Please Mr. Postman (1961)
“Please Mr. Postman” serves respectively as coda and overture. It signals the ending to the intense innovation of the Rock-N-Roll of the 1950s at the same time that it heralds the rise of Rock that would dominate the ’60s.
1961 was a pivotal year in music. Billboard’s #1 song for the year was the high-humor, traditional rock-and-roller, “Tossin’ And Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis, doing his best Coasters’ impression – and succeeding wildly. Like other songs that ranked high that year, “Tossin’ And Turnin’” looked back.
A few performers did manage to set their sights on the future, most notably Roy Orbison with “Crying” and “Running Scared,” ancient and futuristic in one blow. Even in the 21st century “Please Mr. Postman” sounds “modern” to the ear. It is crisp, well structured, and spies out a timeless theme: waiting for the one you love to get in contact regarding an imminent return. It handles insecurity with assertion, exuberance and an ocean of soul.
Fresh frozen for good listening anytime!
Gladys Horton handles lead vocals with an easy-going vivacity, and when she is actually shouting out to Mr. Postman her voice grows ever so slightly hoarse as if she’s actually hollering. She is urgent without sounding desperate, which adds layers to the song’s appeal.
In the world of 1961, people everywhere felt as if they were on the brink of anther large war, again in Europe. This time it would be over the Soviet Bloc’s building of the Berlin Wall that closed off Germany’s greatest city from the rest of the country and Europe.
The draft was in full swing – Elvis served from ’58 to ’60 – and songs about far-off soldiers were common. The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy” (1962) is pre-eminent among those. Moreover, America was becoming much more mobile. States like California and Florida gained population at staggering rates. Better and faster planes made air travel more palatable.
Physical separation had grown commonplace, but still left an emptiness in the heart:
There must be some word today
From my boyfriend so far away
Please Mister Postman, look and see
If there’s a letter, a letter for me
“Please Mr. Postman” was Motown’s first #1 hit. The combination of Horton’s lead vocals and the Greek chorusing of the rest of The Marvelettes working in league with the flavor-of-the-month line-up of the famous Funk Brothers band thump out a semi Cha-Cha, semi-free form dance number. It was a time when people had just started dancing far apart, dropping the older style of holding a partner close.
Aside from Gladys Horton, The Marvelettes were made up of Juanita Cowart, (who eventually left the group) Georgeanna Tillman, Wanda Young and Kat Anderson. Young would later sing lead for the group on “(You) Don’t Mess With Bill,” a million-seller written by Smokey Robinson.
“Please Mr. Postman” does not have a guitar in its arrangement other than the bass played by The Funk Brothers’ James Jamerson. Two drummers work the number: Benny Benjamin and Marvin Gaye. Richard (Popcorn) Wylie plays the Mississippi River gambling hall piano while Eddie (Bong) Brown is responsible for the percussive elements, including the handclaps.
The greatest cover band of all time
The handclaps are important because they re-appear in the arrangement of The Beatles’ gigantic, historic single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and a number of their other early hits. (Of course the Fab Four would cover “Please Mr. Postman” in 1963, a version remarkable for John Lennon’s double-tracked lead, wraparound backing harmonies by Paul McCartney and a Rock-ier sound. Outstanding as it is, it lacks the soulful innocence and suppleness of The Marvelettes’ original.)
The long plea of “Postman” goes on until it culminates in an A+ vocal jam in the midst of which Horton sings the classic line, “Deliver the letter, the sooner the better,” which was penciled in during the studio session.
Sadly for The Marvelettes, as accomplished as their singing and rhythmic sense were, they were eclipsed very quickly by The Supremes, who were deemed more marketable, which in those days could be read as a code phrase for “whiter.”
When listening to “Mr. Postman,” and follow-up hits like “Beechwood 4-5789” and “Playboy,” you can hear the funkiness and sexuality that was stripped out of the best of The Supremes’ songs. The Supes weren’t going to sing a “stalker song” like “Don’t Mess With Bill.” They were too squeaky clean. So, The Marvelettes were passed up when it came time for Motown execs to hand out one of the biggest Pop hits of the 20th century, the enduring “Where Did Our Love Go?”
The Supremes might have been the very first of the girl glam groups, a moneymaking machine composed of cold, coiffed, distant young ladies in shimmery gowns.
The Marvelettes were home-girls in the best sense of the word – warm, sexy and vulnerable – girls you could hang out with who just happened to have the keys to a warehouse full of talent. Otherwise, they were us.
“Please Mr. Postman” retains its ability to thrill because anyone in any era could be standing by the mailbox (or waiting for the email to plink-plink or for the txt 2 com thru). The sentiment never changes regardless of the means of delivery:
So many days you passed me by
See the tears standin’ in my eyes
You didn’t stop to make me feel better
By leavin’ me a card or a letter
Mister Postman look and see
If there’s a letter in your bag for me
- The Marvelettes’ version of “Please Mr. Postman” was released one week before construction of the Berlin Wall began.
- The cover version by The Beatles was issued on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was murdered.