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The Lettermen

 Goin’ Out Of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You

After a stint in the US Navy, Jim Pike elected to use his GI Bill benefits to attend Brigham Young University in the fall of 1955. Majoring in geology with a minor in music, Pike figured his path to stardom. “I decided to minor, rather than major, in music. Most people who major in music and want to sing end up singing in Broadway shows. I didn’t want that. I was singing pop music, and I wanted to focus on having a hit record.” (1)

Joining the top campus group, The Y’s Men, he heard a song on the jukebox at a campus eatery that stopped him cold. “Who’s that?” he asked. When told the song was It Happened Once Before by The Four Freshmen, he knew instantly where his future was headed. He joined The Nomads, a foursome modeled after his newfound idols, the Four Freshmen.

After some personnel changes, the group revamped as The Damons. A recording contract with Warner Brothers followed but no hits were produced. Actress Yvonne De Carlo signed a forty-two week show tour and asked The Damons to be her backup group. It was their first paying gig. When a member of The Damons backed out of the tour, Jim became so frustrated that he quit the group.

Bob Engemann was singing in The Engemann Trio with his brother Karl and Karl’s wife Gerri. Bob could sing lead and harmony and became close friends with Jim. They decided to pool their talents and head to California as a duo. Just as they started to get some traction, Bob was called into basic training for his Air National Guard unit.

With Bob’s six-month obligation to the Guard, Jim won the audition for a Las Vegas lounge act called Bill Norvis and the Upstarts. “I sang Frank Sinatra’s What’s New with all his phrasing and knocked Bill out! The two girls in the group started swooning while the other guy in the group, Tony Butala, stood behind them,” Jim recalled. (2)

Butala was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania the youngest son in a family of eleven children. In the late 1940s, Tony and his mother took a train to Los Angeles to help with a family emergency. While there, Tony auditioned for The Mitchell Boys Choir and was accepted. The Choir was a steppingstone for Butala as he appeared in movies such as White Christmas, War of the Worlds and Moonlight Bay. In 1958, Tony was invited by Mike Barnett to join his vocal group, The Lettermen. (3)

Norvis and group did the limited edition tour but it wasn’t built to last. Both Tony and Jim became friends and with Bob finishing his training, the stage was set for the three of them to sing together. Jim recalled the moment. “We sang Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. I used my guitar and taught them the chords to the song right then and there. I gave Tony the high part, Bobby the melody, and I sang the bass piece. When we hit that first chord on Love, we knew that was it; we were going to make it.” (4)

Top to bottom: Tony Butala, Bob Engemann and Jim Pike.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

They started rehearsing and thinking of a name. Bob suggested The Lettermen, but Tony said he sang with a group a few years earlier for a short time called The Lettermen and the name belonged to Mike Barnett. They called Mike to see if the group was still together. He said he was no longer in the music business and that they could use it. Jim, Tony and Bob eventually registered the name in a 3-way partnership. (5)

They recorded a demo of two songs, When and Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring. The demos, recorded at the legendary Gold Star Studios were impressive enough to warrant a contract with Warner Brothers. WB wanted to test-market Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring before a national release so they sent it to San Francisco where the song took off. Still not impressed, the Warner reps had them sing some songs from a new songwriter they just signed. The songs went nowhere and Jim, Tony and Bob looked for greener pastures.

Karl Engemann was now a vice-president of A&R with Capitol Records. Karl set up a meeting with a new record producer at Capitol, Nick Venet. At 21 years old, Nick was ready to prove himself. “Let’s do it!” was his response to Karl’s pitch. (6) After Karl also secured the release for the group’s contract with WB, the threesome signed with Capitol Records.

Tony remembers the story differently. He made the appointment with Venet and played the group’s demo masters from the Gold Star session. Venet was interested enough to suggest producing an audition session for the group at Capitol, at the next available opportunity. (7)

The chance came on February 23, 1961. The Four Preps booked and paid for studio time at the tower that day but suddenly cancelled. Venet arranged for the Lettermen to use that time with Jimmy Haskell, hired to write the instrumental arrangements. Pike, knowing how he wanted the vocals to sound, had a hand in matching Haskell’s arrangement to the vocals. “When I did the vocal arrangement, I consciously wanted to keep it straight and not sound modern. I wanted to have a vocal group that sounded like the Four Freshmen, but I wanted to be more contemporary and more commercial to the average person who didn’t have a musically trained ear…I usually made the harmonies real straight and square.” (7)

Capitol executives were excited with the results and The Lettermen were signed to the label. The contract called for the group to record four songs of their choosing. The first two songs they chose were That’s My Desire as their A-side backed with The Way You Look Tonight as their B-side. Desire flamed out quickly. In Buffalo, New York a DJ flipped the record over and played The Way You Look Tonight, which lit up the phones. Capitol insisted on playing the A-side but when the B-side caught the all of the attention, they relented and The Way You Look Tonight became the group’s first hit, entering Billboard’s Pop Singles chart on September 4, 1961. (8)

With one hit on the books, the group gave careful thought to what comes next. “We really researched what our next single would be. I had this Nat King Cole album called Stardust, which was one of my favorite albums. One night I was lying in bed listening to that album. When I Fall in Love came on, and I knew that was the song; that was our next hit. It was magical to listen to, and it still brings tears to my eyes when I listen to that album. When I Fall in Love did end up being our second hit when it reached number seven on Billboard’s Top 10 in 1961. It was even bigger than our first hit. Right then, we knew we weren’t going to be a one-hit wonder group,” Jim remembered. (9)

Come Back Silly Girl was the third hit from the album, A Song For Young Love, which stayed on Billboard Chart for 55 weeks and peaked at #6, the best showing for any of their 33 charted LP’s. (10)

The hits just kept on coming. Ten times between 1961 and 1967, the Lettermen hit the Hot 100 with singles. However, in that era of singles, they were an album group. Hitting the album charts eighteen times in that period, Gary Pike, brother of Jim and a future Letterman explained the phenomenon. “We managed to have a hit every year, which kept us on the map. Our albums always sold well because we took care in how we put them together. None of us were songwriters, so we usually recorded old standards or songs that were popular at the time, and made great effort at doing good arrangements and really actually improving on the songs. The other thing is, we really worked hard to do a good show in person. We toured a lot and did a lot of shows. We were entertaining in person. We didn’t just stand there and sing our songs. We did comedy, more like a variety show. We did a lot of TV.” (11)

“The Lettermen were contracted for three-and-a-half albums a year, which was a lot. Whenever an album was due, which was quite often, sometimes a slight theme would be thrown out there, and everyone had input. We’d sit down with Nick Venet and discuss them and weed out songs. It was kind of a communal effort from everyone. We all had input, but it all had to go through Jim. He and Nick Venet had final say.” (11)

The group paid a price for their success. Months of every year were spent on tour. When they returned home, it was time to record another album. The grind could wear down anyone no matter how much one loved his work. Engemann’s children were reaching school age and Bob chose to leave the group to spend time with his family. That meant the group’s first replacement.

Auditions were held but it appeared that Jim’s brother, Gary held the inside track. “I was the bass player with the Wilson Brown Trio, a piano, bass and drum combo that was the permanent rhythm section that played behind The Lettermen. During the shows I used to step up from behind the bass and sing one of the hits with them, Theme from a Summer Place.” (12) When Bob sold his share of The Lettermen name to Jim and Tony, there was a new version of the group.

L-R: Jim Pike, Ed Sullivan, Tony Butala and Gary Pike from May 17, 1970.

Photo courtesy of Gary Pike.

Jim remembered how seamless the transition was. “One night, while we were performing for a college in Ohio, I got a phone call from Bobby saying he couldn’t make the show, so we had to use Gary. Gary came out, and we did the first half of our performance. We were getting the same response as usual, and it was a big success. During intermission, when we were backstage in the dressing room, Bobby walked in. He had used a pay phone around the corner to call and say he couldn’t make it so we would get Gary onstage. Bobby told us that Gary was going to be fine and we didn’t have anything to worry about. The audience had accepted Gary. Bobby could go home and be with his wife and children.” (13)

As good as they were in the studio, they really shined in their live performances. They recorded a live album in 1963 at Iona College and Capitol decided it was time for another one. They came across Goin' Out of My Head, which had been written by Teddy Randazzo in 1963 for Little Anthony and the Imperials. It was combined with Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. Credit the musical genius of Jim Pike. “ We were rehearsing both songs when Jim mentioned that they were both in the same key. Why not combine them in a medley?” Gary Pike mentioned in a phone interview. Since the next scheduled LP was live, they added the medley to a list of songs for the next tour. “The album also included a mash-up of two Bossa Nova-styled songs, Quiet Nights and Meditation,” Gary added.

The performance before a Penn State audience of the medley of Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You was chosen as their next single. It was the first time that two songs were combined with one another as an integrated medley, where one was sung with a lead-in to the second and then back to the first again. It became an instant hit for The Lettermen. The song landed at #7 and was Grammy-nominated ultimately losing to Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel.

The Lettermen on tour included a backup group of musicians accompanying them on piano, bass, drums and guitar. For this particular LP, the song was sweetened in the studio with a brass and string section. This somewhat followed the path the way a Lettermen song developed. “The basic track was recorded in Los Angeles with members of the Wrecking Crew. One member of the Crew that was present for most if not all of our early albums was Glen Campbell,” remembered Gary Pike. “In fact, there were times he added a vocal to the mix. Glen was the fourth voice on a song titled The Seventh Dawn Theme. Once the basic rhythm track was set, the group sang their vocals. The third step added the remainder of the instrumentation.”

Though it was Bob who sang on the hit performance, it was Gary that sang the medley on the promotional tours. “ I was the one who reaped all of the accolades about the success of the song,” laughed Gary. The Lettermen appeared on TV shows including performances on The Tonight Show, The Mike Douglas Show (co-hosting an entire week), Red Skelton and Dinah Shore Shows as well.

Donny Pike joined Tony and Gary at the Mill Run Theater in 1976.

Photo courtesy Alamy Images.

Jim Pike eventually developed voice problems in 1969 and was replaced by Doug Curran. A few years later Jim returned to the group and the voice problems eventually joined him. Donny Pike, who had worked for the group as their sound technician, replaced Jim. In 1976, Jim sold his share of the group name to Tony. Gary left the group in February of 1981, Donny followed in December. The Lettermen, with many different singers over the years still perform. The lineup today with Tony Butala includes Donovan Tea and Bobby Boynton.

Jim and Gary Pike still sing with former King Family member Rick de Azevedo in their vocal group named Reunion.

Bob Engemann died on January 20, 2013 in Provo, Utah, of complications from his December 13, 2012 heart bypass surgery.

The Lettermen sing Goin' Out Of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off You and Never My Love on

The Red Skelton Show on October 8, 1968.

Donny, Tony and Gary demonstrate the components of When I Fall In Love and how a song develops.

My thanks to Gary Pike for his time and help with this article.

1) Pike, Jim; E. L. Scott. My Lettermen Years: The Journey To Hell and Back! Page 12 Kindle Edition.

2) Pike, Jim. Page 20.

3) McKinley, Francis D., 2004 Link

4) Pike, Jim. Page 23.

5) Pike, Gary, The Breeze, Artist Profile — The Lettermen, March 31, 2006, Link.

6) Pike, Jim. Page 26.

7) Shea, Scott, Liner Notes from the 1991 CD The Lettermen Capitol Collectors Series.

8) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 407.

9) Pike, Jim. Page 30

10) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Albums 1955-2001, Pages 493-494.

11) Music Weird interviews Gary Pike of the Lettermen, February 5, 2014. Link.

12) Kotal, Kent, Forgotten Hits Blog Spot, September 9, 2009. Link.

13) Pike, Jim. Pages 39-40.

This early 60s publicity photo is courtesy of Capitol Records.

© 2017 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009