LA People 2009: Buckskin Blues Pat Boone
Pat Boone’s running late, but killing time in his suite of offices overlooking the Sunset Strip is anything but dull. A one-man museum, the place is bristling with scads of memorabilia and merchandising from his bobby socks–thrilling heyday: Pat Boone “Hugable Socks,” PB sunglasses (wicked little granny style with a flip-up strip of green plastic for that extra-cool look), ID bracelets, jewelry boxes, gold records everywhere (total of a lucky 13), photos of him atop cars mobbed by teenagers, snaps of Pat and Elvis, Pat and Harry Truman, Pat and Ike (and Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush), even a pair of wooden Dutch sabots, customized with shoe laces and painted a dazzling white in homage to his signature buckskin kicks. There’s a framed baseball-catcher’s mask with a newspaper clipping with the headline “Pat Boone Breaks Jaw in Bicycle Accident” and a sheet of powder blue FS-emblazoned stationery that reads “Dummy! Next time, use this. Love, Francis Albert.” A TV plays kinescopes from his old TV show, and there’s Pat crying a convincingly bluesy version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind,” followed by a surprisingly smoldering “Tenderly.”
All-American enigma Pat Boone is one highly unusual, complex character. Direct descendant of Daniel Boone (“he was my great great great grandfather”), man of devout faith, pre-Elvis rock & roll star (and, dig, no less than nine of his mid-1950s hits made Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart — that’s right, the brothers were gassing on Pat). He’s a blunt, outspoken conservative and indefatigable promoter of some 40 charitable causes. His squeaky-clean reputation not only precedes but almost overshadows him; Boone must almost daily confront a thick tangle of misperceptions — that he “ripped off” Little Richard and Fats Domino; that, as Esquire magazine’s “Oh What a Friend He Has in Jesus” hatchet job famously and inexplicably inferred, he somehow exploits Christianity to glom undeserved funds; and, worse, that he’s a talent-free dullard.
The reality is that, as half of the Good Twin-Bad Twin analogue that Pat and Elvis represented, Boone significantly softened a market unprepared for the shock of rock & roll. He also cut a series of rose-tinted pitch-perfect pop classics, part of an almost inadvertent campaign to both extend the Rudy Vallee-Bing Crosby-Frank Sinatra crooner trad and cash in on the hot, mad, big-beat cause, which he was the earliest ofay to champion. His 1954 version of Otis Williams & the Charms’ “Two Hearts, Two Kisses” kicked it off — before Elvis, before Bill Haley, during a time when, per Hollywood Juke Box Jury DJ Peter Potter, the attitude was: “All R&B records are dirty and as bad for kids as dope.” Nonetheless, Boone was the first white boy to cover an R&B song, and along the way, as Little Richard has said, “Pat Boone made me a millionaire.” Now, there’s some collateral damage.
Forty-five million record sales later, Boone is still busy, running his Gold label, home to the likes of Patti Page and Jack Jones (“I felt these great artists were being criminally neglected, so I started the label out of a combination of anger and opportunism”). He writes characteristically hard-charging columns for the conservative WorldNetDaily, and has just published his 15th book, Questions About God (and the Answers that Could Change Your Life). Boone seems quite at ease with the Man You Love to Hate role. He dismisses Obama’s recovery plan, advocates a stabilizing return to the Gold Standard for U.S. currency and unequivocally supports Proposition 8: “It’s not anti-gay, it’s pro-marriage.” Like them or not, Boone’s arguments all ring with a steely Vulcan logic, albeit tending toward the radical, as with his call for a new Boston Tea Party, where activist judges, not crates of Darjeeling, are pitched overboard.
“I don’t want to be a haranguer,” he says, “but sometimes I feel like I just don’t have a choice.” Still, Boone’s far more interested in discussing his own career and the chronic lack of historical context he’s faced with. “I am a rock & roll singer,” he declares, “and an R&B singer.”
By way of illustration, he whips out a copy of his 2006 We Are Family: R&B Classics CD, a set of collaborations with Earth Wind & Fire, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, Kool & the Gang, James Brown, even Kool Moe Dee, slams it into a CD player and cranks the volume. As the opening track, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” blasts forth, Boone goes into a booty-thrusting crouch, pumping his arms, shaking his rump, in short, getting way down, while the Godfather of Soul himself shouts “Pat’s got a brand new bag!” It’s a mind-ripping sight, and perhaps the days’s most illuminating glimpse of the man the chronically misunderstood Pat Boone really is.
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