More Mr. Nice Guy

“Boone is better than Elvis,” said Frank Sinatra. “He’s the one who will last longer.”

For the next year and a half, Wood fed Pat an exclusive diet of R&B: Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame,” the El Dorados’ “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama),” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind.” But by mid-1956 Elvis’s incendiary style was creating mass hysteria, and a few brave deejays, led by Alan Freed, were breaking the color barrier on radio. A new, integrated radio format was fermenting: Top 40, which played the most popular hits regardless of genre. Freed brought black performers like Chuck Berry and LaVern Baker directly to white audiences in live shows and in films like Rock, Rock, Rock . Pat had learned R&B like a student studying for a test, and he began to get the sense that he didn’t really fit in. “Alan Freed booked me into a rock ’n’ roll night at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn,” he recalled. “Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley—I can’t remember who else, but real R&B artists were on. The audience was, like, half black and half white—very with-it, aware young kids. They were really into Bo Diddley and Chuck, and now I come out and I’m snapping my finger, got a button-down collar on my shirt and a thin knit tie, every hair in place, tapping my white buck shoe. I was doing my best to be as exciting as those guys were, and the young kids screamed. But I did feel out of my element, like this is not who I am. I’m getting away with it, and I’ve had a couple of hit records, but I’m not sure I belong on the stage with these guys. This is music they originated, and I’m just picking up on it.”

Of all the early rock ’n’ rollers, Pat was best poised to graduate to adult pop. And in 1957 adult pop was still huge business. Perry Como kicked off the year with a number one hit, “Round and Round”; Patti Page was relaxing in “Old Cape Cod.” For all its revolutionary fervor, rock ’n’ roll hadn’t displaced the establishment. Quite the opposite: Mainstream pop was absorbing rock ’n’ roll, softening it to make it appealing to a broader range of listeners beyond just renegade teens. In late 1956 Pat scored his first non-rock hit, the orchestral movie theme “Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love).” In 1957 he starred in his first movie, the collegiate morality play Bernadine , with a title song written by Johnny Mercer. Its flip side, a cover of Crosby’s “Love Letters in the Sand,” would become the biggest hit of his career, lodging at number one for seven weeks. Old-guard singers like Sinatra, who famously denigrated rock ’n’ roll as music made by “cretinous goons,” went out of their way to praise Pat. “Boone is better than Elvis,” Frank declared. “He has a better technique and can sing several types of songs. He’s the one who will last longer.”

At the time, it certainly seemed that way. Pat’s spotless character led Wood to dub him “the first teen-age idol that grandma can dig too.” By 1957 he had transferred to Columbia University in New York, determined to honor his parents’ wish that he finish college. He studied speech, earned an A average, and graduated magna cum laude. At the same time, he was hosting “The Pat Boone–Chevy Showroom” on ABC-TV; it debuted in the fall of 1957 and ran for three successful seasons. In 1959 he published a book of advice for teens, ’Twixt Twelve and Twenty , which became the top-selling nonfiction book of the year.

After Elvis, he was the most popular pop singer of the early rock era; he logged in 6 number-one records, and placed more than three dozen singles in the Top 40. Between July 2, 1955, and June 1, 1959, not a single week went by without a Pat Boone song in the charts.

His image certainly contributed to his success, yet it wasn’t quite as monochromatic as detractors have made it out to be. He was clean-cut yet not insufferable. He constantly entertained journalists with his idiosyncratic views and odd habits. He told reporters that he hated wasting time and liked to study while driving, with a book propped on the steering wheel. “I don’t recommend it,” he cheerfully added. He told Cosmopolitan magazine that when Bernadine finished filming, he purchased gifts for cast and crew—jewelry items like cuff links and watches. “While I was at it, I picked out a watch for myself. The jeweler said he’d engrave it for free, and what did I want on it?” He chose an inscription that read, “To Pat—from one who has followed your career closely.” He liked to start and end his meals with a banana split. On records, he did all his own whistling.

When times began to change in the sixties, he made halfhearted attempts to change with them. In 1963 he took what was for him a racy role in a picture called Main Attraction , in which he smoked and had sex with an older woman. In 1964 Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys and producer Terry Melcher recorded a Beach Boys–style surf song with him, “Beach Girl,” but it tanked. By the mid-sixties he was hopelessly out-of-date. He was ill-prepared for people to dislike him. Up until that point in his life, hardly anyone had.