THE LETTERMEN BIOGRAPHY
The one change Tony
Butala, original founding member of The Lettermen, would have made in the
47-plus year career of one of the most popular vocal groups in history is a
surprising one. "We chose the wrong name!" he exclaims. "In the late 50's,
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're a new group in today's world and you want to get
noticed, you have to dye your hair purple, multi-pierce your face, ears and
tongue, and, even then you may not be different enough to get some
In the late 50's, most
vocal groups had school type names such as Danny & the Juniors, The Four
Freshmen and The Four Preps. They chose the name The Lettermen and wore
letter sweaters. By the time those names became passe in the early sixty’s,
The Lettermen had already had a few hits and were a tremendous success.
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, and fortunately, their fans have gotten past the name.
The Lettermen name first
appeared in February 1958 on the marquee of the Desert Inn Hotel Resort in
Las Vegas, where Butala, Mike Barnett and Talmadge Russell performed in the
record-shattering revue, "Newcomers of 1928," which starred Paul Whiteman,
silent film comic Buster Keaton, singers Rudy Vallee and Harry Richmond,
film star Fifi D'Orsay and the sneezing comedian Billy Gilbert.
Butala played the part of
Bing Crosby, who sang lead in the Rhythm Boys the vocal group that had hits
and toured in the 1920's with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra.
The vision for 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
and Mills Brothers, and the early R&B rock groups such as the Flamingos and
Butala began singing
professionally at age seven in Sharon, Pennsylvania and by the age of eight
on KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh, PA. Within a few years, he moved to Hollywood,
California to become a member of the famous Mitchell Boys Choir, who since
1932 had appeared in over one hundred motion pictures, scores of television
and radio shows, radio & television commercials, and world-wide concert
tours. While in the choir, he appeared in such classic films as White
Christmas, Peter Pan, War of the Worlds and On
In the mid-fifties, while
still in high school in Hollywood, 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 TV series, "Hawaiian Eye," and chose the stage
name Connie Stevens.
By 1960, The Lettermen -
now Butala, Jim Pike (whose falsetto pre-dated Frankie Valli and the Four
Seasons) and Bob Engemann
- were signed to Warner Brothers Records and released their first singles:
"Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" b/w "When" and "The Magic Sound" b/w "Two
Hearts." In 1961, Nic Venet, a new, young, creative A&R man with Capitol
Records who years earlier had written a few song with Butala, was played
these first records. Venet was impressed by their unique natural close
harmonic blend and, convinced that he could produce a hit record with them,
signed them to what turned out to be an over twenty-five year contract with
Their debut Capitol
single record in the summer of 1961, Capitol Records decided to put a ballad
on the B-side of "That's My Desire," their doo-wop single, figuring DJs
would have to play the A-side because the B-side was so slow, and did not
necessarily possess the commercial sound of the day.
That B-side was "The Way
You Look Tonight." Soft, melodic and romantic, it was a departure from the
rock 'n' roll of the day and listener requests made it a must for DJ play
lists nationwide. The song shot to No. 13 on the Billboard chart. The
group's second single that year did even better, "When I Fall In Love,"
another soft, slow ballad hit No. 7, establishing The Lettermen as the most
romantic singing groups of the sixties.
The next year, "Come Back
Silly Girl" reached No.17 and The Lettermen's debut album, A Song for
Young Love, hit the Top 10, their first of 32 straight Top 40 Albums.
Butala's breathy vocals
were the lead on most of The Lettermen many hit records, except "Theme From
A Summer Place". In almost every poll, The Lettermen were named Best New
Group or Best Vocal Group as two more albums followed in 1962 - Once Upon
A Time and Jim, Tony and Bob, the latter an effort to segue away
from The Lettermen name.
The '60's and early '70's
saw The Lettermen score over 25 chart hit singles, including "Theme From 'A
Summer Place" (No. 16, 1965, from the Sandra Dee/Troy Donahue film), "Goin'
Out of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (No. 7, 1968, the first hit
record ever to completely integrate two songs as one) and "Hurt So Bad (No.
Their signature sound
made romantic standards of songs such as "Smile," "Put Your Head On My
Shoulder," "Shangri-La," "Love" and on and on.
Among those 32
consecutive albums, which charted in the Top 100 in the United States, four
were certified gold: The Lettermen!!!...And "Live" (1967), Goin'
Out of My Head (1968), Best of The Lettermen (1969) and Hurt
So Bad (1970).
At the same time, The
Lettermen toured with George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Bill Cosby;
performed on bills with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Jerry
Lewis, Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, Debbie Reynolds, Sam Cooke, and Sammy
Davis, Jr.; appeared several times on television's "The Ed Sullivan Show,"
and were regulars on "The Red Skelton Show" and "The Hollywood Palace."
Butala estimates that the
group made some 200 appearances on television shows such as Dick Clark's
"American Bandstand" series, were interviewed and performed on talk shows
and variety shows with Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Jack Paar,
Milton Berle, Steve Allen Dinah Shore, and many others throughout the 60's
and 70's, cultivating new crops of fans.
The Lettermen have also
enjoyed international success touring Japan, Philippines, China, Thailand,
Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, France, South America, Canada, Mexico
and even Saudi Arabia.
They have sung and
recorded in over fourteen languages and have received eighteen gold records
clean-cut, no-drugs image may have been a drawback in the hard rock era but
The Lettermen stood by it. Says Butala, "I never thought people who did
drugs were hip".
Even as the British
Invasion dimmed American artist record sales in the 60's, television and
concert appearances sustained The Lettermen career. The group has been a
rarity that can perform from small college campuses to the posh Empire Room
at The Waldorf Astoria in New York City; from the Iowa State Fair to main
showrooms in Las Vegas, Nevada; from U.S.O. shows in the jungles of Thailand
and Combodia to elegant concert halls with the world's most renowned
"Our one rule," says
Butala, "is to never dress below the level of your audience. The Lettermen
stage wardrobe is comprised of denim jeans for outdoor festivals and fairs,
casual dress for colleges, tuxedos for hotels and glitzier garb for the
The Lettermen have also
appeared in most of the major sports arenas in the U.S. with their touching
a cappella rendition of the National Anthem. People Magazine honored
their version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by voting the group "one of the
best 'anthem-singing' groups in sports."
They have continually
recorded, averaging at least one album a year. They formed their own Alpha
Omega Records in 1979. Some of their newer CD albums, now numbering over
"The Lettermen – Why I Love Her", "The Lettermen – Live In The
and their newest holiday CD "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year".
Over its 47 years, the
trio has gone through a few personnel changes. Engemann left in 1967,
replaced by Gary Pike, Jim Pike's younger brother. A few years later, due to
vocal problems, Jim left the group and was replaced by his even younger
brother, Donny Pike. The group stayed stable, with this combination all
through the seventies and early eighties lead by the constant member Tony
Butala. Since then, Mark Preston, Ernie Pontiere, Bobby Poynton, Don
Campeau, and Chad Nichols have each had stints as members of The Lettermen.
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Donovan Tea joined The
Lettermen in1984 and his tenure of over twenty years has been the
longest other than
Butala's. Tea was born in Houston, Texas, and started singing
professionally at 17 when he won an international vocal competition in
Guilford, England. After touring Europe, he returned home to sing at the
Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Master Chorale. At eighteen, he became a lead
singer for The Young Americans, opening for the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr.,
Rich Little and Tony Bennett, and performed for then President Gerald Ford
in Washington, D.C.
While with The Young
Americans, he guest-starred on NBC's holiday special "Merry Christmas, Fred,
From The Crosbys," performing a tap dance with Fred Astaire and singing
backup for Bing Crosby on "White Christmas."
At 22, Tea became a solo
act performing in nightclubs and on cruise ships before he was featured in
two main showroom extravaganzas at The Dunes and Stardust hotels in Las
Vegas. It was during this time when he first crossed paths with The
Lettermen. He became a member of The Lettermen in the fall of 1984.
Donovan's most favorite
things in life are his wife Darla, his children Landry and Lawson, and
working his cattle ranch in North Central Tennessee.
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Mark Preston was born in
South Bend, Indiana, in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame. Even
though he is of Polish ancestry, was a Russian linguist in the
Air Force, married to a Croatian-American from Pennsylvania, he has
always been a most avid fan of the Notre Dame Football Fighting Irish.
Mark eventually moved to
Los Angeles, California, got a job singing at the prestigious nightclub "The
Horn" where he shared the bill with another vocalist Donovan Scott Tea.
They formed a friendship that continues to the present day.
After an appearance on
the "Dinah Shore Television Show", Mark was called to Las Vegas, Reno and
Lake Tahoe, where he worked as a featured soloist at many major showrooms.
Variety Magazine named him one of the finest entertainers in show business.
He did many shows with Phyllis Diller, and as an actor/singer, made several
appearances on the hit television series "Vegas$" as well as being the photo
double and stand-in for the show's star Robert Urich. He went on to do
guest appearances on several network specials. He co-hosted numerous weeks
on "Braun & Company", a syndicated variety show originating from Cincinnati,
Ohio. It was on this show that he met The Lettermen when they made a guest
appearance. Tony Butala was so impressed with Mark and his voice that he
mentioned if a vacancy should happen in The Lettermen, he would want Mark to
fill the vacancy. In a matter of one year a double vacancy occurred and
Mark, along with his best friend Donovan Tea, who he recommended to Tony,
joined The Lettermen for their first show on the same day - September 4,
1984. During his four year tenure with The Lettermen, he, Donovan and Tony
recorded a Christmas Video and album titled "It Feels Like Christmas", and
the "Why I Love Her" album.
Mark left The Lettermen
for a while to pursue a highly successful career as one of the all-time
major cruise ship star entertainment attractions.
He is now back with The
Lettermen - going full steam ahead. When not performing, Mark enjoys a good
game of golf, a cold beer, Notre Dame football and relaxing at his home in
Central Pennsylvania with his lovely wife Michelle.
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In 1998, after decades of
acting as an unofficial clearinghouse for information about vocal groups,
Butala fulfilled a long-held dream with the opening of the Vocal Group Hall
of Fame and Museum, in Sharon, Pennsylvania.
organization honors the greatest vocal groups of the world in all genres of
music: Rock, Doo-Wop, R & B; Blues; Gospel; Country; Folk; Big-Band; Jazz
and Pop. There are now over ninety vocal groups inducted into the Hall of
Fame, some of which are the Eagles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Peter, Paul &
Mary, Crosby, Stills & Nash, 5th Dimension, Association, Oak
Ridge Boys, Supremes and Earth, Wind & Fire.
There are over one
hundred vocal group memorabilia displays in the Hall of Fame and Museum.
Tony Butala is proud of
the fact that his group, The Lettermen, has been part of Americana for over
forty-seven years and that as long as there is a Lettermen group, they will
be singing good, quality, and positive harmony music that the whole family