Motown Spotlight, October 2020

Please Mr. Postman

Following on from last month when we learned of the passing of original Marvelette Georgia Dobbins, I thought we could spend some time talking about her and the actual single that launched the group's career.  Much of what follows has been sourced from published and unpublished items that I've unearthed these past couple of weeks. Every Motown fan knows of the group's early history and, as far as possible, I won't go over old ground.  Rather, use quotes from the ladies themselves, some of which I found fascinating which made the lengthy research worthwhile.  So, here's the story behind "Please Mr. Postman" - hope you enjoy…

A brief back history first, I think, to set the scene.  They all met at Detroit's InksterHigh School, where Gladys Horton formed The Casinyets. Prior to this she had been a regular contestant in the school's talent shows, but this time she intended to enter her own group.  The recruitment process for the group was a long one because Gladys first asked girls from the school chorus who had the ability to harmonise easily, then rehearsed with them at her house of an evening. "We were all in the basement singing and belting out some of the hit recordings of the day by The Chantels, The Shirelles and The Bobbettes".  In the end she chose Georgia Dobbins first, followed by Katherine Anderson, Juanita Cowart and Georgeanna Tillman. Together they became The Casinyets (Gladys spelt the name Cassingyettes – which is a devil of a word to type, so will stick with the shortened version!)  "With myself that made five and now we were ready to start rehearsing for the Inkster High School Talent Show, 1961." They spent every spare moment working out dance routines and choosing appropriate stage costumes.  Gladys had decided that Georgia would take on lead vocals but Georgia didn't feel sufficiently confident to carry the group, so Katherine volunteered. In the end Gladys was nominated.  The song they chose was written by Georgia especially for the talent show titled "Fine, Fine Baby" with its layered harmonies and unison singing.  They practised until perfect.  Gladys - "(On the night) we were all dressed in white skirts and pretty blue blouses. If there had been an award for the best dressed, we would have been placed first."   The Casinyets came fourth.  The winner was female singer, Millicent Morris; second, male soloist Clarence Finch and third, The Jazzmen Quartet.  "To me it was like a year's work all just vanished."

However, all was not lost.  Their school principal believed The Casinyets should have won so arranged for them to join the three winners to audition for Motown.  This time Gladys knew the competition, so pushed the others up a gear to ensure they were the best.  For the audition in April 1961, it was decided they'd sing a medley of current tunes – The Shirelles' "I Met Him On A Sunday", into The Chantels' "He's Gone", followed by The Del Vikings' "Come Go With Me" and Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Falls Fall In Love".  Gladys – "We also picked the colours red and black for outfits that day – black skirts and red blouses."    

Upon their arrival at  2648 West Grand Boulevard, the young girls spotted Mary Wells leaving the Hitsville building to climb into a waiting black limousine – and kicked themselves afterwards for not asking for her autograph!  Once inside Hitsville, they first met Raynoma Gordy, Gladys remembered, who introduced herself as Berry's wife, then someone else took them on a tour of the building. "When we got to the recording studio they took us in the control room where we could see who was in session." They were out of luck but did chance to catch Popcorn Wylie, Mable John and Andre Williams standing around the piano, deep in conversation.  They marvelled at the pictures of artists hanging on the walls, including black/white poses of Marv Johnson, The Miracles, Jackie Wilson, Barrett Strong and a new girl group called The Supremes. "We then met Brian Holland and Robert Bateman (working as Brianbert) who were conducting the audition and, even though everyone was terrific that day, Robert and Brian saw a place for us in the company."  Delighted (probably an understatement!)  they had been chosen, Robert and Brian warned the excited youngsters - "This is only the beginning. We need hit material.  Go home and put your heads together and when you think you have something, let us know." 

 

Georgia Dobbs

The Casinyets were also told about 'the dynamic girl group they already had' which only fuelled their enthusiasm to fire up their creative engines.  As Georgia was the oldest and more experienced with songwriting, she automatically adopted the role of group leader, and reached out to William Garrett, composer of a raft of songs waiting to be recorded which he stored away in a battered briefcase.  Georgia patiently rifled through them all, stopping at one titled "Please Mr. Postman".  As William sang them a rough version, Gladys remembered it held a bluesy feel in the style of Scatman Crothers but not suitable for five young ladies." Georgia asked William if she could use the song's title and re-work the lyrics around it.  So long as he was credited on the record label as a writer, she could go ahead.  Within three days the song was finished, with inspiration taken from Georgia's boyfriend.  "...I was waiting for the postman to bring me a letter from this guy who was in the Navy.  That's how I came up with the lyrics.  Then I made up the tune."   Katherine added "….We thought it was a very nice, cute song that would have been a….teenage kind of song.  It was different from anything that had ever been released because no artist had acknowledged a (postman)."

One step forward and two back because Georgia decided she could no longer carry on as part of the group. Over the years it was accepted she stepped down due to family needs which it now appears was half of the story. Y'see, for anyone under 21 years of age, a parent or legal guardian was required by law to sign legal documents on the minor's behalf, and it was this that ended her career in music before it had started.  "When my dad wouldn't sign my (Motown) contract, it was just like somebody had snatched the rug from under me.  …You want to go, you've got your outfit ready, but daddy says 'no, you ain't going'."  She felt robbed and subsequently shut herself off from the world for at least a year afterwards, not even listening to the radio.  She didn't sing again until 1978.  When members of her family initially realized what had happened, several said they would have signed her contract.  "..But back then, whatever went on inside the house stayed there.  I was never a disobedient child." 

It transpired the reasoning behind her father's refusal was based on his thinking that if the group failed to be  successful, he would need to return the money Motown had advanced his daughter. Had he taken advice, Georgia's future would have taken a whole different path. It was also true her mother was ill which, Georgia generously admitted, contributed to her father's decision. "..I'm the oldest child in the family with six brothers and (my family) depended on me totally.  My mother was ill all of my life."  (Motown's contracts were generally a standard eight-page document, where artists received a 2% royalty rate of 90% of the recommended retail price for each record sold in America, less packaging costs and taxes.  For overseas sales, artists received one-half that amount.) 

"(Georgia) couldn't commit herself to the hard work of being part of a group and I had to look for another member," a disappointed Gladys explained.  "Mission impossible - because there was only one Georgia Dobbins."  Within days, the local grapevine began cranking up;  before long Gladys became aware of another Inkster student who had not only appeared in several talent shows, but who could "really sing".  Her name was Wanda Young.   To step into Georgia's departing shoes, her replacement needed to "look the part and be star material" with personality, poise and precision and "who was packaged and ready to go."  Wanda fitted the bill perfectly.  "I'm so glad they found me before I went away to nursery school" she said. "Now I'm doing exactly what I have always wanted to do – sing."

Meanwhile, Georgia was honing "Please Mr. Postman" with William Garrett – later Freddie Gorman (who, by the way, had been a postman) until they felt it was ready to present to their producers Brian Holland and Robert Bateman, who were also credited as writers.  Confident it was a potential hit, Brian and Robert wanted to whisk the girls into the studio as soon as possible. Before that though a flipside was needed.   As luck would have it, Wanda Young's brother was a lyricist; he was brought on board and "So Long Baby" was created with Gladys playing the piano against Wanda's strong falsetto voice.  They were ready!

As was the norm during the early sixties, their session was live with musicians playing alongside them. Gladys - "That was the first time we met Marvin Gaye who was (one of) the drummers on the session".  Eddie Willis played guitar; James Jamerson double bass; Benny Benjamin, drums, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, percussion and Dale Evans, piano (although Popcorn Wylie is credited on the released single's blurb). Two soundproof booths were used for their vocals: Gladys in one, the backing singers in the other.  Take after take shaped the song with the girls growing in confidence. Part way through the session, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard walked into the studio, whereupon Flo offered help with some ad-libs to fill in the dead air on the song: "oh yeah" and the "please pleases" in particular.  Gladys - "I started to loosen up and do a few things on my own like 'deliver de letter, de sooner de better'."  Before the session ended, in walked Diana Ross, who, even in these early days, carried considerable authority within Motown.  By all accounts, an uncomfortable exchange followed.

It's also become apparent that "Please Mr. Postman" was recorded under the name Casingyets, a name later considered too hard to pronounce.  Berry Gordy came up with the Marvellous Marvelettes.  Gladys - "He decided to leave the word 'marvellous' out on record labels because he said that was his personal feelings of what we had become to him."

Please Mr. Postman

"Please Mr. Postman" was released in August 1961 on the Tamla imprint, three months later in the UK via Fontana: in fact, it was actually the first single on the label.  A month earlier The Marvelettes had signed up with Motown for four years, with the company having the option to renew for an additional four years. And they had also experienced their first professional photo shoot!  As seems to be the case with Motown, The Marvelettes were unaware the single had been released until they heard it over the radio. "After 'Please Mr. Postman' was recorded, I think it was a point of being on pins and needles," recalled Katherine, while Gladys said "Radio stations everywhere were playing our song on the hour every hour.  Sometimes we would turn to three different stations where they were all playing the song at the same time."  The single entered the Billboard top 100 on 4 September; a week later it entered the R&B chart, where it rose steadily to topple Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" from the peak position.  It went on to top the Cash Box black contemporary listing for six weeks.  However, its climb up the mainstream chart proved troublesome. "Please Mr. Postman" pitched in at 79, then fell two places.  Following a renewed promotional push, it soared into the top thirty, fell three places, before hitting 19.  Two weeks later The Marvelettes eventually hit the top on 11 December!   All in all, the single stayed on the chart for a staggering 23 weeks, and decades later, in 2017, it was number 22 in  Billboard magazine's list of "100 Greatest Girl Group Songs Of All Time."

However, back in 1961 Motown celebrated its first number one pop single.  With success came an overwhelming demand for weekend personal appearances and guest spots which was a huge problem as all The Marvelettes, except Wanda, were still at school.  Gladys once admitted it was hard for her to study and apply her mind to her school books after, say, spending a weekend in New York.  The light just went out, she said.  One time, when the girls were booked for a two-week tour, their school principal only gave the green light when they agreed to return with a written and oral report on all the places and experiences they experienced while travelling.

"We were all surprised when 'Postman' hit so big.  The most surprised was Motown," remembered Katherine.  She believed the timing of the single was perfect as it coincided with young men heading for the Vietnam War, where letters from home were all important.  She admitted that while their lives were turned inside out extremely quickly, there was another very unreal side. "…It was pretty overwhelming that you were going to meet Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy…when you're fifteen, sixteen years old.  These are people …you've heard about but never thought would be one of your peers.  You are star struck."  All the while though, The Marvelettes remained humble, graceful and grateful. Gladys - "We just weren't big braggers."

Berry Gordy's generosity to his artists who have made him money is legendary, and The Marvelettes were no exception.  At Motown's annual Christmas party in 1962, he gave each Marvelette a one-third carat diamond ring.  I think I'm right in saying, he gave The Supremes a transistor radio each.  By now, of course, "Please Mr. Postman" had pumped revenue into Motown's bank account and, despite reports to the contrary, it was, according to Katherine, the company's first million-seller, not "Shop Around."  She explained The Miracles' single had been losing momentum in the pop chart, but did a turn around when "Please Mr. Postman" began its ascent.  "Therefore Motown had The Marvelettes'  'Please Mr. Postman' and they had The Miracles' 'Shop Around' (but that) never did go to number one."

Martha Reeves acknowledged that The Marvelettes were Motown's top girl group when she started her secretarial job at Motown with Mickey Stevenson in the A&R Department. "While on tour (in Holland), they were photographed in full Dutch attire, including wooden shoes.  They looked like my paper dolls that I lovingly kept in a box as a child…I liked all four of The Marvelettes….You can't find a heart bigger than Gladys Horton's."

As you know, "Please Mr. Postman" grew legs over the years to come.  The Beatles recorded their version for their second album "With The Beatles" after performing it regularly at The Cavern Club and later as part of their BBC live sessions.  In 1962 New Zealand singer Lyn Barnett enjoyed a top ten hit in her home country, and a decade later The Carpenters enjoyed an American charttopper, marking their last million-selling single.  While signed to Motown, The Pat Boone Family issued their take during September 1974, and The Originals (Freddie Gorman was a member) recorded a medley of the song in 1981 titled "Waitin' On A Letter"/"Mr. Postman" for the Independent Phase II label, which proved to be the group's last R&B hit at number fourteen.  The song was re-born by Helen Shapiro, Mike Sheridan and the Night Riders and, I suspect, a whole rack of others which we won't go into here.

While the celebrations continued in 1961 a follow-up single and album were planned.  The back of the latter contained a personal letter (apparently!) from the ladies to their fans starting with "The last time Mr. Postman walked by our house he delivered to us the happiest letter we've ever received.  In it was the news that you have made 'Please Mr. Postman' our first hit record and given us the reason for presenting this album to you."  Reading on further, fans were urged to choose their favourite song on the album which could be their next single. "Just write us a letter and let us know which song you liked the best.  So why not give Mr. Postman your letter today and be sure to tell him 'deliver de letter, de sooner the better. Gratefully, The Marvelettes."  Ironically, their second single "Twistin' Postman" wasn't included within although its B-side "I Want A Guy" was.

Then Wanda dropped a bombshell. She was expecting a baby.  Gladys -"It shook everyone up.  She was already six months pregnant and would have to be away from the group for another six months.  Florence (Ballard) travelled with us until Wanda returned to the group in the middle of 1962."

And that's another story for another day…..

Sharon Davis

(My grateful thanks go to the following:  "The Original Marvelettes": Marc Taylor;  "Dancing In The Street": Martha Reeves;  "Diana Ross – An Unauthorised Biography": J Randy Taraborrelli)

The Original Marvelettes
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