|Originally Performed By||Shuggie Otis|
|Original Album||Freedom Flight (September, 1971)|
|Lyrics By||Shuggie Otis|
|Vocals||Trey (lead), Fish, Page (backing)|
|Historian||Parker Harrington (tmwsiy)|
“In the Garden, I see
West purple shower, bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins dressed in green”
The second verse of guitar prodigy Shuggie Otis’, 1970’s classic “Strawberry Letter 23” was quite fitting on the night of its Phish debut on 7/22/17. Indeed, we were in the Garden; Madison Square Garden, at the very beginning of the insta-legendary Baker’s Dozen run. The donut motif had been known since the tour was announced and long before the first notes were played the evening before on “Coconut” night. But what hadn’t been known was how deftly Phish would weave songs pertaining to the night’s donut flavor into the setlists. The band had already given a nod to the strawberry theme by kicking off the night with an acapella take on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As Phish often did during the Baker’s Dozen, they pulled some unexpected songs out of their hats. On this night it came after a particularly fiery “Down with Disease” which opened the second set and looked like it would go unfinished.
FIshman’s high-hat and Page’s piano keys hypnotically began the beat to the seemingly familiar song to many. It wasn’t until Trey’s singing of the opening verse that many more recognized “Strawberry Letter 23.”
“Hello my love, I heard a kiss from you
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain I gaze, the sun doesn't shine
Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind”
Otis explained in a 2013 interview that the song is a love letter and he imagined a girl sending love letters to her guy in pink envelopes and they had written each other twenty-two times. The twenty-third letter in the strawberry colored envelope was the reply in the form of a song he had written for the girl: "Strawberry Letter #23." Thus, the chorus that refers to “Strawberry Letter 22” is referencing the previous letter to which he is responding to.
“A present from you
Strawberry letter 22
The music plays
I sit in for a few”
It is an endearing story of course and pretty spectacular word-play and lyrics for the young seventeen year old songwriter. While Otis’ version on his album Freedom Flight released in 1971 got a decent amount of radio play at the time, it wasn’t until several years later that the song exploded with popularity when covered by the The Brothers Johnson on their 1977 release, Right On Time which was produced by Quincy Jones.
As far as that unfinished business with the “Down with Disease” that preceded the debut - the band did indeed finish the song later in the set before closing it out with “Shine a Light.” In a bit of synchronicity for the setlist, the band encored with “Peaches en Regalia.” The bass player on that classic Frank Zappa track? None other than Shuggie Otis.
While many of the cover debuts from Baker’s Dozen have yet to be played again by the band or may never be, "Strawberry Letter #23" is not one of them. The following Fall, the band used the song as the show opener at the Hampton Coliseum on 10/19/18 and later teased the song during “Sand” in the second set. Trey’s affinity for the song was apparent when it got the nod once again in Camden, NJ during the Summer Tour of 2019 on 6/28/19.”Strawberry Letter 23” – 7/22/17, New York, NY. Video by LazyLightning55a
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