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 a studio in Los Angeles in March 1970. There, he 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. Produced by Denny Cordell and the man who became tour MD, Leon Russell, the single was soon on its way.
Many artists had covered “The Letter” before Cocker got to it, including the Mindbenders and the Shadows. R&B artists including Robert Knight, the Tams, Lou Rawls and Al Green emphasised its soulfulness. Even Brenda Lee took a pass at it, on her 1969 album Johnny One Time.
A distinguished band
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. The pair would soon 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, it came out there on Friday, June 12. It brought about another example of the peculiar phenomenon by which Cocker’s big US hits all seemed to flop in the UK, and vice versa.
With a little help…
The vocalist’s unforgettable version of Lennon and McCartney’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” had been his British breakthrough in 1968. It topped the chart there and in other European countries. In America, it reached No.68, although it became a signature of his Woodstock Festival performance. The next year, “Delta Lady” went to No.10 in the UK, and No.69 transatlantically.
Just as strangely, “The Letter” followed its Top 10 US performance by struggling to No.39 back home. Remarkably, the only time Cocker would land a Top 10 hit in both countries with the same song was with “Up Where We Belong.” That smash with Jennifer Warnes landed in 1982, from the movie 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. It featured the song as part of the set captured at the Fillmore East in New York. The film documenting the famous tour arrived in March 1971.