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Music

The Lettermen founding member Tony Butala has deep Western Pennsylvania roots

| Wednesday, May 16, 2018, 2:51 p.m.
The Lettermen — Bobby Poynton, Tony Butala and Donovan Tea — will be performing at The Palace Theatre at 7 p.m. May 19.
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The Lettermen — Bobby Poynton, Tony Butala and Donovan Tea — will be performing at The Palace Theatre at 7 p.m. May 19.

Tony Butala, founding member of the vocal group The Lettermen, has a lot of love for western Pennsylvania.

The group played The Palace Theatre in 2012 and before that, they frequently packed the former Holiday House in Monroeville from 1964 until the supper club closed in 1988.

“The Lettermen were never rock and roll singers,” Butala says. “We were easy-listening and pop. We were squeaky clean boys next door, singing about love and romance.”

He has been the group's lead singer since 1958 and is the trio's only original member – although current fellow Lettermen Donovan Tea and Bobby Poynton, who joined the group in 1984 and 1988 respectively, have the most consecutive years together, Butala says.

The Lettermen will be reprising their romantic hits, such as “The Way You Look Tonight, “When I Fall in Love,” “Goin' Out of My Head” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” on May 19 at The Palace Theatre, Greensburg.

‘Soundtrack of their lives'

Butala says their style of music was the inspiration for the title of his soon-to-be-released book, “Between Rock and A Heart Place,” due out this summer. The book talks about the group's climb to the top during the '50s and '60s, when he says that for their listeners, “we were the soundtrack of their lives.”

Butala grew up in Sharon in Mercer County and still lives there today, in his grandparents' house across the street from the house in which his parents raised him and 10 siblings.

Even before The Lettermen became heartthrobs to their fans, he started singing professionally in Sharon in 1948 and performed on “Starlets on Parade” on Saturday mornings for KDKA radio in Pittsburgh.

His earliest recollections of performing were with the Mitchell Boys Choir in Hollywood, Calif., where he performed in such classic movies as “War of the Worlds, “White Christmas” and “On Moonlight Bay.” He also was the voice of one of the Lost Boys in Walt Disney's classic animated film, “Peter Pan.”

National music treasures

In recent years, Butala has been the driving force behind the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum, located in Sharon, a nonprofit foundation he created in 1997 to honor vocal groups in all genres of music, preserve their songs and pay tribute to inductees as National Music Treasures. The Lettermen are among more than 100 vocal groups to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The lead vocalist says The Lettermen's live concerts are what keep the group going strong. They just finished recording their 76th album, but Butala promises they won't be singing all their songs at the Palace.

“We do medleys of our hits,” he says, “and after every show, we're out in the lobby signing autographs. Our fans know we're accessible and user-friendly.”

Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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