Pat Boone — legendary pop hitmaker of the 1950s and 1960s — admittedly has one of the cleanest images in popular music, but the Nashville-born legend has been known to paint outside the lines of what’s expected on occasion. There was 1997’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, a collection of hard-rock covers of acts such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, and his new album, R&B Duet Hits, breaks some new musical ground as well: It’s a collection of R&B classics performed with the original artists.
Boone recently made time for a wide-ranging interview with Billboard, discussing the growth of his hometown, his famous father-in-law, getting kicked off of Trinity Broadcasting Network in 1997, and his “clean-cut” image, which he relishes.
You are one of just a handful of musical performers who grew up in Nashville. Reflect on how much it has changed since then.
I remember Nashville as being a quiet, modern yet simple kind of city. Now, it’s a metropolis — even in Green Hills, which is a suburb. I grew up on Lone Oak Road, and we had 10 acres of land. We had cows and pigs. Across the street was a big farm, which is now a middle school. So much of that farmland is covered up with a parking lot. I used to run through our back pasture if I was late to school. Now it’s a whole community of townhouses. That’s very typical. Nashville is still a Southern city, with a lot of gentleness and friendliness about it. But it’s also tall buildings and an urban sprawl.
You are in town to promote the new record but also to give back to your alma mater, correct?
Right. I went to school at David Lipscomb High School and worked in the summertime for my dad, who was a building contractor. My brother and I poured concrete and pushed wheelbarrows so we could go to a Christian high school — but it was only four or five-hundred [students] back then. I went from there to my first year of college at David Lipscomb University, which was a lot smaller than other colleges; they didn’t even have a football game. Now Lipscomb is a full-scale university. My wife and I are endowing the Boone Family Center for the Performing Arts on the campus. It’s where Shirley and I met and fell in love. We’re celebrating our 62nd year of marriage, employing principles that we learned here in Nashville. We are also endowing the Boone Center for the Family, which teaches kids who come to college here how to build moral and healthy relationships and friendships headed toward marriage. We’re making a major investment in this campus and this school that made the investment in us. We’re delighted to be able to pay some back.
Your father-in-law was Country Music Hall of Fame member Red Foley. What are your thoughts on his musical legacy?
I don’t think that Red Foley has gotten as much posthumous recognition as he deserves. There are artists like Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold who get more attention in the history of country music. Red Foley was one of the best singers in the format and one of the first artists to cross over with “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.” He had the first million-selling Gospel song with “Peace in the Valley.” He also initiated the first network country music television show in the Ozark Jubilee out of Springfield, Missouri.
Elvis was once an opening act for you. What do you remember about him?
Elvis was my opening act the first time we met. It was in Cleveland. I had the good sense to never follow him again, but I got away with it because I had three hit records since March of 1955, and he hadn’t recorded for RCA yet — so he wasn’t known nationally. He went ahead of me at a sock hop in front of about 3,000 kids. When he sang “That’s Alright Mama,” they wanted more, but that’s all he had, so he had to leave. I came on with my three current hits and got all the screams. We became really good friends. We were two Tennessee boys who knew how fortunate we were. We were going in different paths. He was single and creating controversy with his below-the-hip actions onstage, dating starlets and all of that. I was 11 months ahead of him, Mr. All-Amercian, married with kids, matching him hit for hit for about four years. We were competitors, but friendly ones. I just had the sense to never again follow him onstage.
Having that image, did you have any desire to see how the other half lived?
I knew how the other half lived, and I knew I was the lucky one. I was fresh out of college and very young. I had a wife and four kids, and it kept me grounded. I saw so many of my peers — if they even attempted marriage, it didn’t last long. I saw them with all kinds of drug and drinking problems. I saw their careers flame up and flame out. I realized I was being blessed all along the way.
Your album No More Mr. Nice Guy still retains a cult following — after almost 20 years. But it was not without some controversy.
That album got me kicked off of TBN immediately. I was doing a weekly Gospel music show that featured all types of music called Gospel America. When I made the album, Dick Clark heard it and thought it was going to be a big hit because of the songs and the musical treatment. He had Alice Cooper and I present a hard tock/heavy metal award on the [1997 American Music Awards], which went to Metallica. Dick’s idea was that Alice and I would swap images. He would come out holding a glass of milk, wearing a V-neck sweater, wearing a pair of white buck shoes and his long hair under a ball cap. I would come out in a black leather outfit with no sleeves, no shirt, tattoos and chokers, boots and shades. At the last minute, Cooper backed out. He hadn’t seen me in the outfit that Dick Clark had made for me. I wasn’t going to disappoint Dick, so I took pleasure in shocking the king of shock rock when he introduced me as the future of heavy metal. When I walked out, emerging from the darkness, he was stunned. The crowd was making so much noise. The younger fans were asking, “Who’s that?” while the older ones in the audience were saying, “Well, that looks like Pat Boone, but it can’t be.”
As I remember, the reaction — both good and bad – was quick.
We were having fun, not knowing that within a few hours, fans and supporters of Christian TV were calling in, saying, “Pat Boone has gone over to the dark side.” If he’s ever on your network again, they wouldn’t give them another nickel. So I was canceled off the network. That made the news right along with the fact that the appearance had shocked the world. Dick said it created more of a shock than anything they had ever done on the awards show. I didn’t mind being kicked off the channel, because I knew there would come a time when I went back — and I did about two months later.
On the new album, you perform many R&B classics with the original artists — which you say is pretty natural.
This was another out-of-the-box-type album, but it’s not as out of character for me as a lot of people might think. When I started out, I was singing R&B — “Two Hearts, Two Kisses,” which was a record by The Charms, as well as “Ain’t That a Shame” from Fats Domino, and all these other songs that weren’t played on pop radio at that point. Those who didn’t live through that era, they think that artists like Elvis and I took songs from the R&B performers, which wasn’t true. They weren’t getting played on pop radio.
You have stated what a humbling experience it was for you to be allowed to cover these songs.
I was astonished that these artists would allow me to make new records of their old hits with them. But these guys were so unselfish, and they knew I was a peer of theirs and had contributed to the whole rhythm and blues scene as a white guy doing all of that music like Elvis had. I am grateful to all of them. Never before have all of those artists been on one record, which is pretty historic.