Song: "The Letter"
Album: The Letter
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As the 1960's began to wind down, there is little arguing that anything other than the "psychedelic sound" was dominating almost every style of music. From rock to blues to jazz, one can find this new approach heavily infused into each sound, and a majority of the most well-known songs of the era easily support this idea. However, there were also a number of bands that seemed to have little interest in the often lengthy and self-indulgent musical forays that came with this new musical style, and it was these artists which would create the building block for a majority of the next decade in musical exploration. While this is not to say that the psychedelic sound was completely absent from their music, it was the artists that took larger portions of influence from other styles that became the "underground," and there is perhaps no more impressive a band from that time period than The Box Tops. Though their name might suggest that they were a remnant of the "doo-wop" era, one would be hard pressed to find a more unique and powerful band of the time, and to this day, a number of their songs remain absolutely unmatched in terms of both power and presence. Taking large influences from the worlds of soul and r&b, then fusing them together with a tone and attitude that was unlike anything else being recorded at the time, there are few songs that stand as impressive as The Box Tops' legendary 1971 single, "The Letter."
While there is no question that The Box Tops were completely unique in their musical approach, there are a number of moments throughout "The Letter" where the influences on their sound is rather clear, and one cannot help but assume it is an outright tribute when the song kicks off with a stark snare-drum beat, before a brief bass progression. Though many may overlook this segment which only lasts a few seconds, there is no question that it bears a striking similarity to the opening of Roy Orbison's iconic "Pretty Woman," and in the overall tone and style that The Box Tops bring, such influences make perfect sense. Yet it is the rest of the deep groove that bassist Bill Cunningham brings throughout the track which gives "The Letter" its unmistakable mood and presence. However, the rest of the band is in top form, and it is the massive amount of sound that comes forth on the song which made it stand so far apart from the rest of the music of the era. The way that the quick horn bursts manage to punctuate the rhythm is absolutely spectacular, and the way that the string section compliments the swaying guitars of Alex Chilton and Gary Talley is nothing short of musical perfection. The final addition of a somewhat buried, yet strangely bright organ tone from producer Dan Penn completes one of the finest musical structures of all time.
However, while one cannot dismiss even a moment of the musical genius that comprises the arrangement on "The Letter," few can argue that the lead vocal from Alex Chilton is anything less than groundbreaking. It is the grit and attitude with which he sings every word that instantly set him miles apart from his peers, and one can hear his influence within a massive number of genres and artists that followed. This rather purposeful gruff and almost angry style that Chilton presents helps to emphasize the amount of soul within the song, and rarely has their been as fantastic a blending of blues, soul, and rock styles in one voice. Furthermore, the fact that Alex Chilton seems to have no trouble working all across the vocal spectrum, letting the overall mood of the sound lead him, pushes "The Letter" to even greater heights, and there is no question that this stands as one of the most iconic vocals ever recorded. Yet it is also the reality that the words which he sings are so universal and perhaps "simple" in some ways that enabled the track to quickly gain an audience, as it topped the charts soon-after being released, and to this day it remains one of the most treasured songs of all time. Whether it is due to these lyrics of longing to which all can relate, or the uniquely mesmerizing vocal style of Chilton, there is no question that "The Letter" stands as one of the few songs that once heard, can never be forgotten.
Taking all of this into account, the immediate impact of "The Letter" was clear not only in its success on the sales charts, but in the fact that within a year, a number of other artists had already recorded their own versions of the song. Before the end of 1969, more than a dozen artists had released their own take on "The Letter," with a trio of these managing to become chart hits as well. Yet in the decades that have passed, "The Letter" has become one of the most heavily covered songs in all of music history; with well over two hundred "official" re-recordings of the track. Artists ranging from The Beach Boys to Peter Tosh to Lou Rawls to Al Green among many others putting their own spin on the song, there is simply no arguing what a unique moment in music history is represented within the original release of "The Letter." Furthermore, the reality is that even with so many later takes on their song, the original version from The Box Tops manages to stand far above any other, as there is a raw purity and power found here that is absent elsewhere. While the lineup of The Box Tops would change a number of times over the years, and members of this incarnation would find further success in later bands, there is no question that it was this original grouping that was the most impressive, and one can easily make the case that there is not another song from any point in music history that is quite like The Box Tops monumental 1967 single, "The Letter."