BY GRACE MCQUADE
Rick Levy, one of the current members of the ’60s band, the Box Tops, admits that he doesn’t recall much from his early childhood, but one memory is crystal clear — the day he received his first Elvis Presley album in 1956.
“It sounds trite. It sounds contrived, but that was like the Holy Grail,” Levy said during a recent interview. “The light went off.”
This spark led Levy on a musical journey that took him from running around his house as a boy wearing Elvis-inspired cardboard sideburns glued to his face, to receiving a birthday kiss from Elvis’ wife, Priscilla Presley, at the Box Tops’ induction ceremony into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame this past November.
While people may not know Levy by name because he often performs back-up and behind-the-scenes, his passion for playing music has kept him closely tied to the industry for the past 50 years, juggling roles as a touring musician, bandleader, producer, writer, promoter and manager.
“Everything I did and learned about the music business, aside from playing my instrument, was done so I could continue to play,” Levy said. “I could have had a job at Capitol Records on the business side… done the corporate ladder thing. Then I realized I wouldn’t be doing what I love to do.”
So Levy asked himself early on, “How can I do this and keep reinventing myself so I can continue to play music and make a living doing it?”
The answer lies in “High in the Mid-‘60s: How to Have a Fabulous Life in Music Without Being Famous,” Levy’s account of his rollercoaster ride in the music business alongside artists who made their marks during what Levy calls the “renaissance” age in music and are revered to this day.
“There’s still an audience, a pretty good audience, for this 60s-era music,” Levy said. “It’s transcended the Boomer generation for sure.”
At Box Tops’ concerts across the country, Levy says he often sees grandparents, parents and grandkids at the shows together singing, “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane,” the opening lyrics of the band’s greatest hit, “The Letter.”
“They all know it because these songs have come up in commercials, in movies, in TV,” Levy said. “The ‘60s’ thing has become, in my estimation, the mold, and once the mold is made it’s easy to replicate, but it’s not the same.”
While there have been many ‘60s tribute acts over the years, Long Islanders can experience the real thing when the Memphis-born Box Tops, including two of its founding members, Bill Cunningham and Gary Talley, share the stage with the Grass Roots and headliners Tommy James & the Shondells at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Friday, March 15 at 8 p.m.
Prior to joining the Box Tops three years ago, Levy spent 14 years managing the group while performing with many other recording stars including Jay & the Techniques, Herman’s Hermits, Frankie Avalon, the Shirelles, the Belmonts, the Drifters, the Platters, Martha Reeves and more.
“The artists I’ve played with are such a wide range like Tommy Roe, who did songs like ‘Sheila’ and ‘Dizzy,’ and was called the king of bubble gum, these feel-good songs,” Levy said. “And then you play with a guy like Bo Diddley, who was one of the pioneers of it all… I still feel like I’m the kid in the candy store.”
It was during his time performing with Peter “Herman” Noone of the British band Herman’s Hermits in the late ‘90s and early part of the 2000s when Levy first asked himself a more introspective question in light of his good fortune, “How did I get here?”
What began as a journal transformed into his memoir that tells a story of an everyman making it in the real world rather than the often-heard tale of a rock icon’s rise in the music world.
“Rick Levy record star was not in the stars for me,” he said. So finding where his expertise as a businessman and performer could best be used in an ever-changing world has been his longtime pursuit, providing him with hard-won wisdom and magical moments that he recounts in his book from the very beginning.
Levy played several instruments as a child, but guitar was his favorite. He played his first Martin guitar at the age of 13 and took lessons from a jazz guitar player in his hometown of Allentown, Pa., “a real bohemian… dressed in black… chain-smoking Camel cigarettes,” Levy said, “but he played guitar and it was like I was transformed. He taught me stuff that I still use to this day.”
Despite these early lessons, Levy says his real training came from his time with his first garage band, the Limits, in high school and then with the group Wax while at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Some of the guys were better, technically-trained musicians than I was so I learned a lot from them about theory and chord structure,” he said, recalling a memorable trip during these years.
In the summer of 1967, right after graduating from high school, the Limits drove to the Catskills in upstate New York to play at a summer camp.
“We’re driving in a station wagon… and, of course, back then all you had was AM radio… and this song comes on for the first time, the opening of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ and we literally had to stop the car and just listen to that thing cause we had never heard anything like it. That just altered the universe, my musical universe, much like Elvis did when I was a kid,” Levy said.
So perhaps it was kismet when Levy and his Wax bandmates got to meet the British rock band who first recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum, while at the Electric Factory, the same Philadelphia concert club where rising rockers like the Who and Jimi Hendrix performed.
“We kind of had carte blanche to go see shows because, although we were a local band, we were a favorite of the owner,” Levy said. “I mentioned that story to them — about how important the song was to us. Funnily enough, the Box Tops recorded a version of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ on their very first album.”
A similar idol moment occurred in the early ’70s when Levy and his new bride attended a Rolling Stones’ concert at Madison Square Garden on Mick Jagger’s 29th birthday. Through connections, Levy went to the after-party at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel and shared an elevator ride with Keith Richards.
“My sister swears by it,” Levy said, given that his memory was a bit foggy after a night of partying with the likes of Jagger, Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan.
Music had to take a backseat when Levy and his first wife had a son. He went back to school to earn a degree in teaching to provide a steady income for his family, but he brought his love for music into the classroom by forming a music education program for children called RockRoots.
“It won the best single kids’ program by PBS Pennsylvania stations,” Levy said. “It’s not the same as a Grammy or a million-selling record, but that’s who I am.”
In the decades that followed, Levy’s marriages ended and his bands never scored a recording contract with a major label, but he continued to play gigs, fine-tune his skills and remain close with many of his industry contacts. “I’ve burned very few bridges in 50-plus years,” he said.
When he had the opportunity to work with his first ‘60s recording group, Jay & the Techniques, Levy discovered a new musical path. “I saw the popularity of this thing,” he said, so he set out to find practical ways to play with other recording artists, often involving managing the talent.
“I was never an original member of any of these big groups, but being part and parcel of presenting them again… trying to do the sound right and honestly… to me is an honor and it’s a responsibility,” Levy said. “When I finally put the guitar on and go onstage, I’m just in relax-mode.”
Local music lovers will get to experience all the fun and nostalgia when the Box Tops open the show on the 15th, bringing with them more than just great hits like “Cry Like a Baby,” “Soul Deep” and “Neon Rainbow.”
“They’re gonna get what made the Box Tops such a cool band for Memphis and why Memphis was so cool, especially in the ‘60s… in that great theatre in the round,” he said.
When the music and euphoria die down, Levy returns to his beachfront home in St. Augustine, Fla., where he enjoys quiet pastimes like yoga and pottery, before he plans the band’s next excursion. In March, they will board a Flower Power cruise with the Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane and other big bands of the era.
Over the years, Levy says there have been times when he has envied friends who had steady jobs and stable home lives.
“Security is a funny thing,” he said. “We all want it, but I think of what happened when all these people who worked for corporations thought it was all secure and then their pensions are gone.”
So while Levy’s “rock climb” didn’t put him at the very top, music ultimately brought him — and many others of the ‘60s generation and beyond — feelings of peace, happiness and freedom.
“It’s only rock and roll,” Levy said, but people sure do like it.