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More Mr. Nice Guy
How Pat Boone seduced a rock critic
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
. . . Do I think performers have a moral obligation to their fans? Well, I do. I have had considerable success in the rock-and-roll field, but I think that some of its exponents, usually the instrumentalists, are giving it a black eye. They are way off-base with their onstage contortions. I don’t think anything excuses the suggestive gyrations that some rock-and-rollers go in for . . . . I like rhythm, too. But the human body consists of about 200 separate bones and I don’t think it’s necessary to call all of them into play even on a jittery ditty like, “Long, Tall Sally.” I belong to the finger-snapping school myself. That, and a little tapping of the feet, is enough to satisfy my soul. And it seems to satisfy my audiences, too.
—Pat Boone, This Week Magazine , July 7, 1957
Pat boone is rock ’n’ roll’s favorite whipping boy. People love to kick him around. It’s an extreme sport for un-athletic, hard-living liberals. Boone’s white buckskin shoes, milk-fed complexion, combed hair, and croony baritone voice make him an ideal villain for a genre that glorifies emaciation, bed head, screeching guitars, and raw-throated yowlers. Boone has helped his detractors’ case by broadcasting his conservative values. But his greatest sin is a musical one. In the mid-fifties he recorded tidy, buttoned-up versions of R&B hits like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” (he tweaked the title to make it “Ain’t That a Shame”). Little Richard loves to beef about Boone: “The white kids wanted [my version] ’cause it was real rough and raw, and Pat Boone had this smooth version.” And so the white kids would take mine and put it in the drawer and put his on top of the dresser.” Fats Domino also grumbled: “That hurt. It took me two months to write ‘Ain’t It a Shame,’ and his record comes out around the same time mine did.” White guys join the fray too. Upon his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, Billy Joel made a de rigueur swipe: “I was into the originators, the real R&B—not stuff like Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon.”
Boone is aware of these criticisms, and in his unerringly polite, love-thy-enemy way, he enjoys telling his accusers to F off. “This revisionist idea has sprung up, somehow, that when pop artists covered an R&B record, we were inhibiting the progress, instead of enhancing the progress, of the original artists. But in those early days R&B music did not get played on pop radio. It was too raw, rough, unfinished-sounding, garbled. You couldn’t understand all the words. People were used to big bands and polished production. Deejays weren’t ready to play it and people weren’t ready to receive it. But when we would do a more polished pop version of a song, it had a chance, and it began to catch on. People don’t understand the necessary role the cover versions played. It was pop artists doing R&B music that focused the spotlight on the original artists and opened the door.”
We were sitting in the offices of Pat Boone Productions on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., not far from rock ’n’ roll landmarks like the Whisky A Go-Go, where Jim Morrison dangled off the roof during a Doors performance, and the Hyatt hotel, where members of Led Zeppelin dumped a TV set off a balcony. Pat’s location on the Sunset Strip seemedmeaningful; it was as if he was saying that clean-cut, letter-sweater propriety had its rightful place alongside debauchery in rock history. The offices were decked with enough gold and platinum records to blind the eye; there were also stage photos, posters from Pat’s films, and assorted memorabilia. An L.A. Rams football helmet sat on a cabinet beneath a framed letter from Frank Sinatra, written after Pat had broken his jaw in a motorcycle accident. The letter said: “Dummy! Next time use this. Love ya, Frank.”
Boone wore a red sweatshirt, jeans, and a baseball cap. His face was lined but handsome. His disposition was so predictably upbeat and accommodating that at first I kind of felt like I was talking to a hologram. He smiled constantly, apologized profusely for arriving late, held doors open, waited for me to sit down before he seated himself. But it didn’t take long to figure out that a human being lurked beneath that epic sunniness.