I have a modest proposal, but before you say no I would ask you to remember what time of year it is. After all, ’tis the season to be…er, jolly, or something like that, but what I had in mind was something closer to forgiveness. After many years of relegating him to the penalty box, we need to absolve Pat Boone. Simply put, let’s cut the man a break.
I’ll be the first to admit that I denigrated him as he (and I) grew older, possibly because I felt a little guilty about buying into the whole clean-cut Pat Boone thing when I was a teenager. I was typical for the time and place (1950’s middle America) and he certainly seemed less threatening than the bad boys, at least to me. After all, he was a descendent of Daniel Boone and you don’t get much more respectable that that. I don’t remember my parents expressing an opinion one way or the other, but that might have been because I didn’t appear to have any interest in less savory singers. If I had, they probably would have wondered if I was turning into a JD.
For those not conversant with the jargon of the times, a JD was a juvenile delinquent, the dreaded appellation given to problem teenagers (always boys) who were likely to wear a motorcycle jacket, have a cigarette hanging from their lip, and have their hair slicked back into a DA. (And if you don’t know what DA stands for, then you really don’t know the lingo.) JD’s were also suspected of being on an inevitable path to reform school, but most kids figured that couldn’t be too scary because our moms often used it to threaten us.
Pat Boone prospered in this atmosphere by presenting music that was modeled on that of the edgier performers, not only Elvis and his ilk but also the black R&B musicians who’d started it all. He recorded songs such as Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame”, and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, and had bigger hits with them than the original artists. He also recorded R&B ballads, such as “I Almost Lost My Mind”, and then continued moving closer to the middle of the road, with songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand” and “April Love”. (He also starred in a movie of the same name, one of several he made during that time period.) His smooth baritone voice was made to order for such songs and he continued to enjoy success in records and movies, and even had his own TV show for a while.
Smoothly transitioning from hits such as “Moody River” in the early 1960’s to more gospel-related material in the 1970’s, he set a pattern of moving toward the sensibilities of his many fans in the Christian community, and reinforced that by writing a series of self-help books for kids. He also made a lot of appearances with his wife and daughters, encouraging daughter Debby with her solo singing career that peaked with “You Light Up My Life”. In the decades since, he’s continued on the same course with writing, activism, (including his own radio show) and a lot of charity work.
Although the quality of his voice was never disputed, he’s been dismissed by a lot of cynical music fans because of what they see as his usurpation of the early rock and roll spotlight, and because they don’t agree with his politics or beliefs…but the final straw occurred in 1997. Deciding to issue a metal music spoof album titled No More Mr. Nice Guy turned out to be a major miscalculation by him. It not only gave his detractors another weapon to use but also alienated many of his Christian fans (and cost him his radio show).
I say enough. Let’s lighten up on the guy and recognize him for the talent and longevity he’s shown, and for his many contributions to popular music. And let’s remember that in the context of the early days of rock and roll he was one of the pioneers, in the sense that he popularized it for mainstream America. If he and others like him hadn’t done so, who’s to say how rock and roll would have developed? Certainly not me.