Take a Letter Maria – by R.B. Greaves
Take a Letter Maria
Written and performed by R. B Greaves. You can listen to the original version here. You can purchase the song at iTunes here. You can see a funky video here from a TV show with Greaves’ pacing in an office as he performs the song.
I kept my cool, I ain’t no fool.
Take a Letter Maria is the very definition of hip-swinging, sophisticated soul. R. B. Graves, who wrote and performed the song, sings with a voice so full of confidence and hipster’s grace that you can picture his sharp suit and wry grin, maybe even the cocked hat as he unfurls his tale. His voice is so smooth that it will come as no surprise that he’s a nephew of Sam Cooke. The Latin beat and mariachi horns add to the jauntiness of the tale. In the end, Greaves writes with such subtle complexities and sings with such smooth soul that his performances makes new and vibrant what would otherwise be a tired story of betrayal and romance alive.
Recorded and released in 1969, Graves laid down the tracks in the Muscle Shoals Studio using the stable of Muscle Shoals studio musicians to back his singing. The rhythm guitar and syncopated drumming set the foundation over which Graves’ voice sings. In the opening verse, the singer walks in on his wife “In the arms of another man.” The next four lines establish the direction of the song:
I kept my cool, I ain't no fool Let me tell you what happened then I packed some clothes and I walked out And I ain't going back again
The singer-songwriter might fall into a maudlin trap of wallowing in lost love; the blues singer might moan all night. This singer’s too cool for those traps; he simply packs up and starts moving on. The spry chorus punched up with the horns makes clear that there’s getting lost in acrimony or revenge:
Oh, take a letter Maria Address it to my wife Say I won't be coming home Gotta start a new life So take a letter Maria Address it to my wife Send a copy to my lawyer Gotta start a new life
I love the reference to his lawyer. Graves’ is just taking care of business.
The two verses that follow weave the threads of the old romance with his new life. The pretense of the song is that he’s dictating a letter to his secretary Maria, yet he’s also starting to romance her:
You've been many things, but most of all A good secretary to me And it's times like this I feel you've Always been close to me
He turns the cliché of the executive leaving his wife for his sexy secretary on its head. It’s only when his wife cuckolds him that the singer begins to notice his secretary. He confesses to Maria about his failed marriage:
Was I wrong to work nights to try to build a good life? It seems that all work and no play has just Cost me a wife
What’s so neat is the way that he doesn’t deny what has happened nor does he blame his wife. He’s learned his lesson and is moving on. In comes the chorus and the Mariachi-horns, you can imagine Greaves’ swinging his hips and popping his fingers.
The final verse completes the arch. We started with the betrayal and now touch on it for the last time in poignant terms:
When a man loves a woman The way it's hard to understand That she would find more pleasure in the arms of another man
He’s not unfeeling. He acknowledges the hurt, but no wallowing for Greaves. He turns from the past romance and focuses on what lays ahead:
I never really noticed how sweet you are to me It just so happens I'm free tonight Would you like to have dinner with me?
The song follows a perfect story arch full of fresh singing and lines. It sounds as original today as it did in 1969.
R.B. Greaves (born Ronald Bertram Aloysius Greaves III) is not quite a one-hit wonder as he built a solid career in the Caribbean and England. While “Take a Letter Maria” was his biggest hit, in 1970 he had a minor follow up hit with “Always something There to Remind Me” and the song “Margie, Who’s Watching the Baby.”