In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman”
HIT #1: December 11, 1961
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
A lot begins here. Motown Records should’ve scored its first #1 months earlier, with the Miracles’ pop masterpiece “Shop Around,” but Lawrence Welk and his accordion got in the way. But the Motown pop takeover was inevitable, and it finally arrived in the form of four teenage girls from Inkster, Michigan and their plea about a letter that never seems to arrive. And while I’m sure you couldn’t tell at the time, the song would prove a harbinger. Black pop music was doing just fine before “Please Mr. Postman,” but Motown Records would change things, polishing and professionalizing it (perfecting an assembly-line formula that bigger labels would struggle to replicate), and in the process producing a whole lot of eternally great art.
That’s a ton of historical significance for one song to bear. “Please Mr. Postman” probably sounded like a novelty when it came out — a girl-group number that was simultaneously sadder (thanks to the heart-wracked vocals of lead Marvelette Gladys Horton) and happier (thanks to the interjecting chirps of other Marvelettes) than its competition. The arrangement is jumpy and giddy, all sparkly piano and calypso-inflected drums. There’s no guitar anywhere.
It’s a good song, with the sort of hook you can hear a mile away, but it’s also slight, and it just skirts the edges of silliness. Still, it speaks to changes that were in the air. For one thing, the single’s cover art didn’t feature any actual Marvelettes. Instead, there’s just that cartoon image of an empty mailbox. America, Motown seemed to be betting, wasn’t ready to buy anything that featured the faces of four smiling black teenagers. That would change, and Motown would have a lot to do with its changing.
And maybe “Please Mr. Postman” speaks to something else, too. By 1961, President Kennedy had just started focusing on Vietnam. American troops were already in the country, but those troop levels tripled in 1961. We never hear where the absent boyfriend is in “Please Mr. Postman”; we only hear that he’s “so far away.” It seems possible, at least, that the boyfriend was in a jungle somewhere across the world. In the years that would follow, pop music would reckon a whole lot more with Vietnam. So maybe “Please Mr. Postman” was a Trojan horse: a fun pop song that, however unintentionally, served as a fulcrum point and helped to introduce a whole lot of larger issues to the national conversation.
BONUS BEATS: In his 1973 movie Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese used “Please Mr. Postman” to soundtrack a brawl in a pool hall, helping to pioneer the way movies would use pop music in the years ahead. Here’s that scene: