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R.B. Greaves, who wrote and sang the memorable 1969 hit “Take a Letter Maria,” has died. He was 68.
The soul singer, a nephew of Sam Cooke, died Sept. 27 of prostate cancer, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said Wednesday.
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“Take a Letter Maria” — the label used no comma — hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1969, selling more than a million copies. Its Latin-leaning rhythm, catchy melody and sharp, of-the-moment horn lines punctuated iconoclastic lyrics about a hardworking man who comes home to find “the woman I thought I knew in the arms of another man.” Rather than pull a pistol and waste them both, as a Delta bluesman might have, he heads to the office the next day and has his secretary fire off a missive to the cheating wife, saying he plans to divorce her — famously noting that his lawyer be cc’d.
In something of a twist ending, the cuckolded singer turns his eye toward the secretary, saying, “It just so happens I’m free tonight/Would you like to have dinner with me?”
Produced by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, the song was recorded in August 1969 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama with backing from the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. It was an out-of-the-box hit in the U.S. for the Atco label, rising to No. 2 in just six weeks, only to be denied the top spot by The 5th Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues.” His self-titled album peaked at No. 85 in 1970.
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“Take a Letter Maria” became a hit again the following year when Anthony Armstrong James’ version reached No. 8 on Billboard‘s country chart. Country singer Doug Stone also had a minor hit with the song in 2000.
Greaves was born Nov. 28, 1944, on a U.S. Air Force base in the former British Guyana and raised on a Seminole reservation in California. He wrote “Take a Letter Maria” under his British pseudonym of Sonny Childe, having moved across the pond in 1963 to found Sonny Childe & The TNTs. He reached the Top 40 again with a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David‘s “Always Something There to Remind Me,” which peaked at No. 27. (A cover of that song by Naked Eyes hit the top 10 in 1983.) Three other singles dented the Hot 100 that year, but they would be Greaves’ last chart entries.
Watch Greaves perform “Take a Letter Maria” — with a Mission: Impossible-like finale — on a 1969 TV show above.
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