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Pat Boone: Making people smile for 70 years

Steven Schindler

Special to the Village News

In the 1950s and into the 60s he had teen girls in a screaming frenzy at his live shows. He sold millions of records including six #1 hits. He soon starred in major Hollywood movies with sexy leading ladies, was all over television, newspapers and magazine covers. And some even said his "rock and roll' music was too risqué for American youth. Who is this superstar? Elvis you say? Nope. It's none other than Pat Boone!

If you have a little bit of gray in your hair, there's no doubt the name Pat Boone brings back musical memories of Top 40 AM radio, spinning 45s on your record player, sock hops, and fans going wild on black and white television sets. And it came before The Beatles and their British invasion contemporaries dominated all things rock and roll.

Members of Generation X, Y, Z, or Millennials may not be familiar with Pat Boone. But just imagine if, say Taylor Swift, who dominates the music charts today with every release, also had her own weekly television show, made regular appearances on other TV shows, and starred in a major motion picture nearly every year. Then you'd begin to understand just how huge Pat Boone was. And be amazed how he continues to entertain at the age of 88 years young!

I was lucky to land an extended interview with Pat recently at NAMM (Nation Association of Music Merchants) during their yearly convention and trade show in Anaheim, which features music industry leaders from all over the globe, from instrument manufacturers to their celebrity musician endorsers, producers, and anyone involved in the music biz.

Pat arrived for the interview not in white buck shoes, but in casual white sweatpants, and immediately charmed everyone with his easy going demeanor and small town Tennessee charisma intact, sometimes bursting into song in mid-sentence. Even before the cameras were rolling, he had the room laughing and smiling with recollections of those early years when he, not Elvis, was selling millions of rock and roll singles, and was a singing sensation.

"I had two big hits before Elvis had one. Granted I only beat him by a few months, but if you look at who had the most charted records in the 50s, I had 41 and Elvis had 40." Pat recalled. "In 1956, he opened for me in Cleveland just before his first big hit. We met backstage and Elvis was extremely shy and seemed nervous. When I asked him years later why he was like that he said, 'Pat, I had never met a star before. I didn't know how to talk to you.' That was Elvis. Socially, he was very shy."

In the 1950s there was still segregation in the music business. Many radio stations wouldn't play records by Black artists. Randy Wood of Dot Records brought Pat R&B and rock and roll songs that were written or recorded by Black artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard, that became huge hits for Pat. Those hit records by Pat also gave their original artists exposure and recognition that would eventually lead to them crossing-over into mainstream entertainment industry superstar status, as in the cases of Fats Domino and Little Richard.

"Fats Domino said he made more money from my recording of "Ain't That a Shame" than his own records because he wrote the song and owned the publishing. He even made more money off my recordings than I did!"

At this point in the interview, Pat burst into song with a 'wop bop a loop bop.' "When Little Richard heard me do "Tutti Frutti" on the radio, he was still washing dishes in Macon, Georgia. He said, 'When I heard Pat Boone do my song, I threw down that towel and walked out because I knew I was gonna make some real money now!'"

Besides Pat's rock and roll records, his pop love songs were also smash hits, which would lay the groundwork for a career that has lasted for seven decades. Number 1 hits included, "I Almost Lost My Mind," "Don't Forbid Me," "Love Letters in the Sand," "Moody River" and the song "April Love" from the 1957 movie, "April Love" which he starred in with Shirley Jones.

"In the 1950s into the 60s I had records on the Billboard charts for 220 consecutive weeks. I just kept plowing ahead with hit singles."

When Pat was offered his own weekly network TV show in 1957, they told him it would be sponsored by a cigarette company. Pat refused the offer. "I don't smoke. I can't do it." They came back with a beer sponsor. "No again. I don't drink."

When they offered Chevrolet, Pat was all in. The show featured the best musical entertainers for three seasons, including legendary Black entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and many others. Again, Pat had to make a stand when the network told him not to book certain Black guests, no matter how popular they were.

"I ran into Jamie Foxx recently and he said, 'Did you walk away from your show because they wouldn't let you book Harry Belafonte?' I said yeah, how did you hear about that? He said, 'I heard. Can I give you a hug?'"

Just as Pat initially shocked some parents and cultural worrywarts over singing songs such as "Long Tall Sally" in the early days of rock and roll, in 1997 his urge to shake things up a little had a comeback that may have shocked folks even more than the first time around.

"We wanted to do something different, since we had done it all, pop, rock, country, and Gospel. One of my musicians said we hadn't done heavy metal, and we all laughed. But then I came up with the idea to find quality heavy metal songs, like Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and do them in a big band jazz style. Well, when I appeared at the American Music Awards on network TV and emerged from the fog in my leather get up with fake tattoos, earrings, and a choker, Alice Cooper's jaw dropped and I got kicked off of Christian TV!"

Pat was reinstated on TV soon after the smoke cleared, and everyone was in on the joke. "We even got some new fans when bikers started showing up at the Christian broadcasting studio."

Pat's family life was as rock steady as they come for Hollywood, or anywhere else. By the time he was 23, he and his wife, Shirley, who passed away in 2019, had four daughters. His daughter Debby Boone, a star in her own right, had a string of mega hits in the 70s.

Pat was never one to hide his beliefs and political leanings despite the consequences. He was a Christian preacher when he started college, and continues to make his faith a part of his life's work in entertainment and in his charitable endeavors. His politics have sometimes ruffled some feathers, but he is a staunch patriot and expresses his support for the military in many ways including song.

"When we did a patriotic video of the Marine Corps anthem at Camp Pendleton, I could see tears in the eyes of the Marines who were on the crew."

After 70 years in show business, Pat isn't showing any signs of slowing down. He has own record label, Pat Boone's Gold Records; a show on Sirius XM called "Fifties Gold," is about to release a new album with country music mega stars, and he just wrote a new song called "Grits" that came to him in a dream, and will definitely bring a smile to your face.

"There's so much darkness, violence, and even filth in entertainment and music these days. We need some lightness! Some humor! We need some fun!"

And those are things that never go out of style. Just like Pat Boone.

 

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