Lettermen singer, Vegas go way back

Wayne Newton, Paul Anka and Tony Butala?

It helps to mention Butala has been the guiding light of the vocal group The Lettermen for 50 years or so.

But his name also is the toughest to come up with if you started talking about Las Vegas’ “head start” program in the 1950s; entertainers who sang in the Rat Pack era but couldn’t legally drink with them. They are in their 60s — not 83 like Don Rickles — and still work here.

Newton, who opens his autobiographic “Once Before I Go” at the Tropicana on Tuesday, gave the same name (prematurely, it turns out) to an autobiography in 1989. In it, he recalls auditioning for the Fremont lounge when he was 15. He dropped out of a Phoenix high school in 1959 to become Mr. Las Vegas.

Anka was a wizened 18-year-old, the singer of “Diana” and “You Are My Destiny,” when he worked as Sophie Tucker’s Sahara opening act in 1959.

Butala, whose Lettermen wrap a weekend at the South Point tonight, was a child star, too — or at least the voice of one. Singing in Los Angeles’ Mitchell Boys Choir led to “ghost singing” for Tommy Rettig on “Lassie” and in the cult movie, “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” His high school vocal group, The Fourmost, became The Lettermen after Connie Stevens left it for the TV show “Hawaiian Eye.”

The group’s first Las Vegas gig in February 1958 predated “Legends in Concert.” It was called “The Newcomers of 1928.” The Lettermen played Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, which launched Bing Crosby.

“It had this rickety, wobbly, papier-mache spaceship that took the whole stage of the Desert Inn,” Butala recalls. The idea was that a misguided moon launch goes back in time, to an earlier generation of stars such as Rudy Vallee.

Butala did a dueling sketch with 62-year-old Buster Keaton. “What an acrobat he was,” he recalls. Keaton did the same pratfall, “every night, for six weeks straight, exactly in the same position, ending up with his nose against the nose of a customer in a ringside-center seat.”

When The Lettermen made it back in 1963, they had hits with “The Way You Look Tonight” and “When I Fall in Love.” They remained pop stars, but shared manager Jess Rand with Sammy Davis Jr., and he “knew that you did have to keep a presence in Las Vegas if you wanted a rounded career.”

Butala has a winery in Napa and is part of the less-successful Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pa., currently shuttered by the recession. Butala would like to bring it, or some version of it, to Las Vegas.

In lieu of that, he’ll keep bringing himself.

He has had one of the longest runs of any vocal-group singer, rivaling Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers or Duke Fakir, who is still with the Four Tops.

“You can’t retire from something that’s not a job,” he says.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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