Rhonda Fleming connected me with Pat Boone a few years ago and I have had the pleasure of talking with him several times. Before our first conversation I was warned by an assistant of his that “Mr. Boone prefers to keep interviews to no more that fifteen or twenty minutes.” Pat and I must have hit it off as he never let’s me hang un easily. And in addition to being a superb conversationalist he likes to sing a few lines from any song discussed.
Below is a sample of topics covered that I recorded. At this writing his beloved wife Shirley is very ill and not expected to live. You will feel the love whenever he mentions her. Pat freely admits that early in their lives he went through a period of narcissism that could have ended their marriage. It was her religious faith and willingness to keep them together that brought about Pat’s finding himself and becoming the spiritual leader in the field of entertainment that he is considered today. You will see later in this article what a tremendous influence Shirley has been on Pat.
Dr. Fred Eichelman: The obvious question is that as a former Southern boy, first Florida and then Tennessee what inspired you to get into the music and film worlds?
Pat Boone: The first answer to that is Bing Crosby. My dad, Archie Boone, was a building contractor and my mom, Margaret, was a registered nurse. It was sort of expected I would become an architect and building contractor and follow in my dad’s footsteps. My family were Christians and very involved in church. I went to a Christian high school and college at David L. Lipscomb in Nashville with the idea that I might be a teacher/preacher which is what I did decide to do; but growing up my folks had Bing Crosby records. I loved them, I listened to them and I fantasized when I was milking the family cow, Rosemary, about becoming a singer.
It became known there was this kid who lived out in Lone Oak Road who kept up with the current pop tunes and had a lady piano teacher friend who would accompany me and never asked for anything in return. Never asked for money. We would sing at ladies club luncheons, business men meetings, high school assembly programs and even contests. I did it for the fun of living this fantasy that I was a young Bing Crosby. I was even introduced that way sometimes. Bing was my original influence. Later Shirley’s dad Red Foley influenced me greatly in the way he sang country music. Red Foley’s wife and Shirley’s mother was Eva Carter, who sang with her sisters in “Three Little Maids”. Those were my big influences. I would consider Shirley the greatest.
DFE: We remember you whistled in some of your songs the way Bing used to do. I think you and Bing are the only two that ever did that as far as I can remember.
Pat Boone: Whistling is something I loved to do. I looked for excuses in the recording when we would be rehearsing. I would whistle along in the instrumental portion. Even when the band was running down and I wasn’t singing I would whistle. In Love Letters in the Sand, the original recording had a whistling intro, because Randy Wood, the head of the record company, liked the way it sounded and I also whistled in the middle part. It was the biggest selling record I ever had. Eventually when they put the record out they lopped the whistling introduction off. So it started (Pat sang) “On a day like today…” which grabbed people’s attention immediately, but it lost the whistle. I just whistled on the bridge and it seemed so different from other records. I think that made it a huge hit.
DFE: Your Rhythm and Blues music paved the way for Rock and Roll. We don’t hear you credited as much in this regard which is hard to understand.
Pat Boone: Well, some kind of perverse rendering of history or mis-rendering had occurred because over the years, first of all I didn’t live a Rock and Roll lifestyle. I did the unforgivable. I recorded things besides Rock and Roll. I mean I did movie themes, my own movie songs, of course Elvis Presley did too. He was much more identified with Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll with numbers like Hound Dog. Even his ballads had a certain rock sensibility. Whereas if I was going to sing Friendly Persuasion, it was really a classy ballad. Even Love Letters in the Sand and April Love were ballads. So people didn’t think of me as a Rock and Roll singer though I had all these huge hits and I consider myself a midwife at the birth of Rock and Roll.
I even preceded Elvis in singing Rhythm and Blues songs that we called Rock and Roll. This is unbelievable, but in my autobiography, Pat Boone’s America 50 Years I had to do some research. I had somebody researching for me and when he put the dates in front of me I couldn’t believe it myself. From March of ‘55 to February of ‘56, before Elvis’s record Heartbreak Hotel I had six million selling singles, two of them number one. Two of them back to back, Tutti Fruitti and I’ll Be Home. This was all in eleven months, which is unprecedented. Nobody would think about putting out that many records in less than a year. The record company, Dot, where I was and Randy Wood who ran the company when a record peaked, wherever it was on the chart, would immediately come out with another record.
So one was going down while another was going up. I had such a rush, six million sellers in eleven months, it helped me weather the Elvis Tide. I was considered his chief rival. A lot of people said they preferred my version of some of the same songs we did. I think we underestimated, I know I did, his enduring talent. He sounded a little raw, a little shaky on some songs, his singing was certainly untutored. I didn’t have much but I had had more of it. I think we underestimated that visceral appeal that Elvis had and would continue to have even to this moment.
A lot of rumors were out during those days that we were serious rivals. We both got along well and even planned to do an album together. I would sing his hits and he would sing mine. But his manager put a stop to that which is sad. I think that it was thought a rivalry would be good publicity. I was delighted to be thought of as a country artist for a while and at various times, because I had country hits. Even Love Letters in the Sand became a big hit in the country field. It was a huge pop hit, but sort of leaked over. I was tickled to death to be considered country because my wife Shirley’s dad, Red Foley, was a great country singer. He was in the Country Hall of Fame eventually. To me that was just as good as pop recognition. Shirley herself deserved recognition as outstanding when it came to singing. However, she was more interested in my career than her having one. We are a team.
DFE: You’ve also had some great films. Some that have been used in the classroom. Among the films we’ve seen used in schools have been The Greatest Story Ever Told and Journey to the Center of the Earth. However one that is very special and still shown in churches was The Cross and The Switchblade. How significant was this film to you?
Pat Boone: Oh my goodness. People ask me from time to time “What is your favorite film made out of the fifteen or so in your career?” I always say The Cross and the Switchblade. It was also such a tremendous, eternal honor to be selected by George Stevens, the great director/producer, to be the man at “the tomb” in The Greatest Story Ever Told. saying the most important words that were ever spoken in all the history of mankind, “He is not here, He has risen just as He said.” I got to say those words and I have marveled at that for many years. Of all the actors he could have chosen he had chosen somebody unknown. I think I would have done that as I wouldn’t want someone at that moment to look at the screen and say, “Oh look, that’s Pat Boone.” He did it in such a way, my head was shadowed, I had a hooded robe and the shadow was across my face.
In The Cross and the Switchblade, to play Dave Wilkerson in the true story of a man who just obeyed God and went into the worst section of the country to try to help kids was a signal honor in my life. It was a real challenge for him to risk his life over and over to save other kids’ lives. That film by the way, just like The Greatest Story…. has gone all over the world and has been translated into many languages. It has been credited with causing or bringing about the salvation of many many people. Even in Iran there was a Catholic priest who took it as his ministry, Father John, he’s gone now, but he saw to it that the film was translated into Farsi, the Iranian tongue. It played all over the nation for years.
Even though it was a strong Christian message, it was also a very strong anti-drug message. In Iran that is ironic, as in Iran and Afghanistan, that part of the world, they grow the poppy, the basic ingredient for the large drug traffic around the world. It plays a big part in that economy. But they don’t want their own people being on drugs. It was an anti-drug film, but it caused many people to look at Jesus and to become Christian too. Other films I’ve made were bigger box office, but those two have had greater significance. I think the Lord will smile at me much more on me than let us say Goodbye Charlie and even Journey to the Center of the Earth which was a huge success.
DFE: You are also an author, in addition to your autobiography you have written books for young people. Are you going to continue your writing projects?
Pat Boone: I seem to be unable not to write. I’m writing on all the current themes of the day. Some that are pretty deep like the question of evolution and abortion and homosexual rights. One that ran on Newsmax was on race and gender in political campaigns. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said race and gender are not issues in campaigns and I said, “Who told you that?” They are decidedly issues and should be. They made them bigger issues saying they shouldn’t be considered. The news media has made them issues. That’s the way politics is played.
I feel like I have a soap box provided to me. I have already written enough columns on various issues that I bet we could put together a couple more books. Sometimes those books are widely read and popular. I feel like I have things to say and I was planning to be a teacher, I wanted to point young people in the right direction. Like the teachers who had me. Our vanity compels us to let people know when we have done something good, that’s understandable. But the joy of random acts of kindness with no expectation of notice is reward enough. It is a deep joy and very close to God’s heart. Influencing for the good is most important. I don’t know, who was a great influence on Martin Luther in addition to the Bible.
I do know a teacher contributed strongly to the thinking of Martin Luther, who led the Reformation. It wasn’t his (Luther’s) own solo contemplation, it was interaction and discussion with this other man. You think about the guy not known, like a teacher. This is the sort of thing that attracted me to being a teacher. I felt I may not be widely known as a teacher, maybe in the course of my career I will influence in a good direction someone who will become known and do good things, rather than letting your talents be wasted on non-productive and even counter-productive things.
DFE: I suspect you have influenced people who may not have realized it at first and then it hits them, “This is not only me doing this, it is Pat Boone.”
Pat Boone: Yes, in fact I have honored my early desire to be a teacher in some ways that I know about. Some I don’t. By the time I got out of college my career took off so wildly, but I was determined to get my degree and graduated from Columbia University. Up to the day I took my last test I thought I would be teaching. Therefore I needed that degree.
Before I graduated I already had a number one best seller Twix Twelve and Twenty. It was a book of advice for teens which went into every high school in America as well as libraries and churches. It sold well over a million hard cover copies. All the money went to start a Christian college outside Philadelphia which is now fully accredited called Northeastern Christian College, (NCC). This was before I got out of college and I said, “Hey, this is what I want to do with my life.” It was beyond anything I imagined. “Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” That was one thing. And I serves as chairman of the advisory board at Pepperdine University for a dozen years.
So I’m involved in education. But people in Japan, where I have had a curious popularity after all these years, I have had teachers tell me they use my music to teach English. What I thought I was going to be as an English teacher. In Japan both Elvis and I were very popular, but they couldn’t understand Elvis. My words were sung and spoken clearly so they would use my records to teach proper pronunciation to Japanese students who were studying English. So here I am by proxy, not teaching English in the United States, but in foreign countries through my music. It was an amazing development.
DFE: I’d like to cover one more area. When our mutual friend Rhonda Fleming, made this interview possible, she mentioned that your wife Shirley has a fantastic ministry herself. We know you two work as a team. Could you tell us something about that?
Pat Boone: We have learned through some rocky times and adjustments, we’ve learned that sometimes those peculiar quirks that seemed so cute when you’re dating get to be real irritants when you are living together for years and we’ve had to maneuver to let each other rub the sharp edges off over the years. It’s wonderful because now we have been totally bonded. Shirley does have her own ministry but she’s also been an invaluable aid to me all along and partner in almost everything I’ve done. I’ve said her name should be on my diploma, for example, from Columbia. I would never have been able to graduate with honors with four daughters at age twenty-three and a career in full raging bloom. That’s two mixed metaphors, but anyway Shirley wanted me to achieve my goals and one of those goals was that I did graduate. She didn’t because of our four kids.
She started her own ministry called We Win. It started out as Women Empowering Women. You go to the web site and there it is We Win. But now it’s We Empower Women because she wants men to realize it is a partnership. I help her with hers as her’s is in spurts. She feels she has to take time off and think, and be sort of fallow and let what’s up on the web site and what’s been recorded on DVDs do the job. She had a big seminar a few years ago. It was an all day seminar at church and was well attended. It was recorded and videotaped and we are offering that on the web site. Women who have endured and triumphed through some of the toughest situations imaginable, cancer, divorce, children molested and taken by witches (Wicca). That is children whose trusted baby sitters were witches and actually took these little infants to covens and they were, well I don’t have to go into all the gory details. Abused by people they trusted to look after them.
Shirley’s intent is to help women with all kinds of problems, difficulties, questions and have resources and testimonies that can help and guide them through dark times. Shirley has written her own book, One Woman’s Liberation. I tried to help her with her book, she did help me with mine. But then we wrote a book together, The Honeymoon is Over, subtitled But The Marriage Has Just Begun. We wrote that together, each writing separate chapters. We discovered we remembered some of the very same events and periods that we lived through together differently. (chuckle). She’d say, “That’s not the way it was” and I’d say, “Yes, it was.” I’d say, “Here’s how it happened” and I’d write my version and she’d write hers. We realized we just didn’t flat remember some of the events and statements and moments exactly alike so that’s how we decided “You write a chapter, I’ll write a chapter. When we get to the end if we’re still together we’ll put the book out.”
I use the example of a butterfly struggling to get out of the cocoon. In an effort to help the butterfly a fellow took a pocket knife and split the cocoon down so the butterfly could get out. To his dismay he saw the butterfly flutter helplessly and then die. The lesson is that the struggle is necessary to have the strength to survive and reach our goals. Without struggle, without obstacles, without opposition we’ll never develop muscles. So we applied that to our marriage, that these difficulties and disagreements and sometimes trying moments in periods in a marriage develop not only wisdom, but a bond.