Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Mail: Take A Letter Maria

R.B. Greaves: Take A Letter Maria 


I’ve written in the past about how I started paying attention to music in 1969. as a result of hearing WABC, the classic New York Top 40 station, in the station wagon that took me to my summer day camp. And that fall, I have a vague recognition of being in the car with my mother, and hearing “Take A Letter Maria” on our car radio, and proclaiming it a hit. I was 8 years old, and already thought that I was a music critic. And here I am, more than 50 years later, still pretending to be a music critic of sorts. 

The funny thing is that my 8 year old self was right. “Take A Letter Maria” became a No. 2 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, blocked from the top spot by The 5th Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” also a great song. 

I’d be shocked if anyone reading this doesn’t know the song—it is sung from the perspective of a man who had just learned of his wife’s infidelity, and dictates a letter to his secretary, the titular Maria, informing his wife of their separation. At the end, he asks Maria to dinner. It’s a surprisingly peppy song, considering the subject matter, with Latin influences and mariachi horns. I think that the narrator is supposed to come off as a sympathetic character, trying to recover from the discovery that his marriage is over, and he’s been cuckolded. And overall, I think that holds up today, despite the fact that he breaks up with his wife by letter (the functional equivalent of the uncool breakup by text), and the fact that in today’s environment, asking out Maria would raise questions of power differentials and sexual harassment. To be fair, we don’t know whether Maria accepted the invitation. Also, I have to admit that the fact that he instructs Maria to “send a copy to my lawyer” makes me happy. 

“Take A Letter Maria” was written and recorded by R.B. Greaves, and I’d be shocked if most of the people reading this knew that, and if they did, if they knew anything else about Greaves. 

Greaves, who was the nephew of the great Sam Cooke, was raised on a Seminole reservation, but moved to England in 1963. A few years later, performing as Sonny Childe, and fronting a band called The TNT, Greaves became a popular live soul/R&B act in England and recorded a few singles, before leaving The TNT during the summer of 1967. (Without Childe/Greaves, The TNT became the backing band for P.P. Arnold, probably best known for her versions of “The First Cut is the Deepest” and “Angel of the Morning.”) 

Greaves’ big hit was recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and featured the house musicians, including Donna Jean Thatcher (probably better known from her days with the Grateful Dead as Donna Jean Godchaux), Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood. And it was produced by Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun (not even close to being best known as my ultimate boss during the summer of 1982). 

Greaves’ followup, a cover of the Bacharach/David song, “Always Something There to Remind Me,” stalled at No. 27 on the Billboard chart, and that, pretty much, was that for Greaves, although he continued recording into the 1970s. He died of prostate cancer in September 2012 at the age of 68.

Patterson Hood, of the Drive-By Truckers, who is the son of David Hood, the bass player on “Maria,” has covered the song during solo shows, sometimes with his father on bass. Here’s one such performance, in which Patterson talks about how the Rolling Stones wanted to record in Muscle Shoals in 1969, before leaving to perform at Altamont, and that on that day, Greaves recorded “Maria” during the day, and the Stones appeared at night to record “Brown Sugar.”