Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Arbors -- "The Letter" (1968)

She wrote me a letter 
Said she couldn't live
Without me no more

And after you listen to our featured song, you won't be able to live without it no more.

I've been saving this song for a special occasion, and today is as special as it gets -- this week marks the fifth anniversary of your favorite wildly successful little music blog, 2 or 3 lines.

It's traditional to give a gift made of wood for the fifth anniversary of a wedding, but you and I aren't married . . . although there are a few of you out there that I wouldn't mind going on a honeymoon with, if you catch my drift.  (You know who you are!)

But I'm not looking for a gift from you -- just the opposite, in fact.  2 or 3 lines has been giving you gifts three times a week for five years, and today is no exception.  

Instead of making you wait until the end of all my usual blah blah blah to hear today's featured song, I'm going to play it for you right now.

Pay very close attention at about 1:20 of the song -- which is just after the lines quoted above are sung for the first time.  What follows is nothing less than the most astonishing 80 seconds in pop music history.  

Now pick your jaw off the floor and listen to it one more time.

Forget "Day in the Life" or "Heroes and Villains" or "Eight Miles High" or "I Can See for Miles" or anything else that you used to think was utterly mind-blowing back when you were a long-haired, bell-bottom-jeans-wearing, dope-and-beer-addled slacker.  

The Arbors PONE the Beatles, and the Beach Boys, and the Byrds, and the Who.

If you don't agree with me, please send me your address so I can come over and cut your stupid head off, and burn your house down, and plow your yard and sow it with salt like I was Scipio and you were a Carthaginian, because you simply do not deserve to live another day IF YOU ARE THAT CLUELESS!!!

* * * * *

Last year, 2 or 3 lines featured "Neon Rainbow," a song written by Wayne Carson Thompson and recorded by the Box Tops.  Click here if you missed that post.

The Box Tops' first single was another Thompson composition titled "The Letter."  It hit the #1 spot on the Billboard "Hot 100" in August 1967 and stayed there for four weeks.  It ended up as the #1 song for the entire year.

Wayne Carson Thompson
"The Letter" also made it to #1 in Chile, Israel, Norway, and Poland, and reached the top five in Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK.  In other words, it was a MONSTER hit.

The Box Tops' version of "The Letter" had a lot going for it -- not least of which was the band's legendary lead singer, Alex Chilton, who was only 16 years old when the song was recorded.  (Think about that, guys -- you're the lead singer on the #1 record of the year, and you are 16 years old.)

Alex Chilton
But as good as the original "The Letter" is, it's not the best version of the song.  

Neither was Joe Cocker's cover, which was a top ten hit in 1970.  (Kudos to our old friend Leon Russell, whose arrangement of the song -- featuring Russell's inimitable piano accompaniment -- was fabulous.)

And neither was Deborah Washington's disco cover of the song (a hit in 1978), or Bachman-Turner Overdrive's cover, or the Beach Boys' cover, or Shaun Cassidy's cover, or Bobby Darin's cover, or Al Green's cover, or Brenda Lee's cover, or Trini Lopez's cover, or Barbara Mandrell's cover, or Peter Tosh's cover, or Dionne Warwick's cover.  (In case you're wondering, there have been over 200 cover recordings of "The Letter.")

The best recording of "The Letter" was the cover by the Arbors -- a group you probably don't remember unless you are (1) as old as I am, and (2) you are totally obsessed with obscure pop singles from your high school days.  The Arbors' cover was the very first cover version of the song, and was a top 20 hit in 1969.

Who the hell were the Arbors -- and how did they end up with such a lame name for their group?

The Arbors were two pairs of brothers -- Tom and Scott Herrick and identical twins Ed and Fred Farran.  (Ed and Fred?  What were Mr. and Mrs. Farran thinking?) 

Tom Herrick went to Michigan State, but the other three met at the University of Michigan.  Click here to read an article about the Arbors from the University of Michigan alumni magazine.  The University of Michigan is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- hence, "The Arbors."

The Arbors were four-part pop harmonizers in the mold of the Lettermen.  You remember the Lettermen, right?  You don't?  How about the Association?  Or Harper's Bizarre?  (Bueller?  Bueller?)

The Arbors weren't a "rock" group in any sense of the word, although they covered a number of rock songs -- not only "The Letter," but also the Doors' "Touch Me," Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," and Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe."  (Think "the Ray Coniff Singers gone rock & roll," to quote Allmusic.)

The Herricks and the Farrans could sing up a storm, but I think you have to give most of the credit for "The Letter" to the production team behind that recording.  

The album that "The Letter" was released on -- the clumsily titled The Arbors Featuring I Can't Quit Her/The Letter -- was the first album produced by the legendary recording engineer, Roy Cicala.  Cicala was the engineer on albums by the Young Rascals, the Cowsills, the Amboy Dukes, the Four Seasons, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Gregg Allman, Three Dog Night, AC/DC, Patti Smith, and Garland Jeffreys.  (It's quite a distance from the Arbors and Cowsills to John Lennon and Patti Smith, boys and girls.)

Cicala's wife, Lori Burton, co-produced the album and worked with the Arbors on their vocals.  Burton was a blue-eyed soul songstress who released a  solo  album (Breakout) in 1967, but was better known as a songwriter.  She and her songwriting partner, Pam Sawyer, wrote for the Rascals, the Jackson 5, the Divinyls, Patti LaBelle, and Shania Twain (among others).

But the man who was most responsible for making the Arbors' version of "The Letter" the masterpiece it is was arranger Joe Scott, who also played piano and harpsichord on the album.

It took me some time to track down Joe Scott.  I started by simply typing "Joe Scott" into Google, and got about 8.5 million hits.  

I then added "arranger" to my search.  It turns out that our Joe Scott is not the only Joe Scott who worked as an arranger in the sixties -- for example, there was a songwriter/bandleader/arranger named Joe Scott who is best known for his work with R&B singer Bobby "Blue" Bland, but who also worked on records by Johnny Ace, Al Kooper, B.B. King, and many others.

Joe Scott today
Eventually, I tracked down a Joe Scott who taught adult-education classes at Florida Atlantic University.  I clicked on the "contact us" link on FAU's Lifelong Learning Society website, and asked them to pass along a message to that Joe Scott.  

A few days later, I got a one-line response from him:

Gary: I am the Joe Scott who arranged "The Letter."

After more e-mails, I arranged for a telephone interview with Joe Scott.  I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation -- Joe couldn't have been nicer.

You can read the first part of my interview with Joe in the next 2 or 3 lines.  For now, how about we listen to "The Letter" one more time?

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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