“Put your head on my shoulder, hold me in your arms, baby …”
“There’s a summer place, where it may rain or storm, yet I’m safe and warm ….”
“You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you …”
The Lettermen have decades of hits, so which ones will they be sure to sing in concert at Misericordia University on March 22?
“That’s a simple question,” group founder Tony Butala, 72, said in a phone interview. “Here’s the simple answer. The Lettermen believe ‘you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya.’ ”
So it all depends on the audience, he said, hinting he and his fellow singers, Donovan Tea and Bobby Poynton, will get a sense during the concert of which era the audience prefers.
“We had hits in the early ’60s, the mid-’60s, the late ’60s. The people who come to hear them are not the same ‘THEY’ that come to hear songs from the ’70s,” he said, adding The Lettermen have continually updated themselves.
“The worst thing you could do is call us a nostalgia group,” Butala said, explaining how the music evolved from “slow and sweet” to more of a “beat-ballad” sound.
Take a look at the album covers, he added with a chuckle. “You can watch our hair grow.”
Indeed, the group’s sideburns did seem to widen with the fashions of the day.
“At one point, I even had an Afro,” Butala said.
But for The Lettermen, Butala said, some things have never changed, including their commitment to show the audience a good time.
“It’s important that we inspire people, that we uplift them,” he said.
“Let’s say a couple has enjoyed our hit records. They heard them on the radio. Maybe they had their first kiss to one of our songs and had another played at their wedding. We take it very seriously that we’re part of their lives.
“If ‘Joe America’ takes his wife to see The Lettermen, they’ve got to fill the car with gas, find a babysitter for the kids, park the car, maybe walk through slush, be bombarded by people selling teddy bears and photos and programs and they go through that with a big sigh of relief. They’ve finally made it. If they’re gonna go through all that hassle, it’s up to us to give them the best darn show of their lives
“They want to forget about war and the fiscal cliff. They want to be transported for two and a half hours.”
Audiences seem to appreciate the effort.
“It’s been 45 years or more since we failed to get a standing ovation,” said Butala, who formed the group in 1957 and happily notes its “32 straight Billboard Top 10 albums.”
Over the years, Butala said, “I was looking for the best-looking guys, the guys who could move the best, the guys who had the best solo voices. We have three lead singers. It’s not one lead singer and the other guys doing doo-wop.”
Butala grew up in western Pennsylvania in a rural community where people bartered eggs and cheese. His grandfather made wine there, and his father was the air-raid warden during World War II.
The recent economic downtown hit the place hard, Butala said, and he wants to help by establishing a museum of vocal groups’ memorabilia there.
Given his interest in the genre, it’s no surprise he’s a wealth of information regarding its history.
Just ask how The Lettermen got their name, for example, and he’ll explain the monikers that were popular during much of the 20th century.
During the 1920s, he said, birds influenced names.
“Singers would identify with Mellowlarks, Skylarks, Sparrows, Wrens and Crows,” he said. “By the ’30s and ’40s the names were Ames Brothers and Mills Brothers and Andrews Sisters. They really were brothers and sisters, but even people who weren’t from the same family called themselves brothers and sisters.
“In the ’50s, all of a sudden it was cool to sound like a car: The Impalas, The Cadillacs, The Fleetwoods.”
By the late ’50s, it was all the rage to have a name that smacked of school days, like Danny and the Juniors or The Four Freshmen.
Enter The Lettermen, a clean-cut group sporting varsity-letter sweaters.
By the time The Beatles and Iron Butterfly came along in the ’60s, Butala said, “School names were unhip, but it was too late to change.”
The Lettermen trio of the early ’60s actually tried to bill itself as “Jim, Tony and Bob” in the style of the folk trio “Peter, Paul and Mary” but decided to stick with the original name, having already built a following.
Nowadays, Butala is the only original member of The Lettermen.
“Donovan Tea has been with me for 29 years,” he said. “He’s tall. He’s handsome. He’s a great songwriter. Bobby Poynton joined in ‘88 then left for a while, but now he’s back. He’s one of the nicest guys.
“This group is very dynamic,” he said. “It’s the best Lettermen group I’ve ever had.”