Joe Cocker was in the middle of rehearsals for the tour that would help define his early career, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, when he went into the studio in Los Angeles in March 1970 to cut his distinctive version of the Box Tops’ 1967 US No. 1 ‘The Letter.’
As he’d already proved several times, the Sheffield singer’s inimitable powers of interpretation could reinvent a song, and with production by Denny Cordell and the man who would be his musical director on the tour, Leon Russell, the single was soon well on its way.
Many artists had covered ‘The Letter’ before Cocker got to it, including the Mindbenders, the Shadows and soul artists including Robert Knight, the Tams, Lou Rawls and Al Green. Even Brenda Lee took a go at it, on her 1969 album Johnny One Time.
Cocker cut the song with many of the musicians he would soon be on the road with. They included Russell, pianist Chris Stainton, singers such as Rita Coolidge, horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Price (who were to become the Rolling Stones‘ horn section) and Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, soon to be better known as members of Eric Clapton‘s Derek and the Dominos.
Released in the US in April, Cocker’s version of ‘The Letter’ was spending the last of three weeks at its No. 7 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was issued in the UK — with the delay that was commonplace in those days — on Friday, 12 June. It brought about another example of the peculiar phenomenon on which Cocker’s big US hits all seemed to flop in the UK, and vice versa.
The vocalist’s unforgettable version of Lennon and McCartney‘s ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ had been his British breakthrough in 1968, topping the chart there and in other European countries. In America, it reached No. 68. The next year, ‘Delta Lady’ went to No. 10 in the UK, and No. 69 transatlantically.
Just as strangely, ‘The Letter’ followed its top ten US performance by struggling to No. 39 back home. Remarkably, the one and only time Cocker would land a top ten hit in both countries was in 1982, via ‘Up Where We Belong,’ his hit with Jennifer Warnes from An Officer And A Gentleman.
The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour started just after that studio recording of ‘The Letter,’ with the live album of the event released in August, featuring the song as part of the set captured at the Fillmore East in New York.
Purchase the studio version of ‘The Letter’ on Joe Cocker’s The Anthology here.
Follow the official Joe Cocker Top Tracks playlist.