"The Letter" is a popular song, written and composed by Wayne Carson, which was a US #1 hit in 1967 for the Box Tops. It was later ranked #372 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Wayne Carson wrote and composed "The Letter" after his father, who performed as Shorty Thompson in country group the Tall Timber Trio, and also dabbled in songwriting, suggested the opening line, "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane." Carson wrote and composed the song, of which he then sent a demo tape to Chips Moman, who agreed to record the song with a new band.
The track was recorded at American Sound Studio in Memphis in a session produced by Dan Penn. Previously a musician and engineer at FAME Studios, Penn had been hired as production assistant by American Sound's owner, Chips Moman, whom Penn felt was shutting him out as a collaborator. Penn recalls: "Finally, I just told [Moman]...'Look, we can't produce together...I think I can produce records [alone]...But I do need somebody to cut. Give me the worst one you got.'" Moman suggested Penn record a local five-man outfit who had been pitched to him by disc jockey Roy Mack (Penn - "Chips was just graspin'. He'd never heard [the group]") and also passed on to Penn a demo tape of songs cut by his friend, Carson, which included "The Letter." Penn met with some of the members of the group--to which the name "The Box Tops" was eventually given-- "and told them to pick anything they wanted from this tape [by Thompson], but make sure that we do 'The Letter'" which Penn considered the one outstanding song.
The recording session for "The Letter," with Box Tops members Alex Chilton on vocals, Danny Smythe on drums, Russ Caccamisi on bass, John Evans on keyboards, and Richard Malone on guitar, began at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning and took over thirty takes wrapping at either three or five o'clock that afternoon. Penn met Box Tops vocalist Chilton for the first time at the session: "I coached him a little...told him to say 'aer-o-plane,' told him to get a little gruff, and I didn't have to say anything else to him." (Composer Thompson, who says he played guitar at the session, was thrown by Chilton's vocal, having imagined the song being sung in a higher key.) Penn recalled: "[Chilton] picked it up exactly as I had in mind, maybe even better. 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 Carson's original demo - drums, bass, guitar. I added an organ with an 'I'm a Believer' lick." Penn added the sound of an airplane take-off to the track by recording it from a special effects record played in an office adjacent to the recording studio. When the track was previewed for Chips Moman, he suggested the take-off sounds be excised, to which Penn responded angrily: "Give me that razor blade right there--[and] I'll cut this damn tape up! The airplane stays on it, or we don't have a record."
Augmented with strings and horns (arranged by Mike Leach), the track was picked up by Larry Uttal of Bell Records who released it on the subsidiary Mala label in July 1967 to reach #1 that September. Retaining the #1 position for a total of four weeks, Billboard ranked the record as the No. 2 song for 1967. The track also gave the Box Tops an international hit charting in Australia (#4 for six weeks), Austria (#9), Belgium (Flemish Region) (#2), Chile (#1), Denmark (#7), France (#2), Germany (#5), Greece (#2 foreign release), Ireland (#11), Israel (#1), Malaysia (#4), New Zealand (#4), the Netherlands (#3), Norway (#1), Poland (#1), South Africa (#4), Spain (#9) and Sweden (#2). The Box Tops also reached #5 in the UK, besting a cover by the Mindbenders which reached #42.
The Box Tops sold more than one million copies of "The Letter" and received a gold disc. At only 1 minute, 58 seconds, "The Letter" is one of the shortest songs to top the chart. Lead singer Chilton was only 16 years old when recording "The Letter."
The song appears on the soundtrack of Michael Apted's 1974 movie Stardust.
The song appears as background music in the Gotham episode "Everyone Has A Cobblepot."
The song appears in the 2015 movie Minions.
Billboard Hot 100 (16 weeks): Reached #1 (4 weeks)
Cashbox: Number 1
In 1976, Alex Chilton covered "The Letter" for the Pickwick Records label (which specialized in re-recordings of hit songs for budget-album releases). He sang on a re-recording of The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" at the same time. Both recordings were released by Pickwick in the UK on a various-artists Lp set called "The Heart Breakers and Tear Jerkers Collection" and credited to The Box Tops.
In 1979, a cover version of the song was released by country singer Sammi Smith. Smith's version reached number 27 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart.
In 1987, disc jockey David Kolin released a 12-inch single of a parody called "Vanna, Pick Me a Letter," credited to Dr. Dave. His parody has the narrator as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.