Mormon Bobby Engemann of '60s pop trio The Lettermen put faith, family first
Robert "Bobby" Phillip Engemann was a member of the Lettermen, a group that harmonized its way into the hearts of fans across the world, producing 20 singles, 46 albums, nine gold albums and five Grammy nominations.
Billboard Magazine named the Lettermen the top "adult contemporary and romantic group of all time." The trio's popularity was so great that NASA left a Lettermen recording in a time capsule on the moon as a representation of America's popular music.
But after his passing on Jan. 20, Engemann left a far greater legacy than his singing through the way he lived his religion and loved his family.
"He was a pillar of faith," Bobby's son Danny Engemann said. "He had an uncanny ability to share the gospel. He could talk to anyone, of any religious diversity or background. He was a people person. He had the ability to let you know he cared about you."
Engemann was born in Highland Park, Mich., on Feb. 19, 1935. Later in life he attended Brigham Young University, served in the U.S. Air Force and went on a two-year mission to Minnesota for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While at BYU, Bobby, his older brother Karl and Karl's wife, Gerri, formed a singing group called The Engemann Trio. The group performed some, but it was in the late '50s when Engemann and fellow BYU alumnus Jim Pike teamed up with Tony Butala, a former Mitchell Boys Choir member, to form the Lettermen.
By that time, Karl was in the music industry working with Warner Bros. Records and eventually transferred to Capitol Records. Karl was the gateway the trio was looking for.
The group sold thousands of records with hits such as "The Way You Look Tonight," "Theme From A Summer Place," "Goin' Out of My Head/ Can't Take My Eyes Off of You Medley" and many more.
"Jeanette and I fell in love as we listened to that great music," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stated in a letter to the Engemann family.
But even as the group's popularity continued to grow, Bobby was never swayed to change his standards or beliefs.
"He's one of the most Christlike men I know," Bobby's good friend Carl Bacon said. "He was a man of faith who loved the church."
"He always took advantage to teach and share the gospel," Danny said. "I had friends during high school come over and we would be getting ready to go to a football game and he would read a few scriptures with us before we left. Whatever he happened to be studying that day he would say, 'Oh, let me show you how neat this is; this is so cool.' There were times though that those messages were a little more focused if he was concerned about what would happen that night, just so if faced with temptation we would recall that message before."
Bobby even viewed his Lettermen opportunity as a way to share what he believed.
"He always felt that while he was on the road that he was an ambassador for the church," Danny said. "When he went on the road he always took extra (copies of the) Book of Mormon to hand out. He was always prepared to share the gospel. He was a missionary first his whole life."
Grenade Curran, a longtime friend, explained that it was always in Bobby's nature to stay true to the standards of the LDS Church. In fact, rather than celebrating the end of a concert by going to a bar as most performers did, Curran said Bobby would simply go out to get ice cream instead.
"When he was on the Ed Sullivan show he had the same kind of offers," Curran said. "Sometimes it would get pushed on him and he would say, 'Oh, no thanks, don't drink.' Then the question would come up, 'Bob, you don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't drink coffee?' He would say no, and their next comment would be: 'Bob, are you a Mormon?' He always replied, 'Yup, proud to be one.'"
Bobby was prepared for what fame would bring him because he anchored his beliefs early.
"He set boundaries ahead of time," Danny said. "At a young age he had an elevated eternal perspective. He had some powerful experiences on his mission that really anchored his faith."
Eventually, Bobby and Curran planned a double date, the date on which Bobby first met Betty Crail. The two hit it off, and although Betty was attending BYU while Bobby was recording in California, they corresponded back and forth and were eventually married in the Los Angeles California Temple.
Bobby and Betty traveled with the group for many years, even after they started their family.
"Even when he was on the road he would take his own car," Bobby's oldest son Andrew said. "He wanted to drive his family instead of being on the bus with all the other guys."
Danny explained that spending time with his family was very important to his dad. Andrew recalled sitting in an LDS stake high council meeting with his father when he accidentally swallowed a nickel.
"If he couldn't take his kids somewhere he had a hard time wanting to go," Danny said. "He would drag his heels. Most of the time he would take us with him. He was just like that. People knew if he was coming his kids were probably coming."
Because of his love for his family, Bobby soon decided that being on the road for nine months out of the year was not the lifestyle for him.
"He left the road simply because he wanted to be a family man," Danny said. "It was more important for him to have his family then to be out on the road making money."
Once Bobby left the Lettermen in 1968, he began working for several music and TV productions such as Scooby Doo. Bobby also ran Independent Recording Studios where records were made by artists like the Osmond Brothers, Paul Anka, the Beach Boys and many others.
"I remember one time looking through records with my friends and we had found one of dad's records," Andrew said. "One of the girls pulled it out and said, 'Oh look, it's your dad's record' and some older lady was like, 'Oh my gosh!' She couldn't believe it, and to me it was like, 'That's just Dad. What do you mean?' It's funny how you live with someone like that but his lifestyle didn't show anything like someone who made 26 albums. He was more concerned how everyone else was doing."
And if it wasn't in the studio, it was on the ball field. Bobby had a love for sports, baseball especially, and was continually involved in his kids' activities.
"My dad coached every team I was ever on, whether it was basketball, football or baseball," Danny said. "We had an undefeated flag football team, and we never had a touchdown scored on us unless we were asked to by my dad or Uncle Karl or the other guys that helped out."
Bobby eventually moved his family to Provo to work at his alma mater, BYU. During his time as a development officer, he raised funds for many projects, such as the construction of LaVell Edwards Stadium.
"He cherished being here at BYU," Danny said. "You could not say anything bad about BYU around him — or about the church. That was probably the one thing he got upset about."
Later on in life, Bobby and former Lettermen singer Jim Pike formed another group with Ric de Azevedo called Reunion. In 2001, the original Lettermen also joined together onstage as they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Even though his accolades were many, Bobby was recognized more for what he did off-stage.
"He was a devoted family man who retired from the Lettermen near the height of the group’s popularity to spend more time with his wife Betty and their children," Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch wrote in a letter read at the funeral service Jan. 26. "He was active in the community and a faithful member of his church — someone whose love, compassion and service to others endeared him to everyone."
A letter from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve was also read at the service.
Bobby's devotion to his faith and family was evident at the funeral. Each of his children gave their own remarks about their father in which each mentioned his faithfulness and love for their family. A testimony was offered by each child as they credited their father with teaching them the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Karl commented on his younger brother's faithfulness, stating that he was always set an example to him, even though he was the older brother.
"One of his last concerns," Karl remarked at the funeral service, "was that his tithing was current. He checked it and it was."
The Lettermen: 'Theme from a Summer Place'
Sarah Sanders Petersen is an intern for Deseret News where she writes for Mormon Times and other feature articles. She is a communications major and editing minor from Brigham Young University.
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