The Lettermen are known for their harmonious vocal arrangements of love songs they made popular during the 1960s and early ’70s. They scored more than 25 hit records during that time including “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “When I Fall in Love” and “Theme From a Summer Place.”

The Lettermen are known for their harmonious vocal arrangements of love songs they made popular during the 1960s and early ’70s. They scored more than 25 hit records during that time including “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “When I Fall in Love” and “Theme From a Summer Place.”


Although they have a large catalog of well-known songs, The Letterman have always placed greater emphasis on presenting an entertaining and well-rounded live show than just relying on their many hits.


Tony Butala has led the group since it first appeared in the late ’50s at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.


He says the group cemented their strong work ethic and entertainment philosophy while performing with the many great older acts they frequently appeared with back then.


“I think people that came up through vaudeville had a lot of respect for the business. They treated everyone (with respect). I never saw Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope or Red Skelton turn their back on an adoring fan who wanted an autograph. They were very congenial, wonderful gentlemen,” Butala said.


He thinks their dedication to connecting with their audiences has remained the key to their success, more so than their hit making ability.


“There’s no mystery about it. You’ve got to give people something more; you’ve got to give them that magical ingredient, so they walk out with something more than they came in with. It’s not just hurrying through your hits,” Butala said.


So, how do they do that?


“The Lettermen is not just one guy with the rest singing doo-wop in the background,” Butala said. “It is three guys who can sing, dance, do comedy and entertain a crowd. And that’s the difference between the Lettermen and 90 percent of the groups out there.


“The audience (and their reaction to you) is a reflection of what we do on stage. So, A: you show up (on time); B: you do the best show you can; and C: the audience applauds. Some acts want to change the alphabet. They want A, and they want C, and then maybe they will do B. It doesn’t work that way,” Butala said.


In the beginning, the three Lettermen were Butala, Bob Engemann and Jim Pike. They recorded 18 albums and had three hits, but after Engemann left, Pike’s brother’s Gary joined the group.


Kenny Rogers auditioned for the opening, but as Butala describes it, “I didn’t think his voice blended well, so he went on to be Kenny Rogers.”


And the new Lettermen lineup went on to score the bulk of The Lettermen’s hits.


Today, the 67-year-old Butala is joined on stage by Donovan Tea and Mark Preston. Tea, whom Butala calls “a great solo singer,” has been with the group since 1984. Preston, whom Butala says has a “fabulous voice,” is serving his second tour of duty with the group. He originally joined the same day as Tea, but later left to work on his solo career. He’s been back for three years.


“I’m very proud of this combination,” Butala said. “These are the best looking guys, the best soloists and best entertainers that we’ve had. I would challenge any act in show business to follow our show.”


He thinks that having such a strong line-up affords The Lettermen a lot of options for their live performances.


“We condense our hit records into less than 15 minutes of our show. The rest is dedicated to entertaining our audience. The people who come to hear the beautiful Lettermen records will get that, but they will also get comedy, (audience) interaction and solos. It’s structured like a Broadway show. It has peaks and valleys, ups and downs, and a climax. We’re like doctors who have more than one (instrument) in their bag. We can treat more illnesses than most acts.”


Butala is also the founder and chairman of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation.


The Lettermen were inducted in 2001 when eight past and present members of the group performed together at the ceremony.


In addition to honoring vocal music groups, the foundation is dedicated to the passage of the Truth in Music Law, which will help put a stop to imposter music groups presenting themselves as the real groups.


This has been a big problem for older groups such as The Drifters, The Coasters and The Platters.


“These imposter groups (and their promoters) are ripping off the public,” Butala said.


The law has already passed in Massachusetts and 18 other states. Butala and John Bauman, (“Bowser” from “Sha Na Na”), Truth In Music Committee chairman, have been working hard to win support for the law across the country. For more information, go to www.vocalgroup.org.


The Patriot Ledger