This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
There are many songs about letters, too many to consider in any meaningful way. Country music, especially, is replete with them. I made it easy on myself and only consider those songs with letter (or letters) in the title (well, not entirely – Norma, the Assistant Musicologist, mentioned one I’d forgotten about).
To be even more restrictive I considered only those I have transferred to my computer as it's much easier to search than pulling out every CD and seeing if there's a letter song on it. Thus, I'm restricting myself to less than a third of my collection.
It didn't matter as I found far more than I could ever use. So, here are some of them.
EDDIE HINTON was the best white male soul singer ever. Better than Delbert McClinton, better than Delaney Bramlett and Joe Cocker. Better than all the rest.
Apart from the few albums he recorded, Eddie was a session musician mainly at Stax where he also wrote some songs with Otis Redding and others. He was a fine guitarist: that was his main gig, but he played the piano well too.
As I mentioned, he was a great soul singer as well. But he was also, unfortunately, a bit too fond of the booze and drugs. This is Letters from Mississippi.
JO-EL SONNIER does a marvelous cover of Richard Thompson’s Tear Stained Letter.
Richard’s version is great too, but rather long, so I decided to go with Jo-El. Jo-El is a Cajun, country, R&B, rock & roll and almost anything else, performer.
He started out doing Cajun gigs and later switched to country when Merle Haggard sort him out to be his opening act. He caught the eye and ear of others and he was soon playing with the likes of Albert Lee and Garth Hudson. My goodness me, it doesn’t get better than that. Here he is with Richard’s song.
An unlikely pairing was ROBERT PLANT and ALISON KRAUSS, but it seemed to work.
Looking at that picture, there’s hope for me yet. Although, it probably helps to be an ageing rock star rather than an ageing me.
Robert was, of course, the lead singer for Led Zeppelin, a band that started the craze for extreme volume and lead singers singing in an excessively high register. Only dogs could hear some of them and they sensibly ran for their lives, although getting out of range of the music really required a marathon.
Alison is a great bluegrass singer and player. As I said, it shouldn’t have worked but it did. I guess musicianship won out in the end. Their song is Please Read the Letter.
THE BOX TOPS were a group from Memphis who are usually tossed into the blue-eyed soul category.
As with most rock and pop groups, they had many different names and members, the most long-lived before they became The Box Tops is The Devilles, but that’s neither here nor there.
They were blessed with a sensational lead vocalist in Alex Chiltern and had the good fortune to have Dan Penn produce the record, The Letter. This went multiple-gold and has become a staple of soul singers and garage bands ever since.
PAT BOONE was a really good singer. I suppose he still is. It’s unfortunate that he started his career doing really inferior covers of Little Richard and Fats Domino songs.
When he performed his own music, he was worth a listen. This is one I know well because my sister bought the single way back when we were kids. As we had few records then, the ones we had went into high rotation.
You all know this one, Love Letters in the Sand. I know it too well.
One of my guilty secrets is that I really like the STATLER BROTHERS.
They perform harmony as well as anyone around which in itself makes them worth listening to. They started their career backing Johnny Cash and they can be heard on many of his records.
Later, when they went out as a separate act, they paid tribute to Johnny in at least one of their songs. This isn’t it. This is A Letter from Shirley Miller.
SUSAN TEDESCHI trained as a musician at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She then went out and played around the clubs to learn how to play the blues for real.
Later she toured with, and opened for, the Allman Brothers. It was there she met Derek Trucks who was playing guitar for that band. Derek is the nephew of Butch Trucks, one of the original drummers for the Allmans (they had two).
Susan and Derek got along famously and they started touring together with their respective bands. After a while, they decided to amalgamate these and form a single group, the Tedeschi Trucks Band (a pretty fine outfit indeed).
That’s not all they amalgamated, as they married and have a couple of kids. Susan’s song is from back when she was still a solo (well with a band) performer. There are some elements of Bonnie Raitt in her singing and playing, but that’s not something I’d object to. Here’s Susan with Gonna Write Him a Letter.
This is the song the A.M. said should be present. It’s easily the worst song by two of the finest musicians of the last however many years. They are STEVE GOODMAN and EMMYLOU HARRIS.
I’m not casting aspersions on the A.M. for her selection; I’d have included it initially had I thought of it at the time.
How they could come up this with song is a mystery to me. Okay, Steve wrote it but I’m surprised Emmy agreed to sing on it. I imagine that Steve was just having a lend of us (Oz colloquialism, don’t worry about it) and Emmy went along with the joke. It doesn’t matter, it fits well with the rest of the songs today, well some of them.
Alas, Steve is no longer with us so he can’t argue with my judgment of this song. I’m looking forward to a comment from Emmy, though. This is Fourteen Days.
I first saw BOZ SCAGGS in a small club in Berkeley or San Francisco in 1970. I’ve forgotten which side of the bay it was. This was around the time of his first album, not too long after he’d left the Steve Miller Band.
That first album of his is on the short list of all-time best first albums - it’s excellent. It’s a mixture of blue-eyed soul, country and blues. It also has Duane Allman and Eddie Hinton playing on it too.
I know that later albums sold a whole lot more and made him into a star but that first one beats them all. From it we have Another Day (Another Letter).
I’m continuing in my mission to turn you all on to IRIS DeMENT.
This may take some time; it took me more than six months and I had her CDs to play any time I wanted. If I only play a track every few months for you all, it may take years, but I’m persistent, although I must admit that I still haven’t succeeded with the A.M. Yet.
You could all go out and buy her CDs; there are only three of them (well, four, but you can ignore “Lifeline”). This is far from her best song but it’s her only letter song, Letter to Mom.
The obvious song would have been I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, but none of the versions I have grabbed me so it’s not in today. I’ve already included Take a Letter, Maria in another column otherwise it would have been included.