Just who are The Lettermen? That ’s not
an easy a simple question to answer!
They’re a vocal group, which has been performing and recording consistently for nearly 50 years, a group dubbed by Billboard Magazine as “The Greatest Romantic Vocal Group of All Time”, a member of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, a group that has sold more than 20 million recordings, performed live thousands of times, a group whose recording of the song “Love” was left by NASA astronauts in a time capsule on the moon, and yet the group has never had a single hit number 1 on the charts!
The Lettermen are three guys who sing romantic songs with incredible harmony, – but they haven’t always been the same three guys!
Editor’s Note: On March 31st, 2006, we at The Breeze were delighted to receive a note from four of The Lettermen, Jim, Gary and Donny Pike and Bob Engemann. They had seen our artist’s profile and offered to help clear up some of the discrepancies and misinformation about the group’s history. They generously have given us permission to quote from the e-mail, written by Gary Pike, and we have incorporated the details into our profile. Thank you, Gentlemen!
Where Do I Begin?
The story of The Lettermen will probably end with Tony Butala, one of the founding members and still a mainstay of the group today, so let’s start there.
Born Anthony Francis Butala, in Sharon, Pennsylvania in 1940, he was singing on the radio in Pittsburgh by the age of eight, and had become a member of the Mitchell Boys Choir, in Los Angeles, by the age of 11. Butala appeared as a member of the Choir in several movies, including White Christmas. He is one of the singing voice of one of the “Lost Boys” in the Disney version of Peter Pan and dubbed Tommy Rettig’s singing voice for The Five Thousand Fingers of Doctor T., a Dr. Seuss classic.
In high school, in Hollywood, Butala and three classmates, Jimmy Blaine, Art Westgate and lead singer Concetta Ingolia, formed a quartet that they called The Fourmost. They performed together for about three years, even recording the song “Give Me the Simple Life”, according to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame website, before Concetta took the stage name of Connie Stevens and became an actor.
What’s In a Name?
The Lettermen was a name belonging to a group that Butala was asked to join in 1958, but by the first rehearsal, the only Letterman left was Mike Barnett. Butala recruited a friend, Talmadge Russell, and the trio performed as The Lettermen at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, as part of a musical revue.
Barnett and Russell soon dropped out, to be replaced by Gary Clark and Jerry Paul. By the time the group made its first recording in 1958, Paul was out and Jimmy Blaine, of The Fourmost, was in. The recordings didn’t make much of a splash so Butala and Clark joined another group performing in Vegas.
Setting the Record Straight
Here’s where things
get were a little fuzzy. By most accounts, Pike and Engemann were friends from Brigham Young University in Utah and were looking for a third singer for their group when they heard Butala performing at a Los Angeles supper club. Since Butala had the name, the trio became The Lettermen. Then there is an article credited to Jay Warner, on the Vocal Group Hall of Fame website, saying that Connie Stevens was dating Engemann’s brother and that she is the one who brought him to Pike and Butala.
However, let’s now set the record straight – quoting from Gary Pike’s e-mail:
In the late fifties, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann knew each other in college and had come to the Los Angeles area looking for success in the record industry. They sang together in different combinations and as a duo.
Bob Engemann’s older brother Karl, at this time was a producer at the newly formed Warner Bros. record label and had signed Jim Pike to a record contract as a solo artist. They released a single which was not successful.
At this same time Jim and Bob were looking for another singer to form a group. Jim’s vision was to have a vocal group where each member was an excellent soloist as well as a good group singer and they were having a difficult time finding the right guy. Plus, Bob had to fill a National Guard obligation for a few months and so to kill some time and make a few bucks, Jim joined a Las Vegas lounge group called “Bill Norvis and the Upstarts”. (How’s that for a name?)
In this group Jim met Tony Butala and liked his blending voice plus he sang solos. Jim asked Tony if he would come join him and Bob to form a new group when the Bill Norvis gig was over. They did just that….
They started rehearsing and thinking of a name. Bob suggested “The Lettermen”, but Tony said he sang with a group a few years earlier for a short time called “The Lettermen” and the name belonged to Mike Barnett. They called Mike to see if the group was still together. He said he was no longer in the music business and that they could use it. Jim, Tony and Bob eventually registered the name in a 3 way partnership.
But What About the Connie-Connection?
Gary Pike tells us that it’s true, that Tony Butala and Connie Stevens did sing together in high school in “The Fourmosts” and that she did leave the group when she got the part of “Cricket” on the Warner Bros. TV series, Hawaiian Eye. However, Gary writes..:
Lettermen Jim And Bob were never part of The Fourmosts. Where all this can get confusing is back when The Lettermen were just getting started,… Connie Stevens was recording for Warner Bros., at the same time Karl Engemann (Bob’s record producing brother) was there, He (Karl) lined up a blind date between Letterman Bob and Connie Stevens. Bob says they talked about music of course but never connected Tony being with Connie’s old group (The Fourmosts) and (also with) The Lettermen. There was one date and they both went on with their careers. Years later at a function when all were present they discovered the coincidence.
Back to the Newly-Named Lettermen
Now the group needed a recording contract. They got one in short order. Jim Pike chose two songs, “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring” and “When”, Gary tells us. Jim did the vocal arrangements, put up the money to record the tunes and took them to Warner Brothers Records. “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” had some success in San Francisco and a few other towns, but Warner Brothers was not impressed.
Gary tells us:
By this time, Karl Engemann (Bob’s brother) had moved on to Capitol Records as V. Pres. of A&R. The guys were not happy with Warner Bros. new distribution dept. So Ji
m and Bob called Karl at Capitol and said ‘Are you interested?’ Karl set up a meeting with Nick Venet (who gets credit for signing The Lettermen and The Beachboys) and Nick said ‘Let’s do it.’ Karl called Warner Bros. and got them out of that contract. They recorded “That’s My Desire” and “The Way You Look Tonight”.
“That’s My Desire” was the “A” side, but Gary says that it died fast. Fortunately a disc jockey in Buffalo, New York, flipped the record and the “B” side, “The Way You Look Tonight” began to take off. Quoting Gary again:
Jim was the creative force behind The Lettermen and so for a follow up he wanted to do “When I Fall In Love” with the melody doubled on top with his falsetto. This is a little different than “The Way You Look Tonight” where the lead changed hands several times through the song, as did many other songs we recorded. That’s why it’s difficult to figure out who’s singing the melody in a lot of our songs because all three may do it at one point. Jim has the lead on “Summer Place” in falsetto and on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”, on the hit “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” medley. Jim also sings the hit “Love ” as a solo. So you can’t say any one guy is the lead singer of The Lettermen. We are all lead singers.
“The Way You Look Tonight” almost made Billboard’s Top Ten. The next single, “When I Fall in Love”, shot to number 7 and The Lettermen had clearly become “Kings of the Romantic Ballad”.
The next few years would see The Lettermen release some of their most popular tunes, including the medley of “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, “Hurt So Bad”, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” and “Shangri-La”. The group kept up a grueling schedule on the road, performing thousands of concerts, and hundreds of television shows.
Big Men on Campus
The Lettermen were a big hit on college campuses, as you might expect with that name, but Butala has said in interviews that he wasn’t sure that the name, The Lettermen, was the best choice for the group, fearing that it was dated by the early 60’s even as the group was enjoying it’s biggest success. And, indeed, one of their first few albums was released as Jim, Tony and Bob, to try to get away from the group’s name. But given the personnel changes that were to come, it would appear that The Lettermen was an excellent choice for the group. In fact, Butala described The Lettermen as a kind of fraternity, in an interview at the opening of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Hurt So Bad
In late 1967, Engemann left the group to be replaced by Gary, Jim’s younger brother and the bass player in The Lettermen backup band. Gary tells us “Bob was married with children and was tired of the road. He sold his interest in the group to Jim and Tony”.
A few years later, Jim developed vocal problems, so severe that he was told he would never recover and was not allowed to speak for a year. In 1974, he asked his youngest brother, Donny Pike, The Lettermen sound man, to take his place in the group. In 1976, Gary tells us, Jim Pike “contractually had to sell the group name to Tony Butala”.
Tony, Gary and Donny remained together as The Lettermen through 1981. Both Pike brothers left the group that year, Gary in February, Donny in December, but Butala added new members to the fraternity and The Lettermen kept performing, and recording.
The Lettermen Fraternity
Former Lettermen include Ralph “Chad” Nichols, Don Campeau, David “Red” Saber, Harrison Clewley, Mark Preston, Ernie Pontiere, Paul Walter, Bobby Poynton, Doug Curran, Michael Jackson. The current lineup of Donovan Scott Tea, Darren Dowler and Tony Butala has been together for ten years, but once again, for The Lettermen, the times are a changin’. Mark Preston
is returning has returned, Darren Dowler is departing at the end of this year left at the end of 2005.
Oh, Say Can You See…
The Lettermen have won praise for their acapella rendition of The Star Spangled Banner which they are frequently asked to perform at sporting events and other gatherings. People magazine considers them “one of the best ’anthem-singing’ groups in sports”.
Still on the Road
And you can expect the group to continue, recording about one album a year, having formed their own record company in 1979. And to continue touring! In fact, their official website calendar shows them booked into 2007!
Some of the most interesting facts about The Lettermen can be found on their official website TheLettermen.com. The discography is extensive and the site is kept up to date with their touring dates and an active fan guestbook/message board.
The Unauthorized Lettermen Home Page is another site that makes for good reading. Owner Pat Fullerton has put together a number of pages, lots of photos of the different lineups of the group and short biographies of many of the members. One of the most interesting is the personal memoir written by Donny Pike.
Jim Pike recovered from his vocal problems and formed other groups, reuniting, in 1980, with Bob Engemann and joined by Ric De Azevedo in a group they call The Reunion. Engemann left that group in 1999, for health reasons, to be replaced by Gary Pike, but The Reunion is still on the road. And Gary Pike writes “We would like to report that Bobby is doing much better.” Pat Fullerton’s website has additional information about The Reunion as well.
Another excellent site is the Vocal Group Hall of Fame official site. Butala is co-founder of the Hall, said to be long a dream of his. It’s located in his home town of Sharon, Pennsylvania.. about an hour east of Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More than 100 groups are represented in the Hall, in addition to The Lettermen.
Other sites worth visiting:
- Vocal Group Hall of Fame page on The Lettermen
- Article about the opening of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in the Sharon, Pennsylvania Herald
- Yahoo article on the Vocal Group Hall of Fame
- Another biography