Please Mr. Postman: The Marvelettes, The Beatles, and Carpenters

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the pop song Please Mr. Postman. We will review the original by the Motown girl group The Marvelettes, and covers of that song by the Beatles and Carpenters.

The Marvelettes and Please Mr. Postman:

The Marvelettes started out as a girl-group quintet who were high school classmates in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Fifteen-year-old Gladys Horton enlisted fellow members of her glee club into the group. Like many pop groups, the membership changed frequently as various people joined or left the group.  The photo below shows The Marvelettes in the early 1960s, from L: Katherine Anderson, Juanita Cowart, Gladys Horton (seated), Wanda Young and Georgeanna Tillman.

Following some success in local singing competitions, the group was signed in 1961 by Berry Gordy to Motown Records’ Tamla division. Gordy changed their name from The Marvels to The Marvelettes, and their first big record for Tamla was the snappy pop song Please Mr. Postman.

A fascinating question is: who wrote Please Mr. Postman? The song was originally a blues tune written by William Garrett, who gave it to his friend Georgia Dobbins, a founding member of the Marvelettes who left the group before that song was recorded. Dobbins re-cast Garrett’s tune as a doo-wop song, and at Motown it was handed over to songwriters Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Freddie Gorman.

The end result is that between various albums, boxed sets, the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and the current song publisher (EMI Music Publishing), the songwriting credits are parceled out to at least six different combinations of these people (Berry Gordy even appears as one of the writers in the Beatles’ discography)!

Regardless of the song’s authorship, it shot up to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts. It became the first Motown record to score the top ranking on the Billboard Hot 100, and was one of the first smash hits by an all-girl group. The record features The Marvelettes with lead singer Gladys Horton, backed by the wonderful Motown house band The Funk Brothers. As an extra fillip, the drummer on this record (and on most of the Marvelettes’ records) was young session musician Marvin Gaye!

The premise of the song is straightforward: a young girl’s boyfriend is a serviceman who is stationed overseas (these were the days of the military draft), and she is inquiring whether the postman has brought a letter from him.

There must be some word today
From my boyfriend so far away
Please Mister Postman, look and see
Is there a letter, a letter for me?

I’ve been standin’ here waitin’ Mister Postman, so patiently,
For just a card, or just a letter
Sayin’ he’s returnin’ home to me

Here are the Marvelettes singing Please Mr. Postman at a ‘live’ performance in the mid-60s. Note that by this point the group was a trio, with Gladys Horton on the right. The group is not actually singing but just lip-synching from the record, to tepid clapping from the studio audience. Still, the song delivers the unforgettable doo-wop lyric, “de-liver de letter, de sooner de better.”

Following their appearance the group is interviewed by a bumbling MC, who incorrectly calls their song Shop Around, which was not a Marvelettes tune but was instead recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. The MC also refers to the Beatles’ cover of Please Mr. Postman, which we will see shortly.

With Gladys Horton’s powerful vocals and the backing of Motown, it initially appeared as though the Marvelettes might become genuine superstars. However, Motown was an extremely competitive environment, and groups had to fight to get the best songwriters and studio backing. Although the Marvelettes had a later hit with Don’t Mess With Bill, other girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes eventually achieved supremacy at Motown. As a result, the later Marvelettes records were released with virtually zero publicity or promotion from Motown.

The Marvelettes subsequently underwent several personnel changes, in some instances from mental breakdowns, and by 1969 the group had disbanded. The group later suffered the ultimate indignity when promoter Larry Marshak bought the rights to the name Marvelettes from Motown, then proceeded to form several different touring groups that called themselves “The Marvelettes,” but which had no members of the original group!

In recent years The Marvelettes have been nominated a couple of times for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but thus far have not yet been inducted.

The Beatles and Please Mr. Postman:

Before the Beatles became a world-wide sensation, their playlist featured a combination of their own songs plus covers of their personal favorite tunes. Back in the days when “Beatlemania” was just beginning in the U.K., and before they were even noticed in the U.S., the Beatles’ cover of Please Mr. Postman was a staple at their live concerts at venues such as Liverpool’s Cavern Club.

The photo below shows the Beatles in Decca Studios in March, 1963. From L: George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon.  Fourteen months earlier, the young and ambitious Beatles had auditioned for a recording contract with Decca. After driving down to London, the nervous Liverpudlians (with Pete Best as their drummer) played twelve covers and three original songs in one hour for Decca executives.

In what many claim may have been the biggest financial blunder in history, the Decca execs spurned The Beatles, signing instead a London quintet, The Tremeloes. Well, the Tremeloes turned out to be a perfectly respectable pop group, although their financial worth was about a trillion dollars short of the Beatles. Apparently the Decca brass explained to Beatles manager Brian Epstein that “guitar groups are on the way out” and that “the Beatles have no future in show business.”

Of course if you had made such a prediction, you would not be eager to take credit for it, so there is not complete consensus identifying the imbecile who uttered these remarks. However, the two Decca employees most commonly credited with this decision were either Dick Rowe or publisher Mike Smith. Later, the Beatles’ Decca audition tapes were heard by George Martin, who worked at Parlophone Records where he primarily produced comedy albums. Martin decided to sign the Beatles and produce them, and the rest is history.

Below are the Beatles with Please Mr. Postman. This was recorded in July 1963 for the BBC radio program “Pop Go the Beatles.” The Beatles recorded this song three times for the BBC, with the first version in 1962 featuring Pete Best as the drummer. This was their first BBC version of the song with Ringo Starr on drums. The song features John Lennon’s great vocals, with George and Paul providing the harmony and the lead guitar and bass, respectively.

At this point in their career, the Beatles were on the lookout for songs that would show off both John’s vocals and their backup singing.  They were especially fond of songs that contained just the right combination  of pop, rock and soulfulness.  And in the early 60s, what better source than American ‘girl-group’ records?  This is why the first few Beatles albums tended to feature a number of girl-group covers.

The lads from Liverpool are in their matching mod jackets, buttoned all the way up. They are still about six months from exploding onto the American and world pop scene, but they are by now a fully mature quartet, showing off the classic ‘Beatles sound’ on their way to becoming the greatest pop group in history.

In late 1963, Please Mr. Postman was released on the Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles. An interesting fact is that by this time the song was no longer part of the Beatles’ playlist, so apparently it took them a while to cut an album-worthy version of the song.

Carpenters and Please Mr. Postman:

Although siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter are widely known as “The Carpenters,” in actuality they deliberately chose the name “Carpenters;” as Richard described it,
we decided to name the act “Carpenters” (No “The”; we thought it sounded hipper without it, like Buffalo Springfield or Jefferson Airplane.)

The Carpenters became soft-pop superstars by combining Richard’s sophisticated orchestral arrangements with Karen’s wonderful throaty contralto vocals.  The photo below shows Karen and Richard Carpenter circa 1971.  Can you spot the family resemblance?

Karen first appeared as the drummer in a jazz trio with Richard. She then began to be featured as a vocalist as well, but initially considered herself as “a drummer who sang.”  She played drums on all of the Carpenters’ early records, but gradually gave up drumming when her vocals became the centerpiece of the group’s songs.

The duo also produced vocal tracks by overdubbing Karen’s and Richard’s voices to produce background vocals that complemented  Karen’s singing. Karen’s voice was distinctive and unforgettable – what she lacked in power she made up for with a three-octave vocal range, perfect pitch and a beautiful lower register that was highlighted in Richard’s arrangements.

Like his contemporary Burt Bacharach, Richard Carpenter fashioned a ‘signature sound’ by blending classically inspired combinations of strings, woodwinds and brass. Richard himself played keyboards on Carpenters’ songs and particularly favored the Wurlitzer electric piano, though he would also switch to grand piano, Hammond organ or harpsichord on various songs.  Between 1969 and 1980, the pair produced an astonishing number of top-40 easy-listening hits.

Below are Richard and Karen Carpenter performing Please Mr. Postman on a live televised performance in January 1975. At this time that record had just hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The song had a faster tempo than most of the Carpenters’ hits, but it still features Richard’s signature arrangements.

Karen’s vocals are lovely as always, with Richard leading the band and playing electric piano. The song features a bouncy bass that propels the song along, with an old-fashioned sax solo right at the one-minute mark, and finishes off with a brief guitar solo.  My gut feeling is that this ‘performance’ is lip-synched; it sounds almost exactly like the single, and it cuts off abruptly just when the record fades out.

The Carpenters were really ‘throwbacks;’ except for the use of modern technology such as synthesizers and over-dubbing, their songs could have originated in the big-band days of the 30s and 40s. However, Karen’s voice was so lovely and Richard’s arrangements were so clever that I really enjoyed their songs, as did millions of fans who kept their albums at the top of the charts for nearly a decade.

While they were a hot item, the Carpenters spent an enormous amount of time on the road, often performing up to 200 shows per year from 1971 to 1975. The grueling travel schedule eventually caught up to them; in January 1979 Richard checked into a rehab facility for treatment for addiction to Quaaludes.

However, it was Karen’s eating problems that proved disastrous. She suffered from anorexia nervosa, a terrible body image disorder where a person believes that they are overweight, regardless of how thin they are. In the most severe cases, people can starve to death while still maintaining that they need to lose more weight.

This situation was particularly difficult for Karen Carpenter, because at that time the affliction and its symptoms and treatment were not widely understood. In Karen’s case the disorder was also associated with obsessive purging. Her problem first surfaced when she collapsed during a performance in 1975. A couple of years later Karen underwent treatment with a psychotherapist, and she entered a treatment facility in fall 1982. Two months later she left the facility claiming that she was cured, despite pleas from her family and friends to remain in treatment.

In February 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure that occurred as a side effect of anorexia nervosa. It brought a tragic end to a most promising career; however, the publicity from Karen Carpenter’s situation helped to bring about a heightened public awareness of eating disorders. Within a short period of time, a number of entertainers and celebrities publicly disclosed their own struggles with eating disorders, including Princess Diana.

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Please Mr. Postman
Wikipedia, The Marvelettes
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, The Carpenters

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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