THE BEATLES had not yet spearheaded "the British invasion" of pop music in the USA when Danny Smythe was given his first set of drums as a present on his fifteenth birthday in August of `63. While still learning to play, he responded to an announcement posted by two guitarists from Memphis' Bartlett High School, Mike Wright and Ronnie Carnie. They were looking for a drummer "to start a band". Wright, Carnie, Smythe, and bassist Freddie Schaeffer formed the group. Like many groups from the during that period, they named themselves after a popular car of the time. In this case, the name chosen was THE DEVILLES, a derivative of Cadillac's Coupe De Ville.
At the time live music was everywhere in Memphis Tennessee, and opportunities to play abounded. High schools typically held proms, sock hops, and fund raisers; social clubs and fraternities/sororities frequently found reasons to throw parties. Even YMCA's, roller skating rinks, and any place frequented by teens with enough room held dances. Local groups, often with limited experience, provided the music. They cost little to hire, but could fill venues with the live music sound needed to create excitement in these days before disco and its expensive and powerful sound systems. The groups could gain experience performing, sample the party food and drinks, and even earning a little spending money! And so it was that THE DEVILLES developed a strong following performing at these local events.
When Schaeffer left the group to join THE SCEPTERS, a well-established local recording group, Russ Caccamisi (a schoolmate of Smythe's) assumed the role of bassist. In addition to playing the sousaphone in his high school band, Caccamisi had played bass for another local Memphis group called THE CHANTELLES.
Later Wright and Carnie left the group and were replaced by guitarists Bill Fargie and Richard Malone. Since Fargie and Malone did not sing, the group was forced to audition vocalists. Lead vocalist Steve Jourden brought with him to the audition two other singers--Ronnie Jordan and Mike Moseley. The three vocalists ultimately joined the group, and THE DEVILLES began to present themselves as a singing group--lead vocalist and two background vocalists--with a backing rhythm section comprised of two guitars, bass, and drums.
As the group began to play more British-style pop, Jordan began to sing lead on more songs because of his particular style, tone, and delivery. When background vocalist Moseley left the group, both Jourden and Jordan shared the role of lead-singer, each offering his own specialty-- Jourden sang the soul music songs and Jordan sang the British pop songs.
In the days before cable TV, music videos, and ROLLING STONE magazine, disk jockeys were the music authorities. As a result, radio stations often received calls from people in their listening area who were looking for live entertainment. Local DJs named Johnny Dark and Roy Mack (Ronnie Jordan's uncle who worked for WMPS) began booking THE DEVILLES. The group began to play in small towns around the Memphis area. Eventually DJ Roy Mack became their de facto manager by getting the group the most work.
YouTube Video (no sound):
the DeVilles on July 4, 1964
Location: Memphis Tennessee
When Jourden left, Ronnie Jordan became the group's sole lead vocalist. Jordan's uncle, Roy Mack, got the group signed by Chips Moman's label, Youngstown Records, under the modified name RONNIE AND THE DEVILLES. The group recorded several singles at Moman's American Recording Studio. The records were released in the Memphis area and include a vocal version of Floyd Cramer's Last Date, a remake of Thomas Wayne's Tragedy, and originals Oh Love and Cindy's Carousel. During this period, a keyboard player called Mike Norris join the group, but he left for personal reasons after a brief period.
The demise of RONNIE AND THE DEVILLES began when lead guitarist Fargie left the group to perform military service. At that time, Ronnie Jordan left the group to form a new group called HONEYJUG and later became a successful Memphis area DJ called Ron Jordan.
THE DEVILLES (again)
At this point THE DEVILLES (dropping RONNIE from the name) were reduced to three people-- Smythe
(drums), Caccamisi (bass) and Malone (rhythm guitarist). Earlier, Caccamisi had worked with
John Evans in THE CHANTELLES and called him to audition as guitar player and organist. After Evans joined, the group decided to change musical directions toward R & B and began their search for a vocalist.
Evans called Jimmy Newman of THE IN CROWD, a group in which Evans previously had played, to ask about possible lead vocalists. When asked if he knew anyone with a suitable voice, Newman recommended Alex Chilton. Chilton had made an impressive recent appearance at Central High School's talent show with his rendition of the Bobby Hebb's Sunny. Evans contacted Chilton to arrange an audition. In spite of the age difference (Alex was two or three years younger than the current group members), Alex's voice fit the group's vision. He was asked to join.
Shortly after Chilton joined the group, Malone moved to California when his father received orders from the Navy transferring him to San Diego. About the same time Caccamisi left the group to enter college. THE DEVILLES had to find both a new guitar player and bass player! Gary Talley, Evans' friend and former bandmate from THE IN CROWD, auditioned and became lead guitarist. Bill Cunningham, Chilton's friend who at the time was working with Chris Bell (later a member of BIG STAR), auditioned and became bassist (and sometimes shared responsibility with Evans for keyboard parts). At the time, all members of the group were still teenagers.
BIRTH OF THE BOX TOPS
The group's name was changed for their first nationwide record release, because it was discovered that there were other groups (two in fact!) that had released records under the name THE DEVILLES in other areas of the USA. So it was that the last Memphis group called THE DEVILLES became the first group to be called THE BOX TOPS--Alex Chilton, Bill Cunningham, John Evans, Danny Smythe, and Gary Talley. These are the same BOX TOPS you can see and hear today!