Discover the music of Pat Boone this Columbus Day weekend including his version of the Ink Spots’ “Christopher Columbus,” with Take 6, his big band version of “Smoke on the Water,” the flip side “The Locket,” and so much more.
By Warren Kurtz
PAT BOONE married country singer Red Foley’s daughter, Shirley, in 1953. The couple had four daughters who sang under the name The Boones, which led to the solo career of Debby Boone. In 1957, Pat achieved his biggest hit single with “Love Letters in the Sand,” spending seven weeks in the No. 1 position. Twenty years later, in 1977, Debby had her biggest hit single with “You Light Up My Life,” which spent ten weeks at No. 1. Shirley passed away this January, a few months shy of her 85th birthday. On Saturday, June 1, radio stations paid tribute to Pat Boone for his 85th birthday.
GOLDMINE: Ever since your birthday weekend, each weekend I have been hearing requests for your music on the radio, and not just your biggest hits. Thank you for the variety of music and styles you have entertained us with over the decades.
PAT BOONE: You are so welcome, my friend. My birthday was muted even though I'm happy that it chronicles 85 years on this planet, and I've begun my 86th! But my better half went to heaven ahead of me and I'm having to carry on without her. Stations playing my music and recognizing my recording career is a positive shot in the arm. It has only recently come to light, through our research, that I am the most recorded single artist in history. Frank Sinatra did 1500 songs. Bing Crosby did almost 2000. We've already specifically listed 2300 and counting! That's not volume of sales but the number of actual recordings of different songs. I am a very eclectic recording artist covering a wide spectrum. I have charted in at least six genres: country, gospel, pop, adult contemporary, rhythm & blues, and jazz.
GM:You and Shirley were married just two years when you achieved your first No. 1 single with your version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”
PB: I say that I am the rock and Fats was the roll, with his version being a rolling rhythm. My version sold a million and a half records and Fats’ version sold 150,000 records. I went to see him in New Orleans. I was appearing at the Fairmont hotel and he was at Al Hirt’s place. He heard that I was upstairs. He called to me to sit on the piano bench with him and then he asked the audience, “Do you folks see this ring?” He had diamond rings on all his fingers, but this was a big sparkly piano shaped diamond ring. He told the audience, “This man bought me this ring with this song,” and then we performed “Ain’t That a Shame” together. With Fats, Little Richard, and Ivory Joe Hunter, it was good for me, but it was also good for them in promoting their music to new audiences that they had no access to at that point.
GM:Your version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” is wonderfully bluesy.
PB: That is a very good example of what I mean. When I listen to that record now, I marvel that it became a hit in an era filled with rock and doo-wop. I sang “Blue Moon” before The Marcels’ doo-wop version, when I was in high school, as a ballad, and they called me “Blue Moon Boone.” I knew all the words and could sing with no accompaniment, so when I was asked to sing for my teenage friends, I would always sing “Blue Moon.” “I Almost Lost My Mind” was a real blues lament. Ivory Joe Hunter had a big record of it, years before, but my producer and the founder of Dot Records, Randy Wood, chose that for me, and I don’t know why. Prior to that I had done pop romantic ballads or rock or rhythm & blues covers. This was a big departure. We had a very sparse arrangement and very bluesy and I still do it in my shows with the sax player performing the harmony part. It just came natural to me. I loved it. Anita Kerr and I did an album together and she had me sing some really bluesy country songs that some would consider out of character. I later recorded a version of Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” which is a powerfully bluesy song. In a way, musically, I was a chameleon, picking up on what others did, and then fortunately getting compliments from the original artists and working with the original artists too. When I later recorded “Smoke on the Water,” Ritchie Blackmore, from Deep Purple, added guitar to my In a Metal Mood album. I have always received acceptance from fellow performers in doing their music, bringing justice to it, and even doing it in their style.
GM:Another bluesy one is perhaps my favorite of your singles, “Moody River.”
PB: That is when the record business was fun. We moved from New Jersey in 1958, after I graduated from Columbia. Shirley convinced me that we should move to California where I could do records, television and movies and our daughters could have a more settled life. So, in California I sat with Randy Wood and he encouraged me to record a pop version of a song that was a country hit called “Moody River,” which was a lot like “Tell Laura I Love Her” in theme where the girl dies. Randy purposely put it in a high key so I could sound to be in pain yet there was a happy riff as its backdrop, ironically for a song about a girl who jumps in a river and drowns. Randy took a copy to KFWB, a Top 40 station in L.A., which I didn’t know he had done. I was at a friend’s house later that day with Shirley and we heard on the radio, “And now KFWB’s pick hit of the week, Pat Boone’s ‘Moody River.’” It was the radio debut. I hadn’t even been home from the studio. It zoomed to No. 1 in a big hurry. I ended up singing it on “The Lawrence Welk Show” and on shows all over the world. In Japan, it was so funny. The language was a factor there. When performing it there, the Japanese would hear that opening backdrop and start clapping their hands like it was a happy ditty, not knowing that I am singing a song about a sweetheart jumping in the river and drowning. Most members of the audience didn’t understand the language but loved that melody, clapping along and smiling.
Courtesy of patboone.com
GM:A couple of my DJ friends’ favorite single of yours is “Speedy Gonzales.”
PB: I found that song in The Philippines. I was appearing in a 24,000 seat coliseum in the early ‘60s. I did ten sold out shows, so there were 240,000 people in about nine days. I went to an after hours place, owned by a local TV producer, which I was told was a place where a lot of entertainers like to go to hang out after their work. I was up in a little balcony in this little supper club and they asked me to sing. I said, “You know, I’m pooped. I just finished singing for 24,000 people and I’m worn out. I just came here to rest. Let me please just listen to you guys.” The owner of the place had a little combo and he liked to sing. He got up on stage with his back to the audience and I heard the audience yelling, “Speedy, Speedy Gonzales.” I thought that was what they were calling him, but they were calling for the song, which I had never heard. Then you heard him sing, “La la la la la la la la” in kind of a falsetto voice and the crowd cheered. Then the drum went bop and then he sang, “You better come home Speedy Gonzales” and then the crowd went nuts. I am thinking, wow, that’s great, what is that? The people I am with told me that it was a huge hit, No. 1, “Don’t you know it?” I said, “No. It is not a hit in America.” I learn that it was by an American artist named David Dante. I found out that it was on RCA Victor. It had been released and was not a hit in America, but it had been a No. 1 smash in The Philippines. So, I got a copy of his record and brought it home and tried to get my producer Randy Wood to let me record it. He said, “Oh no. That record was out already, and it wasn’t a hit.” Randy could usually hear a hit. That was his talent. He had turned me down when I wanted to record The Beatles’ “From Me to You,” which was an early hit for them in England when I was there and I brought that 45 home and he had turned that down too as he said it was already out here in America on a small label and didn’t do well. With “Speedy Gonzales” Randy said that I was doing ballads and that nobody wanted to hear me do rock and roll. I told him, “Randy, I came in singing rock and roll, and this is a rock and roll smash and a pop record as well,” and he said, “Well, I just don’t hear it.” Almost a year went by. I was in a recording session and I begged with Randy again for me to do that song. He said, “OK we have three good songs that we can do, but if you want to do ‘Speedy Gonzales’ we’ll do it.” I asked him where the record was, and he said that it was in his house somewhere. I went to his house and I asked his maid if I could look through all his records. As you can imagine, there were a lot of records there, hundreds of 45s all over. I couldn’t find it. It turns out that his maid was a Filipino, who knew that song, and said, “Mr. Wood gave me a bunch of his records and I have those on the floor of my closet, if you want to check there.” I said, “Yes please. Let me look through those.” She had a stack of maybe fifty to sixty 45s and on the bottom of that stack I found David Dante’s record of “Speedy Gonzales.” I got it to Jimmie Haskell that afternoon and he wrote the arrangement. The next night we recorded it with Robin Ward, who had a hit later with “Wonderful Summer,” but she was still doing studio work and she did the “la la la” part and then we got Randy’s friend Mel Blanc to do the voice of Speedy, as he did with Looney Tunes. That record rose up the charts faster than any other record I ever put out. It went to No. 1 in several countries. The child Reg Dwight, who became Elton John, loved that record. I accosted Sir Elton one night at a Society of Singers banquet. I said, “I had a record called ‘Speedy Gonzales.’” He gave me this guilty grin and said, “Yeah, and I was afraid you were going to sue me for ‘Crocodile Rock.’” I said, “Are you kidding me? It was a huge compliment that you would do something of mine.” Then he mentioned around five of my hit singles that he bought as a boy in England. It took me awhile to learn that The Beatles, U2 and all these artists that I admire had admired me and Elvis when they were kids. They said they wanted to be like us. If David Dante was still alive, I would tell him how much I like “Speedy Gonzales” and thank him.
GM:The flip side of “Speedy Gonzales,” was “The Locket,” a great early ‘60s breakup song.
PB: When I sang forlorn lost love kind of songs, they were honestly emotional. I wasn’t just singing lyrics, I was always sincere. When I sang a love song, I felt it. I wanted to express it, not as a piece of music, but as a plea to the lover, or a true lament. I became the character in the song and meant every syllable, which is so strange because I was happily married, very much in love and fulfilled, but I had an affinity for the blues. People would kid me or say I wasn’t the one who should sing some of those songs.
European picture sleeve
Flip side: The Locket
A side: Speedy Gonzales
Top 100 debut: June 16, 1962
Peak position: No. 6
GM:More recently, in 2012, you recorded a CD with Take 6, of ten songs by The Ink Spots. I had heard of this group, through my father growing up, but never heard their music like I had with The Mills Brothers, for example, as I had bought him a compilation album of that Ohio quartet’s music. The song “Christopher Columbus” leads off the album. Since you covered Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” I don’t think it is too out of line for me to compare the structure of the verses to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” but instead of Tony Iommi’s guitar between them, you deliver a catchy Bing Crosby-like “uh buh buh buh buh buh buh” vocal filler, for this catchy opener.
PB: I was a fan of The Ink Spots and I knew that they were among the first black group to cross over to pop. Bing Crosby had recorded with The Mills Brothers, and I knew The Mills Brothers and loved them. My daughter Debby, who you know, like you did with your dad and The Mills Brothers, bought me a compilation album of all The Ink Spots’ hits. I was surprised to hear that they had done some of these songs originally. I thought that most young people today know nothing about The Ink Spots and their music, and it is so good. So, I wanted to do an album of their hits. It occurred to me to ask Take 6, who I knew must have been fans of The Ink Spots. They instantly said yes to that idea. Those guys are so good. One of them is the brother of Brian McKnight, who left Take 6 to become a recording artist on his own with several Top 40 hits in the ‘90s. Originally they were an a cappella group. The song “Christopher Columbus” was just a kick to do.
Debby Boone featured In the May 2017 issue of Goldmine
GM:It was good hearing your voice with Ella Fitzgerald’s vocals on this recording. My wife Donna and I saw Ella as our first concert when we were dating.
PB: We got permission from Ella Fitzgerald’s estate to use her recording of “Cow Cow Boogie” that she did with The Ink Spots. I knew her for years before she passed. She lived about three blocks over from us in Beverly Hills and recorded with me on my album of duets. We just put my voice and Take 6 onto the original Ink Spots recording that Ella recorded. So those are the original Ink Spots, Ella, me and Take 6 and you would swear that we were all in the studio at the same time. It was an absolute ball. As far as I was concerned, I was in the studio with the group and Ella and that is the way it comes off.
GM: You go back even further, musically, on your latest gospel album Legacy.
PB: That is so true. I collaborate with a couple of classical composers, Paganini and Rachmaninoff. I heard a TV ad for classical music with Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and I checked and there were no lyrics written to that song, so I took the melody, wrote inspirational lyrics and created the song “You Are Not Alone.” It is not an easy song to sing. I wrote the melodies for the rest of the songs, along with the lyrics, but for this one I credit Rachmaninoff and Paganini for the music. Classical composers seldom get credit and I’m sure Rachmaninoff and Paganini won’t complain getting credit here. I have also recorded a lot of patriotic music.
GM:Classical music came together often with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, drawing from Tchaikovsky, Ravel and others. You took a big band approach to heavy metal classics for our editor Pat Prince’s favorite album of yours, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy.
PB: I had also hoped to do a second heavy metal album. I was being approached by members of Scorpions, Poison, Motorhead, and Motley Crue. In doing those songs like Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” I really wondered if I could sing it. I read through the bible every year, for thirty something years, cover to cover, and on the day I was going in to start doing vocals I read a psalm with the phrase “honey from the rock” and I circled that and said, “Okay Lord, you are going to help me sing these rock songs today” and I felt like I had a heavenly nod to do the songs well and treat them with respect. For “Paradise City,” Slash wasn’t available, so we brought in another guitarist. When Slash heard the final product, he told me he didn’t think he could play it as fast as what that guitarist had done. I looked at him doubtfully, and said, “Slash! C’mon. Sure, you could. You’re Slash!”
GM:I remember seeing you and Alice Cooper together on television at the American Music Awards, a combination that put a smile on my face, seeing a pair of unlikely favorites together.
PB: Thank you. When I gave the hard rock / heavy metal award at the American Music Awards to Metallica, I had played my recording to them of “Enter Sandman” the night before and they came bowing to me on stage like I was their new lead singer. Then my record came out the next day and went zooming up the charts with hardly any promotion other than my American Music Awards appearance. My wife Shirley didn’t know what I was going to do on stage that night. She was mortified and horrified and, of course, I was kicked off Christian television the next day because they thought I had somehow sold out and had gone over to the dark side. To me, there was humor in it, but I was also serious about the music. I came on TV dressed like a heavy metal rocker with stick-on tattoos and stunned Alice Cooper himself. It was Dick Clark’s idea for the show that Alice and I would swap images, with Alice in a V-neck sweater, white buck shoes, and his hair pulled back under a golf cap, carrying a glass of milk and introduce me as the future of heavy metal. Dick Clark said he had never seen such a news story worldwide as to what we had done that night. The record company really didn’t have to do any promotion as it rocketed up the hard rock charts with magazines stating, “Pat Boone, the hard rock apparition,” ha-ha! Alice had told me back stage that he didn’t feel right in white buck shoes, carrying a glass of milk, and that he wasn’t going to do what Dick asked. When he told me this, I was wearing my tuxedo from the red carpet entrance, so he figured that I wasn’t going to make the heavy metal entrance either. So, when I came out in the heavy metal outfit, you could tell that he was stunned. He hadn’t seen it before. The clamor happened when I came out and the audience was going nuts. I was just having fun with Alice Cooper, shocking the king of shock rock. For months after that show, something happened repeatedly to me that hadn’t happened in several years. If there was a flight that I was on, and I would arrive at different destinations, there would be people with the heavy metal album wanting autographs. There were heavy metal bikers and truckers with pigtails saying, “Hey Boone! Keep that rock coming!” How about that? I was introduced to another market.
GM:Since then, you went back to another market that helped break you through in the ‘50s, R&B, with an album that begins with a fun version of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
PB: I had not met James Brown. Our careers had never crossed paths. I guess that would not be a surprise. It was the producer Ollie Brown’s idea to do the R&B Classics album. He is a successful drummer too. He called all the R&B and soul performers to see if they would be interested in doing new versions of their hits with me and they all said, “Yes! Sure!” Maybe the heavy metal album influenced them to some degree. I was just amazed on how receptive everyone was. Ollie got James on the phone and James said, “You gonna come down here and we’re gonna make a record. Then I’d like you to open up a couple of shows for me and put you right back on top.” I told him, “James we better focus on doing this song first. If people pay to see you and I go on first, I might get thrown off the stage, and if they come to hear me, I don’t know that they would be familiar with your music. That is one reason why I want to do this, because we aren’t really that far apart.” We met in Augusta, went to his office and I spotted a photo of his mother. He said, “That’s my mama. Do you have any pictures of your folks?” I told him that I do and reached into this pouch and the first picture I pulled out, of all things, was a picture of Mama and Daddy in a restaurant. Mama was lifting a fork of food. James looked at the picture and said, “No wonder you got soul. They eatin’ chitlins!” And they were. There was a sign over their shoulder that read “soul food.” Mama and Daddy had gone to a soul food restaurant in Nashville. Of all the pictures for me to pull out randomly and show James Brown in his office, that’s just unbelievable and it endeared us. Then we walked over to his studio, in a different building and put the music track on of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and as soon as he heard it, James stopped the tape and asked, “How you get my groove?” Ollie said, “Mr. Brown, I’m a drummer and I learned how to play every one of your records and could do every drum lick and I didn’t know until recently that you had two drummers.” James quickly replied, “I got three now!” This may be the last recording that James ever did. I went to Detroit to record “I Can’t Help Myself” with Levi Stubbs, of The Four Tops, who was perishing of cancer and that may be the last thing he did too.
GM:Speaking of singers who have passed, I was heartbroken with the loss of Joni Sledge. My musical memorial to her was “Easier to Love,” the flip side of “We are Family.”
PB: She was so delightful. You can hear her giggle and laugh a couple of times. She was so tickled with the way I could do some bluesy rock stuff in their style with her. We were two fellow artists having a ball.
GM:It sounds like it, and you changed a line in the chorus to become “I’ve got all my brothers and my sisters with me.”
PB: Yes, whether it is the R&B Classics album or In a Metal Mood, the goal was to take good songs and be respectful of them and give them a different treatment. I was not trying to be those artists. The same thing with “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” in the ‘50s. I was not trying to sound like Little Richard, or even Ivory Joe Hunter with “At My Front Door,” which I know you enjoy. I was Pat Boone trying to do justice to their songs. Whether it was Sam Moore or Earth, Wind & Fire on the R&B Classics album, to get the artists’ acceptance of me with their music was so heartening for them recognizing me as an R&B singer. I was on the R&B charts in 1955 and 1956. Fats went to No. 1 with “Ain’t That a Shame” on the R&B charts but my version also made the Top 10 in that format. That opened the door for me the following year, allowing “Love Letters in the Sand” to be on the R&B charts. When the R&B Classics album came out, I was a radio guest on Santita Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” show being interviewed, and they played songs from the album. Then her father Jesse Jackson called in to say he was loving the music and that he had been a fan for a long time and that prior to that he was a fan of my father-in-law Red Foley with his spirituals that they would play on WLS’ Barn Dance show in Chicago. Jesse said, “I think that Pat Boone did more for race relations with his music than any other singer.” I was happy to introduce music from black artists, that my younger brother enjoyed, to white audiences. Little Richard was asked about me singing “Tutti Frutti,” and he said, “I was still washing dishes in a bus station in Macon, Georgia and when I heard Pat Boone doing my song, I threw down the towel, walked out, and knew I was going to be making money now in music.” Like Fats, Little Richard knew that my recording of his songs may be a financial blessing and maybe a career blessing for them. Then when I had the opportunity to have my own “Pat Boone Chevy Show,” I think I was the youngest person to host a show like that at 22, I would have them come on and sing with me. It was eclectic and helped to cross over music and it was me enjoying their music with them.
GM:R&B Classics ends with an original, “Backbone.”
PB: People asked, “When are you going to do a rap song?” My grandson introduced me to the recordings of Kool Mo Dee, telling me that there are some rappers with lyrics that he thought I would enjoy, like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith. In appreciation of Will’s work, at the end of singing one of the R&B songs, I say, “Get jiggy wit’ it.” Kool Mo Dee liked my idea for “Backbone,” with lyrics that I wrote as a message for kids for today, more tangible than Nancy Reagan saying, “Just Say No.”
GM:Throughout your career you have touched communities.
PB: I have written and recorded songs in support of the police. One I recorded in a country album and then later in a rock album called “Won’t Be Home Tonight” about a day in the life of a cop. I received a little bit of airplay and my EP of the songs, including my version of “Part of America Died,” was used a fundraiser for widows of slain officers.
GM:Pat, again thank you and your family for all the music over the years. Let’s close with the song, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” one that both you and Elvis had as flip sides.
PB: Yes, Elvis and I both recorded that one. I loved the song as it was a good rock and roll song. I open my shows with that on video tape as I will in Branson, Missouri on November 6 at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater. Man, we have covered so much today. Thank you. I love what you are doing in helping to keep the whole era alive, so kudos to you and Goldmine. God bless you.
In concert at The Volusia County Fair, Florida, November 2017
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, writing In Memoriam and his Fabulous Flip Sides series. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.