Hit Harmonies

The older people get, the quicker those trips around the sun seem to come around. In almost no time at all, The Lettermen’s 60 years of music and memories have added up to a successful career that has sustained itself to the present day.
Through all of it, Tony Butala was at the helm, the one constant of the group throughout the decades, making sure those sweet sounds remained true to the philosophy established from the beginning.
The Lettermen didn’t succumb to the charms of rock and roll. Instead they continued to deliver their soft, romantic ballads with tight three-part harmonies in spite of the ever-changing musical landscape.
In 1967, after the Beatles had turned the music industry on its phonetic ear, The Lettermen once again went contrary to the trends by scoring their biggest hit…a two-song combo “mashup” of “Goin’ Out Of My Head” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” Other changes in line-up followed, and so did the hits, including a remake of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and their version of “Hurt So Bad.”
Over the years, The Lettermen recorded hit song after hit song, chalking up 32 straight Top 40 hit albums. They enjoyed phenomenal success in colleges, nightclubs, and on all of the popular television variety and talk shows of the day.
Right after their series of shows at the Riverside Resort last year, Butala announced his semi-retirement from the group. Because the show must go on, Donovan Tea, the second most tenured member in the history of the group, joined by another long-time member Bobby Poynton, welcomed the newest member, Rob Gulack several months ago. It is this lineup traveling to the Riverside Wednesday-Sunday, Feb. 26-March 1.
While it was a little strange not talking to Butala this trip, it was cool to have the opportunity to visit with Donovan Tea after all these years. Stepping into the shoes of his friend and fellow artist, is a bittersweet responsibility.
“We’re very lucky because we enjoy what we do,” he told the Laughlin entertainer. “My hope is I die with one more show on the books. My relationship with Tony has been like a marriage. We’ve known each other a long, long time, we get along and we work well together. We did a couple of shows in Wisconsin, where he lives, a few months ago and he actually came out, got up on stage with us, performed a couple of songs, waved and said good-bye. It was a lot of fun.
“He’s taken a step back because he can. He’s enjoying being in Wisconsin, he travels and sometimes he gets on a plane and comes to wherever we are, walks on stage and even surprises us,” he said. “We never know when he’s going to do that so it’s a little extra enticement.”
The professionalism of the group was established from the very start, so whenever members left, the goal was always the same — keeping the harmony in tact. That philosophy appealed to Tea.
“Basically the type of music they performed and recorded was the same kind I did when I was solo at the Dunes Hotel in Vegas in 1978. I was part of one of those big lavish shows, and I had a 15-minute spot,” Tea explained. “I was the only unknown to be on a main stage that didn’t have a hit record, but I was basically there so they could change the scenery. There were jugglers, ice skaters, animal trainers, and me.
“The great thing was The Lettermen were performing across the street at the Flamingo and came to see the 75 girls in my show, and saw me by mistake,” he said with a laugh. “I sang a good blend of the same kinds of songs they sang, they liked what they heard and I said if there’s an opening, call me. Little did I know, I’d be talking to you 36 years later.
“In addition to the type of music they did, I liked the phrasing of the words in the songs. They weren’t so much on the meter, The Lettermen phrased the song with three voices as one voice. It wouldn’t be on meter, or measure like a solo singer. That, to me, is what set them apart. I don’t know if that was their intention, but we still do it that way.
“Tony’s thing was that lots of groups had one lead singer and the rest of the guys were backup. He wanted three lead singers with the willingness to make sure they blended together to make that Lettermen sound.”
So no matter who was in the group, everyone was on the same musical page. Poynton has been on that same page for a very long time, too.
“Bobby Poynton has been with The Lettermen for 30 years, give or take, leaving for a time to raise his son and then returning to the group,” Tea said.
“When Tony talked about stepping aside, Bobby is very savvy about the Internet and came across possible people online,” Tea said. “One gentleman we are very lucky to have with us is Rob Gulack. This guy was raised in music — his dad has a band, so he’s toured all over the world doing all kinds of music, from the classics, to out and out rock. He fits in perfectly musically, in chord structure and he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. He’s a joy to be around.
“In all the combinations of Lettermen, it’s so important the chemistry of the different personalities work together. It’s not enough that the guys look and sound great, if they’re just not easy to be around,” he added. “It is like a marriage, especially when you’re spending time in important situations, there has to be give and take, and they have to have a good personality and a good heart. Bobby and I are lucky, all of those things are in this guy. If you come to see him, you won’t be disappointed.”
The Lettermen are all about vocal harmony, but each member of the group gets his own moment in the sun.
“One of the nice things we’ve always done are solos and not just on albums, but we did that all through the years at the shows and we still continue that tradition,” Tea explained. “It’s not just good for the singers to get their own time in the shows, it’s also good for the audience. Group song after group song after group song would be ad nauseam so we’re giving their ears a chance to rest in between songs. It’s nice pacing, and people don’t get bored. We pride ourselves in giving people the kind of show we like to see.
“If an artist just stands there and sings one song after the next, people could stay home and listen to the record,” he said. “We want people to get to know us. We do have fun banter, we bring people on stage, we do the whole song, we go out into the audience and take pictures. Where some shows are ‘no cameras,’ we’re just the opposite. There’s no reason for us to be on a pedestal. We love what we do, but we know we wouldn’t be where we are without the people who come to our shows.”
The fact that The Lettermen didn’t compromise or change musical horses speaks volumes about their ridiculous longevity, considering the fads that come and go. Not too many groups are still at it 60 years later. So what is their secret?
“Love never goes out of style so we stand by our love songs,” he said. “There might be people who have been listening to our songs for years and younger people who didn’t know us at all, but our music is still applicable.
“Also a lot of entertainers are great recording artists, but they were not comfortable in front of people,” he added. “We make people laugh, make them cry, make them think and when they leave they have the feeling they had a great time. We work hard to see the audience gets all that.”
The Lettermen’s most recent album is the fan-inspired By Request.
“Over the years The Lettermen recorded 850 songs, so besides the hits, people have their album favorites and at every show someone will ask ‘why didn’t you do ‘Unchained Melody,’ or ‘Mr. Lonely?’ We only have so many spots in the show and we’re going to leave out someone’s favorite. So we did this fan mailer we sent out asking fans to tell us their favorites. We came up with eight to 10 of their favorites and put them on the CD and the next time we’ll put another eight to 10 songs, different songs as our effort to show we care. If people are at the show and have a favorite song they’d like to hear, send a note back and we’ll try to sing the songs they want to hear. We won’t make everybody happy, it’s impossible, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try.”
Tea is quick to point out the guys don’t do it alone.
“We’re very lucky because this isn’t about three guys who sing,” he said. “It starts in the office with people working for us, and behind us, before we show up. We have a sound and light guy who’s worked for everyone in the business, two band guys who are able to give us a live feel and sound of a full orchestra, and we still sing live.
“All we have to do is walk on stage because we have great people who keep the ball rolling for us,” he added. “The crew at the Riverside is a crack team, from the spotlight guys to everyone who helps us. I credit Don Laughlin and we always look forward to coming there.
“Right before we get to Laughlin we’re getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Tony — the energizer bunny — who will outlive us all, will be there with us to accept the award along with a few ex-Lettermen. I hear we’re next to James Arness, which I think is cool — it’s one cowboy next to another cowboy (Tea is a team roper in his spare time). So we’re coming to Laughlin with big smiles.”


THE LETTERMEN

Don’s Celebrity Theatre at the Riverside Resort

Wednesday-Sunday, Feb. 26-March 1 (7 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info