The Lettermen began performing in the late 1950s, had their first hit record in the early ’60s, and went on to have an amazing career that’s still going today.
The trio will be stopping by the McCallum Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 24.
Tony Butala is the only remaining original member of The Lettermen; the others, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann, sold their interests to Butala. Today, Butala is joined by Donovan Tea, who joined in 1984, and Bobby Poynton, who joined originally in 1989 and returned several years ago.
During a recent phone interview, Butala explained how The Lettermen worked to stand out in the pop scene.
“We didn’t take (success) lightly, and made sure we did something more in person than stand onstage and do hit records,” Butala said during a recent phone interview. “So many of the other acts at the time were not entertainers and were lucky to have a hit record or two. With The Lettermen, we started with three solo singers when I put this group together. We made sure each individual was a lead singer as well as a performer. So many groups had a lead singer and two or three guys in the background going, ‘Doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah.’ We never had that philosophy.”
The Letterman became popular thanks, in part, to popularity at colleges.
“When we had a hit in the early ’60s, we were wanted in the colleges,” Butala said. “We’d go around playing 150 colleges a year—the large universities on the weekends and smaller colleges on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays.
“When you work a lot, it’s like rehearsal. You’re learning what works and what doesn’t work. We found audience participation was the most important thing in our shows. People can always buy a record and hear how pretty you sound, but in person, we wanted the audience to leave with something intangible—that was the fact that they were being entertained.”
When The Lettermen went on to tour the world, Butala said the group had an advantage over other performers.
“When I was a kid, I was in a choir that sang in 17 different languages. We went around the world,” he said. “Capitol Records was an international record label, and instead of our records just being hits in the United States, our records were released around the world. Our popularity was romantic ballads; they were universal, because people fall in love in every language in every country. The Beatles were known for their British Invasion music; the Beach Boys are known for their surfing and hot-rod music; The Lettermen are known for our backseat music.
“When we received inquiries to go to different countries, I taught the other two guys at least one song in each language of the countries we were going to. They wanted us in their country because they played the Lettermen songs in English, but we’d do two or three songs in their language. We showed them we cared, and we tried harder to please them instead of looking down on them.”
Butala said being on Capitol Records was a great experience.
“When we signed to Capitol in 1960, they were just expanding, and they became the first international company,” he said. “Shortly after we signed to Capitol, they signed my friends the Beach Boys. Then shortly after, they signed the Beatles. We were the first ones in … (and were) three big recording acts that helped each other. If you’re a disc jockey in Des Moines, Iowa, playing a Lettermen record, when the Capitol promotions person went there a couple of months later, he’d say, ‘We have this new group called the Beach Boys, and if you play the Beach Boys, I’ll give you the first play of the next Lettermen hit.’ It was a big help and an exciting label to be on at the time.”
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is a big fan of the Lettermen, and the Lettermen style can be heard as an influence on many Beach Boys songs.
“He came to one of our sessions saying, ‘I want to sing just like you guys,’” Butala said. “Well, the great thing is he’s a genius, and he did some ballads after that, but he did them in a different way. There was no competition, and it was all camaraderie. It was a wonderful time.”
As pop music faded in popularity in favor of rock ’n’ roll, which itself began changing, The Lettermen tried to adapt with times. However, it proved to be too difficult, Butala said.
“People just never heard the stuff we tried, because it was commercially never played,” he said. “In the ’60s, when all the counterculture music was coming, the Lettermen actually recorded a song called ‘All the Gray Haired Men,’ and it was kind of a rebel song. It was putting down the people older than 30 in a way that was saying you can’t think old; you have to think young. We got about five air plays and sold 10 copies to our relatives. We learned by experiment: That wasn’t us. After that, we stuck to what we knew about and kept the romantic ballads coming.”
When I asked Butala if he was tired of touring, he scoffed at the question and said he had no gripes.
“We’ve performed at least 50 shows a year for 56 straight years,” he said. “We try to adapt our shows to the audience that we’re performing to.”
The Lettermen will perform at 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 24, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $28 to $68. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.