Always a Letterman

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First Posted: 3/18/2013

A mere minute on the phone with Tony Butala of famed singing trio The Lettermen would clue anyone in to why the founding member of the group has stuck with it since the 1950s: he loves it, and it’s obvious that talking about anything to do with the business gives him incredible joy.

“Oh, I can remember back in ’62, traveling in a station wagon, three musicians, the third seat down and our little PA system and set of drums all jammed in. Even though we had hit records at the time, that’s just how we traveled,” the singer said with a chuckle. “And then we moved on to a Dodge motor home, eventually a Greyhound bus. We mostly fly now. But that’s just to give you an idea of how much things have changed since this whole thing started.”

The industry, and the world itself, has certainly taken many twists and turns since the first time The Lettermen’s name appeared on the marquee of the Desert Inn Hotel Resort Showroom in Las Vegas in 1958, but it’s never slowed the group down.

For example, the Lettermen lineup itself has undergone several switches, though it has always stayed a trio. In ’58, Butala, Mike Barnett, and Talmadge Russell made up the initial trio, but since then, members Bob Engemann, Mark Preston, Ernie Pontiere, Darren Dowler, Don Campeau, Chad Nichols, and Jim Pike, as well as his younger brothers Gary and Donny, have all had stints in the group. Currently, Butala, Donovan Tea, and Bobby Poynton make up The Lettermen, a trio that Butala calls “the best and strongest group I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.”

So, why has Butala been the only one to stay constant the whole time? It’s simple.

“It was a dream of mine.”

Between the switch from big band sounds to raucous rock ‘n’ roll, the group found their signature sound.

“The concept I had was to have three lead singers that would also have the discipline to sing as a group as well,” Butala said. “This was very different from all the other groups that started out in the ’50s and ’60s who had one guy up front taking the lead while the others sang in the back. That’s what made it stronger than most groups; all three of us could carry the show.”

It’s a formula that’s worked. Since their inception, The Lettermen have churned out an album on an almost yearly basis and are the only group to have 32 consecutive hit albums on the Billboard Top 40 charts.

Aside from their musical talent, which has brought hits like “The Way You Look Tonight,” “When I Fall in Love,” and “Hurt So Bad,” among many others, The Lettermen have always kept up a reputation for what Butala calls being “very user-friendly.”

“We’ll stay two hours after the show and sign every autograph, even take pictures with people. That’s another thing that’s changed in this business, the way people do things. Some of the other guys come in and they’re so aloof. Not us.

“We look at it in an ‘ABC’ method. A: You get paid and show up. B: You work your buns off on stage. C: Your audience responds to that. Look, just because you’re a recording artist doesn’t mean you’re an entertainer. A lot of people today look at this as ‘ACB.’ They show up and want to get paid, then they want to hear the tremendous response, then maybe they’ll perform. It doesn’t work that way.

“We feel that audiences are affected by what we’re doing on stage, so if they become what some would call a ‘good audience,’ well, then we’ve done our job.”