After playing at clubs in the Memphis area, they were signed to record for Bell Records at Chips Moman's American Recording Studio in Memphis, with producer Dan Penn. They soon discovered that another band had already recorded under the name, The DeVilles and before their first release, changed their name to The Box Tops.
Their first effort, a song called "The Letter", took off in 1967 and went all the way to Billboard's number one, were it stayed for an entire month, eventually selling over four million copies. The song was awarded Cashbox Magazine's Record Of The Year and received two Grammy nominations, "Best Contemporary Group Performance" and "Best Performance By A Vocal Group", although they lost both to The Fifth Dimension. The band's second release, "Neon Rainbow" did not sell well and quickly faded from view.
A great deal of tension was growing in the band itself because Bell Records insisted on using studio musicians to back Alex Chilton's vocals during recording sessions. By January 1968, John Evans and Danny Smythe returned to school and were replaced by Rick Allen (from the Gentrys) and Tom Boggs (from The Board of Directors).
January 1969 saw the release of "Cry Like A Baby", which rose to number two in the U.S. and sold over two million records. Once again though, The Box Tops could not follow up one hit with another. They served up a series of singles that just couldn't generate much chart action, including "Choo Choo Train", "I Met Her In Church", "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" and "I Shall Be Released". From here, the band recorded three more singles, the best remembered of which is "Soul Deep", which peaked at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late Summer of '69.
Bill Cunningham left to return to school in August 1969 and was replaced by Harold Cloud. A December tour of England was canceled by the band when the promoter insisted they use the opening reggae act's inferior equipment and by February, 1970, The Box Tops decided to disband. Bell Records however, kept releasing earlier recorded material as singles through early 1971. February 1970's "You Keep Tightening Up On Me" barely scraped into the Hot 100 and two others failed to chart at all. The final issue that bared the Box Top's name was called "King's Highway", a regional hit in the Dallas area in the Spring of 1971.
Meanwhile, Alex Chilton hooked up with high school friend Chris Bell, a talented songwriter who shared Chilton's passion for mid-60s Rock. When Chilton joined Bell's group, the band changed its name from Ice Water to that of a local grocery store chain that happened to be located across the street from their recording studio. Big Star signed a deal with Ardent Records, a new label affiliated with Ardent Studios in Memphis, and their debut album was released in September 1972 to unanimous critical acclaim . Unfortunately, the second album, "Big Star", while confirming the great talent of Alex and his friends, sold disappointingly and the group's label refused to release the band's third album. After many trials and tribulations, it did eventually reach record stores by the end of the 70s, but it was too late for Big Star. Completely disillusioned, Alex started to have severe difficulties and disappeared from the music scene for a while.
In the late 1990s, TV's "That 70s Show" used an Alex Chilton composition called "Down the Street" as its theme song. As the new millennium rolled around, Chilton and the four other original founding members of The Box Tops reunited and recorded another album, "Tear Off!" as well as continuing to tour.
In 2001 the band contributed a Blondie cover tune called "When Pigs Fly". Sold-out Box Tops concerts in Germany in 2003 were aired on German radio and the group's 2005 tour schedule showed a number of American dates planned despite the group members' busy careers outside the band. The Box Tops performed their final concert on May 29th, 2009, at The Memphis Italian Festival.
As for the song, "The Letter", it has come back twice since the Box Tops' version. It was a top twenty hit for a group called The Arbours in 1969, and a top ten song for Joe Cocker in 1970.
On March 17, 2010, lead vocalist Alex Chilton died of a heart attack.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Bill Cunningham Of The Box Tops