The Lettermen are a world-renowned pop vocal trio founded in 1959. The group has recorded over 75 albums including two Top 10 pop singles, 16 Top 10 Adult Contemporary singles, and 18 international gold records. Vocalist Donovan Tea joined The Lettermen in 1984 and, next to now-retired founding member Tony Butala, is the longest-tenured member of the group.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Donovan Tea and asked him about his musical childhood, his performances with various stars of the stage and screen, his work with The Lettermen, and what he’s been up to these days.
Spotlight Central: We understand you were born in Houston, TX. Was your family musical?
Yes, as a matter of fact. My dad had a recording contract while he was still in the Navy, back in Los Angeles — but nothing ever came of it — and my mother sounded just like Dinah Shore, if you’re familiar with her. One of my first musical memories — and, indeed, the first time music ever really touched my heart — happened when I was about five years old.
I can’t believe I can still remember this: We were in Houston and I can still see them standing together with their arms around each other, facing me. I was on the floor with my elbows up on a footstool, and they were singing me a song called “South of the Border.” I remember after they finished singing it to me, I just burst into tears, and they both came over to me and said, “Why are you crying?”
Now, the song is in a minor key — [sings] “South of the border/Down Mexico way” — and it moved me emotionally, but, as a five-year-old, looking back, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the intellect to really put my finger on what was going on, and I just said to them, “You don’t love me!”
They both ran over to me and said, “Of course we do!” But I know now that it was just the emotion of the song, the words — and, of course, a minor key can always tug at your heartstrings — but I can still see them and hear them performing together for me today.
Spotlight Central: Did you play any musical instruments as a kid?
I played a little guitar and I took piano lessons, but if you ever heard me play the guitar or the piano, you’d say, “Gosh, I really hope that guy can sing!”
Spotlight Central: [Laughs] What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I listened to everything, but when I bought records and spent my own money, I bought Andy Williams records. I just loved Andy Williams, and I still do. Later on, I was very lucky to get to work at his theater.
And I also went to see him one time after I joined The Lettermen, and he actually introduced me from the stage — The Lettermen were appearing up the street at the time and I came over between our shows to listen to him. To me, he was the consummate guy. He was cool without trying to be cool, and he was funny — because that was his natural way — and, of course, his voice just spoke for itself.
Spotlight Central: You went to Pasadena High School and started singing professionally at the age of 15. How did that come about?
My parents moved around a lot. When we were in Pasadena, CA, there was a very nice department store there called Hinshaw’s Department Store. At the time, they liked to go around the area and do fashion shows for ladies groups and things like that; it was a good PR thing, and they’d also probably sell a few clothes. The lady who was in charge of the store had either seen me in a school play or in a show or something, and asked me to come sing for their fashion show. So that was my first professional gig and I said, “Hey, this is great!”
Spotlight Central: And then, at 17, didn’t you win a vocal competition in England?
Yes. I went over to England. I had a wonderful high school teacher named Carolyn Shannon, who was probably the reason why I had the confidence to even try to really go into this business as a grown-up in order to make a living at it. She thought I would be a good classical singer, so she got me into the Roger Wagner Los Angeles Master Chorale at the age of 17 where I was the youngest member.
There was an opportunity to go overseas, and I went over to Guildford, England and won a gold medal and, after that, got to tour Europe and sing at the Sistine Chapel, Notre Dame Cathedral — you name it — so that was great for me.
But I also did a show at the Hollywood Bowl — as a member of the Roger Wagner Los Angeles Master Chorale — where I was just one of the members of the chorale, not a soloist — and the featured baritone soloist appearing with us happened to be one of the top 20 in the world. This was back in 1973. After the show, he went out and got into his ’63 Volkswagen and I remember looking at him doing that and thinking to myself, “You know, Bob Dylan can hardly sing a lick and he’s got more limousines that he can count! I’m never gonna be one of the top guys in the world of classical music,” so I switched over to singing pop — which I liked to do anyway — and I joined a group called The Young Americans, which turned out to be a great thing for me.
Spotlight Central: Yes! At age 18, you became a lead singer for The Young Americans, a group which you credit for helping you with what you’re doing today. Tell us more about them.
Well, the group has changed over the years. They still perform, but they do a lot of other things, too. Back when I was in The Young Americans, they had two groups: there was an “A” group and a “B” group. The “A” group toured and did shows as the opening acts for celebrities and TV shows, and the “B” group did six shows a day, six times a week, at Disneyland.
Spotlight Central: Which group were you in?
I was fortunate enough to be in the “A” group, and it was like going to college for what I wanted to do. In college, they’ll teach you classic singing and how to vocalize and things like that, but at the time, there was really no place that taught you how to be what I’d call a “pop singer.” You just had to go out and find yourself and find an audience.
So The Young Americans was like going to college for me. With them, I opened for everybody from Rich Little, to Sammy Davis, Jr., to Tony Bennett. I even did a Christmas special with Bing Crosby — one of his last Christmas specials — and so, with that group, I got to sit back and learn from the guys who were actually doing it, and I’m so grateful for that experience.
Spotlight Central: With The Young Americans, you also got to perform for President Ford, and even got to tap dance on television with Fred Astaire, didn’t you?
[Laughs] Yes, and just like with my guitar playing and piano playing, if you saw me tap dance, you would really hope I could sing!
But, yes, on that Christmas special, which was called Merry Christmas, Fred, from the Crosbys, Fred Astaire was on and we actually did a top hat and tails number with canes, and I got to tap dance with him. People who are really good tap dancers really hate me for being so lucky to have danced with Fred Astaire! It was, again, just one of those great opportunities that I was very lucky to have.
Spotlight Central: And what about singing backup on “White Christmas” for Bing Crosby?
Yes. You know I still get checks from that? They’ll do little collages — little snippets — of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” through the years on his various TV specials just using a word or a line or two, and then they’ll cut to another year to get through all the years he did that. And I’m right behind Bing Crosby on the left side of your screen — to his right behind him — as we’re singing “White Christmas,” and since my face is in the clip, I still get royalties from it. It was a real thrill for me to meet icons like that and actually see them work back then.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of work, in 1977, you started working at The Horn, the famed nightclub in the Los Angeles area — a place where you said you really learned your craft. Isn’t it true that a number of performers were discovered there?
Absolutely. People like Jim Nabors, Vikki Carr, Jack Jones, and Tom Dreesen were discovered there, and the list just goes on and on and on. The Horn was owned by a man named Mr. Ric Ricardi who had been a vocal coach at MGM movie studios and who had worked with Marilyn Monroe and other great stars. When he retired from the movie business, he opened his club in Santa Monica, and he would have five or six — or maybe even up to eight — singers a night perform with, maybe, two or three comedians to break things up.
He had quite the clientele, too. It was nothing to have stars in the audience who would just come in to see who was performing that night, and it was a great, great opportunity to get to sing for them. Like I said before, when you go into pop music, you have to find who you are, and what works for you, and how people perceive you. What songs do people want to hear you sing? You may want to sing a rock song, but it may not be the right thing to do for somebody like you. You just have to find out who you are, and that was the place where I really got to hone my craft and find out who I was.
Spotlight Central: After that, in the late-‘70s, you worked on cruise ships, and then started performing in various hotel casinos in Las Vegas. In one show at the Dunes Hotel you were given a 14-minute solo production number on stage, and isn’t that where The Lettermen first saw you?
Yes, you’re right. The Lettermen were appearing across the street at the Flamingo and came across the street to see our show with all the beautiful girls we had in it and saw me quite by accident, I’m sure. And about three years later, when they were looking for a replacement for somebody who had dropped out of the group, they remembered me and gave me a call.
I remember coming home from between shows at the Stardust and there was a message on the old answering tape machine we used to use back then. It was Tony Butala of The Lettermen who said, “Please give me a call. I’d like to talk to you.” So I called him up between shows, and the next day I drove out to Los Angeles where I sang with Tony and Mark Preston, the other gentleman in the group, who had actually been a friend of mine for a long time, and still is. We shook hands that night and it’s been, I guess, coming up on 37 years that I’ve been a member of the group.
Spotlight Central: Rather than simply being referred to as “harmony group,” The Lettermen have been described as a “three soloists who harmonize.” Would you agree with that characterization?
Absolutely. If you listen to any of the recordings, The Lettermen don’t phrase like a vocal group. They phrase like a soloist. And after being in The Young Americans, and being in the Roger Wagner Master Chorale, and other groups like that, I’ll be honest with you: as much as I respect those organizations and are very grateful to have been a part of them, I did not want to go back to be singing [phrases his words in a robotic manner] a baritone part…in a group…and be that guy. I wanted to proceed with my own solo career and do what I wanted to do. I agreed to do The Lettermen — and I was very honored to have been asked — because, in that first audition, I found out that there’s not just one guy on the melody, one guy on the middle part, and one guy on the low part. You switch off all the time — sometimes right in the middle of a song — and if we do our job right, you actually won’t know who’s singing what part at what time.
Spotlight Central: Which makes it that much more challenging for you.
Right, it never gets boring.
Spotlight Central: And, nowadays, as part of The Lettermen, you get to sing so many great songs. So what can you tell us about The Lettermen’s first big hit, “The Way You Look Tonight,” which climbed the Billboard charts back in 1961?
You know, it’s a wonderful story and it just illustrates the magic of show business. The Lettermen thought they were a doo-wop group. That’s what was popular in the late-‘50s and early-‘60s, before The Beatles and others came in and changed everything. So The Letterman performed this doo-wop song beautifully — fantastically — and they were as good a doo-wop group as anyone could ever be. The name of the song was “That’s My Desire.” It was an old Frankie Laine song they were doing in a doo-wop style, and they decided to record it. Now back in those days, unless you were already a star, you didn’t get to make an album. You would put out a single, and if that single got enough notoriety, the record label would sign you and let you do an album.
Well, on each single, as you know, they have an “A” side and a “B” side. Of course, “That’s My Desire” is the song they chose to put on the “A” side. But back in those days, when each radio station had multiple disc jockeys who made their own decisions on what records they’d play, if they didn’t like the “A” side, they might — if you were lucky — flip it over to the “B” side and see if that got any recognition from their audience. Or they might just toss the record in the trash can.
Well, as it turns out, “That’s My Desire” got no response at all. It was as if The Lettermen were just another doo-wop group, apparently, and the song wasn’t breaking the ice for them. Most of the DJs out there just tossed the record into the trash, but this one guy — and I believe he was in Detroit, and please forgive me, but I can’t remember his name — he turned the record over and played “The Way You Look Tonight,” and, all of a sudden, the phones started lighting up with people asking, “Who is this group?”
It was something different! The Lettermen were going against everything else that was on the radio. It was something really different — a beautiful, romantic, ballad done by three guys — and, again, they weren’t singing like a vocal group, but were singing, harmonizing, and phrasing like soloists, which was different, too. And that’s the way to make it big in this business. See what’s going to the right, and then start swimming left. That’s how you get noticed. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it certainly worked for The Lettermen.
So it’s a wonderful story and, over the years, I’ve gotten an opportunity to sing with all of the original members of the group. They’re all wonderful guys. We still have one of them with us, Tony Butala — bless his heart — but every one of them would tell you, “We didn’t plan this. It just happened to us, and we ran with it,” and it turned out to be a wonderful thing.
Spotlight Central: The Lettermen have had so many great songs — like “When I Fall in Love,” for example, which rose to #1 on the Easy Listening chart in 1961 — but isn’t it true that “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was the first hit record to ever integrate two songs as one?
You’ve done your homework! Yes, it was the very first medley to hit. Little Anthony had a hit with “Goin’ Out of My Head” and Frankie Valli had a hit with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” so The Lettermen were doing the medley in their live shows. One of their conductors had put together an arrangement suggesting, “Let’s put these two current hit tunes together and do the medley in our show.”
And that brings me to another point: In a Lettermen show, all the hits are basically ballads. And I don’t care if they’re all #1 hits, you can’t do a whole show of ballads — it would put people to sleep — they have to be entertained!
So they were putting these other things in their show to liven things up a little bit, and when they did their live album, that song got picked off the live album by disc jockeys and climbed the charts. And I actually think that record was the biggest money-maker The Lettermen ever had.
Spotlight Central: We’ve seen you with The Lettermen in concert, and one of our favorite numbers you’ll do is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Audiences really enjoy hearing the stirring arrangement, but how is it for you to perform that particular number?
It’s a great song as a soloist, but I think it’s even better for me doing it as a part of The Lettermen. You know, we all sing solos throughout the show, but on that song we all take a solo line or two in the middle and then build it all the way to that climactic end. It really is a great song, but we don’t do it all the time. We’ll rotate between different closers — or encores — like “God Bless the USA” or “McArthur Park,” but “You’ll Never Walk Alone” never fails to get a standing ovation. We really enjoy doing it.
Spotlight Central: In addition to being a singer, you’re also a published songwriter. Several of your original songs have been recorded by The Lettermen including “When I Look at Children” and “She’s a Woman,” and another song of yours which the group recorded, “One More Summer Night,” even received radio airplay to the point where it was ranked just behind “Candle in the Wind” in certain markets. How gratifying was that for you?
Oh, it was wonderful! My only regret is that we weren’t signed to a record company at that time, so there was no momentum behind it. You know there’s a process — and it’s always changing and adapting as time goes by — but you need a record company behind you to actually get your song out all over the country at the same time so it doesn’t just get regional action on, say, the West Coast, and then six months or a year later, get action on the East Coast or whatnot.
You have to be able to put all that together. And we weren’t with a record company, so nothing really happened with it. But I was very flattered that The Lettermen wanted to sing and record it, and even more flattered that where it was getting airplay, it was doing very well. I felt very lucky. Most of this business — 95% of this business, I’d say — is luck. You just try to be prepared and do your best and be ready when the finger of God touches you on the head and gives you a gift. And “One More Summer Night” — and all the airplay we got with that — was really a gift for me, as was just being lucky enough to become a member of The Lettermen.
Spotlight Central: Speaking of gifts, you’ve said that being a songwriter is like being “an antenna” that picks up lyrics and melodies. Has it happened to you where sometimes these lyrics and melodies will come to you right away and you’ll have a song immediately, but other times it can take many months or years to write a song?
Absolutely. And you kind of have to let the song write itself. I mean, anybody can put chords that go together, and anybody can put words that go together, but when you put it in totality you’ll listen to it and go, “Yeah, it’s just not right. It’s a good key, it’s a good melody line, it’s nice words — but it just doesn’t have that ‘something extra’” — so it’s just ok and you decide, “That’s the way I’m gonna leave it for now.” And then there are those other songs you’ll write in 15 minutes.
But I’ve got songs that I’ve been working on and will still revisit when I sit down at the piano, where I’ll have two verses of a song that I’ll just think is gonna be my best work ever but I just can’t come up with a chorus or a bridge, yet I’ll still try. It’s actually really kind of nice to have things like that to go back to. It keeps making you sit down at the piano and try one more time because you never know when the magic is gonna happen.
Spotlight Central: The Lettermen have toured all around the world — visiting places like Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, where you are superstars — and in 2020, the group was honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How have you, personally, enjoyed your journey with the group?
Again, it’s been a wonderful gift. I speak for everybody who has ever been in The Lettermen. There have been a lot of group changes through the years. People don’t realize that one of the originals left in ’66 or ’67, another one left in ’74, and the only one who had been there for most of the time was Tony Butala, and he just retired a couple of years ago.
But to have Capitol Records releasing your songs all over the world made such a difference for The Lettermen. A lot of great singers and entertainers were not with a label that had that kind of range all over the globe, so their songs didn’t reach as many people as The Lettermen’s songs did. We were very fortunate because of that.
We got to tour so many countries around the world, and the Philippines was just a little bit behind the curve on breaking music, so The Lettermen actually had about three years — maybe even four — of hit songs in the Philippines before The Beatles ever reached over there and knocked all the other guys off the charts. The Lettermen became much more iconic in the Philippines, arguably, than in the United States, and we still go back there to tour. We love going there.
Spotlight Central: After seeing you in concert, we know that you guys love your fans. At some point in your shows, you will typically go out into the audience and greet people, and also sign autographs after the show. But right now with the suspension of most concerts, what have you been up to?
Well, I sold my cattle ranch about three years ago, and I wish I hadn’t, because I really could have done a lot of work up there with all this time off! But we still have some property for our horses — we’re down to five horses now — and there’s always something to do. There’s always fence that needs mending, and I’ve got a lot of good friends both here and in Kentucky who have horses and cows and I’ll go up and help them stretch barbed wire and help them take care of their places.
I like to work. I like ranch work. You either like the smell of cows and horses or you don’t, and I do. I like getting my hands dirty.
And I still have a horse that I haven’t trained yet — I’ve trained probably five or six horses on my property — and I’ve got one now that I’m getting ready to start to train just as soon as it warms up a little bit.
So that’s how I’ve kept myself busy, but I also have two teenagers. I married late in life — I got married when I was just shy of 39 — and I had my daughter when I was 48 and my son when I was 50. They’re 17 and 15 now, so they keep us hopping, too.
Spotlight Central: I’ll bet! And where did you say your ranch was located?
In Tennessee, about 40 miles north of Nashville.
Spotlight Central: And did you ever sing while working on the ranch?
[Laughs heartily] Sure! I look back and I never really did, like, any Eddy Arnold yodeling for my cows — I might yell at ’em once in awhile, because they always know what you want ’em to do and they want to do the opposite — but, yeah, I would just sing to myself every once in awhile. When you’re out there on the ranch and there’s nobody around for hundreds of acres and you’re stretching barbed wire, yeah, you’ll hum a tune or two just to pass the time!
Spotlight Central: That’s funny! Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you’d like to say to all your fans who look forward to seeing you and The Lettermen perform again?
Yes. You know, I was so optimistic this would be over by last summer, but now it just seems like I’m not even gonna venture a guess anymore. I know that we’ll be back and the world will be upright again, but I just can’t even imagine when it’s going to be — the sooner the better, of course.
But we’ve been very blessed with very loyal, and very kind “friendships.” We call it our “friend’s club.” They’re great, and they help us a great deal.
One of the things that we’re really into now is the Lettermen Community Project, where we try to partner — and have partnered — with a lot of charity groups. This past year, one of the things we did was to do room makeovers for underprivileged children, and our fans, of course, helped donate to the cause, and we helped out these charities.
And just recently, we sent out holiday greeting cards to hundreds of people in rest homes or to shut-ins who wouldn’t ordinarily get to see their families and things, so we just try to let them know that they’re being thought of. And that’s a great thing that our fans help us with — our outreach to charities.
Spotlight Central: And before we wrap things up, can you tell us about your newest album? It’s called By Request, isn’t it?
Yes. We did that because so many people would come up to us after a show and tell us about songs they would have liked to hear us sing in concert. You know, you’ve only got so many songs you can do in a show, and we try to pace the show — we don’t want to do too many slow ones or too many fast ones, and only certain songs can fit into a certain slot.
So we put the most requested songs from the last few years of people coming up to us and asking about them on our By Request CD, and I think we’ll probably do another version — or maybe even two, after that one — because it seems to work that people want to hear certain requests, and you just can’t do every single one of them or it would be a five-hour show! But we do try to please everybody and do as many as we can.
Spotlight Central: So we guess you’re saying that until we can hear you live again, we can listen to your recordings?
Yeah! That’s what I’m doing! I’ll listen to our records here and there just to keep my chops up. We love doing our songs. We just never get tired of singing ‘em!
For more info on The Lettermen, please go to thelettermen.com.
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