- Historic Sites
More Mr. Nice Guy
How Pat Boone seduced a rock critic
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
After I discovered “Harbor Lights,” my crush returned. I started listening to Pat around the house all the time. I started to enjoy hokier tunes like “Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love),” the theme from a 1956 Gary Cooper movie about Quakers struggling through the Civil War. “Put on your bonnet, your cape and your glove,” warbled Pat as flutes trilled and harps strings glissaded. It was the rare romantic ballad that implores a woman to put her clothes on. I thought fondly about that spazzy finger-snapping in the “Tutti Frutti” TV clip and wondered if it wasn’t actually sort of cute.
He conveyed vulnerability without mushiness, loneliness untainted by self-pity.
There was just one thing to do: interview him again. So I called Pat on the phone, and we talked a bit, and I worked myself up to a declaration of ardor. “Pat, I, um, came in sort of skeptical. . . . I’m from a different background . . . punk rock and all. . . .” I was mumbling. Finally I blurted out, “I think I’m becoming a real fan!” He laughed and then said something that got at the heart of what I had come to appreciate about him as a singer. “I grew up loving Bing Crosby,” he replied. “And Perry Como as well. So I considered myself a balladeer. I could do rhythm tunes, and of course I did those rock ’n’ roll things. But I was grateful—hungry—to get to some of those pop songs and ballads. And my approach was to be totally honest, totally sincere. I had no gimmick, I had no developed style. I can carry a tune, but many singers can do that. I just wanted people to feel a heartbeat and a pulse and an emotion when I sang. So if you like ‘Harbor Lights’ and some of the other songs in that album, I think it’s because I generally just learned the words, closed my eyes, and sang with my heart on my sleeve.”
Of course, all this is a girl’s perspective. I can understand why guys loathe Pat. Even before he was famous, many a pimply 15-year-old male probably wanted to stick a pencil in his ear. Here’s Pat’s résumé from David Lipscomb High, a Church of Christ–affiliated school in Nashville, from which he graduated in 1953: He was student-body president and served on Nashville’s Inter-High student council. He was captain of the baseball team and had additional letters in football, basketball, and tennis. He drew cartoons for the school newspaper. He was dating Shirley Foley, daughter of the country star Red Foley. He was voted most popular in his class. He even had a pedigree: He was descended from Daniel Boone. No wonder authorities got so wound up over Elvis: He was practically Malcolm X by comparison.
Pat was always a big achiever. Born on June 1, 1934, he was the oldest of four kids delivered to Archie Boone, a building contractor, and Margaret Boone, a nurse. He and his younger brother Nick, who would record under the name Nick Todd in the late fifties, loved to harmonize with pop tunes on the radio. But Pat loved sports even more, and he played hard. He broke so many bones that his mother asked the family doctor if he had soft bones. “No, it’s the way he plays the game,” the doctor explained. “When he comes up against an immovable object, something has to give.” He also loved religion. He planned to be a teacher or a preacher, and though he flirted with rebellion—he smoked, snuck beers into his room at night, and went through the brief shoplifting period—for the most part he strove to keep his soul blemish-free. He can blame religion for the fact that he’s a lousy dancer; the Church of Christ forbade dancing between unwed couples. “Some of my convictions have ameliorated a little bit,” he said in 1998. “I love the joke that Baptists and other Southern religious groups absolutely forbid sex standing up because it might lead to dancing.”
The Boones weren’t well off—“lower middle income,” Pat said—and one summer he helped out on his father’s construction crew. It was a mixed group, black and white. “I was expected to work just as hard and carry just as many wheelbarrows full of concrete,” he said. He preferred the perks that came with another of his hobbies, singing. By 10 he had sung on the radio and won a model plane. By the time he was a teenager he was entertaining at Kiwanis clubs and ladies’ luncheons, and getting paid in his favorite currency: free meals. Soon he was hosting his own show, “Youth on Parade,” for WSIX in Nashville.
In 1953 he won a citywide talent contest; first prize was a trip to New York City to audition for Ted Mack’s “The Original Amateur Hour.” He was picked to be on the show and won three weeks in a row, singing earnest renditions of hit-parade fare like Eddie Fisher’s “I’m Walking Behind You” and Frankie Laine’s “I Believe.” But his parents discouraged singing as a career. They wanted him to finish his studies and go to college.
They also thought he and Shirley were too young to get married. Fortunately Pat didn’t always obey. In the fall of 1953 he and Shirley eloped. The following year he recorded a handful of sides for a Nashville independent label, Republic, but nothing came of them. By the end of 1954 Pat and Shirley had moved to Texas, where he enrolled in a teachers college and got very busy starting a family.