Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Music:

Singer who loves honoring other groups to take stage with own

Lettermen founder wants Vegas spot for his Hall

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Tony Butala

  • Who: The Lettermen
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
  • Where: South Point
  • Tickets: $25 to $35; 797-8055

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Beyond the Sun

Tony Butala, the founder of the Lettermen, had a dream in Las Vegas more than 45 years ago. He wanted to find a way to honor vocal groups.

Butala was having a late-night dinner with George Burns, Jack Benny and several others at the Riviera when he recognized a bus boy who had been lead singer in a group that had a hit record three years earlier.

“The group broke up and he became a bus boy,” Butala, 68, says. “I thought then, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

“I thought someday, somewhere, somehow, someplace I’m going to have a place to honor all these individual vocal groups.”

The dream became a reality in 1998 when the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, filled with memorabilia, was founded in Butala’s hometown of Sharon, Pa.

Butala’s latest dream is to bring an annex to Las Vegas, where the Lettermen first performed on Feb. 28, 1958 at the Desert Inn in a revue called “Newcomers of 1928,” starring Paul Whiteman, Buster Keaton, Rudy Vallee, Harry Richmond, Billy Gilbert and Fifi D’Orsay.

“We talked to people in Vegas three years ago and they wanted to give us a junior high school downtown,” Butala says. “But we think we should be on the Strip or maybe at the Hilton or under the canopy on Fremont Street.”

The Hall of Fame has honored more than 130 vocal groups regardless of genre, from rock, pop and country to doo-wop, soul and folk. The inaugural class featured 14 groups, including the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The Lettermen were inducted in 2001 — the same year as the Bee Gees, the McGuire Sisters and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Today, more than 130 groups have been honored.

The Lettermen were a classic vocal group known for their close harmonies. But trying to follow the group’s personnel changes over more than 50 years is like trying to unravel the Gordian Knot.

Butala, 69, is the only constant.

“I’m the original Letterman, with different combinations over the years,” he says.

Butala has been singing professionally since age 7. He had appeared in 25 movies by the time he was 14, including “White Christmas” and Disney’s “Peter Pan” (as the voice of one of the Lost Boys).

When the Lettermen debuted at the Desert Inn, Butala was joined on stage by Mike Barnett and Talmadge Russell.

“But the first Lettermen recording was by myself, Jimmy Blaine and Gary Clark,” Butala says. “That record was never released. The first ‘original Lettermen’ record that was released featured Tony Butala, Jim Pike and Bob Engemann.”

Butala, Pike and Engemann formed a partnership, each getting one-third of the Lettermen franchise, with the agreement that when a member wanted to leave he had to sell his share to the group and give a year’s notice. Engemann left in ’66 and was replaced by Pike’s brother, Gary.

“Me, Jim and Gary had more hits than the first combination,” Butala says.

Jim Pike developed vocal problems and left in ’72, making Butala the sole owner of the Lettermen name. Pike was replaced by another Pike brother, Donny.

“We had more hits with myself, Gary and Donny than the previous combination,” Butala says.

The current makeup is Butala, Mark Preston and Donovan Tea, who have performed together for almost 25 years.

Butala and gang are working on a 50th anniversary album to celebrate the Lettermen’s recording career, which began with the hit single “The Way You Look Tonight.”

The group’s 76th album, “The Lettermen 2010 New Direction” (the group’s 76th album), will be released this month. This is not a “best of” album but one in which they perform covers by a diverse group of performers including Ray Charles, Mickey Gilley, the Doobie Brothers and Earth, Wind and Fire.

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