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.
Those Americans 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 records.
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.)
Another cover 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 career.
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.)
Boone moved 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 was over.
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.
Pat Boone’s 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.
BLOWING THE COVER
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 Whosely.
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 music.
Nobody speaks 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.
Having ventured 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.”
P.S. 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!
May 31, 2006