Vocal group The Lettermen are one of the few acts that still perform today even after their contemporaries have either retired or died off. The Lettermen was formed by lead singer Tony Butala in the late 1950’s. The group underwent many changes until Brigham Young University students Jim Pike and Bob Engemann completed the lineup before the trio was up for recording songs. Their early singles were unsuccessful until the trio moved to Capitol Records. Their first single under the label was “The Way You Look Tonight” which proved to be a hit; the follow-up “When I Fall in Love” was successful as well. The Lettermen’s tight vocal harmonies and light melodies made them popular among adult contemporary fans. In the trio’s long career, the Lettermen have achieved sixteen top 10 singles and released several albums (including compilation editions) up to 2010’s The Lettermen: New Directions 2010. The group has also undergone personnel changes. Tony Butala has been with the group since he formed it and is the only original member remaining.
From Las Vegas to Miami and then to Los Angeles…
The initial Lettermen lineup emerged in late 1959 somewhere near Las Vegas, Nevada. It included the singer Tony Butala and other members Mike Barnett and Dick Stewart. Performing a kind of revue in Las Vegas, their series of shows became a success and they continued them in Miami Beach, Florida. By this time Butala was the remaining original member. He then met two Brigham Young University students Jim Pike and Bob Engemann who shared a mutual idea of a band whose each member sings as well as a soloist as they do in a group. The new Lettermen was formed in 1960 in Los Angeles, California.
The group was signed first to Warner Bros. Records, where they released records with little success. Then the Lettermen signed to Capitol Records in 1961 and released their first single on that label, “The Way You Look Tonight.” This time, the Lettermen achieved considerable chart success, with “The Way You Look Tonight” peaking at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #3 on the easy listening singles chart).
An easy-listening hit
Later in 1961 this vocal group released their second single “When I Fall In Love,” which gave them their first of their only two Top Ten hits, at #7.
“When I Fall In Love” was also the Lettermen’s one and only chart-topper, but on the easy listening singles chart. Speaking of easy listening singles chart, The Lettermen achieved many Top Ten hits there:
“Come Back Silly Girl,” (at #3; #17 pop)
“How Is Julie”? (at #16; #42 pop)
“Theme From A Summer Place” (at #2; #16 pop)
“Secretly” (at #8; #64 pop)
“I Only Have Eyes For You” (at #4; #72 pop)
“Chanson d’amour” (at #8)
“Volare” (at #17 pop)
“Our Winter Love” (at #16; #72 pop)
The medley “Goin Out Of My Head”/”Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (at #2; #7 pop), “Sherry Don’t Go” (at #9; #52 pop)
“Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (at #8; #17 pop)
“Hurt So Bad,” (at #2; #12 pop)
“Shangri-La” (at #8; #64 pop)
“Hang On Sloopy” (at #18; #18 pop)
“She Cried” (at #6; #73 pop)
“Everything Is Good About You” (at #6; #74 pop)
“Love” (at #8; #42 pop)
Still going strong
Since 1961, the Lettermen have performed at over 200 shows each year, and this still holds up to the present. The group, with their close, tight, three-way vocal harmonies , adorned by lush but light and easy musical arrangement won over many more adult listeners who were still bewildered and feeling left behind by the more current musical styles at that time.
The Lettermen have achieved a lot of awards and recognitions including eleven gold records and five Grammy Award nominations.
While their contemporaries have died off or retired, the Lettermen have been still active. As the years wore on, The Lettermen’s lineup continued to experience shifts, but still maintaining was their “code” of having capable soloists who can also do well in harmonizing groups. In 1976 Jim Pike left the group, followed by Gary Pike in 1981. Engemann died in in early 2013. Only Butala is the original member still active. The Lettermen is still very popular among the oldies circuit. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001.