Tight Trio

Sweet, romantic ballads sung in perfect harmony remains the specialty of a group who has always been able to take a hit song and make it into their own success.

Tony Butala, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann signed with Capitol Records in 1961 as The Lettermen, and the wholesome pop trio was an instant hit. Their first single, “The Way You Look Tonight” charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and was followed by a string of other hits, including “When I Fall In Love,” “Theme From a Summer Place,” “Goin’ Out of My Head”/“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.”

The group has held strong through personnel changes over the past six decades with its special formula of finding three strong singers who can all take the lead and sing harmony.

Butala was the constant in the trio since its inception until his retirement in 2019. The current members include Donovan Tea, Bobby Poynton and Rob Gulack.

After Butala, Tea is the longest tenured member of the group, joining in 1984. He began performing at age 17 and had several special opportunities early on in his career, including singing for former presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, as well as dancing with Fred Astaire.

“That was great,” Tea said. “I was with a group called Young Americans and we got hired to be guest stars on Bing Crosby’s Christmas special, and that year it was called ‘Merry Christmas Fred, From the Crosbys with Fred Astaire.’ So not only was it an honor to work with Bing Crosby, but one of the numbers was to do a top hat and tails dance with Fred Astaire. Now having that wonderful credit on my resumé is really an insult to all the dancer friends I have in Las Vegas because I was a very average tap dancer, but we were just backing up Fred Astaire so it was pretty easy. It was a wonderful experience and he was a wonderful man.”

Tea found his way into the Las Vegas showrooms, opening for the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Rich Little, where he gained insight into life in show business.

“Everybody when they start out, they want to be a big star,” Tea said. “But early on in my career I had the opportunity to open for a lot of big stars. I realized by seeing their lives up close and backstage behind the scenes, that it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. It was wonderful, but the price you pay if you’re lucky enough to become a star, is huge.

“I remember this when I was in my early 20s, I said a little prayer, “God, don’t make me a star, but just let me be successful enough that I can work all my life.” And he answered that prayer. When you see a lot of people who have a hit record in their 20s and nobody remembers them in their 30s, I consider myself very lucky. Because even though I’m not a star, I get to go to places like the Riverside and I get to sing, which is what I love to do. I’m really the luckiest guy I know.”

That stroke of luck hit when The Lettermen approached him in Las Vegas to come join their show. The group’s arrangement was appealing to the young singer.

“Well, usually when you’re in a group, you get assigned a certain part — not only just musically, but also personality-wise in the group,” Tea said. “But in The Lettermen, it’s not that way. It was three lead singers, not just one lead singer and some other guys singing parts. So in a show and also in our recordings, if we’re doing our job right, you won’t know who’s doing what part in a song. We’re all capable of doing the melody and the high parts and we work together to make sure that Lettermen sound is lived up to.”

Tea has been with the group ever since, and The Lettermen’s popularity has not waned, which is a credit to their timeless talent.

“Show business is not known for its longevity,’ he said. “We’ve been very lucky. A lot of times great artists have a lot of hits, but when they stop having hits they stop getting bookings. The Lettermen, since the beginning with the originals, grew up knowing how to be entertainers on their own and when they got together they said, ‘Lets make sure that we have a show that not only lives up to the hit records we have, but maybe will outlive it.’ Now, of course the Lettermen name is known for the hit records, but the bookers book us because they know it’s a good show, it’s a clean show, people will laugh, and may cry a few tears of good memories, but we don’t just stand up there and sing our songs. We do the kind of show that we like to see — something that’s fun.”

Laughlin guests will get a chance to see their entertaining show firsthand when The Lettermen return to the Riverside Resort at 7 p.m. Jan. 19-23.

“I love the desert and Southern Nevada. It’s a beautiful place and I’m looking forward to coming back,” Tea said. “It’s a pleasure to work in a place like the Riverside. They treat us great and I think all of Don Laughlin’s patrons feel the same way.”

Just before their last performance at the Riverside in 2020, The Lettermen were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Tea, Poynton, Gulack and Butala received the award and several other past members were present to share in the honor.

“As I mentioned in my acceptance speech that day, I believe that Bob Engemann and Jim Pike were there with us two, the other two original Lettermen,” Tea said. “I know they were there in spirit. We always will stand on the shoulders of the three men who had the original hits and we just try to make them proud.”

The current lineup is dedicated to preserving the sound and spirit of the original three. Bobby Poynton first joined the group in 1988, but decided to depart in 1995 to raise his family. When the opportunity came around again in 2011, Poynton decided it was the right time to get back with the group. When Butala went into retirement in 2019, a nationwide talent search produced the newest member, Gulack.

I’ve worked with a lot of combinations and with a group this tight, there’s no margin for error,” Tea said. “It’s kind of like a marriage, everybody has to be willing to give and take and work with the other two gentlemen. And I’m very fortunate to work with two guys who do just that. They have high standards for themselves and they’re good with the fans. The people you see on stage in Bobby and Rob are the people they really are. They love to sing, they love music, they love to do their best for the audience and it’s a privilege to work with them. Again, I’ve worked with many other combinations and although I think they were all good, I think this is one of the nicest ones, the nicest people I’ve ever worked with.”

While they stay true to the classic Lettermen songs, they are also working on a new album with some different tunes, in their signature style of course.

“COVID has given us a lot of time to reassess and think about new songs,” Tea said. “The Lettermen were always known for taking existing songs, usually big hits, and what Capitol Records came to call ‘Lettermenizing’ a song. It kept them current because they could take whatever song was hot on the charts at the time and redo it as a Lettermen song and it would be a hit all over again. We continue that today. We’re working on an album called ‘Icons.’ We’re going back to the original thing they did at Capitol — taking iconic songs by iconic recording artists and Lettermenizing them.

“We have done ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ from Elton John, we’re doing ‘Never Enough’ from ‘The Greatest Showman,’ and the arrangements that we have now for those two songs are not only perfect for us but we’re getting a great response in the show. I wasn’t sure how that was going to go over. You don’t know if the fans are just going to want to hear the old things or if they want to hear something new. It turns out they’re excited to hear both. It’s bringing in some newer people who wander into our showroom and they become followers and we’re grateful to have them with us.”

Tea said they will be playing a few of their new covers when they come to Laughlin, but guests will certainly get to hear all of their favorite classic Lettermen hits as well.

“We value the reputation of the Lettermen so much that we’re placing our feet carefully. There’s no room for a misstep,” he said. “We take a great deal of pride and feel a great deal of responsibility to our fans not to let them down in any way. We try to get that perfect balance if possible between new songs and old reliable standby hits of The Lettermen.”