The one change Tony Butala, original founding member of The Lettermen, would have made in the 45-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're a new group in today's world and you want to get noticed, you have to dye your hair purple, multi-pierce your face, ears and tongue, and, even then you may not be different enough to get some 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. They chose the name The Lettermen and wore letter sweaters. By the time those names became passe in the early sixties, The Lettermen had already had a few hits and were a tremendous success. 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, and fortunately, their fans have gotten past the name. The Lettermen name first appeared in February 1958 on the marquee of the Desert Inn Hotel Resort in Las Vegas, where Butala, Mike Barnett and Talmadge Russell performed in the record-shattering revue, "Newcomers of 1928," which starred 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 for 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 and Mills Brothers, and the early R&B rock groups such as the Flamingos and the Platters.
Butala began singing professionally at age seven in Sharon, Pennsylvania and by the age of eight 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, Peter Pan, War of the Worlds and On Moonlight Bay.
In the mid-fifties, while still in high school in Hollywood, Butala formed The Fourmost, a vocal group of three 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 chose the stage name Connie Stevens.
By 1960, The Lettermen - now Butala, Jim Pike (whose falsetto pre-dated Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) 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 song 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, signed them to what turned out to be an over twenty-five year contract with Capitol Records.
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 DJs would have to play the A-side because the B-side was so slow, and did not necessarily possess 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 groups 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" 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.; appeared 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, 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, 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 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 Combodia to elegant concert halls with the world's most renown symphony orchestras.
"Our one rule," says Butala, "is to never dress below the level of your audience. The Lettermen stage wardrobe is comprised of denim 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 70, are: "The Lettermen At The Movies", "The Lettermen - The Solos", and their newest holiday CD "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year".
Over its 45 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 lead by the constant member Tony Butala. Since then, Mark Preston, Ernie Pontiere, Bobby Poynton, Don Campeau, and Chad Nichols have each had stints as members of The Lettermen.
Donovan Tea joined The Lettermen in1984 and his tenure of over twenty years has been the longest other than Butala's. 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, opening for the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr., Rich Little and Tony Bennett, and 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 with Fred Astaire and singing backup for Bing Crosby on "White Christmas."
At 22, Tea became a solo act performing in nightclubs and on cruise ships before he was featured in two main showroom extravaganzas at The Dunes and Stardust hotels in Las Vegas. It was during this time when he first crossed paths with The Lettermen. He became a member of The Lettermen in the fall of 1984.
Donovan's three most favorite things in life are his wife Darla, his daughter Landry, and working his cattle ranch in North Central Tennessee.
Mark Preston was born in South Bend, Indiana, in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame. Even though he is of Polish ancestry, was a Russian linguist in the Air Force, married to a Croatian-American from Pennsylvania, he has always been a most avid fan of the Notre Dame Football Fighting Irish.
Mark eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, got a job singing at the prestigious nightclub "The Horn" where he shared the bill with another vocalist Donovan Scott Tea. They formed a friendship that continues to the present day.
After an appearance on the "Dinah Shore Television Show", Mark was called to Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe, where he worked as a featured soloist at many major showrooms. Variety Magazine named him one of the finest entertainers in show business. He did many shows with Phyllis Diller, and as an actor/singer, made several appearances on the hit television series "Vegas$" as well as being the photo double and stand-in for the show's star Robert Urich. He went on to do guest appearances on several network specials. He co-hosted numerous weeks on "Braun & Company", a syndicated variety show originating from Cincinnati, Ohio. It was on this show that he met The Lettermen when they made a guest appearance. Tony Butala was so impressed with Mark and his voice that he mentioned if a vacancy should happen in The Lettermen, he would want Mark to fill the vacancy. In a matter of one year a double vacancy occurred and Mark, along with his best friend Donovan Tea, who he recommended to Tony, joined The Lettermen for their first show on the same day - September 4, 1984. During his four year tenure with The Lettermen, he, Donovan and Tony recorded a Christmas Video and album titled "It Feels Like Christmas", and the "Why I Love Her" album.
Mark left The Lettermen for a while to pursue a highly successful career as one of the all-time major cruise ship star entertainment attractions.
He is now back with The Lettermen - going full steam ahead. When not performing, Mark enjoys a good game of golf, a cold beer, Notre Dame football and relaxing at his home in Central Pennsylvania with his lovely wife Michelle.
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 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 ninety vocal groups inducted into the Hall of Fame, some of which are the Eagles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Peter, Paul & Mary, Crosby, Stills & Nash, 5th Dimension, Association, Oak Ridge Boys, Supremes and Earth, Wind & Fire.
There are over one hundred vocal group memorabilia displays in the Hall of Fame and Museum.
Tony Butala is proud of the fact that his group, The Lettermen, has been part of Americana for over forty-five 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.