It’s Saturday, March 10, 2018, and the audience is steadily filing into Lakewood, NJ’s historic Strand Theater for a rare Jersey Shore appearance by the well-known pop vocal trio, The Lettermen!
Inside the beautiful Strand lobby, we meet Shanna, 17, a student from Toms River, who is here to enjoy the close harmony singing of this group which scored two Top Ten Billboard hits in the ’60s with “When I Fall in Love” and “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
Shanna, a high school senior who plans to be a music teacher, tells us, “I came to see The Lettermen with my grandparents,” revealing, “My grandmother and I often sing harmony together in church.”
Shanna’s grandmother, Sue from Toms River, says, “I’m a big fan of the The Lettermen. I learned to harmonize by listening to their records — until I wore them out!”
Going on to add, “I like to expose my granddaughter to all different styles of music — doo wop, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s,” Sue says, “I try to pick good singers,” acknowledging, “I stopped giving ‘things’ as gifts to my grandchildren. Now, I give them ‘experiences,’” explaining, “Experiences are what they’ll remember — not a shirt that doesn’t fit them any longer.”
Joining them for many of their extended family performances is Shanna’s grandfather, John, who is also here tonight to experience The Lettermen, commenting, “I like to go to concerts — I enjoy all different kinds of music!”
Inside the comfortable Strand Theater auditorium, the lights dim and an announcer’s voice states, “The Lettermen have recorded over seventy-five CDs and records and have earned eighteen gold records worldwide with over $100,000,000 in sales and five Grammy nominations!”
The Lettermen’s “two-man orchestra” — keyboardist and musical director Ken McKinney and drummer Jerry Leoni — take their respective places on the stage. Together, they perform a groovin’ instrumental arrangement of David Benoit’s infectious “Freedom at Midnight” as audience members sway back and forth to the music.
The crowd whistles and applauds as images of The Lettermen appearing on TV with the likes of Merv Griffin, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, and more appear on the large screen behind the musicians.
Soon, The Lettermen —Bobby Poynton, Tony Butala, and Donovan Tea — take the stage opening with a rockin’ rendition of The Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free.”
Taking turns singing lead and interspersing the vocals with their trademark close harmony arrangements, the trio sounds as strong as ever. The crowd loves their upbeat vocal stylings and claps as they segue into their version of Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
Following avid applause, The Lettermen perform the classic “More” to a disco beat with Tea, Poynton, and Butala taking turns handling the lead, each singing the song with his own distinctive style.
Rich vocal harmonies are again featured on “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the trio holding out the very last note to the audience’s delight.
After more applause, The Lettermen take a moment to welcome the audience with Butala asking, “How many have seen us before?”
Many hands go up — especially in the front of the house — before Butala asks, “And how many are seeing us for the first time?” after which even more hands go up.
Announcing, “This is our 56th year in show business,” he introduces his partners revealing that “Bobby Poynton is from Chicago and joined the group in 1988.”
He also says, “Donovan Tea is from Nashville and has been with the group for 34 years.”
Tea returns the favor by introducing Tony Butala, revealing he’s “from Sharon, Pennsylvania,” and describing him as a founding member of the trio who, as he explains, “started the legacy that put the ‘L’ in Lettermen.”
As an image of a Capitol 45 rpm record flashes on the screen behind them, The Lettermen perform a medley of hits which includes “Traces/Memories,” “Hurt so Bad,” and “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” — at which point Tea jokingly encourages audience members to “put your arms around your neighbors — whether you know them or not.”
Continuing the medley, the guys perform “Shangri-La” and “Turn Around, Look at Me,” their close harmonies building as the music swells with the ebb and flow of these classic ’60s tunes.
The crowd cheers heartily as the trio reveals, “The original concept for this group was to find three soloists who could sing three-part harmony,” explaining, “and that became ‘The Lettermen sound.’”
Founder Tony Butala talks about how he moved from Pennsylvania to California as a child, revealing that, as a youngster, he not only performed on the soundtrack to Disney’s Peter Pan, but also recorded “High Hopes” with Frank Sinatra. Here, he performs his own personal tribute to Sinatra with a trio of Cole Porter tunes including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Night and Day.” Roaming through the audience as he performs, Butala shakes hands and invites audience members to join in with him singing, and several members of the crowd happily oblige.
After Butala returns to the stage, Tea quips, “Lakewood has some good singers tonight!”
Poynton is featured next as he sings Lonestar’s “I’m Already There (Message from Home).” Audience members rise to their feet following his poignant rendition of this heartfelt number.
Donovan Tea is featured next. Performing “Cowboy Love” from high up in the Strand balcony, Tea shakes hands with patrons up there before running downstairs to the orchestra seats and singing for them. Ultimately, he rejoins his pals on stage.
As the audience cheers and applauds, Tea exclaims, “They said nobody goes up in the balcony here at the Strand, and we proved ’em wrong tonight!” After joking, “All the smart people are sitting in the balcony because we look better from back there,” Tea dedicates his next number to “any father of a daughter” — a lovely original composition entitled “Daddy’s Girl.”
All three Lettermen move down into the audience together to sing The 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” and simultaneously pose for pictures with members of the crowd who join them in singing along!
Rich harmonies abound on the trio’s version of “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera, before the group concludes Act I with a powerful rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.
After a short intermission, a video from TV’s The Jack Benny Show flashes on the big screen showing The Lettermen explaining to Benny how they got their name — from “doing extracurricular activities in college” and “earning a ‘letter.’”
Soon, the stage lights come up, and the trio returns, each singer wearing a sweater with a large “L” on the side. Coming out swinging with another medley of ’60s hits, the group performs “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Theme from A Summer Place,” “When I Fall in Love,” “She Cried,” “Come Back Silly Girl,” and a song which Butala reveals “Charlie Chaplin wrote” — “Smile.”
The crowd adores the medley and shows their appreciation with enthusiastic applause. Afterwards, Butala talks about a song he’s “sung almost every show for 56 years,” and the group launches into one of the highlight numbers of the evening, their humorous rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story where Butala and his stagemates sing to an audience member who happens to have that very name.
Bobby Poynton’s bright tenor is featured on “I’m Mr. Lonely,” and then Donovan Tea — sounding somewhat reminiscent of a young BJ Thomas — takes the lead on another tune he composed entitled “A Little Boy’s Prayer.”
The audience loves The Lettermen’s take on Climax’s “Precious and Few,” a number which segues into The Association’s “Cherish,” complete with a barbershop quartet-style ending.
Poynton tells the audience a true story about how he once auditioned for Les Misérables and even won the role of Jean Valjean in the production, but he didn’t accept the part, opting instead to travel the world performing with The Lettermen. Here, he sings another highlight number of the evening, his powerful rendition of a number from Les Mis, “Bring Him Home.”
His full tenor filling the theater, audience members rise to their feet for his moving performance!
Beautiful three-part harmony fills the auditorium on the group’s 1967 hit, “Going Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”
The Lettermen dedicate their next number, “God Bless the USA” to “all of the first responders” both in the audience and across the nation. The marching beat of the drum brings audience members to their feet in respect as the crowd cheers not only for the music but for their country!
Following waves and bows, The Lettermen perform their encore number — a touching a cappella rendition of “I Believe” in three-part harmony. An image of a single candle flame burns onscreen behind them as they sing, their performance bringing the crowd to its feet one last time!
As the audience makes its way out of the theater and back into the Strand lobby, we take a moment to chat with several members of the crowd who share their opinions of tonight’s performance.
Exclaims Ronnie from Middletown, “The Lettermen were just spectacular! I waited 55 years to see them in person,” before revealing, “Today’s my birthday — and it’s been the birthday of a lifetime!”
Ronnie’s husband, Tom, smiles before acknowledging, “And I gave her the gift — I knew just what she wanted!”
We also chat with Pauline from Jackson who remarks, “The Lettermen have beautiful voices — I just loved them!”
Bob from Little Egg Harbor recalls, “This is my 25th Lettermen show,” before commenting, “And it was another outstanding performance. The Lettermen have great voices and great talent. I’ve been a fan since 1975.” Disclosing, “I have all their albums and CDs, so I’m sort of biased,” Bob further adds, “I like their harmonies and how they interact with the audience,” exclaiming, “It makes you feel like they’re singing right to you!”
Here in the Strand lobby, as they sign autographs for their fans, we take a moment to chat with each member of The Letterman and ask him how he enjoyed performing here in the Garden State tonight.
Replies Tea, “We love this audience! They came to have a good time, and we had a great time performing here at the Strand,” adding, “and the Strand has beautiful sound — we’d love to come back.”
Tony Butala agrees, exclaiming, “I like performing everywhere! We’ve played in Atlantic City, NJ, and we have a lot of friends there,” before adding, “and there are lots of warm, intelligent people right here in Lakewood, too. We loved performing for them tonight.”
Lastly, we chat with Bobby Poynton who — as he finishes up an autograph for a fan — looks up and exclaims, “If every theater in New Jersey is like the Strand, we LOVE it!”
For more information on The Lettermen, please go to thelettermen.com. To learn more about upcoming concerts at The Strand — including Tavaris with Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes on Apr. 13; The Grass Roots, Paul Revere’s Raiders, and The 1910 Fruitgum Co. on Apr. 28; and Let’s Hang On, a tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, on Aug. 3 — please go to strand.org.