The Letter (Box Tops song)
UK single picture sleeve
|Single by The Box Tops|
|Studio||American Sound, Memphis, Tennessee|
|Genre||Pop rock, blue-eyed soul|
|The Box Tops singles chronology|
"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 sung in a gruff blue-eyed soul style by Alex Chilton. The song was the group's first and biggest record chart hit, reaching number one in the United States and Canada. It was also an international success and reached the top ten in several other countries.
"The Letter" 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 of the song 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"; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame added it to the list of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". In 2011, the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Composition and recording
Wayne Carson wrote "The Letter", built on an opening line suggested by his father: "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane". 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 songs, Moman suggested a local group, the DeVilles, who had a new lead singer, sixteen year-old Alex Chilton. 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. Penn gave the group Carson's demo tape for some songs to work up. With little or no rehearsal, the group arrived at American Sound to record "The Letter". 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.
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". Chilton sang the vocal live while the group was performing; 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." 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".
About thirty takes were required for the basic track. Then Penn had Mike Leach prepare a string and horn arrangement for the song to give it a fuller sound. Leach 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." 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. 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."
"The Letter" reached number one on the Hot 100 singles chart published by Billboard magazine on September 23, 1967. It remained at the top position for four weeks and Billboard ranked the record as the number two song for 1967. The single sold more than one million copies and the RIAA certified it as gold.
"The Letter" also reached the top 10 in several other countries, including Belgium, France, Holland, Malaysia, Israel, Norway, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Greece, and the Philippines.
The Mindbenders version
British group The Mindbenders recorded a version of "The Letter" mere weeks after The Box Tops, and released their version in the U.K. in September 1967 -- the same month The Box Tops' version was issued that country. This meant that the two versions of "The Letter" were in direct competition with each other on the U.K. charts. In the end, The Mindbenders' version stalled at #42 while The Box Tops' version reached #5.
Joe Cocker renditions
German single picture sleeve
|Single by Joe Cocker|
|Recorded||March 17, 1970|
|Studio||A&M soundstage, Hollywood, California|
|Producer(s)||Denny Cordell, Leon Russell|
|Joe Cocker singles chronology|
English singer Joe Cocker recorded "The Letter" during the rehearsals for his upcoming Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour on March 17, 1970. Leon Russell and the Shelter People provided the back up; Russell and Denny Cordell produced the recording. 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. "The Letter" became Cocker's first top ten single in the U.S. In the UK, the single reached number 39.
Cocker performed the song (and "Space Captain") during his 1970 performance at the Fillmore East auditorium in New York City. Recordings of both songs are included on the live Mad Dogs & Englishmen album, which was released in August 1970 and was a best seller. The concert was also filmed in its entirety and released in theaters. In 2003, it was released on DVD.  Cocker's single version of the song is briefly used in Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
|Canada RPM Top Singles||7|
|UK Singles Chart||39|
|US Billboard Hot 100||7|
|US Cash Box Top 100||5|
|US Billboard Hot 100||80|
|US Cash Box ||37|
Other charting renditions
In 1969, a rendition by Michigan-based vocal group The Arbors reached #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. The track was arranged by Joe Scott. In 1979, a rendition by country singer Sammi Smith reached number 27 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. A year later in the UK, Amii Stewart's version reached number 39 on the UK singles chart.
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