When he was just a young boy, Tony Butala moved from his home in Sharon, Pennsylvania to California, primarily to pursue a career in performing. Now, more than 60 years later, he remains the only original member of the Lettermen and the only one to never leave the fold. But before he was the lead singer of one of the most popular trios in the last half century, he was part of the fabled Robert Mitchell's Boys Choir and gained experience with some of Hollywood's biggest names.
"The choir boys were known to be so disciplined and so good that producers would hire us to be in motion pictures," says Butala. "They knew we'd come in and be prepared so we all got parts in over 200 motion pictures."
Among Butala's roles was a voice part in Walt Disney's Peter Pan where he played one of the Lost Boys.
"We sang the song 'Following the Leader,'" he recalls, breaking into song as he does. "I can still hear it in my head today."
Butala also played alongside Doris Day and Gordon MacRae in On Moonlight Bay and had an uncredited role in War of the Worlds. These experiences continued for several years until Butala faced the inevitable evidence of adolescence: his voice dropped and his time with the choir came to an end. For a time Butala continued as assistant director of the choir, but he soon put together a quartet called the Fourmost which featured Butala, two other male singers and a female singer named Concetta Ingolia. The Fourmost began having some success, enough that an enterprising agent suggested Ingolia leave the group for a solo career. After changing her name to Connie Stevens, she went on to even greater success herself, leaving just the three men behind to go forward.
"We decided to keep going, and I didn't really want to bring in another singer, so we continued as a trio. By this time it was 1955 or 56, so rock music was just starting to come into play. We continued doing jazz and big band music, playing at Vegas showrooms, and [we] recorded four songs to shop around."
Signed by Capitol Records, The Lettermen were on their way, leaving in their wake many other similar vocal groups who weren't able to make their brief successes last.
"You get some of these groups right out of college or high school, kids that have been singing together and decide to start a group but don't have much experience. They might have a hit record, but that doesn't make them performers."
The Lettermen have defined the word "performers" over the years, with Butala savvy enough to know that it's not just music that draws the crowds. They also incorporate comedy and showmanship, and the result has kept the trio busy through many changing musical styles.
"Over the years we'd get chances to play with a lot of big names, some of them past their prime a bit, so they'd bring us in in the 60s and 70s to attract some of the younger audiences. We opened for George Burns and Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason. We'd go out there and sing a few songs and get the audience primed for them."
As the only original left, Butala has seen his share of change, with many fellow Lettermen coming and going over the years. He says he understands that "show business is two words: show and business" and has asked members to provide a year's notice so a replacement can be found. The current lineup, which includes Bobby Poynton and Donovan Tea, is the longest tenured in the history of The Lettermen. The group isn't at all interested in standing pat or resting on its laurels, which is why Butala is surprised when he's asked how the group keeps it fresh after all these years.
"When I'm asked that question, it always astounds me because we're about to record our 75th album playing songs from groups like Journey and Styx that haven't been 'Letterman-ized' yet. There's still a lot of magic in our shows, and different arrangements keep the juices flowing and the adrenaline up. Some nights we play for 5,000 people, other nights 500, and there are grandchildren of our fans from the 50s and 60s who are coming to our shows. In fact, we recently had a woman who was a fan of ours as a teenager and is a great-grandmother now, so we had four generations of her family at the show."
Although kept busy with The Lettermen, Butala also spends time with his children and grandchildren and has a long-time hobby, winemaking, which he's been pursuing since he was three years old. Really.
"All four of my grandparents came to Pennsylvania from Croatia, and when I was three, my mom would go to work and I'd stay with my grandparents. My grandfather made wine, and this was during the Prohibition when you could make the wine but not sell it. So he'd make some and then trade it for milk from the dairy farmer or eggs from a woman who had them. And I'd help with the pruning and the crushing. All my friends were at school, and I was helping my grandfather make wine. I thought everyone did it."
When he came into some money as The Lettermen took off, he immediately bought some land and rediscovered that connection to his grandfather. These days he mostly provides grapes for other wineries, saving some to make a few cases for himself.
Maintaining connections to family also extends to his life as a member of The Lettermen, where he says the group has always seen its fans as friends. In fact, each year they have a convention in a different city, and this year's is here in Fort Wayne the weekend of their performance at the Foellinger Theatre. Butala says their mutual devotion to their loyal audience is why they've been around so long.
"We don't have a Lettermen Fan Club, we have a Lettermen Friend Club, and after every single show we go to the lobby and sign autographs and take pictures and talk to everyone.
We're the last people to leave every night - us and the janitor. So many people duck out the back and maybe sign an autograph or two and get into the limousine to go back to the hotel to party. But we want to spend time with our fans who have made our careers possible."
Subscribe to whatzup2nite for a chance to win a pair of passes to:
July 27 • The Clyde