The Lettermen's Jim Pike: An appreciation
"When I Fall in Love"
In the 1950s and early ’60, clean-cut male harmony vocal groups like folk music’s Kingston Trio and collegiate-styled popsters like the Four Preps and the Four Freshmen were a mainstream alternative to the raucous rock ‘n’ roll that eventually drove them from the Top 40 hit parade.
One such group, The Lettermen, even wore matching cardigan college letter sweaters emblazoned with a capital “L” when they performed. They were formed in 1961 by Tony Butala, the late Bob Engemann and his college friend Jim Pike, the lead singer, who died June 9 at 82. They achieved their first hit that year with “The Way You Look Tonight” (originally the Oscar-winning song by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern that Fred Astaire introduced in the classic 1936 musical Swing Time), then enjoyed 19 more Billboard chart hits in the next decade, most notably “When I Fall in Love” (a hit previously for Doris Day and Nat King Cole) and the Grammy-nominated mashup “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
The group remained extremely popular on Reader's Digest box sets compiled by music historian John Alexander.
“It’s easy to take The Lettermen for granted as a light, easy-listening vocal group, but Jim Pike’s vocals were lovely and the proof is in his ability to take a standard like ‘When I Fall in Love,’ that was recorded by timeless vocalists like Nat King Cole and Doris Day, and make it an even bigger hit,” says Alexander, “and that goes for so many of their other hits that were covers, some of which were originally recorded decades earlier.”
Alexander notes that The Lettermen’s version of “When I Fall in Love” actually scored higher on the charts than Day’s original hit recording.
“They kept on releasing charting singles for over 10 years,” he continues. “Any ‘60s compilation at Reader’s Digest would have to include a Lettermen song. Their vocal version of ‘Theme from A Summer Place’ was always a top-ranked favorite.”
The Lettermen, Alexander concludes, “really left their mark on the Adult-Contemporary chart that was so important throughout the ‘60s. They also brought more contemporary songs to an older audience who preferred the Lettermen’s softer melodies. And that's a testament to Jim Pike, who made those songs appeal to multi-generations of listeners.”