Gary Talley is a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and founding member of The Box Tops, the blue-eyed soul group from Memphis which scored in the late 1960’s with hits like “Cry Like a Baby,” “Soul Deep,” and “The Letter.” Spotlight Central recently caught up with Talley and talked with him about his musical childhood, his work with The Box Tops, his career as a musician, and what he’s been up to lately.
Spotlight Central: You were born in Memphis, Tennessee. We understand both of your parents were musical. Can you tell us about them?
Gary Talley: Yeah, my mother played piano and organ. She played in church, so every time I went to church, my mom was the one playing the keyboards. My mom and my dad both sang, and my dad also played guitar. My dad didn’t play professionally, for the most part, but when they were in their 60s, both of my parents formed a group with a couple of other people and they played around Memphis in nursing homes and places like that.
Spotlight Central: That’s cool. You’ve said that both your mother and father played by ear. Did you, too?
Gary Talley: Yeah, that’s the way I learned. I had played by ear for years before I even tried to read music. I learned to do that much later, after I had already been playing for quite awhile.
Spotlight Central: What kinds of music did you listen to growing up?
Gary Talley: A lot of different things, because my mom liked pop music — like Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters, and what was on the radio before rock and roll — and my dad liked country music. When rock and roll started up, I listened to that, but I also listened to pop music and country music. My mom loved classical music, too, so I listened to a little bit of that. I didn’t know anything about jazz until the late ’60s, when I was introduced to it and started listening to some to that, too, and since then, I’ve listened to all kinds of music.
Spotlight Central: What got you interested in playing the guitar?
Gary Talley: My dad, because he played guitar. He loved Chet Atkins. We had a lot of Chet Atkins records, so I listened to Chet Atkins. And when rock and roll came out, I listened to James Burton playing with Ricky Nelson and Scotty Moore playing with Elvis, and then to The Ventures, Duane Eddy, and that kind of stuff.
Spotlight Central: Originally, you played in a Memphis garage band called The In Crowd. Then, you joined The Devilles in Memphis with Alex Chilton on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, you on lead guitar, and, soon after, Bill Cunningham on bass. How did you get involved with that group?
Gary Talley: John Evans, who I had played with in The In Crowd, called me and told me that The Devilles’ guitar player quit and moved to California with his family. So I became the guitar player with The Devilles because of my connection with John Evans.
Spotlight Central: The Devilles played at teen clubs and skating rinks. We’re told one of the first songs you played was “Little Latin Lupe Lu” by The Righteous Brothers. What other songs did you play?
Gary Talley: We played what most of the other bands were playing. I remember we played some Motown stuff. We played “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful. We played Beatles’ stuff — I remember playing “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and I remember working up “Paperback Writer.” We played “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, some Rolling Stones’ songs, and I also remember playing “California Girls” by The Beach Boys.
Spotlight Central: You had a good set list!
Gary Talley: Yeah, we were pretty varied.
Spotlight Central: We understand that The Devilles’ first recording session included “The Letter.” That song was written by Wayne Carson, who was in his late-20s, but weren’t you guys still teenagers at the time?
Gary Talley: We were. Everybody was a teenager. I was the oldest and I was 19, Alex was the youngest and he was 16, and then Bill Cunningham, Danny Smythe, and John Evans were in between.
Spotlight Central: The owner of the studio where you cut “The Letter,” Chips Moman, was supposed to produce “The Letter,” but Dan Penn did instead. When Chips heard the record, do you know how did he felt about it?
Gary Talley: I wasn’t there when he heard it, but I was told he liked the record — and I’m sure he wished he had been the producer — but he didn’t like the airplane sounds that Dan put on there. When Chips threatened to take the airplane sounds off, he and Dan got into a big fight and Dan said if he tried to do that, he would cut the tape up into a million pieces.
Spotlight Central: That’s funny! So how did The Devilles become The Box Tops?
Gary Talley: When “The Letter” was recorded, the band was still The Devilles, but after it was ready to be released — because we got a record deal with Bell Records — we realized we couldn’t use the name because it was already trademarked. So we had to think of another name and somebody thought of The Box Tops. Our manager liked that name and, all of a sudden, we were The Box Tops.
Spotlight Central: “The Letter” hit #1 in 1967, sold over four million copies, and received two Grammy nominations — competing against The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Fifth Dimension’s “Up Up and Away.” Were you surprised at the record’s success?
Gary Talley: Oh, we were blown away! We couldn’t believe it — it was just, like, “Wow!” It was like fairyland — too good to be true, you know? We were just amazed and stunned by it.
Spotlight Central: Can you remember the first time you heard “The Letter” on the radio?
Gary Talley: Oh, yeah. One of the stations in Memphis played it, of course, but the first place that played it outside of Memphis was Knoxville, Tennessee and, well, it was just kind of amazing — it was like a dream, like it couldn’t really be happening.
Spotlight Central: We understand that while you were recording at American Sound Studio in Memphis, some pop music history took place. For example, weren’t you there for the 1968 Dusty Springfield recording session which produced “Son of a Preacher Man”?
Gary Talley: I was there, but Dusty Springfield was so shy that they wouldn’t let anybody in during her session. I was in and out of the studio the same day she was in there, however — just not while she was actually recording, because she was so shy. In fact, she was even too shy to do her lead vocals in Memphis; she wound up doing them in New York.
Spotlight Central: We didn’t know that. Weren’t you also there in ’68 when The Memphis Boys cut the tracks for “Angel of the Morning” for Merilee Rush and “Hooked on a Feeling” for B.J. Thomas?
Gary Talley: Yeah, it was a great time — and I was also there when Herbie Mann did the Memphis Underground album.
Spotlight Central: And about how old were you at this time?
Gary Talley: I was 20 — I had turned 20 in the summer of ’67. By the time “The Letter” was a hit, I remember I had just turned 20 in August and the record was a hit in September and October.
Spotlight Central: You guys were really busy. In a nine-month period starting in late 1967 and running to mid-1968, The Box Tops released three albums! In addition, in 1968, “Cry Like a Baby” sold over a million copies and peaked at #2 on the Hot 100. What were your thoughts on that song — especially with regards to its use of the electric sitar?
Gary Talley: I loved it. That was a very new invention — the electric sitar — and Reggie Young from The Memphis Boys is the one who played it on “Cry Like A Baby.” He had just gotten it, and I think that was the first song he used it on. Then, he used it again on “Hooked On A Feeling.”
Spotlight Central: We’re told that some other Box Tops’ favorites of yours include “I Met Her in Church” and “Choo Choo Train.” What is it about these songs that appeals to you?
Gary Talley: In addition to “Cry Like a Baby,” Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham wrote “I Met Her in Church,” and Eddie Hinton and Donny Fritz wrote “Choo Choo Train,” and I don’t know — I just liked both of those songs. I thought the gospel thing on “I Met Her in Church” was really cool because it was exactly how my mom and dad met. Of course, I grew up in church listening to all that gospel stuff, and so I really liked that because it seemed like a true story. And “Choo Choo Train” was the same thing. I just really loved that song.
Spotlight Central: And it has a really soulful guitar part on it, too, doesn’t it?
Gary Talley: Yeah, it’s a nice one for guitar.
Spotlight Central: Moving on, in 1969, “Soul Deep” hit the Top 20. That same year, you went to London to do a tour of England. What happened on the tour?
Gary Talley: We had a two-week tour set up. The promoter was a guy named Arthur House who was one of the biggest — if not the biggest — promoter in London at the time. We were in London and they said we were gonna go and rehearse on the gear we were gonna use on the tour. We had an opening act — a reggae band called King Ollie and the Raisins — and we were going to use their equipment, but when we got to the rehearsal place, we found out the equipment was just horrible.
The promoter of the tour wouldn’t even rent amplifiers for us, so we were gonna have to use all the gear of the opening band, and it was terrible. The organ was like a little toy organ, and they had this big Leslie cabinet to go with the toy organ that was broken and it made noise like an old washing machine. The guitar amps weren’t even really guitar amps — they were P.A. amps — and the drums looked like something you would buy an 8-year-old for a birthday present.
So we had an emergency band meeting where we said, “This is awful — we can’t do this. This is our first time in Europe and we’re gonna play on this total crap equipment?” So we called the promoter and said we weren’t gonna do it, and he still wouldn’t even rent an amp for us. In our contract, we had a rider where we specified what kinds of amps we wanted — what brands and what quality — and he wouldn’t do it, so we just decided to cancel the tour.
We stayed in London and had a great time for about a week and we didn’t tour, but I wound up doing a recording session at EMI Abbey Road Studios.
Spotlight Central: That’s not too bad of a consolation prize — to get to record at Abbey Road where The Beatles did the vast majority of their recording!
Gary Talley: That was a big thrill for me. This was December of 1969. The Beatles weren’t there at the time, but I was in the studio and I knew that’s where they recorded, so I went around and I sat in every chair in the whole studio. There were three studios — A, B, and C — and I went and sat in every chair in all three studios so I could know that I sat in the chairs The Beatles sat in!
Spotlight Central: After The Box Tops, you worked at Sounds of Memphis Studio and at Universal Studios in Memphis and started touring, as well. What was it like working with artists like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Freda Payne, and Pat Boone?
Gary Talley: I only did one gig with Pat Boone, and that was in Atlanta. I’d moved to Atlanta in 1971, and he came for a big fundraising dinner. I played guitar on that one show with him, and he was really nice, you know? He did all of his hits — plus he did a lot of talking and storytelling — but we probably played about 20 songs together, I guess.
Spotlight Central: In 1981, you relocated to Nashville at the request of producer Chips Moman where you recorded with such artists as Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, and more, and toured and played with others including Billy Preston, Brenda Lee, Tim McGraw, The Drifters, and Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. Who was your favorite musician to work with?
Gary Talley: Billy Preston was my absolute favorite.
Spotlight Central: The fifth Beatle, huh?
Gary Tally: Yeah, he was great! He was so musical — I mean, just a musical genius as a player and as a writer and as a singer — and he also loved to dance, which I didn’t know.
Spotlight Central: We didn’t know that either.
Gary Talley: Yeah, when you’d do a gig with him, he’d come out dancing and he’d continue dancing while we played him on, you know? And then he would sit down at the keyboard and start doing all his hits and stuff.
Spotlight Central: Since you’ve worked with a “who’s who” of the music industry, is there any musician you always wanted to work with but never had a chance to?
Gary Talley: Sure, a lot of them. I always wanted to work with Ray Charles, but I never got a chance to. I always wanted to work with Bonnie Raitt, and I never got a chance. Plus, there were some other singers I’d met — for example, I never got to work with Johnny Cash, even though I met him — so, yeah, there are a lot of people I’d love to have worked with.
Spotlight Central: You’ve become renowned as a guitar instructor in Nashville, and in 1999, you created Guitar Playing for Songwriters, which was the first instructional guitar video for songwriters. What was your inspiration for doing that?
Gary Talley: When I first moved to Nashville, I didn’t really know anybody but Chips Moman and I needed to work a lot more than I was, so I started teaching guitar lessons. I’m a songwriter, too, and I was doing a whole lot of demos for songwriters, so I met a lot of songwriters. I also had a lot of songwriters as guitar students, so I quickly learned what most guitar-playing songwriters knew, what they didn’t know, and what they needed to know. To this day, I’m not sure how many copies of Guitar Playing for Songwriters have been sold altogether, but I recently came out with a DVD version because there’s been a demand for it for over 20 years now.
Spotlight Central: In 2016, you and Bill Cunningham reunited the Box Tops, and in 2017, you joined the Happy Together Tour with The Turtles, The Association, The Cowsills, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, and Ron Dante of The Archies. What was it like being a part of that tour?
Gary Talley: Oh, it was fun — in fact, it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had! Everybody got along great. It was really a first-class tour, just state of the art. All the venues were great, and almost all were sold out. We stayed in great hotels, the catering was great, and we played all over the country, so I got to visit dozens of old friends I hadn’t seen in years. Since we played all over the place, friends up in the North East and friends out in California got to come to the shows, and it was just a blast.
Spotlight Central: In 2018 you were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame as a founding member of The Box Tops, along with artists like Aretha Franklin and others. How gratifying was that experience for you?
Gary Talley: Oh, that was a great thrill — probably one of the highlights of my whole life. That was just a wonderful thing because all of our boyhood heroes were members of the Memphis Hall of Fame and just to be included in that was a huge honor.
Spotlight Central: Lately, with the suspension of most live concerts, what have you been up to?
Gary Talley: I’m still teaching — I teach online — and I have several projects I’ve been working on. A friend of mine, Richard Fleming, and I have been writing together for years. I’m from Memphis and he’s from Cincinnati and we have a duo which we call Memphinati. We finished a new CD which just now went on TuneCore, and TuneCore puts it on all the streaming services like Spotify and all the others. The album is called Through the Roof — one of the songs is called “Through the Roof,” so we made that the title cut.
Spotlight Central: Is there anything you’d like to say to all of your fans who are missing live music?
Gary Talley: It’s really hard not being able to play. One of the most fun things to do is to get to play live for our fans and for people who have followed us for all these years. We really want to get out all over the country and play for all the people who bought our records and who still follow us, and I hope we can do that soon. We have some dates scheduled for next year, but we don’t yet know if they’re gonna get moved back further or not.
Spotlight Central: In the meantime, it’s a good thing we have your recordings — including your new album, which will be available any moment now — to listen to. That said, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Gary Talley: I’d just like to thank all the people who bought our records and all the people who’ve come to our concerts. We’ve got a Facebook page and a website and I’d love for everybody to join our Facebook page and look at our website to keep up with what we’re doing, and we’ll try to let everybody know when we’re actually gonna get back out there!
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