Saturday, November 27, 2010

November 27: The Marvelettes, "Please Mr. Postman"

Artist: The Marvelettes
Song: "Please Mr. Postman"
Album: Please Mr. Postman (single)
Year: 1961

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When one looks at the most important female artists of the 1960's, there are certainly a number to choose from, as one can make the case that it was the changing of roles of women in music that largely dictated the overall changes in the musical landscape.  Furthermore, many of the most memorable, historical moments of that era were also achieved by female performers, and there are many parallels between their presence in the world of music, and their rise to more equality in the world as a whole.  Though there are many singular examples of this idea, one can look at the long history of Motown Records for some of the most clear and undeniable instances.  While one can easily rattle off a list of bands that made their names at the legendary label, when one digs a bit deeper, it is easy to see that much of the labels' overall success was due to the unique sounds and styles of the female groups on their roster.  While artists like The Supremes and Martha And The Vandellas are unquestionably legendary, there was another "girl group" from Motown Records that holds perhaps the most significant claim to fame in the labels' entire history.  The year was 1961, and a trio from Inkster, Michigan named The Marvelettes would give Motown Records their first number one hit with their unforgettable song, "Please Mr. Postman."

Even in this early Motown recording, much of the sound that would become the labels' trademark sound can be clearly heard.  On "Please Mr. Postman," most of the most legendary members of The Funk Brothers are present, and this list is led by perhaps the most important figure in the labels' history, bassist James Jameson.  Deploying an early version of his "walking" bassline, it is his playing that gives the song its movement, yet it is a bit more back in the mix than many of his later performances.  Pianist Richard "Popcorn" Wylie is quite forward in the mix, and the tone on his piano almost sounds like they are trying to infuse a bit of country-western into the sound.  However, while both of these music icons play brilliantly, it is the dual drummers on the song that lead the lineup card.  Joining Benny Benjamin on the drums is none other than a still unknown musician named Marvin Gaye.  It is this interplay between them, as well as their work with Jameson that gives "Please Mr. Postman" a funky feel that was nearly a decade ahead of its time.  This not only shows just how forward thinking The Funk Brothers were, but it also gives unimpeachable proof of just how many genres they were responsible for in later years.  As usual, there is not a missed note anywhere on the song, and "Please Mr. Postman" stands as one of The Funk Brothers most covered progressions in history.

However, the music on "Please Mr. Postman" is a bit sparse in comparison to later songs, and this is perhaps due to the fact that the trio of singers performed in such a way that it was necessary.  The harmonized parts on the song are about as distinctive as have ever been recorded, and it is here that one can see Motown's purposeful ignoring of the "sweet" sound that most female performers had taken to this date.  The lead vocals, performed by Gladys Hotron, have a grit and swing to them that can rarely be found previously, and it is this "toughness" that would set the trend for the next decades of female vocal performances.  Yet even within this tough exterior, there is still a clear sense of vulnerability and anticipation, and it is this balance that makes Horton's vocal work so extraordinary.  The interplay between the three vocalists throughout the song also set the standard for so-called "girl groups," and one can feel the tension build and release a number of times.  The fact that the song topped the charts is quite understandable, as even in modern times, the sense of longing and frustration comes through clearly and is just as applicable.  While many songs have approached the topic of love and longing, few have done so in as charming and vocally revolutionary a style as one finds on "Please Mr. Postman."

The lasting impact of "Please Mr. Postman" can be found in the countless number of covers the song has been given over the decades, with artists ranging from The Carpenters to Uruguayan rap-rockers El Cuarteto de Nos.  Perhaps the most well-known cover of the song was recorded in 1963 by The Beatles, though their version is certainly not among their best known songs.  While there are literally hundreds of cover versions available, none can compare to the original, both in terms of historical importance, but also in terms of matching the attitude that is put forth by The Marvelettes.  There is a sense of vulnerability within their singing, yet one cannot overlook the fact that throughout the song, they are nothing short of harassing their postman, bringing the sense of teenage drama to an almost ironic level.  The grit in the voice of Horton is perfectly balanced by the high-pitched backing vocals of Wanda Young and Georgeanna Tillman, and this contrast of sounds remains unmatched nearly five decades later.  Add in the phenomenal sounds of The Funk Brothers, and the early sparks of funk grooves, and it is not very surprising that the song went to the top of the charts and stands today as one of the most definitive songs of the entire Motown era.  While they would have a handful of singles that would find respectable commercial success, there is simply no other song in history that occupies a similar place to that of The Marvelettes and their legendary 1961 single, "Please Mr. Postman."

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