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Published: Thursday, 12/14/2006

Lettermen bring 'Spirit of Christmas' to the Valentine

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Lettermen choose material for their annual 'Spirit of Christmas' show from among the 50 songs they have recorded on four Christmas albums over the years. The Lettermen choose material for their annual 'Spirit of Christmas' show from among the 50 songs they have recorded on four Christmas albums over the years.
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It's the 18th year in a row for The Lettermen's "Spirit of Christmas" tour, including a return engagement Saturday night in the Valentine Theatre.

But the vocal trio, led by founding member Tony Butala, is not forgetting its nonholiday hits.

"You've got to dance with the one who 'brung ya,'•" Butala said in an interview last week. "In the first half of our show, we do a 15-minute segment where we squeeze in all of our regular hits."

That's 48 years' worth of harmonizing for a group that traces its roots to Los Angeles, 1958.

Butala, 66, a native of Sharon, Pa., was singing professionally at age 7 on Pittsburgh station KDKA.

"I had my own 20-minute act and I was making like 15, 25 bucks a show," he recalled. "My dad was hardly making that much at a steel mill in Sharon."

At 10, Butala moved to Hollywood to join the famed Mitchell Boys Choir, with whom he appeared in a number of classic films including White Christmas and War of the Worlds.

"I worked with Doris Day, Gene Barry, Gordon McRae ... . I had quite a career," he said.

But at 14 1/2, his future as an entertainer was suddenly in doubt.

"My voice changed and I went from being a boy soprano to an awkward, ugly adolescent," Butala said.

He went to college and planned on majoring in electrical engineering or architecture, he said, but then regained his voice. He began singing again with a group called the Fourmost - briefly featuring a fellow classmate from Sharon named Connie Stevens - and in 1960 created the Lettermen with Jim Pike and Bob Engemann.

The trio was signed by Capitol Records, ending Butala's college efforts, and enjoyed a quick rise up the charts with early singles including, "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring," "When," "The Magic Sound," and "Two Hearts."

The vocal trio went on to record more than 20 more chart hits in the 1960s and '70s, including such perennial favorites as "When I Fall in Love," "Theme from a Summer Place," "Put Your Head on My Shoulder," and "Shangri-La."

Butala has been the steadying force behind The Lettermen since the group's beginnings, and the lineup now features Donovan Tea, who joined in 1984, and Mark Preston, who was in the trio from 1984 to 1989 and recently returned.

The "Spirit of Christmas" show is one of Butala's annual favorite tours, he said, with the group choosing material from among the 50 songs it has recorded on four Christmas albums.

"I think The Lettermen's sound is conducive to Christmas music," he said. "And we love to do new songs every year, and those will be the source of our next Christmas album."

He said it is definitely a "Christmas show," and not a generic "holiday concert."

"We sing about the true meaning of Christmas, including carols about Christ," Butala said.

The Lettermen will perform the "Spirit of Christmas" concert at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $28, $38, and $43 from the box office, 419-242-2787.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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