During the music era of the 1960s that changed the world—while the world was changing the 1960s era of music—many groups emerged with timeless classics that dealt with the social implications of war, politics and free love while shaping an entire generation of revolution.
The 1967 track “The Letter,” written by Wayne Carson Thompson and performed by memorable band The Box Tops, became a #1 hit in the United States in addition to an international hit. The Box Tops’ lead guitarist, turned songwriter and guitar instructor, Gary Talley, will be making a stop on Pensacola Beach this weekend to perform at several island venues including Sandshaker Lounge, Paradise Bar & Grill and Sabine Sandbar.
Independent News was able to chat with Talley, 64, prior to his performances on the Gulf Coast, which add to his past appearances at Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival and Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival.
IN: You were born in Memphis in 1947. What type of environment were you born into that influenced your music career?
TALLEY: My parents played music. My mother was a church pianist and sang. My dad sang and played guitar, mostly country.
IN: Was music always what you wanted to do, or did you aspire to have another “grown up” job?
TALLEY: I wanted to be a visual artist until I was about 12. Then I switched to music.
IN: Were The Box Tops originally The Devilles when you started the band in the late 60s? I understand that the name change correlated with a new direction and shaping of the band (along with another band’s name of The Devilles). What was it like during that transition?
TALLEY: I didn’t start The Devilles. I joined them in 1966. We were still The Devilles when we cut “The Letter.” The name change came after that to avoid trademark issues.
IN: The 1960s was a very important time for music. A lot was happening in the country and around the world that shaped music, and music shaped a lot of what was going on around the world. What was it like to be a part of that musical era?
TALLEY: It was fantastic, thrilling, exciting. I loved The Beatles, Lovin’ Spoonful, Hendrix, The Doors. It all seemed very new. People were creating new sounds.
IN: The song that is probably most recognized by The Box Tops is the 1967 hit “The Letter.” What was it like to have written and performed a Billboard Magazine #1 hit of the year so early into the group’s career?
TALLEY: I didn’t write “The Letter.” Wayne Carson wrote it. (It was) amazing. All of a sudden we were sharing stages with our musical idols: Procal Harum, The Rascals, The Beach Boys, Neil Diamond, James Brown, etc.
IN: Did you have any idea of that song’s longevity for future generations?
TALLEY: I had no idea.
IN: The Box Tops had a relatively short life. Did you have other songwriting aspirations beyond the group?
TALLEY: I did studio guitar work in Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville and London. I toured as guitarist with Billy Preston, Sam Moore (of Sam& Dave), many country artists including Tim McGraw, Pam Tillis and Brenda Lee, recorded with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, etc. I later wrote songs recorded by The Box Tops (when we re-grouped in ‘96), Keith Whitley, T.G. Shepard, James Cotton, Kenny Neal and Carrie Bell. I sometimes get to talk with accomplished songwriters who have had the opportunity to work with some music legends.
IN: Can you tell me a little about the honor it was to work with those musical greats such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette and fellow Memphian Bobby Whitlock?
TALLEY: It was wonderful. I feel very lucky to have been able to do it. Working with Billy Preston was my all-time favorite.
IN: It’s been just over a year since The Box Tops’ lead vocalist Alex Chilton died. Were you two close at the time of his death?
TALLEY: Not in the sense that I saw him often. After years of disagreement and “butting heads” so to speak, we became good friends over the last few years of his life. He really made an effort to make amends for the past.
IN: What brings you to Pensacola to perform on our beautiful beaches? Have you been to Pensacola before?
TALLEY: I come regularly, first to the Frank Brown Songwriting Festival, now to The Pensacola Beach Songwriters Festival. Now I have many friends here in the area. The Box Tops played at Springfest about 2002, I think. We played here in the ‘60s, too…and I’ve played Springfest with country artists in the past, too. I’ve done guitar playing for Songwriters Workshops at Blues Angel Music.
IN: Anything else you want to get off your chest?
TALLEY: Come out and see me and my friends May 6-8. I have great local musicians joining me: John Nanni, Bob Tucker, Mike Wheeler and Jeff Johnson.
IN (Beej): Is there any way that you could thank my father, Brad Davis Sr., for introducing me to The Box Tops and other important, memorable music of this era?
TALLEY: Thanks, Brad! I’m glad you liked our music and introduced your son to it! It feels good to have been a part of making people feel good.
GARY TALLEY OF THE BOX TOPS ON PENSACOLA BEACH
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 6-8
WHERE: Sandshaker Lounge, Paradise Bar and Grill, Sabine Sandbar