow is a fine piece of sixties jazzy pop in a Donovan sort of way. People Make The World is an impressive ballad with a sumptuous bass line. I’m Your Puppet was also a retrospective hit in the seventies for James & Bobby Purify. While I like this version, I prefer the brassier Purify one. Happy Times has a very sixties-esque Latin tinge to it and an absolute killer bass line. Tommy Cogbill was the session bassist and he delivers once more on the punchy soul of Gonna Find Somebody. I Pray For Rain is a slow, very sixties ballad.

Despite the unauthenticity of the session mens' involvement, this was still a really good album and should always be considered so, not least for the precocious talent of Alex Chilton.



** An enjoyable non-album track from the period was the lively pop of Turn On A Dream. The mono cut of The Letter sounds superb, by the way, pounding right out of the centre of your speakers with a big, warm bassy thump. Neon Rainbow also has a fine sounding mono version. Georgia Farm Boy is a country ballad with vague hints of Dr. Hook’s The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan. All are available on the extended edition of the album.

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