This often covered classic evolved from a number of artists and songwriters. It is notable as the first Motown song to reach the number-one position on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart. The single achieved this position in late 1961; it hit number one on the R&B chart as well. “Please Mr. Postman” became a number-one hit again in early 1975 when the Carpenters’ cover of the song reached the top position of the Billboard Hot 100.
The song began it’s life the fall of 1960 when the group that would become the Marvelettes formed at Inkster High School in Inkster, Michigan by fifteen-year-old glee club member Gladys Horton. Horton enlisted older glee club members Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart, and Georgia Dobbins (already a high school graduate) to join her. The members struggled to come up with a name for their new act until one of the members jokingly took a stab at their own singing abilities, saying “we can’t sing yet.” Horton altered the saying to “The Casinyets”.
In 1961, the quintet, now called the Marvels, entered a talent show contest on the behest of their teacher and ended up finishing in fourth place. Though only the first three winners were offered a trip to audition for the fledgling Motown label, two of the girls’ schoolteachers advised that they be allowed to audition too. Upon auditioning for Motown executives including Brian Holland and Robert Bateman, they had a second audition with bigger staff including Smokey Robinson and the label president and founder, Berry Gordy, who while impressed with their vocal styles advised them to come back with their own composition. Returning to Inkster, Georgia Dobbins contacted a local musician named William Garrett, who had an unfinished blues composition titled “Please Mr. Postman”; Garrett allowed Dobbins to use it as long as he received songwriting credit if the song became a hit. Despite having no previous songwriting experience, Dobbins took the song home, kept only the title as inspiration, and reshaped it overnight to reflect the teenage sound of doo-wop.
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. I just hummed it over and over and changed it to the way it should be. I improvised.
Songwriting credits for “Please Mr. Postman” seem to have changed over the years. The original Tamla 45 single for the Marvelettes’ version credits “Dobbins/Garrett/Brianbert” as the songwriters, and credits “Brianbert” (Brian Holland and Robert Bateman) as producer. The original “With the Beatles” album cover credited it to just Brian Holland. The 1976 Beatles discography book “All Together Now” credits the songwriting to Holland, Bateman, and Berry Gordy (who frequently required credit even when he had nothing to do with a songs creation). The 1992 Motown boxed set “Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection” credits Dobbins, Garrett, Holland, Bateman, and Gorman as the composers. The Songwriters Hall of Fame credits “Please Mr. Postman” to just Holland, Bateman, and Gorman. EMI Music Publishing, the current music publisher of the song, list all five writers in their catalog.
Prior to returning to Motown, Georgia Dobbins left the group due to her growing family and her father, who advised her not to continue her career in show business. Dobbins’ departure left Gladys Horton in full charge of the group. To replace her, Horton asked another Inkster graduate, Wanda Young, to replace Dobbins. When the group returned and performed their composition, Berry Gordy agreed to work with the group but under the advice that they change their name. Gordy renamed them The Marvelettes and signed the act to Motown’s Tamla division in July 1961. The following month, the group recorded “Please Mr. Postman”, which was polished by Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Freddie Gorman, another songwriting partner of Holland (before Holland became part of the Holland–Dozier–Holland team), who moonlighted as a mailman, as well as the song “So Long Baby”, sung by Wanda. Tamla issued “Please Mr. Postman” on August 21, 1961. The song then climbed to the top of the singles chart, reaching #1 that December. making them the first Motown act to have a #1 hit on the Hot 100.
The backing artists on the record were the Motown session musicians, the famous Funk Brothers, including a 22 year-old Marvin Gaye on drums.
The song’s second milestone – after its climb to the top of the Billboard charts – was when John, Paul, George and Ringo chose it for their second U.K. album, “With The Beatles”. The group had already put the song into their live set, performing it regularly at the Cavern Club; then it became one of three Motown covers recorded for that 1963 album, delivered to an even wider audience worldwide than the original. Sung by John Lennon, they played it at many of their early concerts. The song was one of three Motown cuts, along with “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” that The Beatles released on the Beatles’ second album. Motown head Berry Gordy agreed to a lower rate for use of the songs, as he was thrilled to have The Beatles recording tracks from his roster.
The third accomplishment for the song occurred when a hit cover of “Please Mr. Postman” was recorded by the Carpenters, whose version took the song again to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early 1975. The Carpenters’ version resembles an old 1950s rock & roll song. The single was released in late 1974, reached number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts in January 1975, and was the duo’s 10th and final million-selling single.
Due to their success, the Marvelettes had to leave school in order to perform and despite the promise of tutors to help with their schooling, they were never granted any. Due to their young ages and Gladys Horton being an orphaned ward of the courts, they eventually were taken in by Esther Gordy Edwards, who bused them to Motortown Revue shows. After several successful Top 40 recordings the group was shortened to a quartet when Juanita Cowart opted to leave the band citing a mental breakdown – caused by stress from performing on the road and a mistake she made in describing the group’s background during an appearance on American Bandstand.
By 1964, the majority of American vocal groups, especially all female bands such as the Shirelles and the Ronettes, started struggling with finding a hit after the arrival of British pop and rock acts. In the meantime, other Motown girl groups such as Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were starting to get promoted by Motown staff with the Vandellas becoming the top girl group of 1963. By the end of 1964, Georgeanna Tillman, a longtime sufferer of sickle cell anemia was diagnosed with lupus. By early 1965, struggling to keep up with their stringent recording sessions and touring schedules and her illnesses, a doctor of Tillman’s advised her to leave performing for good. The rest of the Marvelettes carried on as a trio from then on.
Late in 1970 the group disbanded with Katherine Anderson settling briefly as a staff writer for Motown. After Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972, Anderson and Rogers left the business altogether returning to Michigan with Anderson settling in her hometown of Inkster while Rogers moved to Southfield, Michigan. Meanwhile, Gladys Horton had moved to Los Angeles where she raised her three sons. Over the years since, there has been a few groups touring under the name the Marvelettes, but they contained no original members.
In 1995, they were honored with the Pioneer Award at the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 2004, the group was inducted to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2005, the group was awarded with two gold plaques for their biggest hits, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess with Bill” after the RIAA had certified the singles as million-sellers. In 2007, the Marvelettes were voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. The Marvelettes were nominated for 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They became eligible for induction in 1987. Although they did not garner enough votes for induction, they made the ballot a second time for induction in the year 2015.