In addition to a history of unparalleled love songs from The Lettermen, here is another constant: Tony Butala, original and founding member.
Butala remained with the popular vocal group for its 50-plus year career. As the only founding member in the trio (Butala, Donovan Tea and Bobby Poynton), Butala, 73, said as long as there is a Lettermen group, they will be singing good, quality and positive harmony music that the whole family can enjoy.
How has the trio managed to keep the sound, the genre and popularity?
“Because I am the lead on most of the hit records,” he said candidly.
Butala was born in Sharon, Penn., and began singing professionally when he was seven.
By age eight, he was singing on KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh, Penn. Within a few years, he moved to Hollywood, Calif., to become a member of the famous Mitchell Boys Choir, who since 1932 appeared in more than 100 motion pictures, scores of television and radio shows, radio and television commercials and world-wide concert tours.
While in the choir, he appeared in such classic films as “White Christmas,” “War of the Worlds,” “On Moonlight Bay,” was the voice of one of the “Lost Boys” in the classic Walt Disney animated film “Peter Pan.” He was the singing voice of child actor Tommy Rettig in the Doctor Seuss script, Stanley Kramer production, “5000 Fingers of Doctor T.” released by Columbia Pictures.
“All of a sudden, there was a drastic tragedy,” Butala said. “My voice changed — no more cute little boy soprano.”
Then, a pivotal moment arrived.
In the mid-’50s, while attending Hollywood Professional High School, 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 (at the time) TV series.
“Concetta was cast as Cricket in ‘Hawaiian Eye,’” Butala said, “and used her stage name Connie
In February 1958, The Lettermen name first appeared 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 big band leader Paul Whiteman, silent film comic Buster Keaton, singers Rudy Vallee and Harry Richmond, film star Fifi D’Orsay and the sneezing comedian Billy Gilbert.
“I was 19,” Butala said. “It was spectacular — those guys were so great. People don’t realize how great Paul Whitehead was — he had more hit records when he was in his 30s than the Beatles.”
Butala played the role of Bing Crosby, who sang lead in the “Rhythm Boys” vocal group that had hits and toured in the 1920s with Whiteman’s orchestra.
“Bing was the newest kid on the block,” Butala said.
The vision of 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, Mills Brothers, Four Freshmen and the early R&B rock groups such as the Ink Spots, Flamingos and the Platters.
Their All-American, clean-cut, no-drugs image may have been a drawback in the hard rock era of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but The Lettermen stood by it.
“I never thought people who did drugs were hip,” said Butala
Even as the British Invasion dimmed American artist record sales in the ‘60s, television and concert appearances sustained The Lettermen career.
“One of our rules,” Butala said, “is to never dress below the level of your audience.”
The Lettermen stage wardrobe is comprised of denims and jeans for outdoor festivals and fairs, casual dress for colleges, tuxedos for hotels and glitzier garb for the casino showrooms.
The one change Butala 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 said. “In the late ‘50s, 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 ‘50s, most vocal groups had school type names such as Danny & the Juniors, The Four Freshmen and The Four Preps.
The Lettermen chose the name The Lettermen and wore letter sweaters.
By the time those names became passe in the early ‘60s, The Lettermen had already had a few hit singles and albums, and were a tremendous success in colleges and nightclubs.
“I chose the right name for the ‘50s,” Butala clarified.
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 in moth-balls, and fortunately, their fans and the general public have gotten past the sweaters, and the name and image for the last five decades definitely means The Lettermen.
And, occasionally, The Lettermen pull the sweaters out for a show.
No word yet on whether fans will see the sweaters when The Lettermen play in Newton Dec. 17 at The Newton-Conover Auditorium.
Why does the sound of The Lettermen continue to work?
“We are entertainers, not just recording artists,” Butala said.
Want to go?
What: “The Lettermen Christmas Show.
Dec. 17, 8 p.m.
Where: Newton-Conover Auditorium, located at 60 West Sixth Street in Newton.
Cost: Ticket prices range from $20-$35.
For information: Call N-CA office at 828-464-8100, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .