For more than 40 years, The Lettermen have brought their well-known harmony—whether singing acapella or backed by an entire symphony orchestra—to sold-out audiences around the world. The catalyst for their success for this entire period has been Tony Butala, who through the years has carefully crafted a group of artists with a pleasing sound recognized anywhere. The Lettermen have recorded 70 albums including nine gold albums and more than 20 charted singles.
Anthony F. (Tony) Butala, a native of Sharon, Pennsylvania, is the eighth of 11 children born to John, a Westinghouse laborer, and Mary Butala, a nurse, both first generation Croatian-Americans from Western Pennsylvania. The Butalas lived in a 135-year-old, five-room house and were so poor that Tony Butala slept in the same bed with his three brothers until he was ten years old. John Butala sang in the church choir and his wife played the organ. The Butala family, who did not own a car, would sit on the porch and harmonize.
After a series of successful singing performances in children’s reviews and appearing regularly on KDKA
Members include Mike Barrett, vocals; Tony Butala (born Anthony F. Butala on November 20, 1940, in Sharon, PA), vocals; Don Campeau, vocals; Harry Clewley, vocals; Doug Curran, vocals; Darren Dowler, vocals; Bob Engemann (born February 19, 1935 in Highland Park, IL; Education: Attended Brigham Young University), vocals; Chad Nichols, vocals; Donny Pike, vocals; Gary Pike, vocals; Jim Pike (born November 6, 1936 in St. Louis, MO; Education: Attended Brigham Young University), vocals; Ernie Pontiere, vocals; Bobby Poynton, vocals; Mark Preston, vocals; Talmadge Russell, vocals; David Saber, vocals; Donovan Scott Tea, vocals; Paul Walters, vocals.
Formed in 1958 in Los Angeles by Barrett who asked Butala and Russell to join his group since other members had dropped out. Barrett and Russell also dropped out and Butala acquired several other vocalists but it was not until Jim Pike and Engemann joined the newly organized Lettermen did their recordings become tremendously successful in 1961 on the Capitol label.
Awards: Eighteen gold album awards, Golden Globe Award, seven Grammy Award nominations; Best New Vocal Group, Billboard, 1962.
Addresses: Promotions —The Lettermen, Talent International Promotions, 1004 Eleventh St., McKees Rock, PA 15136; The Lettermen Society, 3860 S. Higuera Street, D-16, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.
radio in Pittsburgh, Tony Butala began to sing at local clubs—including the Knights of Columbus and Elks Clubs—while developing his singing and overall entertainment prowess. In the late 1940s, his mother received a telegram from a close cousin in Hawthorne, California, that indicated that both she and her husband were not well and asked that Mrs. Butala come to California to help with their five children. Mary Butala and her youngest son, Tony, boarded a train in Pittsburgh with a basket of fruit, homemade sandwiches, and just enough money to pay for the railroad ticket for their three-night, two-day journey to California. Although they intended to stay only a few weeks, Tony auditioned for the famous Mitchell Boys’ Choir in Los Angeles. The choir had been formed by Bob Mitchell in 1933, who had dedicated himself to providing the finest in boys choral groups. Tony was selected and remained in California while his mother returned home. Three days later he made his television debut on the Alan Young Show. He remained with the Mitchell Boys Choir and eventually became the assistant director when he became too old for the choir.
Butala was selected for a number of films and performed in White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, War of the Worlds with Gene Barry, Moonlight Bay with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae, and was the voice of one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. With his work on the Kellogg’s “Sugar Crisp and Krinkles” advertisements, he was one of the first to do color television commercials. Butala was also chosen as the singing voice for Tommy Rettig in the television series “Lassie” after hundreds of children had auditioned for the vocal part. In 1954, while Butala attended the Hollywood Performing School with classmates Bobby Driscoll, Connie Stevens, Brenda Lee and Jill St. John, they formed a quartet called The Fourmost that included Stevens.
In 1958, Mike Barnett approached Butala and Talmadge Russell to join his group, called The Lettermen, since the other members had dropped out. After that group disbanded, Butala formed a male trio in 1959, also calling it The Lettermen. The first successful incarnation of the group, it consisted of Butala, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann. Pike had been an exterminator in Los Angeles while Engemann, a former Los Angeles Dodger prospect, had recently returned from a missionary assignment with the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints. Engemann had been an outstanding baseball player and former high school teammate of Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale. He was recommended to Butala by Stevens because she felt his voice closely resembled Butala’s. Pike and Engemann had also attended Brigham Young University. The Lettermen began practicing in a garage on North Hatteras Street in North Hollywood, California. They drew on the influence of the ever-popular The Four Freshman, practicing their three-part harmony with songs like “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”
The Lettermen’s first recordings “The Magic Sound” and “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” in 1960 were on the Warner Brothers label but were not successful and their contract was not renewed. Before that they had also recorded as a back-up group for the famous cartoon voice Mel Blanc’s “Blymie Blymie Blymie.”
In 1961, Capitol Records had an elaborate stable of popular vocal groups including The Four Freshman, The Kingston Trio, and The Four Preps. Butala learned that an old friend, Nick Veney, had become the new A & R for Capitol and was looking for new talent. The Four Preps were in a contract dispute with Capitol and Veney asked The Lettermen to use The Four Preps’ recording time to produce their music, which included a young guitarist and future singing star, Glen Campbell. Venay was so impressed with the recordings that the first act he signed was The Lettermen. Their first single, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field’s “The Way You Look Tonight” did well on the pop charts; the follow-up recording of “When I Fall in Love” hit the top ten by the end of the year and went gold in 1962.
After recording several albums, The Lettermen came up with an idea for a concept album focusing on the summertime. They felt coming up with a list of summer songs would encourage teenagers to enjoy music that was tied into the beach or summertime. Butala had seen the 1960 motion picture A Summer Place with Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee and had heard Max Steiner’s film theme song. He composed some lyrics and sent them to the publisher of the melody, who quickly rejected them but in turn sent him a different set of lyrics. The song was recorded using the new lyrics and eventually won a Grammy Award. It became a major hit for The Lettermen in 1965.
In 1967, Engemann left the trio to work in Utah at the Mormon Church and was replaced by Gary Pike, brother of Jim Pike. By 1969, Jim Pike had developed vocal problems and was replaced by a temporary replacement, Doug Curran and later by returning Vietnam veteran, Donnie Pike, Jim’s other brother. Later that year, they were reviewing 30 sets of sheet music and came across “Going Out of My Head” which had been written by rock and roll composer Teddy Randazzo in 1963 for Little Anthony and the Imperials. It was combined with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, while they were performing before a Penn State audience. It is the first time that two songs were combined with one another where one was sung with a lead-in to the second and then back to the first again. It too became an instant hit for The Lettermen.
In 1969, they revived “Shangri-La,” a 1946 song written by Robert Maxwell, a harp soloist who had once been a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and Matty Malneck, a violinist who had played with Paul White-man’s Orchestra. For ten years Maxwell had played the melody as a concert piece without attracting any attention. But when former United States Army paratrooper Carl Sigman added lyrics in 1956, it became a hit song and theme song of Jackie Gleason’s television show as well as for The Lettermen.
By 1984 another change occurred when both Pike brothers were replaced with Donovan Scott Tea, a Houston, Texas-born singer, who had been the lead singer with The Young Americans. Tea had won an international vocal competition in Guilford, England, at only 17 years old. Besides Butala, Tea had the longest longevity with the group. Mark Preston had also been added but resigned to go solo and was replaced with Bobby Poynton.
Although a number of changes were made to the original three vocalists who formed The Lettermen, over the last four decades Butala has been the catalyst in keeping the group and their distinctive sound alive. The current lineup consists of Butala, Tea (who sings baritone) and Darren Dowler (who sings high tenor), who joined The Lettermen in the fall of 1995 and whose credits include a small first television role in 1984 on the soap As the World Turns, The Swamp Thing television series and various character roles on MTV. Dowler has also acted in professional theater and appeared on Broadway. The trademark of the current group is that they not only can sing together in splendid harmony but each of them is an outstanding solo vocalist.
In 1986 Butala acquired, planted and developed vineyards in California that feature Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Savignon Blanc varieties.
In addition, The Lettermen’s television credits include performances on the Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, and Dinah Shore shows. They were regulars on the Red Skelton show and toured with George Burns, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. They also appeared on the same bills with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Sam Cooke.
The Lettermen have performed before thousands of people all over the world including performances in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Canada, South America and Europe, where they enjoyed international appeal.
They are active in philanthropic work and whenever The Lettermen are in a locale for more than a couple of days, they visit nearby children’s hospitals. They have performed with the Osmond’s Miracle Children’s Network and on several occasions for the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon.
A Song for Young Love, Capitol, 1962.
Once Upon a Time, Capitol, 1962.
Jim, Tony and Bob, Capitol, 1962.
College Standards, Capitol, 1963.
The Lettermen in Concert (live), Capitol, 1963.
A Lettermen Kind of Love, Capitol, 1964.
The Lettermen Look at Love, Capitol, 1964.
She Cried, Capitol, 1964.
Portrait of My Love, Capitol, 1965.
You’ll Never Walk Alone, Capitol, 1965.
The Hit Sounds of the Lettermen, Capitol, 1965.
More Hit Sounds of the Lettermen, Capitol, 1966.
New Songs for Young Love, Capitol, 1966.
The Lettermen! And Live!, Capitol, 1967.
Warm, Capitol, 1967.
Spring!, Capitol, 1967.
Goin’ Out of My Head, Capitol, 1968.
Special Request, Capitol, 1968.
Put Your Head on My Shoulder, Capitol, 1968.
Have Dreamed, Capitol, 1969.
Hurt So Bad, Capitol, 1969.
Lettermen at the Waldorf, Capitol, 1969.
Traces/Memories, Capitol, 1970.
Reflections, Capitol, 1970.
Everything’s Good About You, Capitol, 1970.
Feelings, Capitol, 1971.
Love Book, Capitol, 1971.
Letterman 1, Capitol, 1972.
Alive Again, Naturally, Capitol, 1973.
When I Fall in Love, (Canada), 1989.
For Christmas This Year, Capitol, 1990.
Greatest Hits, 1992.
Capitol Collectors Series, 1992.
When I Fall in Love, 1992.
The Best of The Lettermen, 1993.
Why I Love Her, Alpha Omega, 1993.
Deck the Halls, Cema Special Markets, 1995.
The Lettermen Today, K-Tel, 1997.
Christmas with the Lettermen, Unison, 1997.
The Lettermen in Concert Encore, 1997.
Memories, The Very Best of the Lettermen, 1999.
Greatest Movie Hits, Gold Label, 2000.
Kaplan, Mike, Who’s Who in Show Business, Garland Publishing Inc., 1983.
Lax, Roger and Frederick Smith, The Great Song Thesaurus, Oxford Univ. Press, 1989.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie and Video Guide 1995, Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.
McAleer, David, The All Music Book of Hit Singles, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records, Osborne Publications, 1999.
Warner, Jay, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, Billboard Books, 1992.
“The Lettermen,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 11, 2000).
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Tony Butala on May 17, 2000.
—Francis D. McKinley