Whatever your musical tastes were back in the late 50s and early 60s, there’s no denying the extraordinary success of Pat Boone, whose all-American boy-next-door looks captured the hearts and souls of millions of people around the world. Racking up 38 top 40 hits, Billboard placed him as the second biggest artist, right behind Elvis Presley.
Boone achieved one hit after another by recording some songs popularized by Black singers and still holds the Billboard record for being on the charts for 220 consecutive weeks with more than one song. Some of his most memorable hits include Two Hearts, Two Kisses, Love Letters In The Sand, I Almost Lost My Mind, April Love, Ain’t That A Shame, Friendly Persuasion, and Speedy Gonzales. He also wrote the lyrics for the theme song from Exodus and is a member of the Gospel Hall of Fame.
The following exclusive, deeply personal interview, which has been edited for print purposes, is in two parts: Part 1: The Early Years and Part 2: Career and Family Challenges and Future Plans.
PART 1: The Early Years
You were actually the first “American Idol,” winning Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Did you have any idea that you would eventually sell 45 million records, become a TV and film star, and an entertainment legend?
Boone: I had no idea what my singing would lead to. I started singing in grade school in Nashville and I also sang at our family gatherings. Then in my teens I led the singing at our church. It was all a capella, four part harmony. (He sings: See The Wondrous Love of Jesus.)
How did you begin to branch out with your singing?
Boone: I started entering contests in Nashville but never won, always coming in second or third. If a piano player or tap dancer or musician was good, the audience voted for them because they worked at developing their skills and I’m just walking on stage and singing a pop song.
What talent shows did you audition for before your big break?
Boone: I auditioned for Horace Height who had an orchestra - Horace Height & His Musical Knights. He conducted talent shows and once in a while he would pick a winner to travel with him and do some singing on the road. I auditioned for that - nothing. Ted Mack auditioned in Nashville – nothing. But then I entered an East Nashville High talent show and the first prize was a trip to New York and an audition with Ted Mack. In that audition I did the weirdest thing. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to sing an up-tempo finger-snapping song or a ballad with a big finish so I got the idea of doing a medley. I sang (he sings) Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money, maybe we’re ragged an funny,” and after “side by side,” I went into (he sings) “I believe for every drop of rain that falls.” Neither song had anything to do with the other and it was a very strange combination, but it had a big finish.
What happened after the audition?
Boone: After I sang, I figured I would come in second or third and went out to the parking lot to meet mom and dad. Somebody came to the back door of the gymnasium shouting ‘Pat Boone, where are you?’ ‘You won!’ I went running in and the audience was still applauding. This meant I would go to New York and audition with Ted Mack. I did get on and I think I sang I Believe, which is my lucky song. Originally I didn’t have any goals other than to get through the show, sing a good song, and go home.
What happened after that?
Boone: I went back home. It was summer of 1953 and I had plans to go way out in the country and lead singing for a Gospel meeting. It was so far out that they didn’t have phones. If anyone wanted to make or receive a phone call, they had to go to a switchboard in a lady’s house in the next town. It was the middle day on a Thursday and I was with the preacher and his family gorging myself on this great food and car comes rattling up in the driveway, scattering chickens in all directions. A man comes up on the wooden porch and knocks on the screen door and says ‘Is there a fellow named Boone in there?’ Someone replies, ‘Yeah, he’s in here eating his third plate.’ He said a man was trying to reach me from New York City. It turned out be the producer of the Ted Mack Show who said I was the winner and had to get back to New York. So I flew back for my second appearance and sang Eddie Fisher’s I’m Walking Behind You On Your Wedding Day. I won a total of three times and had to wait until there was another three-time winner, which didn’t happen until a year later.
What did you do in the meantime?
Boone: I married Shirley, was in college, was expecting our first child and was preaching in a small country church in Texas and pretty much forgot about the Ted Mack Show. The call finally came and I went back to New York. Just like American Idol, the viewers selected the winner and I was ahead in votes.
Boone: I decided since I was there, I would audition for the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show so I went over to CBS, did an instant audition and they put me on the show that night. I won and ultimately signed a recording contract with Dot records.
Did you grow up in a happy family?
Boone: Yes. I have a younger brother and two younger sisters. We were active and popular in school. I was student body president in high school, a cartoonist, and on the athletic teams. We were a very happy church-going family and had fun together. We lived in a modest house on ten acres next to my grade school that I would get to by walking through the back pasture. We had a run down old barn and a cow named Rosemary who I milked every day. At one point we had pigs, chickens, rabbits, and a vegetable garden because we were augmenting daddy’s thin income that had to take care of a wife and four kids. We were lower middle class like Elvis. Momma played the ukulele and sang and taught me some chords. Daddy sang bass in church. My family was musical, but not professional.
What did your dad do?
Boone: My daddy was a building contractor making a very modest living so there were financial worries about making ends meet. We had a company pick-up truck with Boone Contracting Company written on the side. My brother and I, unless it was pouring rain or sleeting, would ride in the back of the truck on a wooden bench daddy had made because he was a carpenter. If it rained or if it was bitter cold, then all six of us piled into the cab. I used to beg my dad to buy a car but he would say that we couldn’t afford it. Actually, we didn’t have a car until I was in the eighth grade when he bought a two-door black Chevy. It only had a heater, no radio, but I thought it was the most beautiful car I had ever seen in my life. A car with a roof on it!
What were some of the early influences that still drive you?
Boone: In high school I read something that I think was attributed to Einstein; that the most brilliant man uses only about a tenth of his brain capacity. That triggered something in me so I became determined to use every brain cell and every ounce of energy for something good, productive, and fun and something that would benefit somebody else, not just me. I think that’s what spurred me on subconsciously to be so involved in so many things. I’ve never said this to anyone, but because I’m overcommitted and spread myself so thin, I begin almost every letter I write with an apology for responding so late.
Were you exceptionally bright as a youngster?
Boone: I’m very grateful that when my IQ was measured in high school, it was very high and I was told it was at genius level. I discount that because you can have a high IQ and not be a genius and no one has ever accused me of being a genius, come to think of it. But with a high IQ came energy, inquisitiveness, curiosity and a sense that I could do almost anything and I’ve actually gotten a lot done.
Where did you meet your wife Shirley?
Boone: We met when we were 16. Shirley was Homecoming Queen in high school. We would hold hands, but it took nine months before I kissed her. I was nuts about her but had gone steady with two other girls for about a week and I no sooner made that stupid commitment, then I wanted out. I thought wait, this girl thinks I’m going to call her every afternoon. We had just been together all day at school and I wanted a life. So, I didn’t want to subject Shirley to that, but our first kiss was a little peck as I dropped her off after a hayride at the start of our senior year. I was so jazzed I felt like I was floating behind the steering wheel and don’t think my rear end hit the seat. Boy was I a tingle.
What was Shirley’s reaction?
Boone: ‘I waited nine months for that?’ She thought after nine months she was going to get more than just a little peck. But, we were hooked on each other.
Talk a little bit about your upcoming show at the Skirball. Are people going to find out something about you that they didn’t know before?
Boone: Yes because it’s not a straight musical concert, although I will be singing. I’ve never done this before and we’re calling it An Evening With Pat Boone, which celebrates my 50 years in show business. I’ll be showing film and television clips as well as special moments with other performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como. I’ll tell stories about what went on behind the scenes and I’ll also share some of the most embarrassing moments of my career. There will be a Q & A with the audience and I think this will be the model of future shows. Shirley wanted to know if I’ll be hitting the road again but I assured her I would only be doing two appearances a month.
You are the consummate performer and have to perform!
Boone: That’s right!
Part 2 will reveal Boone’s most embarrassing moment of his career, his marital and career challenges, his latest CD and his future surprising plans, so stay tuned…
To read Part 2 of this 2 part series click here
An Evening With Pat Boone
Skirball Cultural Center
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
818.995.7100 or email: [email protected].