The Lettermen: Entertainers First

Andrew Kruse-Ross

andrew kruse-ross | the lettermen | feb. 2018

Many have wondered if their talents were strong enough to take them to Hollywood and a chance at stardom. For Tony Butala of The Lettermen, the answer was a resounding yes. In fact, from his first visit it seems Hollywood wasn't ready to let him go.

When Butala's mother was planning a trip to California to visit an ailing relative, it was suggested that she take her son along. Having already made a name for himself as a performer in his hometown of Sharon, Pennsylvania, it was hoped that while in Hollywood the right people might get a chance to hear him sing.

“Sure enough, my mom is out there visiting a sick cousin for a week and someone said that the Mitchell Boys Choir in Hollywood was having auditions," recalls Butala.

Butala, 11 years old at the time, got the part, but the good news may have been a little bittersweet for his mother. Expecting to return home to Pennsylvania, Butala's mother was left in a precarious situation. The Mitchell Boys Choir were regularly seen or heard on television and radio and as Butala explains, things with the group were moving fast.

“I got the part but we were supposed to go back [to Pennsylvania] four days later and I was doing a motion picture the very next day with the Mitchell Boys Choir."

Seeing the opportunity that her son had been given, Butala remained on the West Coast and his mother returned home without him.

“So my mother had to go home crying every mile of the way for 2,800 miles for leaving her little kid in Hollywood," says Butala.

Any sadness would be short-lived, however, within two years, Butala was doing so well, his entire family was able to move to California to join him. While in the boys choir, Butala would appear in films like “White Christmas" and “War of the Worlds" and lend his voice as one of the lost boys in Walt Disney's animated film “Peter Pan."

It was during this time and while singing at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, that he became entwined with many celebrity personas.

“That was the church that all the celebrities went to," says Butala.

As a choirboy at Good Shepherd he was invited to sing at family gatherings in the home of Bing Crosby and developed friendships with Crosby's sons Gary and Dennis — even singing at their mother's funeral in 1952.

With his voice maturing with age, his time with the choir came to an end and he formed a vocal group with friends in the mid-'50s. In 1958, Butala, Mike Barnett and Talmadge Russell, calling themselves The Lettermen, performed in the revue “Newcomers of 1928" in Las Vegas alongside legendary big band leader Paul Whiteman. The revue also featured Buster Keaton and Rudy Vallee among others. In that revue, Butala played the part of Bing Crosby, who had sung in the “Rhythm Boys" — the vocal group that toured with Whiteman's orchestra in the 1920s.

By 1960, The Lettermen lineup included Butala, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann. After a brief stint with Warner Brothers Records that produced no hits, the group signed to Capitol Records in 1961. Their first record for Capitol was a single that featured the doo-wop song “That's My Desire" as the A-side and the slow, “sugary" love song “The Way You Look Tonight" on the reverse.

The inclusion of “The Way You Look Tonight" was by design. As it was a slow, romantic ballad and a great departure from the songs receiving radio airplay at the time, it was included on the record to force disc jockeys to play the A-side, which Capitol believed to have been the direction The Lettermen would most readily find success, but that's not what happened.

Initially, the single made some progress up the charts before stalling mid-table. According to Butala, it was a disc jockey in Detroit, Mich., who having recognized the B-side as the song from the 1936 film “Swing Time" that starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, decided to flip the record over and play it for his listeners. Calls soon began to pour in to radio stations requesting the song, which peaked at No. 13 on the charts.

“Back then each major disc jokey in each market could choose what he wanted to play," says Butala. “Thank goodness! It typed us as a different type of act, a romantic ballad singing group instead of another rock 'n' roll group that did little ditties."

With romantic songs and airy harmonies, The Lettermen had found their sound and, with The Lettermen, Capitol Records had found another musical niche to harness.

“We were a unique talent," says Butala. “In the early-'60s Capitol Records had us, The Beach Boys and The Beatles all signed and making hit records … We used to say that The Beatles sang British Invasion music, The Beach Boys sang surf and hot rod music, but The Lettermen, we sing backseat music … We produced more babies than any other group in the world."

The backseat music of The Lettermen made hit standards of songs like “Put Your Head on My Shoulder," “Shangri-La," “Hurt So Bad," “Love" and many others. The group produced 32 consecutive recordings that charted in the Top 100 — four of which are gold certified.

Internationally, the group's recording history is no less impressive. Recorded in 14 foreign languages The Lettermen are recipients of 18 international gold records. Despite so much success as recording artists, that isn't a label The Lettermen prefer.

“What we've been from the very beginning is entertainers that just happen to have had hit records," says Butala.

Indeed, while The Lettermen lineup has seen some changes over the years, Butala insists the group was never the product of incorporating friends into the lineup to support one talented lead singer but instead was comprised of three lead singers capable of “taking the lead and carrying the show" on their own.

Today The Lettermen are Tony Butala, former member of The Young Americans Donovan Tea (who joined in 1984) and “Days of Our Lives" actor and tenor Bobby Poynton (who joined in 1988).

Butala points out the differences between what he calls a show and a concert. For Butala, a show is maybe 90 minutes of material, a concert, on the other hand, is an “immersive" two and a half hours of entertainment. The latter is what audiences should expect when The Lettermen take the stage at Green Bay's Meyer Theatre on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14.

“This is how The Lettermen have done it for 56 years," says Butala. “We're not one of those rock groups with 20 minutes of hits and have to be put on the bill with three or four other acts … We're an entertainment package."

Fan interaction is part of that package and an ingredient in The Lettermen's success. When the music has come to a close, concertgoers will find The Lettermen in the lobby signing autographs and posing for photographs.

“We are the ones that leave the auditoriums with the janitors," says Butala. “After every show we've ever done we're in the lobby at the autograph table signing autographs for people … We don't treat people as fans, we treat them as friends."

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