TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Debuts on the Billboard Hot 100 in the issue dated Monday, September 4, 1961.
SONGWRITERS: Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Brian Holland, Robert Bateman, Freddie Gorman.
PRODUCERS: Brian Holland, Robert Bateman.
BACKSTORY: In a world of electronic mail and digital communication, a catchy song about a postman continues to hold universal appeal. “Deliver de letter, the sooner de better,” harmonised the Marvelettes on the seven-inch vinyl which, in the summer of 1961, marked their debut disc for Motown Records. Baby boomers who bought “Please Mr. Postman” then have grandchildren who hear the song even today, whether through the soundtrack of the animated Netflix series Beat Bugs, or as the musical foundation of “Feel It Still,” the 2017 global smash by Portugal. The Man. “I used the melody for ‘Mr. Postman’ as a placeholder,” said the alt-rock band’s singer/songwriter John Gourley, “and it just stuck.”
The original was created out of words put on paper by pianist William Garrett. He was an acquaintance of Georgia Dobbins, one of the high school girls from Inkster, Michigan, who coalesced into the Marvelettes at the dawn of the 1960s. Dobbins elected to write music for those words. “I was waiting for the postman to bring me a letter from this guy who was in the Navy,” she told Marc Taylor, author of The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group. “That’s how I came up with the lyrics. Then I made up the tune. I just hummed it over and over and changed it to the way it should be. I improvised.”
The Marvelettes had already gained a Motown audition with Robert Bateman, a fledgling producer (and sound engineer) for the young company; now, they had a song to offer. Bateman and colleague Brian Holland liked what they heard, reshaping it to suit the quintet’s lead vocalist, Gladys Horton. Additional input came from Freddie Gorman, a would-be singer whose day job was as…a postman. The track was recorded and released in August 1961, and swiftly earned airplay in and round Detroit, then elsewhere as Motown’s promotion team got to work across the country.
“I’d like to get some of that record,” said Texas distributor Pappy Dailey, calling Motown in Detroit. “It’s on the Tamale label.” Actually, “Please Mr. Postman” was on the Tamla imprint, but no one at the company cared about the mistake: what mattered was that the Marvelettes’ record appeared to be breaking nationwide. And so it was, entering the Billboard Hot 100 in September and eventually climbing all the way to the top by year-end. The five youngsters from Inkster became the first Motown act to reach Number One on the pop charts, going on to enjoy a career through most of the 1960s, with further hits like “Playboy,” “Beechwood 4-5789,” “As Long As I Know He’s Mine,” “Too Many Fish In The Sea,” “When You’re Young And In Love” and “My Baby Must Be A Magician.”
REMAKES: As noted above, “Please Mr. Postman” has worked its way into the 21st century with a still-relevant lyric and a couple of catchy hooks. The song’s second milestone – after its climb to the top of the Billboard charts – was when John, Paul, George and Ringo chose it for their second U.K. album, With The Beatles. The group had already put the song into their live set; then it became one of three Motown covers recorded for that 1963 album, delivered to an even wider audience worldwide than the original. (Not that the Beatles were the only Brits attracted to “Please Mr. Postman.” Pop star Helen Shapiro and beat groups Mike Sheridan & the Night Riders and Bern Elliott & the Fenmen also cut the tune.) Its third milestone was unveiled in 1974, when a new version by the Carpenters repeated the Marvelettes’ run to the top of the charts. Also out in ’74 was a remake by the Pat Boone Family, released by…Motown Records. Thereafter, “Postman” continued to thrive; there was even a fresh take in 1981 by one of the song’s authors, Freddie Gorman, with his group, the Originals. Australia’s Human Nature also tackled the song, both on record and in their popular Motown cabaret act in Las Vegas during the early 2000s. As for the future: after Beat Bugs and Portugal. The Man, anything is possible – as long as postmen and women deliver de letters.
FOOTNOTE: In 2016, American filmmaker Ava DuVernay unveiled a documentary entitled August 28: A Day In The Life Of A People. The 27-minute work depicted a series of significant events in African-American history which occurred on that date, including passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” address in Washington, DC, in 1963, and Barack Obama’s speech of acceptance for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2008. Also part of the narrative was radio airplay in late August 1961 for “Please Mr. Postman,” considered significant because it led to that first crossover Number One for Motown Records, helping to elevate Berry Gordy’s young company in the music industry and, ultimately, leading to its 1970s stature as America’s largest black-owned business. The DuVernay film was commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History & Culture, where it was screened in 2016-17 and subsequently on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN television network. Once again, the Marvelettes delivered.