The Letter: The Box Tops; Joe Cocker; Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Hello there! Our song this week is The Letter, an R&B tune that has been covered nearly 200 times. We will review the original by The Box Tops. We will then discuss a cover version by Joe Cocker, and a second cover by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The Box Tops, The Letter:

The group called The Box Tops was formed in Memphis, TN in the early 60s. Initially the band was called The Devilles, but changed their name when they discovered another group also called The Devilles.

For a few years, the group performed in the Memphis area while enduring several changes in personnel. In 1967, the group consisted of Alex Chilton on lead vocals, lead guitarist Gary Talley, Danny Smythe, John Evans on keyboards, Bill Cunningham on bass and Larry Spillman on drums.

Below is a photo of the Box Tops circa 1967. Clearly they have been influenced by the Beatles Sgt. Pepper. I can’t find a listing of the band members, but lead singer Alex Chilton is at center left.

The group’s genre was what would now be considered “blue-eyed soul.” They continued to perform in the Memphis area while they attempted to score a recording contract. They had little success until mid-1967 when suddenly everything came together for the group.

The song The Letter was written by Wayne Carson Thompson. Thompson’s father was a professional musician who had given his son the line, “Gimme a ticket on an airplane.”  Starting from this line, Wayne then wrote the remainder of the song.

The premise of the song is that the singer’s girlfriend has written a letter asking him to return; as a result, he wishes to get back as quickly as possible.

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain’t got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I’m goin’ home
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter

I don’t care how much money I gotta spend
Got to get back to my baby again
Lonely days are gone, I’m goin’ home
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter

Well, she wrote me a letter
Said she couldn’t live without me no more
Listen mister, can’t you see I got to get back
To my baby once more
Anyway, yeah!

Thompson subsequently sent a demo tape to producer Chips Moman, at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Moman had an assistant Dan Penn, who was eager to produce records but who apparently did not work well with Moman.

In an effort to find a workable situation at American Sound Studio, Penn persuaded Moman to give him “the worst group you got,” and to allow Penn to produce a record on his own. As part of the deal, Moman threw in a couple of demos by Wayne Thompson, including The Letter.

Penn worked with the five-man ensemble, and they eventually settled on the name “The Box Tops.” Neither Penn nor the Box Tops had ever cut a record before. But Penn rehearsed with lead singer Alex Chilton, suggesting that he pronounce the word “aer-o-plane” with three syllables, and that he utilize rough, raspy vocals in singing the tune.

Cover of 1974 re-release of The Letter, by The Box Tops.

Since The Box Tops were recording for the first time, the song took over thirty takes before a final version was achieved. At the beginning of the record, Penn added the sound of an airplane taking off. Apparently there was an argument between Penn and Moman over whether that audio should be removed from the tune, and Penn prevailed.

The Letter was released in July 1967 and had reached the #1 rating on the Billboard Hot 100 charts by September. The song was a major international hit, making the top 10 on the charts in at least 20 countries, and eventually selling over four million records. Above left is a photo of the cover of a 1974 re-release of The Letter.

So here are the Box Tops performing live at Greenwich Village’s legendary Bitter End coffee house. This took place in 1967, shortly after The Letter hit #1 on the pop charts.

Lead singer Alex Chilton’s vocals are quite pleasing here. Unfortunately, I can’t say much for the band – they look rather bored during this piece. And alas, the audience is positively soporific; they look like they are ready to go to sleep.

A couple of bits of trivia here. First, with a playing time of 1:58, the record of The Letter is one of the shortest #1 pop hits of all time. Second, lead singer Alex Chilton was only 16 years old when the song was recorded.

The Box Tops followed up The Letter with two more hits. In 1968, after a couple of personnel changes, they released Cry Like A Baby. That song reached #2 on the Billboard charts.

And in 1969, the Box Tops released their final hit, Soul Deep, which made it to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, the band soon fell on hard times. In early 1970, the only two remaining original members of The Box Tops, Gary Talley and Alex Chilton, disbanded the group.

In particular, Alex Chilton was burned out by the group’s grueling tour schedule. The band members also felt that as young musicians with little experience in the business, they had been treated poorly by their record company.

Sure enough, their label Bell Records continued to release previously recorded Box Tops material for another couple of years after the group had dissolved. The record company even released new “Box Tops” material, using studio musicians to produce records credited to the non-existent band.

Various members of the Box Tops band continued their musical careers after the band broke up. Vocalist Alex Chilton fronted a couple of groups, guitarist Gary Talley found work as a session musician in Memphis, Atlanta and Nashville, and Bill Cunningham earned a music degree and transitioned to classical music.

Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in March 2010, at age 60.

Over the years, The Letter has proved to be an exceptionally popular song. All manner of musicians have recorded it. In addition to those featured in this post, it has been covered by artists such as Al Green, The Beach Boys, Bobby Darin, Trini Lopez, Barbara Mandrell, Lou Rawls, and Dionne Warwick.

Joe Cocker, The Letter:

Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He was one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he had relatively few original songs. Most of his best-known songs were covers of other tunes. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best recordings formed a new take on a classic song.

For some earlier blog posts that feature covers by Joe Cocker, see here or here or here or here.

Below is a famous photo of Joe Cocker performing at Whiskey Au Go Go. Apparently the woman directly in front of Mr. Cocker has her hand up his trousers, which may account for his emphatic response.

Born in 1944, in his teens Joe Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles.

Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and soul singers like Ray Charles. Ray Charles inspired an entire generation of British blues singers, artists like Roger Waters, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.

Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procol Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.

After a couple of minor successes in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time in 1969 with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Cocker’s version was interesting in that it was totally different from the Beatles’ original.

After 1969, Cocker disbanded his Grease Band, as apparently they were unwilling to go on long tours. With the assistance of Leon Russell, he assembled a dynamite group of session musicians.

Russell produced Cocker’s 1970 album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The album was named after the Noel Coward song. It also referred to the fact that Russell and Cocker assembled a large orchestra for a tour associated with that album.

There were over 20 musicians in the group assembled for this tour, including three drummers. Leon Russell himself arranged the songs and played keyboards on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. It became one of the most famous tours of the rock era. The combination of Cocker’s great blues vocals and Russell’s terrific arrangements proved magical.

Here is a great example of Russell and Cocker’s collaboration in their rendition of The Letter.

What a great live performance! Leon looks incredibly cool, pounding on the keyboard with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Cocker, on the other hand, is at his manic best, arms flailing as he riffs through the song.

As you can see, there are as many backup singers as one would encounter in a church  choir. There is also accompaniment from a terrific horn section. The saxophone player looks a lot like the late, great Bobby Keys; he played that dynamite sax solo on the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.

The Cocker-Russell version of The Letter has a wonderfully insistent beat. As you can see from the crowd shots, the audience just loves the tune. Although Cocker put out a single of The Letter in his Mad Dogs & Englishmen album, once a live version of this song from his tour was released, it rapidly surpassed the studio version.  Nowadays you almost always hear Cocker’s live version of this song, still a favorite on classic-rock radio stations.

Once Joe Cocker gained fame as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert film, he carved out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist.

I particularly recommend Cocker’s versions of Leon Russell’s Delta Lady (the subject of an earlier blog post), and Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful (yes, this song is a cover, but Cocker’s version is so famous that it has completely overshadowed the original).

Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. What a great loss; he is deeply missed.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Letter:

Bachman-Turner Overdrive were a terrific “no frills” classic-rock band. In terms of both their straightforward ‘garage band’ rock music, and their rock-quartet format, they remind me a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The founding members of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, or BTO as they were known colloquially, were Canadian rockers Randy Bachman and Fred Turner.

Below is a photo of Bachman-Turner Overdrive in concert. From L: guitarist Randy Bachman; lead guitarist Blair Thornton; bassist Fred Turner.

Randy Bachman had been the guitarist for the Canadian rock group The Guess Who. In the late 60s and early 70s, The Guess Who had a number of hit records, most notably their 1970 song American Woman.

American Woman was the first song by a Canadian group to reach #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. However, shortly after that song hit the charts, Randy Bachman abruptly left the Guess Who.

One reason for Bachman’s departure was his conversion to the Mormon faith. Following his conversion, Bachman became a vehement critic of drugs, pre-marital sex, and alcohol (so much for two-thirds of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” trilogy).

At this point, Bachman decided to form a country band with members of his family. He joined up with Chad Allan, former lead singer for The Guess Who, and brothers Robbie Bachman on drums and manager Gary Bachman. They called their band Brave Belt.

After issuing one album, Brave Belt added yet another Bachman brother, Tim, on guitar and also added Winnipeg bassist and vocalist Fred Turner. Brave Belt had sufficiently little commercial success that a promoter decided to drop them from a tour and replace them with a classic-rock band.

However, the classic-rock act fell through. So the promoter agreed to keep Brave Belt on, provided that they scrap their country songs in favor of a set of classic-rock covers. The group was pleasantly surprised to see the popularity of their hard-rocking act.

Unfortunately, Brave Belt was dropped by their record company, so Randy Bachman personally financed the recording of a demo tape of classic-rock tunes. Bachman’s demo was rejected 26 times by different record companies.

Finally, Mercury Records took a flyer on the group. That company had just lost two of their biggest rock acts, Rod Stewart and Uriah Heep, and were willing to give Bachman’s group a try. However, Mercury insisted that the group take on a grueling tour schedule to promote their album.

At that point, Brave Belt changed their name to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and they released a self-titled album. Even though that album had no single hits, the group traveled non-stop to promote it. BTO was willing to perform live shows in any market where their album was selling.

This paid off for the group when their second album, Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, became a smash hit. It contained two cuts that became single hits, Let It Ride and Takin’ Care of Business.

At this point, Tim Bachman left BTO and was replaced by new lead guitarist Blair Thornton. In 1974, BTO released an album called Not Fragile, which became their biggest record ever. It contained the cuts You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, which hit #1 on the Billboard singles charts, and Roll On Down The Highway.

I could not find live video of BTO performing The Letter. So here is Bachman-Turner Overdrive in a live performance of their signature hit, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.

This is a live concert from November 1974. The song is simple but very enjoyable. The band shuffles along at a rapid pace, while Randy Bachman chimes in on lead vocals.

The song includes a famous stutter supposedly uttered by the singer’s girlfriend. Apparently Randy Bachman included this as a joke for his brother Gary, who stuttered. Legend has it that this song was originally not intended for release; it was simply a “warm-up” tune that the group performed while doing sound checks in the studio.

But their promoter Charlie Fach loved the song’s infectious rhythm, and insisted that the group include You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet on their album. This became BTO’s best-selling hit ever. However, some music critics have asserted that it is a copy of the song My Generation by The Who, which also featured stuttering.

OK, now here is the audio of Bachman-Turner Overdrive doing a cover of The Letter. This is from the BTO Anthology album that was released in 1993.

Here, BTO turn The Letter into a garage-band hard rocker. Fred Turner’s gritty vocals back up the guitar work by Bachman and Thornton.

The BTO logo was a gear (“overdrive,” get it?) with the initials BTO inscribed inside it. We show the logo at lower left. The group’s loyal fans called themselves “gearheads,” and it is easy to see why the group has remained a darling of classic-rock radio stations for the past four decades.

The BTO “gearhead” logo.

However, by 1979 the group had reached a crossroads. Bachman wanted to try out a new sound for the band, while Turner and the other bandmates suggested that the group go on hiatus for several months, and then continue on with the same format.

The net result was that BTO disbanded. And then the lawsuits began. When he left the group, Randy Bachman sold the remaining band members the rights to the name “BTO” and the gear logo.

But Bachman started using the name and logo again, prompting a suit against Randy from the other band members.  Randy Bachman then counter-sued his old mates.

A final straw occurred in 2003 when BTO was scheduled to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The Hall insisted that the “classic lineup” of Randy and Robbie Bachman, Fred Turner and Blair Thornton perform. The other three members refused to perform with Randy, so the induction ceremony never took place.

However, since 2009 Randy Bachman and Fred Turner have re-united and perform under the name “Bachman & Turner.” Even that name sparked a copyright-infringement lawsuit from Rob Bachman and Blair Thornton; however, the courts ruled that the duo could tour using their real names.

The group BTO capitalized on public demand for their product: straightforward hard-rocking songs that coupled catchy melodies with memorable lyrics. Like CCR and Grand Funk Railroad, BTO churned out great garage-band music. They hit paydirt in the era of stadium tours and glam rock.

Here are two impressive indicators of BTO’s name recognition. First, the band was featured in an episode of The Simpsons, titled Battlesore Galactica. Second, writer Steven King was told by his publisher to pick a pseudonym, which would enable King to publish more than one book per year using a pen name. As King was listening to a BTO song at the time, he picked “Richard Bachman.”

To Bachman & Turner, we wish them continued success on oldies tours, and we hope that “you ain’t seen no-no-no-nothin’ yet.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, The Letter (The Box Tops song)
Wikipedia, The Box Tops
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker
Wikipedia, Bachman-Turner Overdrive

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.
This entry was posted in Classic Rock, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Soul music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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