What a strange and compelling song The Letter is. And how strange to realise that husky blue-eyed soul voice comes from a 16-year-old boy.
Here he is with his fellow teenage members of The Box Tops, taking an approach to miming that is firmly in the “taking the piss” category – especially the keyboard player.
Strange, too, in view of his cult status with his next band Big Star, to realise that Alex Chilton didn’t write this song (or most of the others on the album).
He had just joined a local band of teenagers called The Devilles in his hometown of Memphis when they were hired by Chips Moman, who owned the American Sound Studio, to sing a demo by a songwriter called Wayne Carson.
The Devilles – Richard Malone (guitar), Russ Caccamisi (bass), John Evans (electric pian) and Danny Smythe (drums) – had just hired the 16-year-old Chilton after hearing he had gone down a storm at his school’s talent show.
None of them had heard the song before they arrived at the studio and had little or no rehearsal before making their first stab at recording it “live” – producer Dan Penn recording the four musicians and Chilton’s vocals all at once.
They took their instructions from Penn, who asked Chilton to make his voice sound gruffer, told the organist to “play an I’m A Believer type of thing”, instructed the drummer not to embellish the simple beat, and left the bass player to his own devices, while the guitarist just copied the lick on the demo tape.
They were all done in 30 takes, with a string and horn arrangement added afterwards, along with the sound of an aeroplane taking off – taken from a sound effects recording borrowed from the local library. The final flourish was a change of name to The Box Tops, to avoid a clash with a New York band called The DeVilles.
The Letter went on to become a standard, topping the charts in America and Canada (no.7 in the UK), selling four million copies, and earning two Grammy nominations.
Not bad for a song that’s under two minutes long and was recorded in a day.