Pat Boone Celebrates 50 Years in Show-Biz

American Icons, People
on April 9, 2007
Jason Janik "I've done some highly controversial things that people may not know about," says Pat Boone, whose good-guy reputation spans five decades.

Pat Boone is running a few minutes late as he walks into his office in a high-rise on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip, casually dressed in a T-shirt, navy sweat pants and trendy white athletic shoes that bring to mind the trademark white bucks he sported in the 1950s.

“Sorry,” he apologizes, flashing his still-dazzling trademark smile. “I have so much on my schedule.”

Boone, 72, who made his mark in American pop culture with music, movies, television and books, is in the middle of promoting a multitude of projects marking the recent milestone of his 50 years in the entertainment industry. Among them are his autobiography, Pat Boone’s America: 50 Years, and five recent albums, each covering a different musical genre: patriotic, gospel, country, love songs and R&B.

“I consider it like a fireworks display at the end of the fair,” he says. “That’s it—the smoke, and everything settles down. The headliner waves goodbye and disappears. That is really what I am planning. The book and all these albums are sort of my finale.”

A strong foundation
Whether making records in the 1950s that made “white” America familiar with “black” music or writing books that helped others benefit from his own spiritual growth, Boone has stood for five decades upon a strong foundation of personal and religious conviction.

He’s a “man of remarkable good humor,” says his pastor, Dr. Jack Hayford of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., “a man of exceeding breadth, a man who can be a good Christian and not be condescending toward people of other traditions or even unbelief.”

His reputation as Mr. Nice Guy was honestly earned, but not always as bland as the title might seem. “I have done some highly controversial things that people may not even know about,” says Boone, who once successfully pressed to perform to a mixed-race South African audience back in the heated, violent days of apartheid in the 1970s. In the ’90s, his album of heavy-metal rock songs—crooned Pat-Boone style—incensed some of his Christian fans to the point that the Trinity Broadcast Network dropped his popular faith-based TV show. His refusal to accept certain movie roles almost ended his acting career just as it was getting started.

“Making decisions based on conscience did not end my career,” declares the man who twice turned down opportunities to make a movie with the legendary sexpot Marilyn Monroe. “My agents told my manager, ‘Send this boy back to Tennessee. He just isn’t made for this business. Let him be a schoolteacher.’”

Teaching was indeed Boone’s career goal before he took a side trip down a road that eventually led him to the top of the entertainment world. Born June 1, 1934, in Jacksonville, Fla., he was 2 when the family relocated to Donelson, Tenn.

Teaching plans detoured
Even as a young man, Boone didn’t always play it safe. One early daring deed was his elopement—against his parents’ wishes that he finish college first—with Shirley Foley, daughter of Country Music Hall of Fame member Red Foley, in 1953.

Shortly after they married, the couple relocated to Denton, Texas, where Boone enrolled at North Texas State University, planning to become a schoolteacher after graduation.

But before their move to Texas, the wheel had been put in motion for something else. Boone, a naturally gifted singer, had taken top honors at a local talent show, which qualified him to be flown to New York to perform on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. While there, he auditioned for and won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the American Idol of its day. His win brought him to the attention of Dot Records, which made arrangements for Boone to record.

That wheel turned slowly, however. It was a year later when the young father got the call in Texas to record “Two Hearts,” his first single. And just in time—Shirley was pregnant with their second child, and they needed the money.

The family moved to New York to follow Boone’s good fortune. He became a regular on Godfrey’s show, continued releasing hit records, began hosting his own TV show and resumed his education at Columbia University. “Shirley and I both resolved that getting married was not going to keep me from finishing college,” he says.

When he graduated magna cum laude in 1958, he also was a best-selling author. “I was getting 5,000 letters a week and had to hire secretaries to handle it,” he recalls. “So many letters were asking my advice about teen problems. I thought, ‘I’ll write a book and try to address as many of the problems as possible in a beneficial way.’”

Twixt Twelve and Twenty was a runaway bestseller. It became an epiphany for the young entertainer, who saw that he could reach more teenagers through show business than he ever could in a classroom. “Before I was out of college, I had realized my dream of standing in the crossroads of young people’s lives,” he says. He never applied for a teaching position.

Movies, music and memories
America, it seemed, couldn’t get enough of the happy, well-groomed young man who seemingly had it all—success, talent, good looks, a family and an infectious wholesomeness in his personality, public demeanor and songs. It wasn’t long until Hollywood beckoned, and the Boone family—now with four daughters—moved to Beverly Hills. Boone launched a successful movie career with films such as Friendly Persuasion, April Love, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Cross and the Switchblade, a 1970 movie about a crusading preacher trying to convert members of a vicious street gang.

Last year’s release of We Are Family, Boone’s CD of cover songs of famous R&B classics, brings him full circle to the music that marked his first successful recordings in the ’50s. While many critics initially disparaged his “homogenizing” of songs by Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally”), Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”) and other black artists, most rock historians now acknowledge his recordings served as an important link between R&B and mainstream pop, making him, as he puts it, “a midwife at the birth of rock and roll.”

“Many white artists took songs from blacks and never gave them credit, nor associated with them,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson says. “Pat shared the credit and the association.”

While Boone has some concerts scheduled to promote his latest music, he concedes he’s ready to slow down. “I’m starting to say no to marginal concert dates and trying to keep my schedule more and more open for free time with Shirley, leisure and writing,” he says. “That probably sounds like retirement to most people, and it may very well be.”

As he looks back fondly on his wide-spanning career, he wants to be remembered as a good singer, a good family man and a good Christian.

“I didn’t jettison my upbringing because I was in the entertainment industry,” he says. “I made tough decisions, I risked suspension, I risked criticism and dismissal—and being called ‘nice,’ which I thought was the kiss of death. But my responsibility to God, my wife, my kids and my fans kept me considering everything I did in regard to the consequences to others rather than myself.”