“People don’t smoke pot at our concerts,” says the Lettermen‘s Tony Butala. “They’re usually with dates and, at least outwardly, in dress and manners, they’re pretty conservative. You know, it’s a dress-up thing for them. Corsages and all that. They might go to a restaurant afterward and order wine or something.”
By specializing in “easy listening” remakes of pop hits and standards, the Lettermen cultivate this sort of audience. Like most of the songs they have performed and/or recorded in their 14-year career, their current versions of such songs as “Please Love Me Forever,” “For All We Know,” and “Love Me with All Your Heart” seem best suited for romantically inclined couples at candlelit tables.
Not surprisingly, the group has never appeared on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or toured with David Bowie. At clubs and hotels, they share show bills with personalities like Bob Hope and George Burns; their college concerts are often sponsored by fraternities and sororities, and they guest on such TV specials as The Miss Universe Pageant.
“I think we’ve got our audience pegged pretty good,” states Butala. “We’re reaching our people and we know what they want.”
A long string of successes back up this assertion. Every one of the Lettermen’s 32 albums has made the top 100, and the trio’s total LP sales now exceed $25 million. They have earned a number of gold singles and albums, and their For Christmas This Year LP remains Capitol’s second-best-selling holiday record of all time.
Concert performances have been profitable for the group as well. Often drawing SRO crowds at their hotel and club dates, they have also maintained a position, throughout their long history, as one of the country’s most popular campus acts.
Over that period, the Lettermen have not changed substantially in any way. They have never, for example, switched record companies, booking agents, or managers. And the group’s present lineup—Butala, Jim Pike, and Gary Pike—includes two of the Lettermen’s three founders.
“Musically,” remarks Butala, “we’re also pretty much the same; our basic harmonic structure hasn’t varied. We have been influenced by the various trends over the years, though.”
During one such trend, the folk craze of the early 1960s, the Lettermen altered their act to keep up with competition from such groups as the Four Lads, Highwaymen, and Kingston Trio. They all began to play guitar; Jim Pike took up the banjo, and the group started to flavor their performances with folk-music elements.
But the trio’s stylistic surgery was only cosmetic. “What we really did,” Butala recalls, “was pop-folk. We still had drums and sometimes a full orchestra, so we didn’t completely go in a folk direction. Because when the folk thing died out, we didn’t want to have to go with it.”
While musically tipping their hats to rock, country, and other song styles at various times since then, the trio has shied away from being identified with any particular trend. Similarly, they have avoided allying themselves with any political movement. “I respect groups that want to give a message to the public,” explains Gary Pike, “but we feel there’s so much to musical entertainment that can be done without getting on a political bandwagon.
“We’re not political authorities,” he adds, “and we don’t feel we should use our fame to sway people. Besides, it’s not accepted from us, anyway. We put out a thing a few years ago called ‘All the Grey-Haired Men,’ which was kind of a controversial record; it got a lot of negative reaction and almost no radio play.
“We’d rather do love songs and that kind of thing, anyway, because I think what we’re really striving for is to please everybody.”
While no group can accomplish that, of course, the Lettermen do please a lot of people; many others, though, are turned off by their almost wholly unvarying pop style and subject matter. And the trio’s practice of recording only other artists’ material—often in a previously used arrangement and sometimes even with borrowed phrasing—further restricts their appeal.
For the Lettermen’s fans, however, originality may be less important than the group’s ability to entertain. They are polished vocalists and charismatic showmen. Projecting enthusiasm for their work, the trio seem genuinely disappointing that they do not currently satisfy everyone.
“It is a little frustrating,” admits Butala, when asked to comment on the rarity of rock-oriented Lettermen devotees. “Like I’ll go to a Chicago concert or some other funkier type rock show and I’ll understand and dig why the audience is reacting. But I feel some of them would really consider it square to go to a Lettermen concert. And it’s frustrating knowing that, once they got there, I’m sure we could entertain them. If they would just give us a chance, they might enjoy what we have to say, also.”