Top 5: Mystery Letter

(edited to add link to Cash Box chart from December 12, 1992)

This week is the anniversary of a true record-chart oddity, which occurred in 1992. The story begins, however, in 1976. While performing at a hotel in Las Vegas sometime that year, a depressed Elvis Presley supposedly wrote some notes about his feelings, but then crumpled them up and threw them away. An aide retrieved the notes and eventually showed them to Wayne Newton, who was so moved by them that he bought them, and he turned them into a song called “The Letter.” Thirty-two years ago tonight, Elvis brought Newton onstage during the closing night of his last Vegas run, and he sang the song for Elvis.

The trail of “The Letter” goes cold for the next 16 years. It appeared on Newton’s 1992 album Moods and Moments. That fall, it made the Cash Box singles chart, eventually rising to Number One during the week of December 12, 1992. It also topped the Cash Box country chart. It spent 31 weeks on the pop chart, finally dropping off in February 1993. That’s a big hit—or it would be, if the record had charted anywhere else. It never made the Billboard Hot 100 or the adult contemporary chart. I was program and music director of an adult-contemporary station in 1992, reading the industry bible Radio and Records every week, and I never heard of it. There’s precious little about it on the Internet beyond what I’ve told you here, which is strange, given that any random hit single is likely to generate thousands of links.

Here’s a video of “The Letter,” which looks to be from 1992. Anybody remember it?

Also on the radio this week in 1992:

2. “I Will Always Love You”/Whitney Houston (down from 1). In which a tender ballad written and charmingly recorded by Dolly Parton is turned into the most histronic, overblown performance in pop history. (“The Letter” managed to interrupt Whitney’s lengthy run at Number One in Cash Box. She had taken the spot the previous week and would reclaim it the week after, holding it until the week of March 13.)

5. “How Do You Talk to An Angel”/The Heights (down from 2). From a Fox TV series about a struggling-but-photogenic rock band, a show that got canceled while the song was Number One. So much for synergy.

10. “To Love Somebody”/Michael Bolton (up from 15). Another song in which Bolton really buries the meters on the recording console. He always pushed his voice so hard that I wonder how he kept from stroking out.

17. “Layla”/Eric Clapton (down from 7). This is the MTV Unplugged version, which had a great deal of novelty value at the time. It’s entirely unnecessary today, however, and will remain so as long as the original version still exists.

It wasn’t unheard of for record-chart compilers at radio stations and elsewhere to boost certain records as a favor to artists or labels. Experts I’ve consulted guess that in 1992, Cash Box was doing just that for “The Letter” as a favor to Wayne Newton. “The ultimate case of chart-fixing,” one says, although it’s hard to imagine how anybody in the music industry might have taken it seriously. Cash Box was on its last legs by the end of 1992. Its influence, once the equal of Billboard‘s, had waned, and it would cease publication in 1996, although it was revived as a web-only magazine in 2006.

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6 responses

  1. The lead singer of the fictional band The Heights, Jamie Walters, spent two years on Beverly Hills 90210 as musician Ray Pruitt. Once engaged to Drew Barrymore (who hasn’t been?), Walters is a full-time firefighter/paramedic in LaLa Land with dreams of resurrecting his music career.

  2. Thank You! I’ve heard Wayne sing that quite a few times in the past but not for a long time & don’t have the video (wish I did!). I love the song!

  3. If Wayne Newton kept Whitney out of number one for even one week on a questionable chart, I bow down to him for doing us all such a huge favor. Dolly’s first recording worked so well because of its simplicity and understated production. That’s what made it so warm. By comparison, her two later re-recordings came across like Nashville Brylcreem.

    But Whitney’s version? Millions may love it, but it completely steamrolls over the heartfelt point of the song. The Histrionics Hall Of Shame’s all-time champ, indeed.

    Some folks say that Cash Box had a less-manipulative chart because it was strictly sales-based. “The Letter” would seem to indicate otherwise.

  4. Too bad they don’t have the (old) Cashbox charts online anymore, otherwise I would have had to check this for myself….

  5. The Cash Box archives are at http://cashboxmagazine.com/archives.htm. I forgot to link to the December 12 chart in my original post. It’s fixed now.

  6. MARCOS CORDERO | Reply

    fascinating how one magazine -Cashbox -in this case would put a single such as The Letter-and aparently with no AIrplay or Sales data-and it should be noted that SOundscan and Broadcast Data Systems were already monitoring the industry,so then how in the world,that song,a N.1 Song nonetheles in one of the two most important magazines at the time wont be even in one of those charts????…not even in a single week,The Letter was to be found in eitther charts!!!..????…pretty fascinating ah!…i do loved and love both Magazines,but Billboard for every reason available was the most accurate at least for me..Cashbox was more into Airplay i guess…otherwise i just cant understand how such a “popular” song could reach the n 1 -nationally-withoiut even being monitored by SOundscan….geez!,it doesnt even show in the country charts for that matter…

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