The Letter (Box Tops song)

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"The Letter"
UK single picture sleeve
Single by the Box Tops
B-side"Happy Times"
ReleasedAugust 1967 (1967-08)
StudioAmerican Sound, Memphis, Tennessee
GenrePop rock, blue-eyed soul
Songwriter(s)Wayne Carson
Producer(s)Dan Penn
The Box Tops singles chronology
"The Letter"
"Neon Rainbow"
Audio sample

"The Letter" is a song written by Wayne Carson that was first recorded by the American rock band the Box Tops in 1967. It was the group's first and most successful single, reaching number one on the record charts in the United States and Canada. It was also an international success and placed in the top ten in several other countries.

The Box Tops lead vocalist Alex Chilton sang "The Letter" in a gruff blue-eyed soul style. The song launched Chilton's career and inspired numerous cover versions. English rock and soul singer Joe Cocker's 1970 rendition became his first top ten single in the U.S.; several other artists have recorded versions which also reached the record charts.

Rolling Stone magazine included the Box Tops original at number 372 on its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time",[1] and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame added it to the list of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll".[2] In 2011, the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[3]

Composition and recording[edit]

Wayne Carson wrote "The Letter", built on an opening line suggested by his father: "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane".[4] Carson included the song on a demo tape he gave to Chips Moman, owner of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. When studio associate Dan Penn was looking for an opportunity to produce more, Moman suggested a local group, the DeVilles, who had a new lead singer, sixteen-year-old Alex Chilton.[4] The other four members of the group that played on the session were Danny Smythe on drums, Richard Malone on electric guitar, John Evans on electric piano, and Russ Caccamisi on bass.[5] Penn gave the group Carson's demo tape for some songs to work up.[4] With little or no rehearsal, the group arrived at American Sound to record "The Letter".[5] Chilton recalled:

We set up and started running the tune down ... [Dan] adjusted a few things on the organ sound, told the drummer not to do anything at all except the basic rhythm that was called for. No rolls, no nothin'. The bass player was playing pretty hot stuff, so he didn't mess with what the bass player was doing.[5]

Penn added: "The guitar player had the lick right—we copied Wayne's demo. Then I asked the keyboard player to play an 'I'm a Believer' type of thing".[5] Chilton sang the vocal live while the group was performing;[5] Penn noted: "I coached him [Chilton] a little ... told him to say 'aer-o-plane,' told him to get a little gruff, and I didn't have to say anything else to him, he was hookin 'em, a natural singer."[6] He later explained, "[Chilton] picked it up exactly as I had in mind, maybe even better. I hadn't even paid any attention to how good he sang because I was busy trying to put the band together ... I had a bunch of greenhorns who'd never cut a record, including me".[7]

About thirty takes were required for the basic track. Then Penn had Mike Leech prepare a string and horn arrangement to give it a fuller sound.[4] Leech recalled: "My very first string arrangement was 'The Letter', and the only reason I did that was because I knew how to write music notation ... Nobody else in the group did or I'm sure someone else would have gotten the call."[4] Penn also overdubbed the sound of an airplane taking off to the track from a special effects record that had been checked out from the local library.[5] He explained:

That was a big part of the record ... When I finished it up, I played it for Chips [Moman], and he said, "That's a pretty good little rock & roll record, but you've got to take that airplane off it." I said, "If the record's going out, it's going out with the airplane on it". He said, "Okay, it's your record."[5]

Edwin Pouncey of The Wire described the "sampling" of the overhead jet plane as one of the more notable "pop and rock musique concrète flirtations" of the period.[8]

The DeVilles were renamed the Box Tops and "The Letter", at only 1 minute, 58 seconds, was released by Mala Records, a subsidiary of Bell Records.

Chart performance[edit]

"The Letter" reached number one on the Hot 100 singles chart published by Billboard magazine on September 23, 1967.[9] It remained at the top position for four weeks and Billboard ranked the record the number two song for 1967.[10] The single sold more than one million copies[11] and the RIAA certified it as gold.[12]

Joe Cocker renditions[edit]

"The Letter"
German single picture sleeve
Single by Joe Cocker
B-side"Space Captain"
ReleasedApril 1970 (1970-04)
RecordedMarch 17, 1970
StudioA&M soundstage, Hollywood, California
Songwriter(s)Wayne Carson
Producer(s)Denny Cordell, Leon Russell
Joe Cocker singles chronology
"She Came in Through the Bathroom Window"
"The Letter"
"Cry Me a River"
Audio sample

English singer Joe Cocker recorded "The Letter" during the rehearsals for his upcoming Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour on March 17, 1970.[25] Leon Russell and the Shelter People provided the back up; Russell and Denny Cordell produced the recording.[25] A&M Records released it as a single, with "Space Captain" as the B-side. It appeared in Billboard's Hot 100 in April 1970 and eventually reached number seven.[26] "The Letter" became Cocker's first top ten single in the US. In the UK, the single reached number 39.[27]

Cocker performed it (and "Space Captain") during his 1970 performance at the Fillmore East auditorium in New York City.[25] Recordings of both songs are included on the live Mad Dogs & Englishmen album, which was released in August 1970 and was a best seller.[28] The concert was also filmed in its entirety and released in theaters. In 2003, it was released on DVD.[28]

Chart performance[edit]

1970 singles charts
Chart Peak
Australia Go-Set[29] 27
Canada RPM Top Singles[30] 7
UK Singles Chart[27] 39
US Billboard Hot 100[26] 7
1970 year-end charts
Chart Rank
Canada [31] 91

Other charting renditions[edit]

In 1979, a version by country singer Sammi Smith reached number 27 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart.[32] A year later in the UK, Amii Stewart's version reached number 39 on the UK Singles Chart.[33]


  1. ^ "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. No. 963. December 9, 2004. Archived from the original on July 6, 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  2. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on May 2, 2007. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  3. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards – Past Recipients". 2011. Archived from the original on June 26, 2015. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e Jones, Roben (2010). Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 78–81. ISBN 9781604734010.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g George-Warren, Holly (2014). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton. Penguin. eBook. ISBN 978-0-670-02563-3.
  6. ^ McKeen, William (2000). Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay: An Anthology (1st ed.). New York City: W. W. Norton. pp. 495–496. ISBN 0-393-04700-8.
  7. ^ McNutt, Randy (2002). Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll (1st US ed.). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-253-34058-6.
  8. ^ Pouncey, Edwin (July 1999). "Undercurrents #7: Fables of the Deconstruction". The Wire. Retrieved February 21, 2023.
  9. ^ "Hot 100". Billboard. Vol. 79, no. 38. September 23, 1967. p. 24. ISSN 0006-2510.
  10. ^ "Top Records of 1967". Billboard. Vol. 79, no. 52. December 30, 1967. p. 42. ISSN 0006-2510.
  11. ^ a b Whitburn, Joel (1997). Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 64. ISBN 0-89820-122-5.
  12. ^ "Gold & Platinum Search – The Box Tops". RIAA. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  13. ^ "Go-Set National Top 40". Go-Set. December 13, 1967. Archived from the original on March 6, 2017. Retrieved June 10, 2017.
  14. ^ a b c d "The Box Tops – 'The Letter' (song)". Hung Medien. Retrieved June 9, 2023.
  15. ^ "RPM 100". RPM. Archived from the original on April 3, 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
  16. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – The Letter". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved July 11, 2017.
  17. ^ "The Box Tops – The Letter" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  18. ^ "Box Tops – Singles". Official Charts. Archived from the original on July 13, 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  19. ^ Hoffmann, Frank (1983). The Cash Box Singles Charts, 1950–1981. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press. p. 58.
  20. ^ "Go-Set National Top 40 for 1967". Go-Set. December 1967. Archived from the original on March 6, 2017. Retrieved June 10, 2017.
  21. ^ "The Top 10 of 1967" (PDF). RPM. Vol. 8, no. 18. December 30, 1967.
  22. ^ "Top 100-Jaaroverzicht van 1967". Dutch Top 40. Retrieved September 21, 2020.
  23. ^ "Top Records of 1967 (Based on Billboard Charts)" (PDF). Billboard. December 30, 1967. p. 42. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  24. ^ "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  25. ^ a b c Mad Dogs & Englishmen (DVD notes). Joe Cocker. Santa Monica, California: A&M Records. 2005. p. 7. B0005532-09.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  26. ^ a b Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1990, ISBN 0-89820-089-X
  27. ^ a b "Joe Cocker – Singles". Official Charts. Archived from the original on July 5, 2017. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  28. ^ a b Eder, Bruce. "Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs & Englishmen [2003 Video/DVD]". AllMusic. Archived from the original on March 1, 2016. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  29. ^ "Go-Set National Top 60". Go-Set. August 15, 1970. Archived from the original on March 16, 2017. Retrieved June 10, 2017.
  30. ^ "RPM 100 Singles". RPM. Vol. 13, no. 20. July 4, 1970.
  31. ^ "RPM's Top 100 of 1970". RPM. September 1, 1971. Archived from the original on August 28, 2017. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  32. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2008). Hot Country Songs 1944 to 2008. Record Research. p. 390. ISBN 978-0-89820-177-2.
  33. ^ "Amii Stewart – Singles". Official Charts. Archived from the original on August 27, 2019. Retrieved December 3, 2021.