When Tony Butala, Mike Barnett and Talmadge Russell first got together, they created a few sweet sounds for a hit revue that played Vegas in 1958. They were running counter to what was “trending” in music at the time. Everything was about this new music called rock and roll but, undeterred, they decided to deliver their soft, romantic ballads with harmonies reminiscent of the ’40s. They found an accepting audience in that kernel of music, and that trio became The Lettermen.
Three years later, in 1961, they became more than a Vegas act and gained national exposure with a hit song in “The Way You Look Tonight.” While rock groups were emerging and changing the times with new looks, sounds and songs about social issues of the day, The Lettermen continued to deliver their love songs in a format that was unyielding and enduring. They enjoyed success throughout the mid-’60s with romantic ballads and love songs, all wrapped around hushed tones and intricate three-part harmonies.
In 1967, after the Beatles had turned the music industry on its phonetic ear, The Lettermen (with a new line-up but still with Butala in charge) once again went contrary to the trends by scoring their biggest hit...a two-song combo “mashup” of “Goin’ Out Of My Head” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” Other changes in line-up followed, and so did the hits, including a remake of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and their version of “Hurt So Bad.”
Over the years, The Lettermen recorded hit song after hit song, chalking up 32 straight Top 40 hit albums. In addition, they enjoyed phenomenal success in colleges and nightclubs, appeared on all of the popular variety television shows of the day, like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and countless talk shows.
Butala’s breathy vocals are the glue that has held this group together for more than 50 years.
They toured with George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Bill Cosby, performed on bills with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Debbie Reynolds, Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr.
Today, Butala is the only remaining original member of the group and is joined by longtime member Donovan Tea and Bobby Poynton.
The fact that these guys have been a fixture on the entertainment scene since inception and continue to perform for packed houses all across the country, with limited television and radio exposure, speaks volumes about their ability to hold an audience in the palm of their hand. They are, first and foremost, entertainers, never forgetting the reason they’re together, to give people the best show possible — treating each show as if it were their last.
The Lettermen return to the Riverside Resort for a series of shows Wednesday-Sunday, March 27-31 in Don’s Celebrity Theatre.
We caught up with Butala via a phone interview to find out what the guys have been up to lately. Turns out there’s a new album out and they’re celebrating even more years together. Here’s his take...
Congratulations on celebrating more than 50 years of making music.
It’s 56 years from the time we first recorded. We’ve been very fortunate. A couple reasons for that longevity is because we sing love ballads. We’ve recorded 800 songs, and 95 percent of them have been romantic love ballads, and I don’t think love ever goes out of style.
You guys have a new CD out, “By Request.” Is that to celebrate the 56 years of music?
In a way, yeah. We just have some stalwart fans that come to every one of our shows. We have several thousand people that are members of our kind of fan club — we don’t call it a fan club — but a friends club because we don’t believe in the idea of looking down at a fanatical fan. We consider them all friends, but we got this idea when they suggested, “Why don’t you do such and such song,” or “why don’t you record such and such song.” Even though we recorded 800 songs so far, we haven’t recorded 1,000. So this idea was to try to record a cross-section of what the stalwart fans would most like. It’s an attempt to honor their request, “by request.”
Of all the accolades, accomplishments and awards The Lettermen have achieved, is there one that means the most to you?
One of the biggest things, it’s not really an award per se, we did “The Ed Sullivan Show” three times — in the early ’60s, late ‘60s and early ’70s. Being on his show and having him be a big fan — considering all the artists he had on his show — and to sincerely look at us in the eye off camera and say, “You know, I’ve met a lot of people, but I’ve gotten to know you through your music and your personalities.” He was a Catholic man, and a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, and my dad was a Knights of Columbus head, in Sharon, Pennsylvania. So we’d start talking, just a few minutes the first time, then he brought it back up a second time, he was a big close-knit family man and a professional Catholic, as I am, so we had a lot in common. And to be friends with Ed Sullivan was one of the highlights.
It’s also a compliment to still be touring and performing for packed houses, without support of radio or hit songs on the charts. A lot of artists these days are finding it difficult to do that, too. Are you glad you guys came along when you did? Or would you want to be a group trying to make it these days?
That’s a loaded question because I have a great answer that may sound egotistical. There is such a thing as recording artists. Now a kid makes a record in his basement or on his computer, puts it out there and it becomes a big, big, big, big hit. He becomes a hit recording artist. That does not make him an entertainer. The difference that I like to preach to people and impress upon media to make sure they understand that — The Lettermen are entertainers and we also happen to have hit records. When I put this group together back in 1958, I looked for the best-looking guys I could find, and the most talented guys I could find and the first Lettermen were all soloists, not with just one lead singer. So many times people see a group — there will be one lead singer and he’ll say, “Hey Joe, will you join my group and sing bass? Hey Sam, will you join my group and sing tenor? Hey Jack, will you join my group and sing baritone?” So many groups start that way with one good-looking beat guy and two or three guys in the background going “doo wah doo wah doo wah. The Lettermen concept has been different, I looked for the best individual soloists I could find. So when I filled this group, it was a totally different concept than most groups. I was a lounge singer and I was in the Mitchell Boys Choir when I was a kid and did a lot of motion picture work and television shows in Hollywood. I’ve been singing professionally since I was 7 years old. I used to have an act at 7, 8, 9, 10 years of age, and I was an apprentice before I became the professor. I paid my dues.
After all these years, if you could change the name of the group what would you change it to? In past conversations, you mentioned that possibility.
I was really close to changing it when we moved to Capitol Records in ’63 or ‘64, when that really big campaign about smoking being bad for you came out first time around. It was a big deal, and in every column and magazine and newspaper, people were writing dissertations about the values of smoking. At that time in the ’60s, I was thinking, “you know, I’m going to take advantage of this — everybody was talking about smoking. I’m going to change our name to the Three Ashtrays.” (He laughs) Sure, think about it, we would have gotten more press than “The Lettermen.” What’s in a name if you put out a quality product? General Motors puts out the Chrysler. I think it’s same thing when you put out 76 albums of beautiful love ballads that were done well and in tune. If we had been the Ashtrays and not the Lettermen, it would be just the same, the reputation would be that of beautiful ballad singers. We would have gotten much more press at that time.
Your thoughts on a capella groups like Pentatonix and Home Free bringing that harmony genre back to life?
They are fantastic. I’m so happy when I hear these groups coming out and people appreciating them. It’s great that people are appreciating harmonies again and in-tune singing again. They make me really proud, I saw Pentatonix on a local TV show a couple of years ago when they first started. The guy asked them “who are your influences” and one of the members said, “one of our biggest influences were The Lettermen.” I’m very proud of that.
Are there contemporary songs you would like to record?
I’ve got lists and lists and lists. There’s always a good source for songs from Broadway shows to motion picture themes. I have a lot of ideas for recording some contemporary tunes and “Lettermen-izing” them — in tune with a little slower ballad beat, and then with some good harmonies. I don’t want to copy cat it, I want to add upon a songwriter’s ability and give it a different dimension. One of my pet peeves is when people say, “you guys are cover artists.” Well, they don’t know what a cover artist is. In the earlier days of the recording business, songs were pitched in a different way. Song publishers would have what they would call “song pluggers,” who would maybe pitch a song to Tony Bennett who was recording for Columbia. Then he’d pitch the same song to Sinatra, who might be recording for Capitol. These multiple recorded songs became “standards,” and the old Billboard listings would first list the song and then the artists recording them under that, not the artist and then the song like it is today. Before Bob Dylan, singers sang and songwriters wrote. Stars of those days were singers and left the songwriting up to others.
That’s why we had such great material because we opened ourselves up to every songwriter out there, from Neil Diamond to Gershwin to Bernstein, and Irving Berlin. We’d do an album of 12 cuts and everyone of those cuts would be a gigantic smash standard, or new song we’d get from a motion picture, so our albums weren’t just one hit and 11 other duds that we wrote ourselves. We had 32 consecutive Billboard Top 40 albums. No one else has ever done that.