The Box Tops - The Letter

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Upbeat 1967

"The Letter" is a pop rock song first recorded by the American group the Box Tops in 1967. Written by Wayne Carson, 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.

The song has lasting appeal. 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.

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. 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 arranement 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 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.

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Artist: The Box Tops
Video title: The Letter

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