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More Mr. Nice Guy
How Pat Boone seduced a rock critic
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
. . . Do I think performers have a moral obligation to their fans? Well, I do. I have had considerable success in the rock-and-roll field, but I think that some of its exponents, usually the instrumentalists, are giving it a black eye. They are way off-base with their onstage contortions. I don’t think anything excuses the suggestive gyrations that some rock-and-rollers go in for . . . . I like rhythm, too. But the human body consists of about 200 separate bones and I don’t think it’s necessary to call all of them into play even on a jittery ditty like, “Long, Tall Sally.” I belong to the finger-snapping school myself. That, and a little tapping of the feet, is enough to satisfy my soul. And it seems to satisfy my audiences, too.
—Pat Boone, This Week Magazine , July 7, 1957
Pat boone is rock ’n’ roll’s favorite whipping boy. People love to kick him around. It’s an extreme sport for un-athletic, hard-living liberals. Boone’s white buckskin shoes, milk-fed complexion, combed hair, and croony baritone voice make him an ideal villain for a genre that glorifies emaciation, bed head, screeching guitars, and raw-throated yowlers. Boone has helped his detractors’ case by broadcasting his conservative values. But his greatest sin is a musical one. In the mid-fifties he recorded tidy, buttoned-up versions of R&B hits like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” (he tweaked the title to make it “Ain’t That a Shame”). Little Richard loves to beef about Boone: “The white kids wanted [my version] ’cause it was real rough and raw, and Pat Boone had this smooth version.” And so the white kids would take mine and put it in the drawer and put his on top of the dresser.” Fats Domino also grumbled: “That hurt. It took me two months to write ‘Ain’t It a Shame,’ and his record comes out around the same time mine did.” White guys join the fray too. Upon his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, Billy Joel made a de rigueur swipe: “I was into the originators, the real R&B—not stuff like Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon.”
Boone is aware of these criticisms, and in his unerringly polite, love-thy-enemy way, he enjoys telling his accusers to F off. “This revisionist idea has sprung up, somehow, that when pop artists covered an R&B record, we were inhibiting the progress, instead of enhancing the progress, of the original artists. But in those early days R&B music did not get played on pop radio. It was too raw, rough, unfinished-sounding, garbled. You couldn’t understand all the words. People were used to big bands and polished production. Deejays weren’t ready to play it and people weren’t ready to receive it. But when we would do a more polished pop version of a song, it had a chance, and it began to catch on. People don’t understand the necessary role the cover versions played. It was pop artists doing R&B music that focused the spotlight on the original artists and opened the door.”
We were sitting in the offices of Pat Boone Productions on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., not far from rock ’n’ roll landmarks like the Whisky A Go-Go, where Jim Morrison dangled off the roof during a Doors performance, and the Hyatt hotel, where members of Led Zeppelin dumped a TV set off a balcony. Pat’s location on the Sunset Strip seemedmeaningful; it was as if he was saying that clean-cut, letter-sweater propriety had its rightful place alongside debauchery in rock history. The offices were decked with enough gold and platinum records to blind the eye; there were also stage photos, posters from Pat’s films, and assorted memorabilia. An L.A. Rams football helmet sat on a cabinet beneath a framed letter from Frank Sinatra, written after Pat had broken his jaw in a motorcycle accident. The letter said: “Dummy! Next time use this. Love ya, Frank.”
Boone wore a red sweatshirt, jeans, and a baseball cap. His face was lined but handsome. His disposition was so predictably upbeat and accommodating that at first I kind of felt like I was talking to a hologram. He smiled constantly, apologized profusely for arriving late, held doors open, waited for me to sit down before he seated himself. But it didn’t take long to figure out that a human being lurked beneath that epic sunniness.
He was a compulsive gabber. Pat discloses information about himself so avidly and uncontrollably that you wonder if he should join a 12-step program for it. Within moments after I turned on my tape recorder, he related a dizzying array of salient and not-so-salient facts. He had promised his wife of 44 years, Shirley, that he would retire in 14 months, when he reached the age of 65. He was the No. 8–selling singles artist of the rock era; look, it says so right here in this official pop-chart history book. He was watching a documentary about Jim Croce the other night, and he teared up remembering how Shirley used to sing “Time in a Bottle” during their seventies family stage shows. All four of his daughters (Cherry, Lindy, Debby, and Laury, born during the three and a half years between 1955 and 1958), lived what Pat considered wholesome and exemplary lives. “In the early part of my career I had about 100 products with my name or likeness on them,” he said, moving right along. “Perfume, bobby socks, lampshades, pillowcases, watches, all kinds of stuff. The proceeds went into trust funds for the girls for their educations and their weddings. I told each of the girls when she was old enough to understand, ‘Your college education is provided for. You can go to any Christian college that will admit you, as long as you can be home for dinner.’”
This motormouth tendency hasn’t always been to his advantage. One result was that after more than four decades in show business he had zero mystique. “I’m long-winded,” he said cheerfully. “Tom Parker was very smart in keeping Elvis away from the press most of the time. He let his movies and music speak for him and let there be an air of mystery as much as possible. Me, I was too open and I had a PR guy and I would grant interviews and talk like I’m talking now. So people got to know me very well.”
Pat’s relaxation made me feel I could ask him anything: Was it true he shoplifted?
But the upside was that once you got to know him, it was harder to judge him negatively. Pat killed your disdain with conviviality. He also boasted a quality that was usually missing from far righties: tolerance. “You know, it’s only in recent years in all of human history that women left home and got jobs and left the family before they were married,” he said at one point, veering off on one of his wackier conservative tangents. “For 98 percent of human history families protected the women until they were married. Then they went to the husband, and he protected them. As a father I just didn’t subscribe to the idea of my daughters going away at 18 or 19, living in maybe a coed dorm, and being exposed to all kinds of stuff that they’d been protected from at home.” Then he stopped short. “I realize I’m talking to somebody who probably did it, and did it fine.”
Pat’s relaxation helped me lighten up. I felt as if I could ask him anything. Was it true that he shoplifted as a kid? “Oh, yeah,” he said. “And I was good at it. Daring. I’d put on clothes under other clothes and walk out blithely. I was never caught, but my conscience began to eat at me. I went to my high school principal and told him what I’d done. He went to the various store owners and said that I was going to get an after-school job and pay for what I stole. And I did.” What about the thing I kept reading in old press clips about his brushing his teeth 20 times a day? “Nooooo,” he said, laughing. “I might have brushed them 18, 20 times when I brushed them—I mean, like, strokes. Now, I did, even in dating days, have a toothbrush over the visor in the car. Shirley should have known how cluttered and hectic our lives would be because I’d pick her up for a date and maybe I hadn’t finished eating dinner, so I’d have a plate of food on the seat. She’d slide in and help feed me while we went to the basketball game or the movie. And when I finished eating, I had a toothbrush over the visor, and I’d brush my teeth. So I was always conscientious about personal hygiene.”
For me, interviews are like little romances—safe, intellectual ones. Sometimes the chemistry’s not right, but sometimes you hit it off. As I sat with Pat, I felt myself falling. And as I fell, I had a vision of the legions of fifties girls who fell too, alone in their rooms or clustered around record players or weeping in television studios. They were not so foolish. It’s easy to fall for Pat.
I reached into my bag and, flicking away any professional embarrassment, pulled out my totems: a handful of his vintage LPs. I had Star Dust , a collection of swing-era classics; Side by Side , country duets with Shirley; and Howdy! , full of whispery versions of thirties ballads. Pat came around his desk and sat down next to me, examining them. “Oh, you’ve got some of the originals,” he said kindly. “They look like they’re in good shape. Star Dust was a big album, particularly overseas. That was one of my first big-band albums, perhaps the first. Boy, I loved that album.”
I gazed up at him, dissolving. I had the urge to ask him to sign them. I had the urge to climb onto his lap.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
I tell you, there were many tears in the crowd. I got choked up too. And I thought, That’s what this music is all about. There’s something magical in pop ballads. They worm their way into your heart and your memories and associations and life. It’s the one way, except maybe a beautiful picture or some old film that you find, that you can go back and revisit a time that’s long gone. For that four minutes—and I stretched that version of “Star Dust” out, I didn’t want it to end myself—we were all transported back 35 years to a time we thought was gone forever, and now suddenly we were all living it again in the context of the song. And if you look at the lyrics, that’s what the song says. It’s about how that melody helps the person relive that vanished time.
I think that’s the appeal of songs like “Harbor Lights” and “Dream” and “Goodnight Sweetheart.” They’ve ended so many high school dances. “Dream, when you’re feeling blue / Dream, that’s the thing to do.” Those songs were the ones that everyone did the last romantic slow dance to. They have tremendous emotional meaning to millions of people.
Just then Pat looked at his watch and realized we’d been talking for more than two hours. “I’ve got to get home!” he exclaimed. “I haven’t wished Shirley happy birthday. This is her birthday, and she wasn’t up when I came over.” He told me that Shirley had been fighting clinical depression. The lifelong demands of his career had drained her; she had realized that he would never slow down, and they would never have the quiet, intimate life together that she had envisioned so long ago. That was why he told her he would semi-retire at 65. “She was saying things like ‘I know now that as long as I live, I’ll never have the life I once thought I might have—just you and me together, me being Mrs. Pat Boone and you being my husband, and us going where we want to go and doing what we want to do.’”
We shook hands and said good-bye. I wanted to ride the elevator with him, but I forced myself to sit in the lobby and wait for him to go down by himself. He deserved a little peace, after giving me so much. As I waited, I thought about his wife. I wanted to tell her: “Shirley, you’re not alone. None of us can get enough of him.”