Letter Winners

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(Pictured: the original Lettermen, Jim Pike, Tony Butala, and Bob Engemann.)

A while back, after I tweeted a March 1971 Hot 100 chart, a friend noted the presence of Andy Williams singing the theme from Love Story among the legendary rock and soul records of that day, referring to it as “jarringly out of place.” And yeah, if you look at it one way, it is out of place; but then again, that kind of thing happened all the time in a day when there were fewer radio stations, and they had broader audiences. Stations wanted and needed to play records with adult appeal, and if the kids liked them too, great. So behold the two most iconic hits of the Lettermen, superstars of easy listening, and the records with which they shared the chart:

February 10, 1968:
1. “Love Is Blue”/Paul Mauriat
2. “Green Tambourine”/Lemon Pipers
3. “Spooky”/Classics IV
4. “Judy in Disguise”/John Fred and the Playboy Band
5. “Chain of Fools”/Aretha Franklin
6. “I Wish It Would Rain”/Temptations
7. “Goin’ Out of My Head”-“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”/Lettermen
8. “Nobody But Me”/Human Beinz
9. “Woman Woman”/Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
10. “Bend Me Shape Me”/American Breed

September 20, 1969:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
2. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
3. “Green River”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
4. “A Boy Named Sue”/Johnny Cash
5. “Easy to Be Hard”/Three Dog Night
6. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”/Tom Jones
7. “Get Together”/Youngbloods
8. “Jean”/Oliver
9. “Little Woman”/Bobby Sherman
10. “I Can’t Get Next to You”/Temptations
11. “Oh What a Night”/Dells
12. “Hurt So Bad”/Lettermen

The Lettermen look like an outlier at a half-century’s distance, just as Andy Williams did next to Ike and Tina Turner and Janis Joplin in 1971, but at the time, they weren’t the only act straddling the easy-listening and Top-40 worlds. In these weeks alone, the records by Paul Mauriat, the Archies, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, and Oliver were easy-listening hits too. And before 1968 got much farther along, later releases by Gary Puckett and the Classics IV would land on the easy-listening charts. Bobby Sherman would eventually make it, too.

The original Lettermen lineup—Tony Butala, Bob Engemann, and Jim Pike—coalesced in 1960 out of a group of musicians and singers who played hotel ballrooms in Las Vegas and Miami. They scored their first Hot 100 hit in 1961, a version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” and in their first year on the charts scored four sizeable hits on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, including the #1 “When I Fall in Love,” which was also went Top 10 on the Hot 100 in January 1962. They didn’t hit again until 1965, with a vocal version of “Theme From A Summer Place,” which had been a smash by Percy Faith in 1960, and it was off to the races after that. When their easy-listening/adult-contemporary chart career ended in 1975, their final scorecard was 19 Top 10s, although they never again returned to #1 on that chart: “A Summer Place,” the “Going Out/Can’t Take” medley, and “Hurt So Bad” all peaked at #2. Other major easy-listening hits included versions of “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Shangri-La,” and a medley of the Classics IV’s “Traces” and “Memories,” a song famously recorded by Elvis Presley. Their final AC Top 10 hit was a cover of John Lennon’s “Love” in 1971. They put 32 albums onto the Billboard 200 as well.

The Lettermen started going through lineup changes at the peak of their fame. Tony Butala remained a constant until his retirement in 2019, and an edition of the trio still exists today; the senior member is Donovan Tea, who joined in 1984. Like every other performing act, they haven’t done much recently, although they have a few hopeful dates on their 2021 calendar.

The Lettermen’s most famous hits are engraved on baby-boomer DNA thanks to their ubiquity on radio, which played them til the labels fell off. They were still on the air when I worked in easy-listening radio during the 80s, and on the big-band/nostalgia format in the 90s. Today, the Lettermen represent the sort of old-time, tuxedo-clad, hotel-ballroom showbiz that you just don’t see anymore, but their records are as capable of bringing back a time and place as their contemporaries, from Marvin Gaye to Three Dog Night. At least in my house.

Additional Note: I was crushed yesterday to hear of the sudden death of the writer/teacher who called himself Lance Mannion. I have been reading him regularly since 2003 or thereabouts. We followed each other on Twitter and occasionally corresponded, although we never met in the real world. He wrote about politics, literature, movies, and his family; I will miss his 5AM tweets as he sipped coffee and watched his neighborhood wake up. As journalist Tom Watson says in a tribute today, “His work was a gift to me and so many thousands of others.” 

3 thoughts on “Letter Winners

  1. I always assumed the name Lettermen was a reference to high school and/or college athletics — like, an evocation of Big Men on Campus — and I imagine it must be uncomfortable to be 40 years old and still singing in a group called the Lettermen.
    (Other groups with similar name-quandaries include the Four Freshmen and the Beach Boys. Ideally, these groups should be set up along the Menudo model, with a steady stream of 17- to 21-year-olds filling the assigned roles.)

  2. mikehagerty

    kblumenau: You’re correct about the origins—it was a reference to campus life, a reflection both of the then-fresh idolization of a college education being in reach of “every” young American, and a way of setting yourself slightly above the high-school “rock and roll” demographic.

    It put them squarely in a demo at the time, and then, unlike Menudo, the idea was to age along with the audience, having started with an “adult” style of music. Eventually, it becomes about nostalgia for one’s early twenties.

    I seriously doubt any of the Lettermen or Four Freshmen were terribly uncomfortable as long as the gigs and money continued (that probably goes quintuple for the Beach Boys), and clearly the individuals as well as the units survived much better than they would have in the Menudo model.

  3. Wesley

    Though not really a fan of their brand of music, I have a certain fondness for the Lettermen due to two books I’ve written, A Critical History of The Red Skelton Show and The Billboard Book of Number One Adult Contemporary Hits. Regarding the former, the Lettermen were the most frequently seen musical act on Skelton’s show when it ran for an hour from 1962-70, showing up nearly once every season.

    For the latter, I got to talk to Tony Butala, who confirmed to me that all the original members did letter in sports but were more inspired by the college name vogue of the late 1950s when they formed, such as Danny and the Juniors and the Four Preps. He spoke to me nearly 25 years ago of creating a Vocal Group Hall of Fame in his hometown of Sharon, Pennsylvania, which became a reality but, according to its website, is temporarily closed for a renovation. The lineup of honorees inducted truly impresses me, everyone from the Peerless Quartet in the early 1900s to the Traveling Wilburys, and I wish Butala and crew luck in reopening what looks to be an impressive facility.

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