They were the ultimate odd couple: the squeaky-clean, God-fearing, married young white pop singer and the whooping, hollering, piano-pounding hell raiser with a blue streak a mile long. But to hear Pat Boone tell it, without him Little Richard would not have risen to the heights of rock stardom and infamy and without Richard he wouldn’t have scored a string of hit covers that rivaled Elvis’ chart domination in the 1950s.
Just days after rock godfather Richards’ death on Saturday at age 87 of bone cancer, Boone, 85, spoke to Billboard about the unlikely pair’s special connection, how he ended up recording hit covers of three of Richards’ most iconic songs in the same year and why his often sanitized takes helped pave the way for R&B to cross over to the pop charts.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity).
Do you remember the first time you heard a Little Richard song? What struck you about it upon that initial listen?
It is so unlikely and it is a wonderful story. My underlining statement is that his music was good for me and I was good for his music. I was in college at North Texas State at 19, just married now at 21 years old and on my way to being a teacher/preacher. I’d done a record in Nashville on Republic that didn’t do anything and I knew I couldn’t count on that. I was married with our first baby on the way and I’d won the Ted Mack Amateur Hour on television three times and nothing came of it. But the call came in March of ’55 for me to go to New York and compete with other three-time winners… and that led to a recording contract with Dot Records. The first recording was “Two Hearts, Two Kisses” by The Charms because the idea of pop music beginning to cover R&B songs had just begun. [Dot founder/producer] Randy Wood was a sharp young record executive and he thought I could sing anything I wanted to sing and he picked this song that was an R&B hit because R&B had its own charts, its own stations and artists and R&B was not played on pop stations, so 98% percent of American music fans did not know anything about rhythm and blues… [sings “Two Hearts”] I recorded it until I was hoarse.
So the idea was to have you help those songs cross over to the pop charts?
I was just about the first one to do it and Little Richard… I didn’t know about this poor boy working in a bus station in Macon, Georgia, who had written a song called “Tutti Frutti” in February of ’56. From March of ’55 to late February of ’66 when Elvis hit with “Heartbreak Hotel,” Pat Boone had six million selling singles, two of them number ones and they were R&B covers. But when I went in the studio to record “Tutti Frutti” that was different than anything I had done. I had to write down that “a whop bob ba-luma bam boom” to figure out what in the world is that boy saying? People thought I was saying “a whop bob ba-luma Pat Boone,” but I wasn’t, I was saying “bam boom” like Richard did. When my record became a million seller, and then “Long Tall Sally,” it too became a million seller, and then later “Rip It Up,” Richard was still working at the bus station. After “Tutti Frutti” and he was interviewed later on a black station and the interviewer said, “How did you feel when Pat Boone did your song ‘Tutti Frutti?'” And I have the tape in which he says, “I was still washing dishes in a bus station in Macon, Georgia. My record was getting played on the radio, but I wasn’t makin’ no money! But when I heard Pat Boone had done my song, I threw my towel down and walked out of there because I knew I was gonna make some money now.” And he did.
So he appreciated that you’d done his songs?
Richard was on my show, the Pat Boone Chevy Show, and we made appearances together on other shows and we didn’t have a lot of time to talk together, but we were very friendly because he knew that my recording his song and getting it played on pop radio, as Fats knew, introduced them to a white pop audience that knew nothing of their music and stations were not playing it… When I sang “Tutti Frutti” I wasn’t trying to imitate Little Richard, but trying to capture the flavor of what he did. The excitement, the abandon. We did it faster, we did it louder, but it didn’t have his inflections, his flavor.
Your versions of “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up” all came out in the same year in 1956. What appealed to you about them?
A, I was smart enough to know that these songs were catchy, they were memorable, they were exciting. People who didn’t live through the time don’t realize, until 1955 there was no rock and roll, there was rhythm and blues. What we came to call rock and roll was an erotic expression that was heard in some rhythm and blues songs — we’re gonna rock and roll all night long — that phrase you could say was referring to dancing, but when artists sang it it was more erotic than that. So the music was not acceptable. However, when Randy Wood played me the record of “Tutti Frutti” I’d already had several R&B hits and I was picking up on the flavor, the excitement and I knew immediately that this song — as nutty as it seemed — that it was uncharacteristic of anything I’d done, but I felt it was a hit. I knew kids would dance to it.
You changed the lyrics, though. Why?
The lyrics are what concerned me a little bit. Even though the kids didn’t care what the lyrics were, they were there. So when Little Richard sang, “Pretty little Daisy, boy you don’t know what she do to me,” I thought, “well, that’s a little racy.” So I changed it to, “Pretty little Susie, that’s the girl for me.” It was the same rhythmically and I knew the kids didn’t care, so I took the liberty of changing that one phrase and Little Richard didn’t care either. It sang the same and he probably understood why I changed it. But when I did “Long Tall Sally,” I had to pause because if you paid much attention to the lyrics — and they were not the important part by any means — it was a story about Uncle John and Aunt Mary and he saw Aunt Mary coming and he ducked back in the alley because he was with Long Tall Sally. Well, for a Christian kid from Nashville to be singing that [laughs], it was risky. It was not risqué, it was risky. I just figured the people loving this record are not trying to work all of that out. I knew the kids dancing to it were paying no attention to that whatsoever and so I just sort of ignored it and sang it the way it was because you couldn’t really do it without saying you saw Aunt Mary coming and ducked back down the alley. You have to do it and I did it and Richard loved it because it was another introduction to a big audience that he was not yet reaching. This helped open the door wider for him
Were you surprised when your “Tutti” hit #12, five spots above where his original version landed? Did you suspect there was any underlying racial element to that?
No. It was simply a mater of familiarity. People didn’t know who he was and they were not gonna know who he was until some pop artist… and, look, there were other black artists who were also picking up on rhythm and blues, Nat [King] Cole, and I don’t know about Ella [Fitzgerald], they realized that while they were going for pop familiarity and being successful in the pop market it wasn’t with rhythm and blues songs but with pop songs… There was a racial element, but what I was doing, not intentionally — I was not trying to do anything related to race — I was just doing hit songs and hit records, it happened that they were written and performed by black artists who were thrilled when I did their songs. I call myself a midwife at the birth of rock and roll, because unintentionally, unconsciously I was helping bring rhythm and blues into pop music.
Did you and Richard ever talk about the changes you made in your versions of his songs?
Oh yeah, we laughed about it. The reason I saw we’re brothers musically and spiritually is because he was a Christian to begin with and so was I and when we got together we often talked about spiritual things as much as our music. He knew that in his flamboyant, wild style that his own mama thought he was crazy and was not in favor of what he was doing. It took a long time for her to accept that… of course there was a sexual element, which I was not totally aware of. The song “Tutti Frutti” was adopted as like a homosexual anthem. I don’t think he meant it that way and I knew nothing of it. He and I talked about the spiritual tussle in his life and he eventually gave up pop singing and his own music for a while and became a minister and teaching gospel things, which as he learned quickly — like Bob Dylan when he became a Christian — he learned that that was not commercial. People thought he’d been baptized in my pool like other entertainers have. I wished it were true, but no. But he and I talked about spiritual things because we were Christian brothers and that our careers had been given to us by God for reasons only He knew… I thank God for our friendship.
What do you think his legacy is in rock and pop music?
He was a flamboyant entertainer and his hair, his clothes, his wildness was all calculated on his part to make him stand out from, and above, the other performers. That’s all it was. It was showbiz. Liberace had his own version. Elvis had his and I had mine. He was simply trying to elbow his way through the throng and he did it magnificently. Kids danced to his music and they love it until this minute… Little Richard was about having fun with his music, whatever it took, however he could do it, however the kids wanted it.
You both did those songs, but his name comes up as one of the building blocks of rock and roll when people talk about the genre’s history.
He influenced the Beatles and all of them. They all wanted to sound like Little Richard and when they recorded his songs they did their best to imitate him… I did my best to catch as much of the flavor as possible, but I did some of his inflections, the little twists of melody. I captured the rhythm and people say my records were “vanilla” versions, or watered-down, but if you play our records together and don’t change the volume you’ll see that Randy Wood purposely made my records louder than the average record… Richard knew my record was just as much a rock and roll record as his was.
You’ve talked about how you became friendly in later years. Did he come to a different appreciation of what you did later?
Oh yes. There were times along the way, like when Bob Costas or someone were wanting him to express disappointment or displeasure and he would go with what they wanted, but time after time from the beginning he would let people know that he was grateful and glad that I did his songs and glad I did them the way I did them. I wasn’t imitating, I was emulating… Our friendship, and it was a friendship and a brotherhood, he knew his music was good for me, and it was. But I was good for his music, and he knew that. There was never him saying, “Boy, I wish you hadn’t done that.” He was glad I did.
Watch Richard and Boone’s versions of “Tutti Frutti” below.