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More Mr. Nice Guy
How Pat Boone seduced a rock critic
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Then, in February 1955, a Nashville entrepreneur named Randy Wood tracked Pat down. They had met back in Tennessee and agreed over a handshake to work together when the right song came along. Pat and Randy would prove to be a brilliant match. Both were smart, enthusiastic Southern gentlemen with a passion for music. Based in Gallatin, Tennessee, Wood ran a mail-order record business called Randy’s Record Shop, selling bundles of old and new hit records over late-night radio. In 1950 he’d started Dot Records, recording gospel groups like the Fairfield Four, the country singer Johnny Maddox, and R&B acts like the Counts, Brownie McGhee, and the Griffin Brothers (whose Dot hit “Tra-La-La” was one of Pat’s first covers). Wood paid close attention to the titles that sold big; for example, he found that any time he put Bing Crosby’s recording of “Love Letters in the Sand” in a record package, buyers snapped it up. He also noticed that R&B was gaining in popularity. Since pop and R&B were segregated on the radio, he knew that a smash R&B song would be virtually unknown to pop listeners. And since pop artists rarely wrote their own songs, they were always in search of good material. Like Sam Phillips over at Sun in Memphis, Wood figured that a nice white boy singing R&B to a white audience would go through the roof. Raw R&B, so frightening to pop audiences, would seem less daunting when softened and sung by a white singer. Pop plus R&B would equal rock ’n’ roll. Phillips, edgier by nature, found a soulful misfit named Elvis. Wood found Mr. Popularity.
When Pat started, the concept of covering R&B for white audiences was catching on fast.
In early 1955, when Wood sent Pat Boone into the recording studio for the first time, the concept of covering R&B for white audiences was catching on fast. Covers themselves, of course, were standard practice in the industry. Pop singers frequently covered hit songs by other pop singers. By the early fifties, pop singers were also regularly covering “hillbilly” material, which, like R&B, was segregated from pop on the radio. In 1951 Mitch Miller at Columbia Records scored Top 10 hits with Frankie Laine covering Hank Williams’s “Hey, Good Lookin’” and Tony Bennett singing Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart.” And Patti Page at Mercury had sold an astounding six million copies of “Tennessee Waltz.” The industry was still functioning on an antiquated business model in which songs, not recordings, were the standard currency. Way back, the industry made its money off sheet music. By the thirties and forties radio had boosted the popularity of recordings, but in their primitive form—10-inch 78s—they were still bulky, inconvenient things that delivered low fidelity. In the mid-1950s the arrival of affordable, compact 45-rpm singles revolutionized record ownership, making it more of a populist enterprise. Still, a song was more valuable to the industry than a recording. A song could be cut again and again a hundred different ways, earning cash for its publisher each time; a record might come and go overnight. Writers wrote; singers sang. That business model wouldn’t really change until the coming of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other performers whose self-penned material was indelibly linked with their own voices.
Cover versions like Pat’s have been demonized, and they were indeed an attempt to rob black performers of their material—in the same way that a Frankie Laine cover of “Mule Train” was an attempt to rob Vaughn Monroe. It was a cutthroat tactic, but it wasn’t race-specific. At the same time, cover versions were evidence of the industry’s growing acceptance of black artists in the mainstream pop marketplace. In the latter part of 1954 Bill Haley hit the Top 10 with a toned-down version of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The Crew Cuts reached number one with the Chords’ “Sh-Boom” (the Chords’ original, by the way, covered Patti Page’s “Cross Over the Bridge” on the A side). Elvis was causing a stir, although he wouldn’t crack the pop charts until early 1956 on RCA. The race was on; pop had discovered R&B. Black performers were on the bus, even if the industry was still confining them to the back seat.
Wood called Pat in Texas and told him to hop a train to Chicago. He had a song for him: “Two Hearts,” by an R&B group called the Charms. Pat assumed from the title that it would be a romantic ballad, the kind of thing Eddie Fisher would sing. When Wood played it over the phone, Pat thought the turntable was on the wrong speed. “I had only the vaguest idea what R&B meant,” he admitted. In Chicago he spent hours listening to the Charms’ version over and over, trying to master the unfamiliar inflections. He recorded it that same night, along with “Tra-La-La.” Wood knew that other pop artists were jumping on “Two Hearts”—Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and the vocal group the Lancers all recorded versions—and he flogged deejays and distributors with Pat’s record. It was palatable to pop listeners, yet it had more rock ’n’ roll energy than Sinatra’s or Day’s. Soon it had trumped the competitors, and Pat was on his way to his first million-seller.