Even If You Hate the Post Office, You Love This Song

by on March 6th, 2011
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When it comes to ’60s blue-eyed soul, it’s hard to top the Righteous Brothers and the Rascals. But in 1967, the Box Tops blasted onto the scene with “The Letter,” a number one hit that would sell 4 million copies.

The band had been together four years before they were discovered by Memphis disc jockey Ray Banks, who asked Chips Moman of American Sound Studio to give them a tryout. Moman passed the group on to his assistant Dan Penn, who was anxious to produce his own records.

Penn was surprised to meet the band’s lead singer, Alex Chilton, who was only sixteen when the Box Tops arrived at American Sound one Saturday morning in 1967. “The Letter” was written by Wayne Carson Thompson, who’d recorded a demo that Penn liked. While Chilton did not require much guidance in the delivery of his gruff vocals, Penn did suggest that Chilton sing “aer-o-plane” instead of “airplane.”

The musicians–drummer Danny Smythe, guitarists Gary Talley and John Evans and bassist Bill Cunningham–were joined by Chilton after the band had become popular locally as the Devilles. The band became the Box Tops to avoid confusion with another Devilles group.

Arranger Mike Leach contributed strings and horns and Penn added the roar of a jet takeoff, lifted from a sound effects record, to close the record. Penn’s boss Chips Moman liked the track but wanted to lose the plane. Penn would have nothing of it; he threatened to destroy the record if forced to remove it.

“The Letter” would establish the Box Tops as stars. Thanks to four weeks at the top of the charts, “The Letter” became the #1 hit of 1967. Joe Cocker reached the Top Ten with his bluesy version in 1970; it would be the most successful of more than 200 covers of the song.

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