Sunday, December 7, 2014

Wrapping Up The Lettermen

Thank you all for the GREAT response to our recent Lettermen series.   

Before we go any further, let me offer our congratulations to all winners!

Rich Klein of Plano, Texas and Ed Salamon of Nashville, TN will both be receiving autographed copies of Jim Pike's autobiography ... along with a copy of The Lettermen's All-Time Greatest Hits CD.  (We had a really good turn out for this one ... Gary Pike picked two lottery numbers out of a possible 91!!!)  Gary says he will get these out to you before the end of the year.   

Meanwhile, here are some of your wrap-up comments ... with commentary by Gary Pike himself!  Thanks again, everybody!  (kk)   

Thanks so much for The Lettermen series, kk.   
The song “The Way You Look Tonight” has to be at the top of The Great American Songbook list.
I guess like many of us Baby Boomers, the first time we heard “The Way You Look Tonight” was by The Lettermen. The Jerome Kern / Dorothy Fields collaboration was first made popular by Fred Astaire, who song writers of the 30’s & 40’s seemed to use even more then Crosby or Sinatra to plug their tunes.
Sinatra had brought this song to the forefront on two occasions with the first being his  60’s original recording and then brought back with the popularity of the Michelob commercials of the 80’s. If you throw in Ella, Billie, Rod Stewart and Michael Buble and all the jazz renditions, you must rank this song at the very top of the list.
My favorite Lettermen songs our “Come Back Silly Girl, and “Our Winter Love”.
As much as I love all the great renditions of The Lettermen library of tunes, I have to go with most of the original recordings only because of the orchestration, which in many cases had as much to do with the popularity of these tune in the first place.
I guess the exception to the rule for me is “Goin' Out Of My Head / Can’t Take My Eyes  Off Of You”. The song carried a lot of personal baggage for me when it came out. I guess I might say I was in a better place when the Little Anthony & The Imperials and Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons hits were big.  
Thanks again for the series, Kent. It’s funny, how so many of these great harmony 60’s groups were influenced by The Four Freshmen. I guess when you form a group and you’re looking for three outstanding vocalist as well as three fantastic harmonists you’re bound to go through many changes in a 50 some year career.
Best to all of the Lettermen , Réunionese, etc.

I know Fred Astaire recorded it first in the movie Swing Time and then Doris Day ... but I always thought Sinatra recorded it after The Lettermen.  I could be wrong.  I always remember Doris Day's version.  Hers and Fred Astaire’s  are the ones I remember being talked about.
Gary Pike

For the record, The Lettermen's version of "The Way You Look Tonight" came out in 1961.  Sinatra cut his version in 1964 ... so Gary is right ... it DID come after The Lettermen's version.  (Frank's is a great version, too ... and certainly noteworthy enough to feature here today!)

Fred Astaire's original version won The Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936 thanks to its inclusion in "Swing Time", during which he sang it to Ginger Rogers.  But the song didn't stop there ... it was later covered by everybody from Bing Crosby to Tony Bennett to Billie Holiday to Peggy Lee to Ella Fitzgerald ... even Mel Torme, Andy Williams, The Coasters (!), Chad and Jeremy and Johnny Maestro took a crack at this one.  So did Rod Stewart, Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr. and The Cherry Poppin' Daddies!!!  It truly IS a timeless classic.  (It also plays in a key scene in one of my favorite movies, "My Best Friend's Wedding"!) 
Incredibly, despite this saturation, the only CHARTED version belong to The Lettermen (#8, 1961).  In addition to the original HIT version, they also cut it as a disco track ... and, as we featured last week in our Lettermen Mini-Series, as part of a medley with Chris DeBurgh's "Lady In Red".  (kk)  

Hi Kent,  
I hope I’m not too late to enter your competition.  
I’ve been a Lettermen fan since first hearing them in 1961, as a 17 year old! Also love the way Reunion are keeping the sound going ... Jim is just incredible. Such a shame to read about all the shenanigans between the two groups, but it’s made for fantastic reading, thoroughly enjoyed it.
Phil Goulding,
Merseyside, England
Forgotten Hits Readers would do themselves well to pick up a copy of Jim's book ... here is an ordering link through ...
Pure and simple, I admire the Lettermen but coming out of that genre they just don't compare to The Vogues.
"Magic Town" remains one of the most underrated love song in music history. "Magic" is a tune that resonates with sadness unfulfilled desire:
"They told me the streets were all paved with gold but these dirty sidewalks are grey and concrete cold."
I had the good fortune to emcee the Vogues at the Chicago Theater seven or eight years ago. They were nothing short of magnificent. Still featured the same lead singer and high tenor.
Letterman - solid, rock solid.
Vogues - Majestic.
Chet Coppock, Author: Chet Coppock:Laying it on the Line
I've never had the pleasure of seeing either act live ... but I did see The Vogues on one of those PBS '60's Specials a short while ago and I have to agree that they sounded outstanding.  ("Turn Around, Look At Me" sounded better than the record vocally ... and it was nearly 45 years after the fact!!!)
I like all of The Vogues' hits, too ... they started out with a bit more of a "rock edge", doing tracks like "You're The One" and "Five O'Clock World" ... then they disappeared for about two years and came back even stronger with their Top Ten Hits "Turn Around, Look At Me" and "My Special Angels", both remakes of much older hits that (for me anyway) became the definitive recordings of these songs.
The Lettermen were a different style to be sure ... their primary target was "romantic America" ... and as such I think they intentionally kept their sound a little more "laid back" and relaxed ... although I've heard that they, too, really sounded incredible live in concert.
Listening to Reunion's new tracks they're still spot-on vocally ... and I would love to see them up on stage again now.  I know Ron Onesti's got Tony's "Lettermen" coming for Christmas next year ... maybe we can convince him to bring Reunion to Chicago, too, for an all-hits show!  (kk)

Hey Kent,
I've really enjoyed your series on The Lettermen. It's always interesting to take a look on the inside of a group's history. My older brother was a super-critic of pop music and I listened to everything he said when it came to which sound worked and which didn't. We had our favorite vocal groups that were famous for their harmonies. We loved The Kingston Trio, The Beach Boys, The Four Preps, etc. My brother had at least one or two albums by The Lettermen, and wow, did they have smooth vocal harmonies! But, things changed when we first heard "Theme From a Summer Place" on the radio. OMG, one of the guys was singing falsetto, and we didn't like it one bit! He couldn't hold a candle to Frankie Valli or Brian Wilson. The sound of the group was changed forever! After a time, we thought "the new guy" was screeching the high notes, but the timeline was wrong. Of course, I know now it was Jim Pike soaring above the other two, before brother Gary joined the group. I also realize now that the group was changing with the times. Future recordings probably wouldn't have been hits without the "new" sound. In a world when the British Invasion took over the pop music scene, The Lettermen hung in there and stayed the course, and good for them! My experience with falsetto singing was when I first sang with this area's opera company. The vocal coach wanted to test my range, to determine if I was a bass, baritone, or tenor. Of course, my macho complex wanted me to be a bass. After singing up and down the scales, which seemed like for hours, the coach asked me to repeat in falsetto. (What? Really?) So I did. He later told me that baritones can sing falsetto much better that tenors and basses. I didn't know that. He also said that after a man passes his mid-thirties, his vocal range starts going up again, so go for it, Jim!! Hope to catch the "Reunion" band soon!
- John LaPuzza

I asked Gary if The Lettermen were put under pressure by Capitol Records to sound "more contemporary" and, as such, THIS is why the falsetto was entered into their recordings ... but he says no ... and that, in fact, The Lettermen were singing falsetto before either The Four Seasons or The Beach Boys ever even charted! 

The Lettermen had their first hit just about a year before the Beach Boys and a couple of years before the Four Seasons and were utilizing the high falsetto before them.  Brian Wilson and Jim Pike really liked the Four Freshmen, who usually had Bob Flanagan singing the melody on top.  When the Beach Boys first signed with Capitol Records there were a couple of times the Lettermen and the Beach Boys sang Four Freshmen songs in the parking lot at Capitol.  There were other groups that used a high falsetto instead of a natural tenor before the Lettermen.  It was the contemporary sound of the day. On most of  Frankie Valli’s solo hits outside of the Four Seasons he didn’t use his falsetto.   Since all of the Lettermen are baritones and not tenors, the vocal arrangements are generally all very tight close harmonies.   And with no real tenor, the top part, most of the time was in falsetto.  We did record some songs where the top part was in full voice (Shangri La), and some that were four part harmony (Summer Place), Some that had the melody on top and some where the parts moved around the melody ... but with the popularity of the Four Seasons, of course if there was a song that did lend itself to a strong falsetto, Jim was sure to oblige.

I am so happy that you’ve been giving well deserved ink to the Lettermen.  Over time I don’t think they have ever received the recognition they deserve.  As a kid in junior high in the late 60s, I loved the incredible harmonies of the three Lettermen.  As a kid, I bought mostly singles, but with the Lettermen I bought the entire album. 

The majority of time I felt they always brought something new and different to a cover they were doing.  One thing I’ve always been curious about is whose idea was it to take two 60s hits (“Going Out of My Head” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) and put them in a medley and then decide to record the song in a live concert setting, rather than a studio.  Very few hits in the late 60s were recorded at a concert venue.  I never saw listed on the 45 RPM where the Lettermen’s biggest hit was recorded?  Do you know, Kent?  
When I was a freshman in high school I already had the radio bug and started my career doing weekend radio and writing pop music reviews for Boston area newspapers.  The first interview I ever conducted with my portable cassette player was Jim Pike, Gary Pike and Tony Butula backstage after a concert at a venue at the Prudential Center in Boston.  The three guys were upbeat and enthusiastic after putting on a fabulous concert and never made me feel like “Who’s this teenager interviewing us?”  My second interview was the next night with Three Dog Night backstage at Boston Garden.  Two different musical sounds, but I loved them both.  
There’s an entire generation that doesn’t realize how popular the Lettermen were in the 60s and 70s.  I remember them appearing on the biggest variety shows of the day: Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Merv Griffin and more.  
Long live the music of the Letterman!  I hope Gary’s group Reunion travels to the NY area for a concert in the near future.  
Here’s a You Tube link of some Lettermen TV memories and recent footage of Reunion.
-Tom Cuddy / New York, NY

I had always heard that Jim Pike came up with the medley arrangement for "Goin' Out Of My Head" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."  I asked Gary if he could shed a little more light on this topic ...    

Going Out Of My Head / Can’t Take My Eyes Off You was an accident.  The songs were being worked up separately for the show and Perry Botkin (our arranger) was helping at the piano.  The songs were in the same key.  Perry claims to have come up with idea and so does Jim.  The rehearsals were at Jim’s house and I was there but I couldn’t tell you exactly who it was.  There are some people who still think to this day that it is one song and not a medley .  They think that’s the way Going Out Of My Head is supposed to sound. Others think that’s the way Can’t Take My Eyes Off You sounds like.   That’s why they fit together so well.  

When we did our Ed Sullivan Series a couple of years ago, Gary sent in this photo of The Lettermen accepting a gold record on Sullivan's program ... thought it'd be kinda cool to share it again now ...


We also had three or four readers write in and ask how they would go about booking Reunion for live appearances.  (Gary has told me before that most of their gigs are corporate affairs ... but I thought may this extra boost of publicity might entice them to head out on the road again.)  Here's how he responded to that question:

As The Reunion we do shows, of course.  We know the name Reunion is quite generic so that’s why we like to put a "the" in front as that helps and it really describes who we are.  People can go to our website to get more information.
(One g between singing and group.)
Thanks Kent, 
Gary Pike