The America that made the wholesome alternative to Elvis a superstar is rapidly fading from memory.
By Matthew Hennessey from the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Hennessey is the Journal’s deputy editorial features editor.
December 23, 2022
If you’re under 50, you may not recognize the name Pat Boone. Consider this: For most of the latter half of the 20th century, there wasn’t a person in America who didn’t know who Mr. Boone was and what he stood for. He was the All-American; the kid in the white buck shoes; the clean-cut alternative to early rock-’n’-rollers like Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry; the star of a dozen Hollywood movies, none of which contained anything resembling profanity, social subversion or a love scene. Life magazine put Mr. Boone on its cover in February 1959, dubbing him “The Million-Dollar Idol of U.S. Teen-Agers.”
The country was different in those days. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, married in real life, had to sleep in twin beds on television. Ed Sullivan insisted that Elvis be filmed only from the waist up. Somehow Sullivan knew that the sight of those swiveling hips would arouse untamable animal spirits in the nation’s young people. He knew it would destroy something. He was right, of course. How did he know?
Maybe that was a better time, maybe not. One thing’s for sure: Nobody worried about Mr. Boone’s effect on the youth of America. You could point a camera at all of him.
“Back then being the All-American kid was popular, and being a family guy was popular, going to church was popular, and all of that was OK,” he says during a recent interview in his memorabilia-filled office on the Sunset Strip. At 88, Mr. Boone is spry and sharp and, despite our presence in the godless wilds of La La Land, not the least bit hesitant to quote Scripture to a complete stranger: “When the wicked are in authority, sin flourishes, but the godly will live to see their downfall” (Proverbs 29:16). A well-thumbed Bible stays on his lap for the entirety of our 3½-hour conversation. “This is my 40th year to read straight through the Bible, word for word, from beginning to end.”
Mr. Boone doesn’t curse and won’t sing songs about sex or drugs. He’s a conservative Republican and an outspoken Christian—the double kiss of death in Hollywood. “They quit inviting me to premieres here a long time ago,” he says, “but I wasn’t interested in going to most of them anyway.” I ask if it’s possible for an entertainer today to follow in his footsteps—if someone with his squeaky clean image and values could break through as a mainstream star. He mentions Michael Bublé, whom he calls “a great singer” and a family man who is lucky that “he was never tagged in any way politically.” His brow furrows as he recalls “the really rocky path” that Justin Bieber took. “He was just an innocent kid, but then, wow, he went south.”
Hollywood has always been the perfect place for an innocent kid to go south. “You cannot plan on success in the entertainment business,” he says. “If you do plan on it, it’s too easy to sell your soul to try to get there. And you’ll regret that for your whole life.”
I don’t get the sense that Mr. Boone has many regrets. Sixty years ago, when he moved his family to Los Angeles, he paid $159,000 for a house on a 1.2-acre lot at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and N. Beverly Drive. He still lives there. “I turned down USD 20 million for that house,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m going to be offered more than that, I know.” But he won’t sell. That house is where he and Shirley, his wife of 65 years, raised their four daughters. It’s where Shirley died in 2019.
“I feel Shirley’s presence in the house all the time,” he says. “Yes, I get lonely and I miss her. But that’s one of the blessings.” He’s at peace with his own mortality: “I’m looking forward to being with Shirley soon.” Not that he’s slowing down. He hosts the “Pat Boone Hour,” a radio show on SiriusXM’s ’50s Gold channel. He’s just come from recording the Gettysburg Address for an animated educational series: “They wanted me to be the voice of Lincoln, so I jumped at it.”
From the beginning he was intent on charting his own show-business path, one that wouldn’t force him to sell his soul in exchange for success. “When we moved to California, I said consciously to Shirley, ‘We’re not going to live by Hollywood standards, we’re going to live by Tennessee standards.’ ” I might have guessed what they are, but he spells them out: “Bible-believing, churchgoing, standing for righteousness, morality—the things that people in Tennessee just take for granted and they don’t take for granted out here anymore.”
Mr. Boone hit it big in 1955 with a cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” It shot to No. 1. A blizzard of smash singles and albums followed, many of which featured Mr. Boone’s recordings of songs written and previously recorded by black artists. In time, the success of the Boone versions would lead to charges that he had done those singers dirty, crowding them off the airwaves and pocketing their rightful royalties. This “whitewashing” narrative has written itself into the legend of early rock-’n’-roll.
He waves the criticism off. “Rhythm and blues was not getting played on top radio. It was called race music,” he says. “Some of the A&R people, the producers on the big labels, were starting to pick up on some of these hooky songs.” Singers like Mr. Boone and Presley recorded those songs “because they had great beats and funny lyrics, and the kids loved them.” They sold a lot of records. Everyone benefited. When Little Richard died in 2020, Mr. Boone told Billboard: “His music was good for me, and I was good for his music.”
It’s worth pointing out that musicians have been borrowing from and building on each other’s work since “Greensleeves.” The whitewashing charge has also been leveled at Elvis, the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin. Not everyone agrees it has merit. In “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” published in November, Bob Dylan writes: “Of all the people who sang [Little Richard’s] ‘Tutti Frutti,’ Pat Boone was probably the only one who knew what he was singing about.” That would be ice cream. Mr. Boone isn’t a double-entendre kind of guy.
Mr. Boone’s contemporaries were marketed as heartthrobs and sex symbols, but he was already off the market by the time he arrived on the scene. He’d married Shirley, his Nashville high-school sweetheart, when they were both 19. They had two daughters by the time they were 23, with two more arriving before the 1950s were over. Photographs of the Boone family’s domestic bliss appeared regularly in fan magazines. You wouldn’t dream of launching a pop career that way now, but back then it worked. Neither his teenage admirers nor the entertainment industry held it against Mr. Boone that he was as dangerous as a glass of malted milk. “I once shook hands with Pat Boone, and my whole right side sobered up,” Dean Martin quipped.
“The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom,” a weekly variety show, ran on ABC from 1957-60, and 182 episodes of “The Pat Boone Show” ran on NBC daytime in 1966-67. The irruption of the counterculture pushed him off the pop charts, so he turned to recording gospel and country records, which sold millions. He was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” typically demonstrating a healthy sense of humor about his own wholesome image.
Mr. Boone’s image hasn’t grown less wholesome in the 21st century. “If,” his latest book of popular apologetics—he’s written or co-written dozens—is, he says, aimed at nonbelievers: “I’m hoping to go on with Bill Maher.” Mr. Boone has appeared on HBO’s “Real Time” to battle with its atheist host before. He expects Mr. Maher to say, “ ‘You’re telling me if I don’t do what you say in this book, I’m going to hell?’ And I’ll say, ‘Bill, you already are. I mean, you already are. The reason I want to reach you is to keep you from going there.’ ”
Before stardom Mr. Boone thought he’d be a preacher. He still stands for God, mom and apple pie, “and I’ve taken plenty of beatings for it” at the hands of his own industry. In the 1950s and ’60s, stars like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers were open about their conservative views. Obviously the winds have shifted. If you want to have a career in show business today and you tilt right-of-center, Mr. Boone says, “you don’t talk about it.” Hollywood has grown hostile to performers who make the mistake of admitting that they vote Republican.
Mr. Boone has felt the pinch. “I’m trying to be a little more judicious than I used to be,” he claims. Nevertheless, as I’m setting up my iPhone to record our conversation, he offers—unprompted—his take on Donald Trump’s 2024 candidacy for president. “I would advise him not to run this time,” he says. “Too many people are jaundiced against him now, even Republicans.”
Mr. Boone says Mr. Trump’s behavior during the invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, gave him “a bad black eye.” He doesn’t think the then-president instigated the riot, but concedes that he has “tried to utilize it” for political purposes and is doing “all the wrong things.” Not that you’ll catch Mr. Boone saying anything flattering about Mr. Trump’s successor: “Biden is ruining the country now. He’s just running us down a rat hole.”
That kind of talk guarantees that Mr. Boone won’t enjoy a late-career renaissance as a cuddly grandfather or stately ambassador in big-budget studio movies, though he clearly has the looks, energy and experience for it. Earlier this year he delivered a charming supporting performance as a wise old golf pro in “The Mulligan,” an independently produced feature. He’s filmed a role—he won’t say what—in “Reagan,” the upcoming biopic starring Dennis Quaid.
For a man approaching 90, Mr. Boone is in remarkable physical and mental shape. Maybe it’s the result of living by Tennessee values. Throughout our wide-ranging conversation he demonstrates detailed recall of events that happened decades earlier. Ronald Reagan, he says, didn’t have many show business friends, even among Hollywood Republicans. “Nobody thought he had a chance” in his 1966 race for California governor against Pat Brown, the popular incumbent. Toward the campaign’s end, when it started to look like Reagan might win, “John Wayne came aboard, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and a few of those people.” Years later, Mr. Boone says, they all claimed to have supported the future president’s political ambitions from the start. “Everybody always underestimated Reagan.”
The America of the 1950s is fading from memory. The animal spirits unleashed by the birth of rock-’n’-roll have run wild in the land for nearly 70 years. The fabric of the country has been torn and stitched back together so frequently that it’s become almost unrecognizable. Nothing now is as it was then. Except Pat Boone. He is the same guy at 88 as he was at 18: an American square. And proud of it.
Appeared in the December 24, 2022, print edition as ‘The Last of the Hollywood Squares’.