For a pounding beat, clever lyrics, and distinctive vocals, few songs match the power of The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." Remade by countless artists, including The Beatles and The Carpenters, the song represents Motown's unique and yet universal sound. It also became Motown's first huge hit, topping the charts at number one in 1961.
The story reaches back to early 1961, when five young women calling themselves The Casinyets auditioned at Motown studios for Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. Invited back for a second audition, the group had to scramble to find an original song to perform. Original Marvelette member Georgia Dobbins and her pianist friend William Garrett quickly penned an early version of "Please Mr. Postman," a bluesy number with few lyrics. Dobbs left the group after the audition, but Gordy liked the song and ordered producers Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland and Robert Bateman (the latter two often credited as Brianbert) to revise the tune for the new group, so they quickly penned "Please Mr. Postman" specifically for the girl group. Gorman, a bass singer and songwriter, actually worked as a postman, so his experiences proved crucial to the writing process. In Bill Dahl's Motown: The Golden Years, Gorman explained his role: "We started working on it, and I started lending lyrics that I had experienced: 'check one more time for me,' and all of that."
Gordy rechristened The Casinyets The Marvelettes, and recording began. The famous Funk Brothers, Motown's in-house band, played on the track, and the thundering beat was performed by William "Benny" Benjamin and future Motown legend Marvin Gaye. At this time, Gaye was an up-and-coming artist with a commercially disappointing album under his belt, and he occasionally did session work while forging his career. Singers Wanda Young, Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman, Katherine Anderson and Juanita Cowart enthusiastically crooned the catchy lyrics, with Horton taking the lead vocal. The rest is history: "Please Mr. Postman" topped the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts in December 1961, officially establishing Motown as a major musical force.
Why does "Please Mr. Postman" endure? The lyrics address a universal topic: missing your loved one. "I've been standin' here waitin' Mister Postman/So patiently/For just a card, or just a letter/Sayin' he's returnin' home to me" Horton croons, encapsulating young love and the anxiety that accompanies it. The song also contains those irresistible hooks—the "wait a minute" refrain, the memorable lines ("Please Mr. Postman, check and see/If there's a letter in your bag for me"), the hand-clapping parts, and the ladies' exquisite harmonies. But it's that driving beat that propels the song—to experience this fully, listen to the bass and drums via headphones or good-quality speakers. That beat represents what Motown brought to popular music, and how groups such as the Beatles emulated that deep, driving beat. The song may be 50 years old, and the post office metaphor may not carry the same weight today, but the subject matter, memorable lyrics, tight harmonies, and thumping rhythm will endure for decades to come.
In the video below, the Marvelettes are down to a trio, which remained for much of their career.