The Box Tops ‘The Letter’: Two Minutes of Perfection

Share This:

Box Tops The LetterOne of our favorite singles of 1967 is The Box Tops‘ “The Letter.” We’ll try to tell its story in about the length of time that the song lasts: a super short 1:58.

The song was written by a 23-year-old named Wayne Carson Thompson – more on him below – whose country music-singing father had spoon fed him a lyric which would ultimately become the first line of the song: “Give me a ticket for an aer-o-plane.” The younger Thompson got the completed song to the Memphis-based “Chips” Moman, who though just 29 was already a veteran producer, songwriter, label exec and studio owner.

Moman gave the song to a staff production assistant, Dan Penn, who corralled a local quintet into the studio to record the tune.  The lead singer, Alex Chilton, was just 16 years old – not a typo, he was born December 28, 1950 – when the song was recorded. Penn is quoted as saying: I hadn’t even paid any attention to how good he sang because I was busy trying to put the band together… I had a bunch of greenhorns who’d never cut a record, including me… I borrowed everything from Wayne Thompson’s original demo – drums, bass, guitar.”

The band’s other original members included lead guitarist Gary Talley, bassist Bill Cunningham, John Evans on keyboards and drummer Danny Smythe, who died (at 67) on July 6, 2016. No cause of death was announced. Chilton died March 17, 2010.

Our Classic Video is a rather unconvincing lip synch version of the great song. Whoever set up the shoot could’ve at least placed some microphones…

That sound you hear at the 1:34 mark? An aer-o-plane taking off via a special effects recording that Penn edited in, against Moman’s wishes. Penn, steadfast, won the argument.

Check out the great hits that “The Letter” topped on Sept. 23, 1967

The single was released in the summer of 1967 and on September 23 it was #1 in the U.S., where it would stay for four weeks, selling over one million copies. It ranked as the #2 song on Billboard‘s 1967 singles chart. (Joe Cocker would famously record a version of it in 1970 that would become his first big U.S. pop success at #7.)

The studio version…

Related: Where does “The Letter” rank among 1967’s biggest U.S. radio hits?

Here’s a live version from later that year…

The Box Tops would have another huge hit in 1968 with “Cry Like a Baby.” The group disbanded a few years later. Chilton went on to form the influential power pop group Big Star. He died at 59 of a heart attack in 2010.

And what of songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson? Five years later, in 1972, he wrote “Always on My Mind.”

Best Classic Bands Staff

5 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. Jeffrey
    #1 Jeffrey 25 September, 2018, 05:01

    I waited almost 50 years to see Alex sing live and it was worth the wait

    Reply this comment
  2. steve b
    #2 steve b 24 September, 2019, 00:26

    the harmonies werent very good though .Box tops had some great songs.Neon Rainbow , and Fields of clover.But Big Star were even a better band Its uncanny they are better known now they when they were together

    Reply this comment
  3. Mark
    #3 Mark 30 December, 2021, 01:20

    I’ve always been curious about the introduction. It sounds like a hammer!

    Reply this comment
  4. Baybluesman
    #4 Baybluesman 3 January, 2022, 23:12

    Great and informative article, as most are from BCB.

    The Box Tops had a great song, and Alex Chilton had a very good voice, but, as was the case in many instances of his covers, Joe Cocker made many a song the definitive version, and made them his own, IMHO.

    Reply this comment
    • The Sandman
      The Sandman 18 March, 2024, 00:18

      I respectfully disagree. The Box Tops original was one of the top songs of the 60’s. It’s easy to copy the original but is never as good as the original. Joe Cocker made a career out of other people’s which is why I never cared for him.

      Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.