The Letter (The Box Tops song)
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|Single by The Box Tops|
|from the album The Letter/Neon Rainbow|
|Released||August 1967 (U.S.)|
|Recorded||American Sound Studio|
|Writer(s)||Wayne Carson Thompson|
|The Box Tops singles chronology|
|Single by Joe Cocker|
|from the album Mad Dogs and Englishmen|
4:46 (live album version)4:11 (studio single version)
|Writer(s)||Wayne Carson Thompson|
32 second sample
Wayne Carson (sometimes known as Wayne Carson Thompson) wrote and composed "The Letter" after his father, who performed as Shorty Thompson in country group the Tall Timber Trio, and also dabbled in songwriting, suggested the opening line, "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane." Carson wrote and composed the song, of which he then sent a demo tape to Chips Moman, who agreed to record the song with a new band.
The track was recorded at American Sound Studio in Memphis in a session produced by Dan Penn. Previously a musician and engineer at FAME Studios, Penn had been hired as production assistant by American Sound's owner, Chips Moman, whom Penn felt was shutting him out as a collaborator. Penn recalls: "Finally, I just told [Moman]...'Look, we can't produce together...I think I can produce records [alone]...But I do need somebody to cut. Give me the worst one you got.'" Moman suggested Penn record a local five-man outfit who had been pitched to him by disc jockey Roy Mack (Penn - "Chips was just graspin'. He'd never heard [the group]") and also passed on to Penn a demo tape of songs cut by his friend, Wayne Carson Thompson, which included "The Letter." Penn met with some of the members of the group--to which the name "The Box Tops" was eventually given-- "and told them to pick anything they wanted from this tape [by Thompson], but make sure that we do 'The Letter'" which Penn considered the one outstanding song.
The recording session for "The Letter," with Box Tops members Alex Chilton on vocals, Danny Smythe on drums, Russ Caccamisi on bass, John Evans on keyboards, and Richard Malone on guitar, began at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning and took over thirty takes wrapping at either three or five o'clock that afternoon. Penn met Box Tops vocalist Chilton for the first time at the session: "I coached him 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." (Composer Thompson, who says he played guitar at the session, was thrown by Chilton's vocal, having imagined the song being sung in a higher key.) Penn recalled: "[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...I borrowed everything from Wayne Thompson's original demo - drums, bass, guitar. I added an organ with an 'I'm a Believer' lick." Penn added the sound of an airplane take-off to the track by recording it from a special effects record played in an office adjacent to the recording studio. When the track was previewed for Chips Moman, he suggested the take-off sounds be excised, to which Penn responded angrily: "Give me that razor blade right there--[and] I'll cut this damn tape up! The airplane stays on it, or we don't have a record."
Augmented with strings and horns (arranged by Mike Leach), the track was picked up by Larry Uttal of Bell Records who released it on the subsidiary Mala label in July 1967 to reach #1 that September. Retaining the #1 position for a total of four weeks, Billboard ranked the record as the No. 2 song for 1967. The track also gave the Box Tops an international hit charting in Australia (#4 for six weeks), Austria (#9), Belgium (Flemish Region) (#2), Chile (#1), Denmark (#7), France (#2), Germany (#5), Greece (#2 foreign release), Ireland (#11), Israel (#1), Malaysia (#4), New Zealand (#4), the Netherlands (#3), Norway (#1), Poland (#1), South Africa (#4), Spain (#9) and Sweden (#2). The Box Tops also reached #5 in the UK, besting a cover by the Mindbenders which reached #42.
The Box Tops sold more than one million copies of "The Letter" and received a gold disc. At only 1 minute, 58 seconds, "The Letter" is one of the shortest songs to top the chart. Lead singer Chilton was only 16 years old when recording "The Letter."
The song appears as background music in the Gotham episode "Everyone Has A Cobblepot."
The song appears in the 2015 movie Minions.
The Box Tops version chart performance
|Cashbox||US Hot 100||Australia||Canada||UK|
In November 1968 the Arbors recorded an easy listening style version of "The Letter" in a session at Record Plant Studios in New York produced by Roy Cicala and Lori Burton; the session was arranged and conducted by Joe Scott. Released on CBS Records Date label, the track reached #20 in the spring of 1969, also ranking at #26 on the Easy Listening charts and #24 in Canada. "The Letter" was also recorded in 1969 by the Ventures, appearing on their album Hawaii Five-O.
"The Letter" returned to the U.S. Top Ten in June 1970 as a single release of Leon Russell's blues-rock reinvention of the song, as performed by Joe Cocker for Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. It was first recorded on a sound stage during rehearsals for the tour and released as a single in April, 1970, to promote the tour. Cocker's revival was also a chart item in Australia (#27), Canada (#7), France (#48), the Netherlands (#27) and the UK (#39). After the live album, recorded March 27–28 at the Fillmore East was released in August, 1970, rock radio stations began to play the version from the album instead of the single.
In 1976, Alex Chilton covered "The Letter" for the Pickwick Records label (which specialized in re-recordings of hit songs for budget-album releases). He sang on a re-recording of The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" at the same time. Both recordings were released by Pickwick in the UK on a various-artists Lp set called "The Heart Breakers and Tear Jerkers Collection" and credited to The Box Tops.
In 1978, "The Letter" became a disco hit for Deborah Washington reaching #13 on the Billboard dance chart in tandem with Washington's remakes of "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "Fire;" all three tracks were taken from Washington's Any Way You Want It album. Amii Stewart also recorded a disco version of "The Letter" which was released on a single with "Paradise Bird" to become a double sided chart entry in the UK at #39 in 1980. Stewart's "The Letter" also reached #31 in France, becoming the fourth version of the song to appear on the French charts, following the Box Tops and Joe Cocker versions and also a translated version by Herbert Léonard entitled "Une Lettre" which charted December 1967–January 1968 with a #82 peak.
Ranked by Rolling Stone at #363 on the magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, "The Letter" was reported in July of 1979 to have been recorded in over 200 different versions. Among the artists who have recorded the song are Charly García, Bachman–Turner Overdrive, The Beach Boys, Eva Cassidy, Shaun Cassidy, Classics IV, Bobby Darin, John Davidson, Don Fardon, Al Green, Ellie Greenwich, Sonny James, Robert Knight, Brenda Lee, Trini Lopez, Mike Love, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, Barbara Mandrell, Peter Tosh(by then a member of Wailing Wailers; his cover was renamed "Give Me a Ticket" and was recorded on the album "Selassie is the Chapel"), Melanie, the Moments, Lou Rawls, Johnny Rivers, and Dionne Warwick. Romanian singer Gil Dobrică recorded a Romanian language version in 1987, Scrisoarea (The letter). It was also covered, during the ninth season of American Idol, by winner Lee DeWyze. In 2003, a cover by A-Teens appeared on their album New Arrival. In 2008, a cover by Neal Morse, Randy George and Mike Portnoy appeared on the special edition of Neal Morse's album "Lifeline."
The third album by Seasick Steve, I Started Out with Nothin and I Still Got Most of It Left, includes a blues-rock cover of "The Letter." It was released on 29 September 2008.
In August 2015 Lemar (from Fame Academy) released a cover of the track which is also featured on, and the name of, his next album.
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- Roben Jones, Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2010, pp. 78-81.
- McNutt, Randy (2002). Guitar Towns: a journey to the crossroads of rock 'n' roll (1st US ed.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-253-34058-6.
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- Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1967
- Steffen Hung. "Australian-charts.com". Australian-charts.com. Retrieved 2013-05-01.
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- George-Warren, Holly (March 2014). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man. Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-02563-3.
- Whitburn, Joel (2008). Hot Country Songs 1944 to 2008. Record Research, Inc. p. 390. ISBN 0-89820-177-2.
- Goldstein, Patrick (March 15, 1987). "Pop Eye".
"Ode to Billie Joe"
|Billboard Hot 100 number one single
September 23, 1967 (four weeks)
"To Sir, with Love"