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 you 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 chosen school type names such as Danny & the Juniors, The Four Freshmen and The Four Preps. Because of this trend we chose the name The Lettermen and wore letter sweaters. By the time those names started to become passé in the early sixties, The Lettermen had already had a few hit single records and albums, and had become a phenomenal 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 worldwide name.
The Lettermen did however, pack away the sweaters in mothballs, and fortunately, their fans and the general public had gotten past the sweaters, and the name and image of the group for the last five decades definitely has meant 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 the most popular big band leader of the 1920’s and 30s, 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.
For The Lettermen debut single record in the summer of 1961, Capitol Records decided to put a romantic ballad on the B-side of “That’s My Desire,” which was an attempt at a doo-wop single, figuring disc jockeys 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 music of the day and eventually listener requests made it a must for disc jockey 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.
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 appeared in most of the major sports arenas in the United States by singing 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.”
The Lettermen 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 one of their latest releases “The Lettermen — New Direction.”
During its over fifty-five year career, 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 lead singer Tony Butala. Since then, Donovan Tea, Bobby Poynton, Ernie Pontiere, Darren Dowler, Don Campeau, Chad Nichols and Mark Preston have each had stints as members of The Lettermen.