More Mr. Nice Guy

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The late sixties were a cruel time for Pat. Randy Wood exited Dot, and Pat was left without a label home. Business investments went sour; he nearly went backrupt trying to support a basketball team, the Oakland Oaks. His marriage to Shirley got shaky. He drank and gambled. Religion saved him; he became born-again and started speaking in tongues and baptizing converts in his Beverly Hills swimming pool, for which he and Shirley were defellowshipped from the Church of Christ. But by the mid-seventies, things were looking up. He started his own Christian label, Lamb & Lion, and took to the road with his wife and four daughters in tow. Rolling Stone ran a cover story titled “The Great White Buck,” in which the reporter, John Anderson, admitted liking Pat in spite of himself. In 1977 20-year-old Debby hit number one with “You Light Up My Life.” By 1980, with Reagan’s election, the country’s values seemed to be swinging back in his direction.

He discovered his own bizarre authenticity: times would change but he would not.

Through all the ups and downs, Pat found that he did best when he remained just Pat. He discovered his own bizarre form of authenticity; times would change, but he could stay the same square, straitlaced, smiling guy. When I met him in 1998, he was still coming down off the high of his 1997 album, No More Mr. Nice Guy: Pat Boone in a Metal Mood . This tongue-in-cheek collection of metal standards sung with big-band arrangements was the pop year’s ultimate party joke; snazzing his way through Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as if they were tunes in a Vegas revue, Pat managed to poke fun at headbangers and himself, and along the way proved that the most disparate of genres can be reconciled, given the right light treatment. Evangelicals didn’t approve of his appearing on the Amercan Music Awards show clad in black leather, but metal fans, hipsters with an ear for lounge, and anyone who remembered “Happy Days” got the gag. The album became his first chart hit in 35 years.

But it was the pop standards that interested me. As the interview was winding down, he told me one last story—a long-winded, entertaining, poignant tale that was pure Pat.

I’ll tell you, I had the most goose-bumpy, wonderful moment about five years ago. It was an epiphany, really. I’d been inveigled into a tour of England and Europe. I hadn’t appeared there in 17 years. I thought, This promoter is nuts. He thinks people still want to hear these songs. Just because he remembers them, he thinks everybody else does. He’s going to lose his shirt, and I’m going to feel bad. I tried not to do it, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept beseeching me to come. I figured he must know what he’s doing; he’s experienced. So I let him talk me into it.

The first night was at the Victoria [Palace] Theatre in London. I really took it seriously. I rehearsed and vocalized. I really wanted to be my best. I was nervous that if this tour didn’t start out well, word might get around. And I was nervous that the poor guy was wrong about my appeal. Well, that night was fabulous. The tickets sold out, and it was completely jammed. I looked out and saw a theater filled mainly with well-dressed middle-aged people. There were men in three-piece suits and women with fur stoles. It could have been a command performance or something. You half expected to see the Queen. The show went really well, and I did a long show. Well-to-do women would come to the foot of the stage with four, five, six albums in their arms. They’d want me to sign them in the middle of the show. I did it once or twice, and then I said, “Look, I’m flattered, but I’ll do this afterwards. Let’s not stop the show while I scribble my name.” Then they’d name a song and ask me to sing it. I’d say, “Gee, I don’t remember that. I didn’t sing that, did I?” And they’d hold up the album and point to it. You know, I’ve done over 100 albums. In many cases I would learn a song for an album, and then I’d never sing it again. I would literally forget that I ever did it. But they loved this particular song, and it was incomprehensible that I couldn’t immediately sing it.

Well, it was a friendly, happy time. I finished the show and did a couple of encores, and I came off feeling great. The musicians were all buzzed, saying, “That was really terrific. Listen, they’re still cheering, the lights are up, the show’s over and they’re still standing out there stomping.” I went out and took a couple of bows, and it was obvious they weren’t planning to go home. I scratched my head, because we’d done everything we rehearsed. I said to the guys, “Why don’t you get out ‘Star Dust’? I hope I remember all the words.” Now, remember, the lights are all up. There’s nothing romantic in the place. No production, just the stage, which looks sort of drab with the lights up. The audience is standing all jammed toward the front of the theater. So I started singing: “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night / Dreaming of a song / The melody haunts my reverie / And I’m once again with you.”