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The Lettermen's close-harmony pop songs with light and easy arrangements made them quite a successful group with adult audiences during the 1960s, when changing styles and tastes made many older listeners feel just a bit left behind in the music world. Formed in 1960 by singer Tony Butala, along with two students from Brigham Young University, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann, the Lettermen recorded without success for about a year until they signed to Capitol Records. The group's first single for Capitol, "The Way You Look Tonight," did very well on the pop charts, and its follow-up, "When I Fall in Love," reached the Top Ten in late 1961. Though the group only reached that plateau one more time, with the 1968 medley "Goin' Out of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (the same year Jim's brother Gary Pike stepped in for Engemann), successful album sales to adult listeners and popular concert tours kept the group going long after many of their similar contemporaries had died off. Another Pike brother, Donny, replaced Jim in 1974, and the Lettermen formed their own Alfa Omega Records in 1979, sporadically releasing albums of new material even into the 1990s. Jim Pike and Bob Engemann later formed Reunion (with Ric de Azevedo), a group that released several albums for Collectables.
The Lettermen is an American male pop music vocal trio. The Lettermen's trademark is close-harmony pop songs with light arrangements. The group started in 1959. They have had 16 Top 10 singles including one #1, 32 consecutive Billboard Magazine chart albums, 11 gold records, and five Grammy nominations.
A Lettermen group was formed in the late 1950s by Mike Barnett, Dick Stewart and Tony Butala. They auditioned for Jackie Barnett (who was chief comedy writer for the Jimmy Durante TV show) for the "Newcomers of 1928" revue. It was Barnett who gave the group their name. Now as "The Lettermen", they landed the part to impersonate The Rhythm Boys, the vocal group that traveled with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in the late 1920s, and gave Bing Crosby his initial fame. The "Newcomers of 1928" revue opened on 28 February 1958 at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Nevada amd also starred Paul Whiteman, Buster Keaton, Rudy Vallée, Harry Richmond and Fifi D'Orsay. They played to sell-out audiences and were held over for many weeks. Continuing with a six week tryout at the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, the idea continued to be a smash, with Butala being the lone consistent Letterman. Barnett and Russell were replaced by Gary Clarke and Jerry Paul. When the tryout ended, Butala landed a job as singer/bass player in a lounge group, "Bill Norvis and the Upstarts", with Gary Clarke. After a few months, Clarke left the group and was replaced by Jim Pike. Pike and Butala decided to leave the Upstarts and form a new group although they had not yet decided to use the Lettermen name. Pike envisioned a group where each member was an excellent soloist as well as a great group singer. Pike and Butala joined with the third Letterman, Bob Engemann, a singer that Pike had met when he attended Brigham Young University a few years earlier (Pike and Engemann had come to Los Angeles, California, and had sung together until Engemann had to go into the California National Guard for 6 months. That's why Pike joined Bill Norvis and there met Butala). The combination of Pike, Engemann and Butala first recorded in 1960.
They secured a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records through Bob Engemann's older brother, Karl Engemann, who was a record producer there, and for whom Pike had earlier released a record called "Lucy D", which was not successful. Karl Engemann, years later became Marie Osmond's Personal Manager for many years. Pike, Butala and Engemann as "The Lettermen" released two singles in 1960 for Warner Bros. The A-sides were "Two Hearts" and "Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring". They were not successful. After Warner Bros. Karl Engemann moved on to Capitol Records as President of A&R. He got them out of their contract at Warner Bros., and made an appointment for them to see Nick Venet, a producer at Capitol and they were signed.
There was another "Lettermen" group in the late 1950s and early 1960s that recorded for Liberty Records, (which was a major record label at the time). They were an R&B group with five members, and their single was called "Hey Big Brain", but was not successful. About that same time there was a third group called the Lettermen Trio, headed up by Sammy Vandenburg, they also had no record success. But the "Lettermen" of Pike, Engemann and Butala had the first hit record, so by law they were entitled to exclusively use the "Lettermen" name.
The Lettermen were unknown until they signed with Capitol Records in 1961. Their first single for Capitol, "The Way You Look Tonight," succeeded on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart and climbed to #13. Their next, "When I Fall in Love," reached the Top 10 in late 1962 and hit #1 on AC. They had several other Top 10 AC hits, such as 1965's "Theme From A Summer Place". In late 1967 Bob Engemann resigned, and was replaced by Jim Pike's younger brother, Gary Pike. The hits continued with the 1968 medley "Goin' Out of My Head"/"Can't Take My Eyes Off You", and in 1968 with "Put Your Head on My Shoulder", plus 1969's "Hurt So Bad", which reached #12 and lasted on the Hot 100 for 21 weeks, second only to the 22 weeks for The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" within that calendar year. The last successful single was in 1971, "Love", a solo by Jim Pike.
The Lettermen have had 16 Top 10 singles including one #1, 32 consecutive Billboard Magazine chart albums, 11 gold records, five Grammy nominations, an Andy Award, and a Cleo Award.
In 1976, Jim Pike left the group because of vocal problems and sold the Lettermen name to Butala. In 1981 Gary Pike left the Lettermen, and today Jim and Gary Pike, along with Ric de Azevedo, sing The Lettermen hits, billed as "Reunion".
In 1961, The Lettermen started performing live concerts doing over 200 shows a year, an unbroken string that continues to the present.
Over the decades, the group has had various line-ups, replacing members who left for various reasons with new people to maintain a trio. Tony Butala has stated that the group ethos is that of three strong soloists that harmonize, and that the group encourages individual singing and songwriting. Butala has also stated that the current combination of members, which includes Donovan Tea (thirty years) and Bobby Poynton (eight years) "is the best combination of voices, and best sounding group since the original trio."
They pride themselves in welcoming audience member photographs during the show as they sing Up, Up, and Away.
Among their many songs include renditions of several traditional Filipino kundimans such as Dahil Sa Iyo ("Because of You"), Sapagkat Kami ay Tao Lamang ("For We are Only Human"). Their enunciation and pronunciation in the language has developed over the decades that they have interpreted these love songs.
On December 9 and December 10, 2012, The Lettermen Society Convention was held at The Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The members had dinner and breakfast with the current group of Tony Butala, Donovan Tea, and Bobby Poynton. They attended the soundcheck and Lettermen Holiday Show with ticketed audience members in the casino showroom. This celebration was the 31st annual convention.
The 32nd annual Lettermen convention will be a four-day event at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas between October 10, 2013 and October 13, 2013. Hundreds of Lettermen Society members and fans are invited to attend.
Bobby Engemann died on 20 January 2013 in Provo, Utah, of complications from his 13 December 2012 heart bypass surgery, one day after his 78th birthday.
The Lettermen is represented by Michael Pick at MPI Talent in Los Angeles.