The Lettermen: New Record, Same Harmonies In the early 1960s, the vocal trio landed on the pop charts with tight harmonies and songs of romance. Five decades later, its members are still wearing their signature jackets and reinterpreting their favorite songs. The Lettermen's latest album, New Directions 2010, features Les Brown Jr.'s Band of Renown.
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The Lettermen: New Record, Same Harmonies

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The Lettermen: New Record, Same Harmonies

The Lettermen: New Record, Same Harmonies

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(Soundbite of song, "When I Fall in Love")

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In the early 1960s, a trio of young men wearing college letter sweaters made it on to the pop charts.

THE LETTERMEN (Singers): (Singing) When I fall in love, it will be forever...

HANSEN: The Lettermen's tight harmonies and romantic songs were their signature. The group has gone through several incarnations, with different personnel throughout the decades. The current configuration consists of Tony Butala, a founding member, as well as Donovan Tea and Mark Preston. Theyve released a new CD, called "New Directions 2010."

And the Lettermen join us from WCPN in Cleveland. Tony, welcome.

Mr. TONY BUTALA (Founding Member, The Lettermen): Hey, it's really nice to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: Donovan, welcome to you.

Mr. DONOVAN TEA (Member, The Lettermen): Thank you very much. Longtime listener, first-time interviewee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And Mark...

Mr. MARK PRESTON (Member, The Lettermen): Yes, hello.

HANSEN: ...welcome to you. How are you?

Mr. PRESTON: Thank you very much. It's great to be here with you.

HANSEN: Tony - since you are the founding father of the Lettermen, the one that's been with the group the longest - the Lettermen actually seems like an archaic name for a group today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Tony, did you ever try to change it?

Mr. BUTALA: Yeah, it was a great name for the '50s. People in the '50s, early '50s, if you were a group starting out, you'd name yourself after birds. There were the Swallows, the Sparrows, the Penguins. And in the middle '50s, if you started a group, the fad was to name your group after cars. There was the Fleetwoods, the Impalas, the Cadillacs. So in the late '50s, the style of hip names - they thought at that time - were school names. There were the Four Freshmen, Danny and the Juniors, the Four Preps.

So no one had used the name the Lettermen, so we thought wouldnt it be cool to have the extra, added identification by having three of us wear letter sweaters, which would help people remember the name the Lettermen - with the visual idea of the letter sweaters.

(Soundbite of theme song, "A Summer Place")

HANSEN: Tony, I've read that your sound is really the sound of three solo singers with the ability to harmonize. How do you discipline yourselves, you know, so that actually, the soloists have to sing background and like it?

Mr. BUTALA: Well, thats a trick. Thats a very big trick. Most groups have one lead singer and the other guys in the background going doo-wah, doo-wah. I started the group in '58, and I wasnt about to just get two other background singers and be the lead - I didnt want to be lead. The sticky wicket is that it is difficult to find a solo singer that has the discipline to also sit back and let some other guy take the lead at times.

(Soundbite of theme song, "A Summer Place")

THE LETTERMEN: (Singing) And the sweet secret of the summer place is that it's...

Mr. BUTALA: And also, we didnt have a high tenor or a low bass. We were all three high baritones. I think it's hard to blend a bassoon with a piccolo and a saxophone. It's much easier to blend three trumpets, so thats what gives us the better quality blend, the rub.

THE LETTERMEN: (Singing) There's a summer place where it may rain or storm, yet I'm safe and warm in your arms, in your arms, in your arms, in your arms, in your arms.

HANSEN: Would you describe what you do as tight harmony, close harmony or open harmony, Mark?

Mr. PRESTON: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: But there's a difference, right? I mean, barber shop quartets are different from a cappella groups - are different from choirs.

Mr. PRESTON: Very much so. I would think it would be close harmony, more - I guess it would be classified more as that. But we also take into consideration the arrangement, the musicianship behind us, the voicing of the orchestra. There's a lot of things that go into it, and we try to find the best. And this is Tony's forte for years and years and years - he's just phenomenal at this - to come up with the best way to blend the three voices together, and to get those chords to ring to where there's a lot of times when we'll hit a chord at the end of, say, "I Believe," which is an a cappella song that we do to close our show, that all of a sudden, you hear a fourth voice because we're ringing that chord so well that just the harmonics show up, and we can hear the fourth voice. And Tony told us that that was going to happen, you know, if we hit the notes properly. So once out of every 45, 50 shows, we hear that other voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "I Believe")

THE LETTERMEN: (Singing) Every time I hear a newborn baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky, then I know why I believe. I believe.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

HANSEN: Im speaking with the three members of the Lettermen. They have a new CD out, called "New Directions 2010." How does this recording differ from the other 75 that the Lettermen have released, you know, with you, Tony, at the helm?

Mr. BUTALA: Well, it's really exciting for me. And last summer, we just happened to do a show with Les Brown Jr. And, you know, I've always wanted to do a big-band album. We've used big, huge orchestras at Capital Records studio -you know, 40, 50, 60 pieces - but not really with that big-band brass sound featured. And so we started kicking it around with Les, and there's a lot of stories that go into how this happened. But - so we're using his signature sound of the Les Brown Orchestra and the Lettermen sound, but the songs are also very diverse.

HANSEN: Yeah...

Mr. TEA: I'd like to say, though...

HANSEN: Donovan.

Mr. TEA: ...is as eclectic as the choices were for this CD, I think it was more of a stretch for the Les Brown Orchestra than it was for us, because the Lettermen have very rarely done original songs, as Tony mentioned. We have taken other popular songs and what we call Lettermenized them.

(Soundbite of song, "Listen to the Music")

HANSEN: Diverse, indeed. There are hits on this CD. I mean, first of all, the Doobie Brothers. The Doobie Brothers.

(Soundbite of song, "Listen to the Music")

THE LETTERMEN: Dont you feel it growing, day by day? People getting ready for the news. Some are happy, some are sad. Whoa-oh, they got to let the music play...

Mr. PRESTON: Yeah, it's kind of an odd thing. When we looked at the song list that Tony and Les had come up with, there were a couple of the songs in there that - one in particular, like the Earth, Wind and Fire tune, "After the Love is Gone" - that particular cut, when we got the rough version of the vocals that Tony had put together, I went to him and Les the morning we were going to record it and said, Im sorry, I dont get. I dont know how this is going to work. Ill eat my shoe if we can pull this off. I dont really - I dont hear it. Forgive me, but I dont.

And when we finished it, it really - it came out sounding like a million bucks. So I literally took my shoe off and put it in my mouth...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRESTON: ...and walked into the studio - the control part of the studio and said, okay, where's the ketchup?

(Soundbite of song, "After the Love is Gone")

THE LETTERMEN: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, after the love is gone, what used to be right is wrong, can love thats lost be found? Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

HANSEN: Your music has often been described as sweet, although, you know, theres a bit of a rock and roll sensibility in some of the harmonies. And, you know, there's a little rock and roll in some of the stuff.

But Tony, I have to ask you. Have you ever heard your music in an elevator?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTALA: I've heard it in some restaurants and...

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. BUTALA: in department stores...

HANSEN: But when youre in a store, does it make you come up short?

Mr. BUTALA: Oh, no. I love it. When you can do something that people care enough to play, I dont care where it is. If they care enough to play it, it means it's relevant.

Mr. TEA: Elevators pay very well.

HANSEN: Do they?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Do you all still wear sweaters when you perform?

Mr. PRESTON: Yes, we do. We start the second half of the show; the lights are down; and the first voice you hear is Jack Benny, and - introducing the group from his TV show in the early '60s. And then the lights come up and we're standing there, in the sweaters. Then we take them off, and then we move forward and go back into more of a contemporary show.

HANSEN: Well, Tony Butala, Donovan Tea and Mark Preston, how about giving us just a nice, little chord?

Mr. PRESTON: "When I Fall in Love?" "When I Fall in Love?"

Mr. BUTALA: (Singing) When I fall in love, dah bop bah.

Mr. PRESTON: Got it.

THE LETTERMEN: (Singing) When I fall in love, it will be forever or Ill never fall in love. And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too, is when I fall in love, when I fall in love with you-ooh-ooh-ooh.

HANSEN: The Lettermen: Tony Butala, Donovan Tea and Mark Preston. Theyve released a new CD, called "New Directions 2010." They joined us from the studios of member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks so much, you guys.

Mr. PRESTON: You're very welcome. Thank you.

Mr. BUTALA: Enjoyed it, Liane.

Mr. TEA: Thank you.

HANSEN: To hear more music from the Lettermen, visit NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

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