Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Lettermen

Truth be told, my Mom was a much bigger fan of The Lettermen than I was ... and as such, she had a number of their albums in her collection ... so this music was most definitely played around our house quite a bit when I was growing up ... as a result, I was most definitely exposed to it.  (I swear it felt like they released a new album every three months ... and they practically did!  I mean, how hard could it have been to take a bunch of songs that were already popular on the radio at the time and cut your own version of these same songs?!?!  And why would anybody want to go out and buy these remakes when the "originals" were so readily available???  But they did!  The Lettermen charted 33 albums between 1962 and 1974 ... and a fair amount of those went gold!  In fact, the first 26 of those hit LP's made Billboard's Album Chart over a seven year period ... that's an average of nearly four per year ... or just about a new album every three months!!!  It all made absolutely NO sense to my 14-year-old logic!)  

But while I personally may not have been bowled over by this whole concept ... (and since we're doing full disclosure here) ... I will ALSO admit to being quite impressed at the impeccable harmonies these guys were able to produce ... everything sounded so "clean" and perfect that this may have been, in fact, what turned me off the most.  

I was a rock and roll kid and when I first heard them (which would have been late 1967 / early 1968).  I was listening to the biggest rock and roll hits of the day, totally captivated by the music of The Beatles and The Monkees, The Turtles, Tommy James and the Shondells and Paul Revere and the Raiders ... The Motown Sound, The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons ... heavier sounds like Steppenwolf and Cream ... local groups like The Buckinghams and The Cryan' Shames and The New Colony Six ... and one of my favorite records of all time, the VERY psychedelic-sounding "My World Fell Down" by Sagittarius.  Music wasn't supposed to be "clean and perfect" ... in fact, it was some of rock's imperfections that, over time, proved to be its greatest draw.  You had to have a couple of guitars, a bass and drums to grab my attention!  

But then I heard their latest track ... unlike the other Lettermen music that only seemed to play within the confines of our own home, this one was all over the radio ... a medley of two songs that to this day are considered timeless '60's  classics ... "Goin' Out Of My Head" (the old Little Anthony and the Imperials tune) and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", the recent #1 Hit for Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons.  Somehow they took these two totally independent tunes and meshed them together PERFECTLY (and BRILLIANTLY) to make them both sound like they were always supposed to blend this way.  I was totally captivated by the result ... and to this day, some nearly fifty years later, this track is STILL so powerful that it's impossible to resist the way it grips you and wins you over.  (It was a "Glee" mash-up 40 years before the term had even been invented!!!)

Gary Pike of The Lettermen has been a Forgotten Hits Reader and Contributor for several years now ... and it just so happens that their medley hit "Goin' Out Of My Head" / "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" was the first song that he sang on after joining his older brother's group.

Big Brother Jim Pike was one of the founding members of The Lettermen ... and this record would prove to be the biggest one of their careers.  A few years back, Jim published his biography, telling the ups and downs of this VERY popular "adult contemporary" band.  (You can read OUR review of it here:
Over a year ago (this being before the "great crash" that COMPLETELY wiped out our old computer) we started work on what was to be a three-part mini series about The Lettermen.  A good portion of that was lost ... but after Gary Pike responded to a comment made by FH Reader Gary Theroux last week about the evolution of the band, I felt inspired to try and resurrect that series again so that all could see it ... and learn the TRUE history of The Lettermen.  With Gary Pike's help and cooperation, I think we were able to do that ... so please enjoy ... over the next three days ... The Story Of The Lettermen!!!

EXTRA BONUS:  And, as a little extra bonus, we'll be giving away a signed copy of Jim Pike's book ... along with a CD featuring ten of The Lettermen's All-Time Biggest Hits.  All you have to do this time is drop me an email asking to be entered in our drawing.  (Yes, Tom Diehl ... that means even YOU can win a copy!!!)  At the end of the week, we'll take all of the entries and have Gary RANDOMLY PICK two winners ... and each will receive the book and CD set.  (Just write "Lettermen" in your subject line and email it to:  forgottenhits@aol.com ... be sure to include your name and mailing address in your email.)  Good luck to all!


Here's the email from Gary Theroux that got the ball rolling this time around ...

>>>The original Lettermen are legally barred from not only performing under the name that they made famous but even from individually MENTIONING that they are former members in their publicity!   They bill themselves instead as "Reunion" -- which caused a conflict with the studio group that recorded "Life is a Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)"!  (Gary Theroux)

Hi Kent,   
I just read Gary Theroux’s comment about Jim Pike and Bobby Engemann’s departure from the Lettermen and not being able to use the name in any form, having to start a NEW group called "Reunion".  Gary is correct, but I would like to tell the accurate "rest of the story", fill in the gaps and tell how it ended up.  I think it will make for interesting reading for all your Forgotten Hits readers.  

Jim was the catalyst in putting the Lettermen together and was the creative force in the group.  When they first got together they were deciding on a name and ended up choosing the Lettermen.  (When Jim invited Tony to join him and Bob and they were searching for a name, Bob mentioned the Lettermen and Tony said he wasn’t sure they could use it because he sang in a group years earlier headed up by a guy by the name of Mike Barnett, and they were using the name.  Jim and Bob said, "Call him and see if he is still using it", so Tony called and Mike wasn’t, so they grabbed it.  

When “The Way You Look Tonight,” took off, they went down and registered the Lettermen name in all three of their names and Capitol sent out a cease and desist letter to all the groups at that time that they knew of who were using the name.  There was one group in particular who recorded for Liberty Records (a big label at that time) that had just released a 45 called “Hey Big Brain”.  It was not successful.  They were an R & B group with five members, and since our Lettermen had the first hit, by law, we were entitled to use the name exclusively.  There was another group called “The Lettermen Trio”, headed up by Sammy Vandenberg that also had no record success, who also I’m sure got a letter from Capitol.  

After the first hit in 1961, they acquired a manager by the name of Jess Rand, who also managed Sam Cooke.  Jess suggested the guys go and register the Lettermen name in all three of their names and with that, they had a  contract stating that if any one of them decided to leave the group they could only sell their interest to the remaining members and not to an outside party.  This is generally common in a contract of this nature.  In 1967, Bobby hated the road with a passion.  He had a wife and several kids and hated being away from them and so he went to Jim and said he wanted out.  Bobby sold his interest to Jim and Tony and now they owned the Lettermen name 50 / 50.  They started auditioning guys to take Bob’s place.  I remember the auditions were at Jim’s home in Toluca Lake and Kenny Rogers (at this time was in between the First Edition and his own success) was one of the people who was there.  I, of course, auditioned, but I had an advantage because I knew all the parts to most of the songs in the show and I had been in the Lettermen backup band, the Wilson Brown Trio and would come up and sing the fourth part on Summer Place during the shows.    

Well, I got the job ... probably because I was cheap.  Jim said he was worried about fan rejection of a replacement and thought a brother would be more readily accepted.  What also helped with the change was the fact that immediately after the change we had the biggest hit of the Lettermen's career with “Goin' Out of My Head / Can’t Take My Eyes Off You".  It was a huge impact record and the first of its kind.  It was the first time a medley had been integrated back and forth between songs.  There were other medleys that had been recorded but they would just go from one song to the next and not back again.  We were nominated for a Grammy in 1968 and received a gold record for the song.  I believe there were five songs nominated that year and we came in a close second to “Mrs. Robinson”, by Simon and Garfunkel.  

Years later, Jim was being plagued with vocal problems so he had our younger brother Donny fill in for him.  Tony was legally pressuring Jim to leave the group and eventually Jim got tired of Tony on his back so he decided to sell the Lettermen name.  Now remember, Tony was the only one Jim could sell to and this was 1976.  Even though Jim and Tony shared a partnership in the name, Jim was still the creative and deciding force ... and what I mean by that is not to say that over the years Bob or Tony or I didn't have creative input ... we did ... but it still had to go through Jim because the Lettermen was his baby and his vision.  When Jim bowed out, he had to sell his interest to Tony.

I left the Lettermen in 1981 and about the time I left, Jim had gotten his voice back and Bobby was talking to Jim just about every day to start a Reunion group.  They found Ric de Azevedo to be the third voice.  Ric was part of the King Family, who had a long running family variety show on ABC and recorded for Capitol.  The three of them worked up a show and of course did all the Lettermen hits.  Both Jim and Bobby had signed agreements when they left the Lettermen that they had no rights to use the Lettermen name  and they didn’t ... in fact, in their bio the closest they came was to say, “The guys who won their letters at Capitol Records".  

This seemed to be too much for Tony so he sued them.  I don’t know what Tony was thinking because the Judge laughed at his charges and told him, "You have no right to keep these guys from working.  What do you want them to do, have plastic surgery so they don’t look like the Lettermen and have their voices altered so they don’t sound like the records?"  The Judge said, "This is ridiculous ... I’m allowing them to use the Lettermen name biographically and they can also say who they were during their live shows."  This was real boost to the group to be able to do this.  Tony should have left well enough alone.  He jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

In 1995 Bobby was having some health issues and had to leave the Reunion and once again I was asked to take his place.  That’s how it stands today.  In January of last year, Bobby pasted away due to complications from open heart surgery.  He will surely be missed and no finer gentleman ever there was.

Gary Pike 
Reunion / The Lettermen   

More behind-the-scenes Lettermen stories tomorrow in Forgotten Hits.  And don't forget to register for your chance to win the combo pack of Jim Pike's biography and The Lettermen's Greatest Hits CD!