More Mr. Nice Guy
How Pat Boone seduced a rock critic
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
When I started work on this story, I had no intention of developing a crush on Pat. Please believe that. I thought Pat was icky, just like any normal person does. I arrived at this opinion mostly by osmosis. You spend enough time listening to rock music, and talking to people about rock music, and reading books by people who know about rock music, and pretty soon you can take it for granted that he’s awful without ever actually having to ask why. My own exposure to Pat had been limited. I’d seen a famous clip that always surfaces in rock documentaries to illustrate the forces of white stodginess that were repressing fifties teenagers. Pat sings “Tutti Frutti” on some unspecified black-and-white television show, intoning the words with a croony formality that totally contradicts their exultory intent, jerking his body in an uncomfortable approximation of dancing, one set of fingers snapping in an up-and-down motion while the other spazzes from side to side. Other than 15 seconds of “Tutti Frutti,” I can’t say I’d heard much else. I spend a lot of time listening to oldies radio, but in my lifetime Pat has calcified into a stratum of unhip so unshakable that even oldies radio hardly touches him.
I made a quick, dutiful run through some of his recorded works the day before my interview, but maybe I was jetlagged, because nothing stuck. I kept falling asleep during his Irving Berlin album, stretched out on the foldaway bed in my friend Robert’s L.A. apartment. Months after the interview, when I got ready to write this article, I tried again. My little crush had faded. I had low expectations. I had a pot of coffee ready.
For some reason, I started with a 1961 religious album titled My God and I , which Pat recorded with the Abilene Christian College A Cappella Chorus. Pat was conducting the choir and singing lead, something he had been doing in church services since he was a teenager. To my surprise, I liked My God and I . It was restrained and elegant, offering stately chant arrangements of big-name hymns like “A Mighty Fortress,” in which the vocal tones of the chorus built upon one another like stones in a Gothic cathedral. It reminded me of the Roman Catholic high masses of my youth, where the sound of voices climbing upward was supposed to transport you to a higher spiritual plane. Pat’s voice was a flawless lead; he would hit upper-register notes and hold them without wavering, then swoop downward in beautiful baritone arcs.
Then I skipped backward and listened to his 1956 debut album, Pat Boone , which collected his early R&B covers: “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Tutti Frutti,” plus “Two Hearts,” a million-seller in 1955, taken from an original by the Charms; “Tra-La-La,” a 1951 hit for the Griffin Brothers; and “I’ll Be Home,” a hit for the Flamingos in 1956. And, okay, the stuff was pretty goofy. In “Two Hearts,” Pat tried to adapt a bouncy “doo-de-doo-woo” from the Charms and wound up sounding as if he had the hiccups; in “Tra-La-La,” he tried to fake his way through a barrel-chested blues shout on the line “They call me a blues singer, because I sing them both night and day.” “I’ll Be Home” had a pillow-soft prettiness, but it felt remote and emotionally disembodied compared with the original. The Flamingos’ version had a depth of feeling Pat just couldn’t replicate. It came from a real place, a particular experience. You could hear dark city street corners in its grooves, furtive promises, secrets begging to be revealed. You could hear lives lived. In Pat’s version you heard lives merely imagined.
But on his next album, Howdy! , also released in 1956, he found his own groove. The material suited him better. He was interpreting pop classics of the thirties, forties, and fifties with an insouciance that was pure rock ’n’ roll. “All I Do Is Dream of You,” dating from 1934, was familiar to fifties audiences from Debbie Reynolds’s performance of it in Singin’ in the Rain ; Pat’s version kicked up the tempo with a rollicking bass line and insistent shuffle rhythm. “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy” had been a number-one hit in 1940 for Red Foley, the Grand Ole Opry star who had become Pat’s father-in-law; Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra also recorded it that year. Pat’s saucy homage had a percussive rag-snap sound effect and a vocal that could teach his father-in-law a thing or two about in-the-pocket phrasing. “Would You Like to Take a Walk,” a hit for Rudy Vallee in 1931, really killed me. The lyrics were hilariously old-fashioned, and Pat delivered them with a sly, light touch. “Ain’t you tired of the talkies?” he sang. “I prefer the walkies / Something good’ll come from that.”
My favorite was “Harbor Lights,” a ballad from pre-war Britain that became one of the biggest hits of 1950, with covers by Crosby, Guy Lombardo, and Sammy Kaye. Pat, though, claimed it as his own. The detachment that worked against him in “I’ll Be Home” dovetailed beautifully with the sentiment in “Harbor Lights”; the song is a reverie of lost love, with the title image representing the warmth the couple used to share. Pat’s vocal restraint accentuated the longing. He conveyed vulnerability without mushiness, loneliness untainted by self-pity. “Goodbye to tender nights beside the silv’ry sea.” Out of curiosity, I dug up my copy of Elvis’s Sun sessions; he had sung an unreleased version of the song in 1954. Granted, Elvis was younger than Pat when he recorded it, and he was uneasy with the song’s delicate melodic shifts. But it just goes to show that great singers find their own métier. At least where this ballad was concerned, Pat kicked Elvis’s ass.