The Lettermen, orchestra to perform
HUNTINGTON -- Tony Butala sings of a time of letter sweaters, hot rods and themes from summer places of long ago.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
Singing professionally since age seven, Butala, who was the voice of one of the "Lost Boys" in Walt Disney's "Peter Pan," has happily never grown up in a sense.
The Pennsylvania wonder kid who grew up performing in Hollywood is still -- some 76 albums later -- sweetly singing with The Lettermen -- the group he created as a teenager.
Get out those letter sweaters and slick back the hair because Butala and the boys are swinging into Huntington for a date with the Huntington Symphony Orchestra.
Tickets are on sale now for the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15 concert at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena starring the HSO under the direction of Kimo Furumoto and playing for the legendary vocal trio that's chalked up 16 Top 10 singles including one #1, 32 consecutive Billboard Magazine chart albums, 11 gold records and five Grammy nominations.
Tickets are $25 for second level reserved, $37.50 for first level reserved and $520 for VIP tables seating 10 to see the band that's known for such hits as "The Way You Look Tonight," "When I Fall In Love," "Theme From A Summer Place" and "Goin' Out of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (the first hit record ever to completely integrate two songs as one).
Prepping for one of its first symphony shows in a while, Butala, whose group chalked up more than 25 charting hit singles in the '60's and early '70s, talked with The Herald-Dispatch about the signature sound and career that has spanned some 50 years and more than 200 appearances on television shows from "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Red Skelton Show" to Dick Clark's "American Bandstand."
Lavender: When I think of Christmas I think of the Lettermen singing ... "frosted window panes," and all of my Pop's Lettermen records, some of which got tossed onto the turntable in August. What's your formula been for putting out great Christmas records?
Butala: "Well, there are some great Christmas albums, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, and the good thing about those and the Lettermen is that we have these great songs and some that have been done over and over but very few groups do them in a real personal way like the Ray Coniff Singers or The Pennsylvanians. Usually when you hear these songs they are wonderful when they are done by choral groups but they can be more of a standoffish sound, a beautiful sound but what the Lettermen do -- and I have a great keyboardist and musical director and we all contribute to the vocal arrangements -- is that we get a song say, "Away in a Manger" and make it more personal with the three singers, a lot of times in unison. We all phrase it more like a solo singer, and that is the secret. We also like a lot of fun things and a lot of classic Christmas songs so the idea is to try and balance the holiday songs with a few deeply religious Christmas songs. I think the secret though is that intimate sound."
Lavender: You were singing professionally at such a young age, how important was your time in Hollywood with the Mitchell Boys Choir (which sang in more than 100 movies including "White Christmas") in setting the course for your vocal life?
Butala: "I think it was very instrumental. In fact, 'I Believe', it was the B side of "Going Out of My Head," and that vocal arrangement I stole from the way we did it in the boys choir. I took it a little lower and inverted some of the harmonies but really underneath it was those Mitchell Choir Boys harmonies. In a lot of the harmony arrangements I was really influenced by my days in the boys choir, and the idea was not to sound like choir boys harmony but to take that down to three voices and make it more personal."
Lavender: I was reading about your founding of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in your hometown of Sharon, Pa. (est. in 1998). I've definitely got to stop in and check out the Hall (a non-profit that honors the greatest vocal groups of the world in all genres of music: rock, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, blues, gospel, country, folk, big band, jazz and pop. There are now more than 100 vocal groups inducted into the Hall of Fame, some of which are the Eagles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary, Alabama, Crosby, Stills & Nash, 5th Dimension, The Righteous Brothers, Association, Oak Ridge Boys, Supremes, Earth, Wind & Fire and many more. Tell us about why you thought it was important to honor vocal groups.
Butala: A couple things gave me the idea, the first was, the first time we did the Johnny Carson show, it was in the afternoon in New York and we had a hit record and we were doing the lighting and blocking and sound and it was all live, and after we did it Freddie Cordova was the producer and he said 'Which one of you is sitting on the couch with Johnny?' He said 'We need one guy who speaks for the group.' The Lettermen even though I am the lead singer on most of the lead records, the concept was three lead singers and that was the group. I looked for the best looking guys with the best solo voices and who could move. Most groups were formed in high school with one great lead singer and then he'd be like 'hey Joe, you want to sing tenor?' So I did the concept for the first boys band, like Boyz II Men and all the Disney kids that kept coming. I was 50 years before all of that. So I had to sit there with Johnny but I had a chip on my shoulder about groups. I think it's not fair. We know Diana Ross and the Supremes, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and on and on. So what happens to all of the other group members? So later we were working Las Vegas on a bill with George Burns and this was about five years before he became 'God' and this brought him back. We were doing two shows a night and we didn't eat before the first show and had a little something before the second, and then after the second show the Riviera had this candlelight room and we'd all have dinner in there. I was sitting there one night with George Burns, Jack Benny and my mom and dad and the bus boy said, 'Hey Tony, how are you doing?' And three years earlier he was the lead singer on the No. 1 record in the country. That proved to me that groups that didn't sign the right deal could be bus boys in Vegas, that coupled with the Carson experience made me say that somewhere, somehow, someway I was going to honor not just the lead singer but all of the members of the greatest vocal groups in the world. Solo singers need not apply."
We have memorabilia from more than 150 groups from the gowns of the Supremes to the first guitar of the Mills Brothers. ... One of the best things we have done is we have started the Truth in Music Bill in 34 states. It's a consumer product issue. We are trying to stop all the phony groups. There are these unscrupulous agents who have been sending out all of these guys who say Thursday night they are the Drifters and Friday night they are the Coasters. That's OK if they perform but they need to be called a tribute act and charge a $15 ticket not $30 or $40 and call themselves the original group. You can now be fined in 34 states, and the best thing is that it will be federal law and that a booker, buyer, agent or group that does not have the copyright or original members can be fined $50,000."
Lavender: It seems like people never tire of great vocal groups and there seems to be a resurgence in appreciation of the great vocal acts of the 1960s. There's been 'Jersey Boys' on Broadway and on tour, and a continuous stream of boy bands that seem to take a page from what you all started. Is it exciting for you to see that continued success of vocal music?
Butala: These things go in cycles and how about great shows like 'Glee' promoting harmony, I think all of that is good. If you went to school in the 40s there is nothing like the 40s music and if it was in the 60s there is nothing like the 60s. I am an amateur philosopher, and I believe that what happens in all of our lives, the most important resounding things happen between 14 and 22 and that's puberty and your first kiss and first prom, your first roll in the hay, your first marriage, your first divorce, and those are the days. So these kids now are as impacted as much by their music as we are by our music, so I think there is really good and bad music in every decade. How about when 'Titanic' came out and that song, 'My Heart will go on' touched girls from seven to 97. I know the one thing about 'Jersey Boys' is that Frankie Valli said it was the best thing that ever happened to him and that those guys were far better than the original Four Seasons. I know they will never write a show about The Lettermen. We are the boys next door. We were never gangsters and never stole tires. We're just average guys."
If You Go
WHAT: The Huntington Symphony Orchestra's Christmas concert featuring the legendary vocal group, The Lettermen
WHERE: Big Sandy Superstore Arena
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., (doors open at 6:30 p.m.) Saturday, Dec. 15.
HOW MUCH: $25 for second level reserved, $37.50 for first level reserved and $520 for VIP tables seating 10.
SEE THE VIDEO: Check out a special Christmas video featuring music of The Lettermen, by clicking onto www.herald-dispatch.com and clicking onto Local Videos
SYMPHONY FUNDRAISER: Mozart's Birthday Party Celebration will be a special event featuring performances by key musicians of the Huntington Symphony Orchestra 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at the Touma Museum on 9th Street in downtown Huntington. The cost is $25. Reservations requested. Make reservations, call the HSO office at 304-781-8343.
THE SEASON CONTINUES: The final regularly scheduled concert of the winter season will be A Celtic Celebration featuring flutist Wendell Dobbs. The concert will be March 16 at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20 and $30.