“The Letter” — The Box Tops, September 1967
Behind The Beat
The future smash record came to life at Memphis’ American Sound Studio where, two years earlier, owner Chips Moman had cut “Keep on Dancing,” a million-seller by the Gentrys. Moman’s pal and musician/recording engineer Dan Penn was hired as a production assistant after Moman showed Penn a demo (demonstration) tape by an as-yet unnamed quintet of teenage Memphis rockers. Included on the tape was Thompson’s “The Letter,” a tune structured somewhat like the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”
Penn brought everyone involved, including Thompson, into the studio for a meeting. The first order of business: create a name for the group. Thompson recalled how an old-time breakfast cereal ad ploy provided the inspiration.
“One of the guys joked,” Thompson said. “ ‘Well, let’s have a contest and everybody can send in 50 cents and a box top.’ ” (Hey, this was the quirky 1960s, after all!)
“The Letter” was declared the demo’s only potential winner. In the studio, Penn coached the Box Tops’ lead singer, a long-haired, 16-year-old white kid named Alex Chilton, to “get a little gruff” and emulate a gritty black artist. Chilton complied, although it took him 30 tries to achieve the “feel” that Penn sought.
During an afternoon break, Penn came across a special-effects record in the studio library. Included on the disc was the sound of a jet airplane in takeoff. He loved the gimmick and added it to the end of the song’s master tape.
Songwriter Thompson detested the airplane sound at the end and demanded that it be removed. At this, Penn flew into a rage. According to “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” he spied a razor blade used for editing tape. “Give me that razor blade right there, and I’ll cut this damn tape up!” Penn thundered at Thompson. “The airplane stays on it, or we don’t have a record!”
The sound remained.
Despite Thompson’s objections, “The Letter,” released on the Mala Records label, became an overnight success. It streaked to the top of the Billboard charts, where it remained for four weeks, sold 4-million singles and even earned two Grammy nominations.