Debby Boone and 40 years of “You Light Up My Life”

By Warren Kurtz

Debby Boone onstage in earlier years. Photo courtesy of DebbyBoone.com

DEBBY BOONE had the biggest single of the ‘70s, singing the title tune from the film “You Light Up My Life,” written by Joe Brooks, which sold five million copies, making it Warner Brothers biggest single of all-time. She is the granddaughter of early country singer Red Foley, the daughter of ‘50s pop legend Pat Boone, and the daughter-in-law of another ‘50s hitmaker, Rosemary Clooney. Goldmine spoke with Debby Boone about this milestone, her ‘70s albums under the direction of Mike Curb, a pair of more recent recordings, and potential future projects.

Debby Boone: The success of “You Light Up My Life” surprised everybody, me, Mike Curb, and Joe Brooks. It was my first solo recording. Two of my sisters were married and we were wrapping up The Boone Family as a singing group. There was a demand for an album and Mike slapped on it what he could, including The Boones recordings on the second side. Our version of The Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” finally had a home along with Barbara Lewis’ “Baby, I’m Yours” and more. Mike loved covers.

GM: Your second album “Midstream” was released with the Joe Brooks side and the Brooks Arthur side as two different producers.

DB: Do you know why it was called “Midstream?” It was the shortening of my joke of changing Brooks in midstream. The cross-collateral contract that I had signed with Joe Brooks the prior year was not to my advantage. My father reviewed what was presented through Mike Curb and he trusted everybody. It would be years before I would see any money from “You Light Up My Life.” On the Joe Brooks side, which ended with “If Ever I See You Again,” from the next film, the intended hit was “California,” which reached No. 50. Years later, our daughter Gabrielle and I had fun in Mexico, as judges of contestants singing cover versions of that song.

GM: “God Knows,” on the Brooks Arthur side — Here is what Allee Willis wrote to me about it, “My co-writers and I, Franne Golde and Peter Noone, absolutely loved how Debby sang the song and we loved Debby as well. We really thought it was going to be a smash.”

DB: Oh, I love her! I think the reason why the single only reached number 74 is that disc jockeys saw the title “God Knows” coming from Pat Boone’s daughter, with his conservative image, which was true for me too, and determined it was a religious record and said “no.” Many stations played the flip side “Baby, I’m Yours,” from the prior album, instead.

GM: That side of the album ended with a song which eventually became a Top 40 hit for Rita Coolidge in 1980, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love.”

DB: Unlike Joe Brooks and Mike Curb, Brooks Arthur went straight for emotion. He searched for some real place to connect that wasn’t technical. With each take he would say uniquely, “One more one,” hoping that a final time would bring a new element. When my voice cracked a bit, he said, “That’s it!” He produced my entire next album, just called “Debby Boone,” but by 1979, no one wanted to promote it.

GM: From late 1965, my favorite Miracles flip side “Choosey Beggar,” originally the flip side of “Going To a Go-Go,” was redone on the second side of your album with some key people.

DB: Brooks knew so many musicians and had them on our sessions. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. On bass was Leland Sklar, a big bear with a big beard, such a wonderful, down to earth guy. I sang Smokey’s lines as he had delivered them, even his word “choicey.”

GM: The album ends with one of your most beautiful performances, “I’d Rather Be Alone.”

DB: Thank you again. Brooks also knew great songwriters. This one was from Bruce Roberts, who had a version on his debut album the same time my debut was out.

GM: A few years ago, you recorded a wonderful memorial to your mother-in-law called “Reflections of Rosemary.” The song “I’ll Be Home” was included and the cello brought out great emotion.

DB: I am so glad you mentioned this one. I never went to college and went straight into music. With our kids, we were amazed on the musical influences they learned while away at school. Our daughter Dustin found this Randy Newman composition, “I’ll Be Home,” and I thought it would capture the feel of walking into Rosemary’s home, going through the back door, then the kitchen, and finally the family room with Rosemary in her favorite chair and arms spread open, calling out our children’s names or just “my sweetheart” and everyone going in for the hug. My musical director John Oddo is responsible for the cello, with his exquisite taste. My husband Gabri, who I trust implicitly, went through songs with John.

GM: One of those compositions was recently featured on, and as the sub-title, of Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday special, “The Best is Yet to Come.”

DB: Those six notes. At the concerts where I would perform with Rosemary, I would be warming up backstage and Rosemary, who never vocally warmed up, would ask, “Debby, what are you doing?” Then she would belt out those notes, “THE BEST IS YET TO COME.”

GM: On your most recent recording, “Swing This,” you begin with “Sway,” which I know from charting recordings from Bobby Rydell and more recently the Glee Cast. Where did that line in Spanish come from?

DB: A 1959 album called “A Taste of Tabasco” by Rosemary Clooney and Perez Prado. That arrangement and the one for “Mack the Knife” are used on the “Swing This” album.

GM: You also sing some softer, slower ballads, like “Cry Me a River,” which I first heard as a Joe Cocker cover in 1970, as the single after his version of “The Letter.”

DB: I learned it in the prior decade, as the first song on Barbra Streisand’s debut album in 1963. I loved recording that and “’Round Midnight,” which I knew from Julie London’s 1960 album, with her glamorous, edgy style.

GM: With your voice still in great shape, what is next for you?

DB: I am thinking about a couple of projects. I would like to pay tribute to my grandfather, Red Foley, with some of his songs like “Tennessee Saturday Night.” It hits me when I sing the country song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in concert, which I think is better than the version I did on “Reflections of Rosemary.” I think about a pure country or a country/Ella Fitzgerald-style blend. Also, I am considering an album of female singer-songwriters’ music, which I grew up on, like Laura Nyro and Judee Sill. In the meantime, I have my “Swing This” live shows where I perform songs from that album, “Reflections of Rosemary,” and more.

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