A recent article
by Pat Boone in which he argued that criticism of the war in Iraq is unpatriotic reminded me of how
long it has been since he began his career as a pop-music icon,
whose popularity briefly rivaled that of fellow Tennessean Elvis
Presley: half a century ago.
who do not remember the career of Pat Boone — in some cases, due
to Alzheimer’s — may be unaware of how it was that Mr. Boone attained
his status as a rock and roll singer. He was a performer of cover
The cover record
was a short-lived phenomenon of Top Forty radio. It lasted from
1954 to about 1957. There was some concern among radio broadcasters
that the lyrics of rock and roll songs often contained sexual innuendos.
Even the origin of the term, rock and roll, was under suspicion.
There was concern that the Federal Communications Commission might
impose fines or other sanctions on stations that broadcast unalloyed
R&R lyrics, let alone R&B (rhythm and blues) lyrics.
One way around
this problem was the cover record. A white singer or group would
perform a song that had been recorded by a black performer on a
low-circulation record label associated with “race music.” The cover
record was an aspect of the original creation of rock and roll as
a national social and cultural phenomenon. The first big R&R hit,
“Sh-Boom,” was a 1954 cover by the appropriately named Crew Cuts
of a song recorded earlier that year by The Chords. However, the
remarkably mindless lyrics were the same in both versions. They
needed no sanitizing. The cover was a matter of culture, not censorship.
It was a marketing strategy.
In sharp contrast,
Bill Haley’s 1954 hit, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” was a rendition
of a song recorded earlier in the year by Big Joe Turner. The lyrics
were cleaned up. The beat was made livelier. Bill Haley and the
Comets were making the transition from country music to rock and
roll. The group soon became the most popular group of the era, recording
“Rock Around the Clock” in 1954, which became the largest-selling
pop single by one group or artist until Elton John’s 1997 “Candle
in the Wind,” a re-write of his 1974 song, in tribute to Princess
Diana. (Fortunately, that song has only been sung in public once,
at her funeral.)
artist was Georgia Gibbs, whose 1955 “Dance with Me, Henry,” covered
Etta James’ “The Wallflower,” with its lyric, “Roll with me, Henry.”
By switching to “dance” from “roll,” the producer made a wise decision
in terms of air time. But no one from my generation today would
be willing to admit in public that he bought Georgia Gibbs’ version,
although hundreds of thousands of kids did.
In 1955, Pat
Boone had his first number-one hit, “Ain’t That a Shame.” It was
a cover for a Fats Domino record. Fats Domino’s songs needed no
cover for reasons of lyrics, and surely no cover for reasons of
talent. (I regard his 1949 song, “The Fat Man,” as his greatest
performance.) In 1968, Fats did a reverse cover of “Lady Madonna,”
which gave the Beatles a run for their talent, though not their
money. There is no doubt that Boone served as a wedge for Fats Domino’s
In 1956, Boone
did two cover records of Little Richard songs, “Tutti Frutti” and
“Long Tall Sally.” Little Richard Pennyman once said that Pat Boone
made him a millionaire, but for those of us who bought Little Richard’s
versions and ignored Boone’s, that statement seems hard to believe.
At age 14, I regarded Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” as a kind of “white
men ain’t got natural rhythm” phenomenon. (My vote, then and now,
for Little Richard’s greatest performance is “The Girl Can’t Help
It,” the theme for a 1956 Jayne Mansfield rock and roll musical,
written by the great jazz pianist, Bobby Troup.)
to ballads in late 1956 with the soundtrack hit of Friendly
Persuasion: “Thee I Love.” It is worth noting that this
Gary Cooper movie may be the most popular movie in American history
that defends pacifism (Quaker) as a moral cause, a movie against
the American Civil War. By 1962, Boone’s career as a Top Forty performer
He wrote the
theme for Exodus,
which was made into a mega-hit in 1961 by the dual pianists, Ferranti
and Teicher. Sadly for him, it was an instrumental.
career is one of those fork-in-the-road stories. He launched his
national career as a cover artist, serving as a kind of Pied Piper
for America’s middle-class white teenagers, gilding rock and roll’s
lily. Little Richard said that kids in 1956 had Pat Boone’s records
in the top drawer, where parents might find them, and his versions
in the bottom drawer. I suspect that the truth is different. They
bought one of Boone’s versions, then bought Richard’s, and put Boone’s
in the closet.
There was enormous
profit in records in the 1950s. A single two-sided 45 RPM record
in 1955 cost 89 cents plus tax. In today’s money, that would be
$6.70. There was an on-ramp onto the highway that led into the wallets
of society’s first generation of adolescents with enough disposable
income to create their own subculture. Pat Boone was part of that
on-ramp. It was abandoned and then closed to traffic by late 1957.
Rock and roll’s
parallel cultures did not last long. Teenagers found out about the
artists and the original songs that were being covered. Georgia
Gibbs soon disappeared. Pat Boone didn’t for a few years, but he
established a new reputation as a balladeer. Then he disappeared
from the cultural mainstream, but not before he made a cover album
of Elvis Presley songs, Pat Boone Sings Guess Who. Elvis’
manager, “Col. Tom Parker” (Andreas van Kuijk), refused to let Boone
use Elvis’ name without paying a royalty. So, Boone beat Parker
at his own game. He sang the songs of Guess
He has remained
a familiar figure in the world of fundamentalist Christian artists.
For decades, he also had a reputation for being fundamentalism’s
answer to Dick Clark: His face never seemed to age. He grew up in
the fundamentalist world, crossed over briefly in 1955-56, and then
returned by way of pop ballads.
For a little
under two years, he helped to lure mainstream teenage America into
what had been an underground world of race records. While Sam Phillips
at Sun Records in Memphis was creating rockabilly, which was a true
fusion of two cultural styles, Pat Boone was doing a reverse version
of nineteenth-century minstrel shows: a white face version of black
of Bill Haley as a cover artist. Haley performed cover music, yet
he created something new: rock and roll. In some ways, it was a
toned-up version of rhythm and blues, despite the toned-down lyrics.
It stomped. Nobody in 1956 accused Pat Boone of stomping. Toe-tapping,
maybe, but not stomping.
out of the world of Christian music, Pat Boone returned to his roots.
But he did not bring the masses with him. The cultural task that
he had performed with his cover records was a one-way street. His
fork in the road in 1956 — from covers to ballads — was personally
successful, but the next fork, in later years — from pop ballads
to would-be pop Christian music — was a journey with few followers.
He re-entered the white fundamentalism’s artistic underground,
like the Prodigal Son.
But then, as
an update to the Prodigal Son story, Boone released a 1999 album:
In a Metal Mood/No More Mr. Nice Guy. It is an album of covers
for heavy metal rock music. Even more amazingly, some heavy metal fans liked
it. This gave new meaning to the phrase, “The Prodigal Son returneth.”
There was at least one cover song worth buying in the golden years
of rhythm and blues: the 1953 doo-wop version of “White Christmas”
by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. Clyde McPhatter covering for
Bing Crosby! I shall never forget the opening line: “I’m (boop boop)
dreaming (boop) of a white (boop boop) Christmas. . . .” Perfect!