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Convertible Devilles Box Their Way To The Top

Over the course of time, Ronnie And The Devilles had two Ronnies and two Jordans.  Eventually they would become the first band to cut a record in Memphis which hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but by that time there were no Ronnies, no Jordans, and they weren’t the Devilles any more. 

Let’s start with that outrageous claim that Memphis had not produced a number one record before 1967.  What about all those number one Elvis records?  Well, none of them, to that point, had been recorded in Memphis.  While Elvis decidedly resided in the City of Good Abode, his chart toppers had been produced in Nashville, New York and Hollywood.  How about Jerry Lee Lewis?  The Killer’s biggest single recorded in Memphis peaked at number two, as did “Raunchy” from Bill Justis and a couple of Sam The Sham records.  Stax had hit number one on R&B specialty charts, and was making inroads into the crossover market, but hadn’t yet scored a national pop number one.  They would soon, as would Hi Records in the seventies.

Secondly, let’s not confuse Ronnie And The Devilles with Ronny And The Daytonas.  The Daytonas were a studio concoction, cranking out surf and car tunes like the 1964 number 4 hit, “Little GTO.”  They did, in fact, have a couple of Memphis connections.  They were managed by former Memphian Bill Justis.  Being studio dudes, and young ones at that, they couldn’t easily tour, so a couple of conglomerations of musicians hit the road under the name Ronnie And The Daytonas.  One of these incorporated Memphians B.B. Cunningham, John Hunter and Gary McEwen, who would soon hit the charts with a song of their own as The Hombres.

In the early 60’s, there seemed to be more teenagers than ever before.  And all those teenagers seemed to want to find places to meet other teenagers, be it a prom, teen club, skating rink.  One catalyst necessary to trigger social reaction was live music, and as opportunities abounded for events to play, bands appeared to fill the need.

In Playing For A Piece Of The Door, Ron Hall traced the birth of The Devilles to 1963, when drummer Danny Smythe, bassist Fred Shaeffer, and a couple of Bartlett guys, Mike Wright and Ronnie Carnie, got a band together and worked that variety of local gigs.  As with so many groups, the lineup was never cast in stone.   In time, when band members became abducted by real life or other bands, the personnel came to include two vocalists from Whitehaven, Steve Jourden and Ronnie Jordan.  Steve Jourden handled the R&B tunes, and Ronnie Jordan sang the pop and British invasion numbers. When Steve met up with that great breaker-up of 60’s bands, Uncle Sam and the draft, Ronnie Jordan took the lead, and the billing changed to Ronnie And The Devilles.  Ronnie’s uncle, Roy Mack, was a DJ at WMPS, and managed the band, lining up local bookings and getting them signed to Chips Moman’s Youngstown record label.  In 1966, their first single, “Tragedy” and “Oh Love,” was picked up by MGM records. It showcased Jordan’s uncanny ability to sound somewhere between Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Gerry Marsden of The Pacemakers.  Despite their local popularity, the single didn’t catch on nationally, and more losses to service led Ronnie Jordan to form a band called Honey Jug.  We’ll hear more from him later on records, and especially on radio.

When the final lineup of the Devilles, with only drummer Danny Smythe left from the original personnel, was teamed with American Studios producer Dan Penn and fronted by 16-year-old lead vocalist Alex Chilton, the Box Tops were born.  In the fall of 1967, their first record, “The Letter,” would become the first single recorded in Memphis by a Memphis band to hit number one in the nation.  

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.