The one change Tony Butala, original and founding member of
The Lettermen, would have made in the 50 plus year career of one of the most popular vocal groups in history is a surprising one. "We chose the wrong name!" he exclaims. "In the late 50’s, when you started a vocal group and wanted to stand out from the crowd, all you had to do was use a novel new name that would give your group a unique look and image." "If you are a new group in today’s world and want to get noticed, you have to dye your hair purple or pink, multi-pierce your face, ears and tongue, and even then you may not be different enough to get any notoriety."
In the late 50’s, most vocal groups had school type names such as Danny & the Juniors, The Four Freshmen and The Four Preps. The Lettermen chose the name The Lettermen and wore letter sweaters. By the time those names became passé in the early sixties, The Lettermen had already had a few hit singles and albums, and were a tremendous success in Colleges and nightclubs. Capitol Records, The Lettermen’s record label, was reluctant to try to market a new name as The Lettermen wanted, due to the fact that it was already an established world-wide name.
They did pack away the sweaters in moth-balls, and fortunately, their fans and the general public have gotten past the sweaters, and the name and image for the last five decades definitely means The Lettermen.
The Lettermen name first appeared in February 1958 on the marquee of the Desert Inn Hotel Resort Showroom in Las Vegas Nevada, where Butala, Mike Barnett and Talmadge Russell performed in the record-shattering revue, "Newcomers of 1928," which starred big band leader Paul Whiteman, silent film comic Buster Keaton, singers Rudy Vallee and Harry Richmond, film star Fifi D’Orsay and the sneezing comedian Billy Gilbert.
Butala played the part of Bing Crosby, who sang lead in the "Rhythm Boys", the vocal group that had hits and toured in the 1920’s with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra.
The vision of The Lettermen was of three very strong soloists who also had the ability and showmanship to perform and entertain an audience, but who also had the discipline needed to be group singers. The sound they came up with was a sound between the big band vocal groups such as the Modernaires, Pied Pipers, Mills Brothers, Four Freshmen and the early R&B rock groups such as the Ink Spots, Flamingos and the Platters.
Butala began singing professionally at age seven in Sharon, Pennsylvania and by the age of eight was singing on KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh, PA. Within a few years, he moved to Hollywood, California to become a member of the famous Mitchell Boys Choir, who since 1932 had appeared in over one hundred motion pictures, scores of television and radio shows, radio & television commercials, and world-wide concert tours. While in the choir, he appeared in such classic films as "White Christmas", "War of the Worlds", "On Moonlight Bay", was the voice of one of the "Lost Boys" in the classic Walt Disney animated film "Peter Pan". He was the singing voice of child actor Tommy Rettig in the Doctor Seuss script, Stanley Kramer production, "5000 Fingers of Doctor T", released by Columbia Pictures.
In the mid-fifties, while attending Hollywood Professional School, Butala formed The Fourmost, a vocal group of two ex-Mitchell Boy Choir friends and a female classmate, Concetta Ingolia. In a few years, after moderate local success, Concetta exited the group to be cast in a new TV series, "Hawaiian Eye", and used her stage name Connie Stevens.
By 1960, The Lettermen - now Butala, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann - were signed to Warner Brothers Records and released their first singles: "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" b/w "When" and "The Magic Sound" b/w "Two Hearts". In 1961, Nic Venet, a new, young, creative A&R man with Capitol Records who years earlier had written a few songs with Butala, was played these first records. Venet was impressed by their unique natural close harmonic blend and convinced that he could produce a hit record with them and signed them to what turned out to be an over twenty-five year contract with Capitol Records.
For their debut Capitol single record in the summer of 1961, Capitol Records decided to put a ballad on the B-side of "That’s My Desire", their doo-wop single, figuring DJ’s would have to play the A-side because the B-side was so sweet, and slow, and did not necessarily encompass the commercial sound of the day.
That B-side was "The Way You Look Tonight". Soft, melodic and romantic, it was a departure from the rock ’n’ roll of the day and listener requests made it a must for DJ play lists nationwide. The song shot to No. 13 on the Billboard chart. The group’s second single that year did even better, "When I Fall In Love", another soft, slow ballad hit No. 7, establishing The Lettermen as the most romantic singing group of the sixties.
The next year, "Come Back Silly Girl", reached No.17 and The Lettermen’s debut album, "A Song for Young Love", hit the Top 10, their first of 32 straight Top 40 Albums.
Butala’s breathy vocals were the lead on most of The Lettermen many hit records, except "Theme From A Summer Place". In almost every poll, The Lettermen were named Best New Group or Best Vocal Group as two more albums followed in 1962, "Once Upon A Time" and" Jim, Tony and Bob", the latter an effort to segue away from The Lettermen name.
The ’60’s and early ’70’s saw The Lettermen score over 25 chart hit singles, including "Theme From ’A Summer Place", (No. 16, 1965, from the Sandra Dee/Troy Donahue film) "Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You",(No. 7, 1968, the first hit record ever to completely integrate two songs as one) and "Hurt So Bad (No. 12, 1969).
Their signature sound made romantic standards of songs such as "Smile", "Put Your Head On My Shoulder", "Shangri-La", "Love", "Traces/Memories" and on and on.
Among those 32 consecutive albums, which charted in the Top 100 in the United States, four were certified gold:
"The Lettermen!!!...And "Live" (1967), "Goin’ Out of My Head" (1968), "Best of The Lettermen" (1969) and "Hurt So Bad"(1970).
At the same time, The Lettermen toured with George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Bill Cosby; performed on bills with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, Debbie Reynolds, Sam Cooke, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Apeared several times on television’s "The Ed Sullivan Show", and were regulars on "The Red Skelton Show" and "The Hollywood Palace".
Butala estimates that the group made some 200 appearances on television shows such as Dick Clark’s "American Bandstand" series, "Shindig", and "Hullabaloo" were interviewed and performed on talk shows and variety shows with Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Jack Paar, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Dinah Shore, and many others throughout the 60’s and 70’s, cultivating new crops of fans.
The Lettermen have also enjoyed international success touring Japan, The Philippines, China, Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, France, South America, Canada, Mexico and even Saudi Arabia.
They have sung and recorded in over fourteen languages and have received eighteen gold records internationally.
Their All-American, clean-cut, no-drugs image may have been a drawback in the hard rock era of the sixties and seventies, but The Lettermen stood by it. Says Butala, "I never thought people who did drugs were hip".
Even as the British Invasion dimmed American artist record sales in the 60’s, television and concert appearances sustained The Lettermen career. The group has been a rarity that can perform from small college campuses to the posh Empire Room at The Waldorf Astoria in New York City; from the Iowa State Fair to main showrooms in Las Vegas, Nevada; from U.S.O. shows in the jungles of Thailand and Cambodia to elegant concert halls with the world’s most renowned symphony orchestras.
"One of our rules", says Butala, "is to never dress below the level of your audience". The Lettermen stage wardrobe is comprised of denims and jeans for outdoor festivals and fairs, casual dress for colleges, tuxedos for hotels and glitzier garb for the casino showrooms.
The Lettermen have also appeared in most of the major sports arenas in the U.S. with their touching a cappella rendition of the "National Anthem". People Magazine honored their version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by voting the group "one of the best ’anthem-singing’ groups in sports".
They have continually recorded, averaging at least one album a year. They formed their own Alpha Omega Records in 1979. Some of their newer CD albums, now numbering over 75, are: "The Lettermen – Favorites", "The Lettermen – Best Of Broadway", "The Lettermen – Live In The Philippines", their holiday CD "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year", and their 2010 release "The Lettermen -- New Directions" .
Over its 50 years, the trio has gone through a few personnel changes. Engemann left in 1967, replaced by Gary Pike, Jim Pike’s younger brother. A few years later, due to vocal problems, Jim left the group and was replaced by his even younger brother, Donny Pike. The group stayed stable, with this combination all through the seventies and early eighties led by the constant member Tony Butala. Since then, Mark Preston, Ernie Pontiere, Bobby Poynton, Darren Dowler, Don Campeau, Chad Nichols and Donovan Tea, have each had stints as members of The Lettermen.
Donovan Tea was born in Houston, Texas and started singing professionally at 17 when he won an international vocal competition in Guilford, England. After touring Europe, he returned home to sing at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Master Chorale. At eighteen, he became a lead singer for The Young Americans, appearing in Las Vegas for the first time in 1973 opening for the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr., Rich Little and Tony Bennett, and also performed for then President Gerald Ford in Washington, D.C.
While with The Young Americans, he guest-starred on NBC’s holiday special "Merry Christmas, Fred, From The Crosbys," performing a tap dance number with Fred Astaire and singing backup for Bing Crosby on the song "White Christmas." In 1977 Donovan began performing as a soloist at the prestigious nightclub "The Horn" in Los Angeles, opening his career to nightclubs around the country and to performing in the cruise ship industry.
In late 1978, early 1979, Donovan eventually became a solo production singer at The Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas NV. in the revue "Casino De Paris". It was during his time there that he first met The Lettermen when they attended one of The Dunes shows. He then moved over to The Stardust Hotel as lead production singer in the revue "Lido De Paris" for about four years, until 1984, when he heard of the vacancy he now fills in The Lettermen. Donovan Tea has remained a continuous member of The Lettermen since he joined the group in September of 1984, making him the longest tenured Letterman next to Butala.Donovan’s most favorite things in life are his wife Darla, his children Landry and Lawson, and working his cattle ranch in North Central Tennessee
Shortly after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1980, Bobby Poynton decided to leave the security of his suburban Chicago home and head to Hollywood to seek his fame and fortune as an actor. With $500, a beat up sports car and his Dad’s gas credit card in hand, he began his journey to pursue his dream.Over the years the acting roles were there for the taking but the "fame and fortune" Bobby had sought proved to be elusive. Work on such shows as "Days of Our Lives", "Jake and the Fatman", "Life Goes On", "Scarecrow and Mrs. King", "The Sentinel", "Touched by an Angel", "Viper", "Promised Land" and "Walker: Texas Ranger" as well as numerous theatrical credits all served to keep the dream alive, but were never enough.In 1988, an opportunity came to him to audition for an "internationally known" recording group seeking an attractive male vocalist with a tenor voice, falsetto, and at least 6 feet tall. The tenor voice used to be there when he was in college, so he figured he would wear boots for the height and hope the room was dark enough for the rest. The result was an invitation to become the newest member of The Lettermen.Bobby recorded six albums with The Lettermen and performed in excess of one thousand (1000) concerts, Television and Radio shows around the world. In 1995 Bobby decided to leave the road for a while and put all his efforts into raising his family. In 2001, he once again began touring the country, this time as a member of the legends of doo-wop, The Diamonds, the group who originated the hit "Little Darlin". In 2002, the soundtrack for "The Adventures Of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina," an animated film, included Bobby’s duet with Jennifer Love Hewitt.In 2010, Bobby was delighted to be invited to take the stage for a night with the legendary group, The Vogues.
After more than thirty years in show business, Bobby has finally come to the realization that the "fame and fortune" he had so fervently sought was nowhere near as important or rewarding as the "fame" he had in his own family as a big brother or the "fortune of the heart" he receives daily from his wife Beth, son Robert V, and daughter Callie at their home in Illinois.Bobby considers his return to The Lettermen a true honor and looks forward to recreating the magic on stage and in the recording studio once again with Tony Butala and Donovan Tea
In 1998, after decades of acting as an unofficial clearinghouse for information about vocal groups, Butala fulfilled a long-held dream with the opening of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum, in his home town of Sharon, Pennsylvania.
The non-profit organization honors the greatest vocal groups of the world in all genres of music: Rock, Doo-Wop, R & B, Blues, Gospel, Country, Folk, Big-Band, Jazz and Pop. There are now over one hundred vocal groups inducted into the Hall of Fame, some of which are the Eagles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary, Alabama, Crosby, Stills & Nash, 5th Dimension, The Righteous Brothers, Association, Oak Ridge Boys, Supremes, Three Dog Night, Earth, Wind & Fire and many more. There are over one hundred and fifty vocal group memorabilia displays in the Hall of Fame and Museum. For more information on the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame and Museum see: www.VocalGroup.org Tony Butala is proud of the fact that his group, The Lettermen, has been part of Americana for Fifty years and that as long as there is a Lettermen group, they will be singing good, quality, and positive harmony music that the whole family can enjoy.