Forever and always, my favorite Boxtops song is "The Letter" -- one of my top candidates for Most Perfect Single Ever -- but when I entered the digital age and acquired a Box Tops greatest hits CD, just to have "The Letter" on my iTunes, I discovered all these tasty Box Tops tunes that I had completely forgotten about. In fact, I may never have known they were by the Box Tops; they were just familiar sounds from the vast sonic stew of the late 60s. "Cry Like A Baby"? That could have been by Tommy James and the Shondells, for all I knew. "Sweet Cream Ladies"? With its campy marching band arrangement, it couldn't have sounded less like the urgent bluesy wail of "The Letter."
Salvation Army-style horns, ploppy organ chords, a tramping bass drum -- the sound of this song telegraphs "good-time music," or at any rate the post-Sgt. Pepper's interpretation of that. For some reason I can't hear this song without thinking of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, with all its subversive smirk. It's possible that the Box Tops performed it on the show -- it was released in early 1969, before CBS abruptly cancelled the show in April.
Now of course I see that the "sweet cream ladies" of the title are prostitutes -- DUH! That went right over my head in 1969. (Give me a break; I was a sheltered Midwestern kid.) I guess I just thought they were generous hippie damsels who gave away wonderful pastries for free. After all, the song does say "Think of what you're giving /To the lost and lonely people of the night" -- late-night giveaways at the Haight-Asbury bakery shoppe?
Okay, I should have figured it out from the lines "They will love you in the darkness, /Take advantage of your starkness, /And refuse to recognize you in the light," not to mention phrases like "It's instinctive stimulation you convey," "Puritans ignore them," and "Let them satisfy the ego of the male." But then I must have gotten thrown off by the lines, "It's a necessary function / Meant for those without compunction, /Who get tired of vanilla every day." See there, vanilla -- I rest my case.
Still, it's a toe-tapping gem, a snappy artifact of its pre-AIDS time, when it was possible to wax romantic about hookers. The barriers of society were toppling on all sides -- why not see whores as standard-bearers of the sexual revolution, and victims of an unfair class system? And yet somehow, for me the coy wink of this song doesn't quite cancel out its lecherous undertone. Or is that just an inevitable consequence of Alex Chilton's shivering vocals? He's preaching tolerance, but you just know he plans to avail himself of their services, and sooner rather than later.
Well, I liked the song better when I thought it was about pastries. But then, I really liked the song when I thought it was about pastries. It's still a great little example of late 60s pop. You gotta love the Box Tops.