It was a song built on a simple idea – and those are often the best. Gladys Horton, the plaintive lead singer of The Marvelettes, is waiting for a letter from her boyfriend “so far away.” Or just a card – any kind of acknowledgement, really. Anxious, fearful, and lonely, she leaves you wondering if she is waiting in vain. You can’t help but feel sorry for the poor pestered postie; all he can do is deliver what he’s got.
An R&B masterpiece
The Marvelettes were known as The Marvels when they performed their second audition for Motown’s Tamla label in the spring of 1961, singing a blues song about waiting for a letter. It was written by William Garrett, a friend of the group, and re-shaped by then-lead singer Georgia Dobbins. She left the group after the audition, and the group’s name was made what was perceived to be more “girlie” by Berry Gordy, Motown’s boss. On August 21 that year, the rebranded Marvelettes recorded “Please Mr. Postman,” which had been amended by a trio starting to make waves at Motown as a writing team: Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, and Freddie Gorman (an actual mail carrier).
The record was an R&B masterpiece. It delivered its message directly and you could feel longing in every word. It was craftily constructed to include lines where some of the instruments drop away so Horton’s pleas appear even more lonely and desperate, including a bizarre earworm where her hoarse voice, shrouded in reverb, appears to chant: “Deliver de letter, de sooner the better.”
“We were petrified”
The song found a natural audience: the US was escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War, and, domestically, there was still a considerable exodus from the south as African-Americans sought work and liberation in northern cities such as Chicago and Motown’s hometown, Detroit. Lots of boyfriends were away; lots of girlfriends longed for letters.
“Please Mr. Postman” spent almost half a year on the US chart, hitting No.1 in December 1961 – an impressive result for a girl group from Inkster, Michigan, on its first visit to a recording studio. Florence Ballard of The Supremes, another girl group in need of a break, sagely advised them to relax at the sessions, a tip which Horton later admitted was “dead on – we were all tight, petrified.” The drummer on the session was another inexperienced performer, a skinny 22-year-old hopeful named Marvin Gaye.
“Please Mr. Postman” received an unanticipated reboot when another group of unknowns, The Beatles, recorded it for their second album, 1963’s With The Beatles, placing the song permanently in the minds of the “rock” generation; Ringo played his part like Marvin had played his. Carpenters were also fans of “Postman,” and made No.1 with the song in 1975, recorded in a style more country-pop than R&B.
Inevitably, “Please Mr. Postman” launched further mail tales: The Marvelettes’ follow-up single, “Twistin’ Postman,” resolved the protagonist’s agony when a letter finally arrived from her fella, who was evidently a slow writer. Elvis Presley’s “Return To Sender” also brought the humble mailman into the spotlight; Ketty Lester’s stately 1962 smash “Love Letters” showed that the topic remained first class, and Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” was musically similar and even mentioned The Marvelettes’ smash in the lyrics. But the biggest cultural impact delivered by “Please Mr. Postman” was the arrival of Motown as a major force in pop: the record was the company’s first pop chart No.1. Many more would follow.