Tony Butala might be 79, but he speaks with the same infectious enthusiasm with which he launched his musical career as the leader of the vocal group The Lettermen 60 years ago. That inherent joy shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. After all, it is that passion for great tunes and soaring melodies that has kept the trio going as the longest continuously active group in the rock and pop era.
With more than 10,000 sold-out shows and 18 gold albums to their credit, The Lettermen have proven able to adapt and stay popular through countless changes in the pop music landscape. And this Sunday, local fans can enjoy a fresh reminder of their mellifluous magic when they perform in concert at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
“The group started in 1958 in a Las Vegas revue called ‘Newcomers of 1928’ that paid tribute to great acts of 30 years before,” recalls Butala, speaking from his home in Sharon, Pennslyvania, where he founded and supervises the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. “Unlike a lot of groups where one good-looking guy asked his friends to join him, while the others just sang ‘Doo doo wah doo wah’ only behind him, the Lettermen were a real group with three equally strong lead singers. We could all take turns shining and that made us stand out from the pack.”
Butala began his show business career as a child actor, starting at age 7 and appearing in 25 movies by the end of his teens. Thus, he already had a savvy understanding of the way the entertainment industry worked and how important smart marketing was to launching a group, enabling him to just pick friends as his fellow group members rather than scouring the earth for talent.
In fact, Butala initially thought the vocal talents were so interchangeable that the group started switching members after its initial six-week run of shows in Las Vegas. The Lettermen’s debut album came out in 1960 on Warner Bros. Records, although the group’s recording contract shifted to Capitol records by 1961.
Their big break came when Capitol executives opted to put the ballad “The Way You Look Tonight” on the B-side of a rock-based single called “That’s My Desire.” The intention had been for the B-side to sound so unappealing in the rock music era that radio deejays would have no choice but to play “That’s My Desire,” but that plan quickly backfired.
“’Way’ was a slow, syrupy old Fred Astaire movie song from the 1930s, but a deejay in Detroit broke the mold and played it anyway,” laughs Butala. “His switchboard lit up and it became a hit there, so Capitol started telling stations around the country to flip the record and play that. That twist of fate helped us become a romantic singing group, rather than just another rock band.”
The Lettermen have managed to defy expectations ever since, surviving through the British Invasion, the 1970s classic rock era, 1980s and 1990s alternative rock, and on into today. They changed their images with the times, even “growing beards and Afros” in the 1970s, and managed to always remain in demand.
Butala also proudly notes that he has continuously updated the Lettermen’s repertoire to include at least a few contemporary songs, although they are usually Broadway show tunes. He and his performing partners Donovan Tea (who’s been in the group for 34 years), and Bobby Poynton (who’s been singing in the trio since 1988) also include plenty of informative and entertaining banter between songs and engage in extensive banter with audience members.
“We’ve always also learned how to do our basic announcements and sing at least a couple songs in about 20 different languages, and that’s kept us popular around the planet,” says Butala. “We play Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, Mexico and Saudi Arabia regularly, and our Alex Theatre show is being largely promoted to the Los Angeles Filipino community.”
The Lettermen became perennial favorites in the Philippines after the island nation’s former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda attended a performance by the singers at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1969. Their passionate response made waves with the nation’s citizenry.
Butala happily breaks down what he sees as the group’s enduring appeal.
“We never did drugs or swapped our wives … and keeping squeaky clean paid off with our kind of audience,” says Butala. “We wouldn’t still be here if there wasn’t an audience out there. Everyone tells 10 people who tell 10 people and so on. For 59 years, we’ve had standing ovations.”
The Lettermen perform at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets are $48 to $78. Call (818) 243-2539 or visit alextheatre.org.