First Hit #1: September 23, 1967
American Idol and its ilk is kind of a terrible way to search for the next big pop star. That might seem like a tangent, but let’s listen to The Letter for a simple explanation of why I bring that up. The reality TV competition shows base their search for the best new pop star on who has the best voice, and who can interpret pre-existing songs in the most audience pleasing way. The voice seems to be the biggest factor, and this is taken to its logical conclusion in The Voice, where the judges don’t even look at the contestants in the audition phase.
Now, when you listen to The Letter, you hear a voice that would not win these competitions. Alex Chilton sounds like he has smoked a million cigarettes on this song, which wasn’t the only voice he could do of course – listen to Big Star and he probably could – but definitely isn’t Idol material on this recording. That makes the song, because it drives the point home. He sounds like someone who has been wallowing in misery until he gets the letter of the title, and his excitement about getting the letter and going home to his baby becomes more genuine because he sounds like he’s been abusing himself. That’s why the voice is only a small part of the package. A less rough voice is just going to make this a regular pop song, and it won’t capture the same longing that something a bit more rough can manage. The right voice with the right song can take it to another level, but that right voice might not be technically perfect, buttery smooth or surly British man approved. Good pop music takes a lot to work, and it’s the whole package that makes a hit like this.