When pioneering rock ’n’ roll artist Little Richard died recently, fellow ’50s pop music icon Pat Boone’s name was prominently noted in many of the obituaries. One of Boone’s biggest records of the era was a cover version of Little Richard’s rock classic “Tutti Frutti,” but the references to Boone weren’t all positive, and the term “cultural appropriation” once again figured into the recollections of rock’s early days. As one who successfully covered what were in the beginning called “race records,” and later “rhythm and blues,” Boone’s role remains, for many, unsettled, and for others, deeply troubling.
According to Billboard, Boone was the second-biggest charting artist of the late 1950s, and was ranked at No. 9 in its listing of Top 40 Artists 1955-95.
Not every cultural historian and/or rock roots aficionado is dismissive of Boone’s contributions to the 1950s music scene, with “Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell actually going so far as to assert that the period’s biggest-selling rock artist, Elvis Presley, was guilty of appropriation, but not Pat Boone. Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast last year actually quotes Little Richard, saying of Boone, “He opened a lot of doors for me. He’s a beautiful person.”
Before Boone scored with “Tutti Frutti,” he was a married college student competing in New York City on the famed Ted Mack “Original Amateur Hour” in 1954 and that’s when Variety first took note of him.
You grew up in Nashville and started singing there, married a Grand Ole Opry star’s daughter, but left for college in Texas and wound up on television in New York. Why didn’t your singing career take off in Nashville?
I was on my way to being a teacher-preacher. I was in college in Texas and hosting a television dance show, “Teen Time,” and a one-hour country music show, “Barn Dance,” in Fort Worth. I was only 20. It paid $50 a week and I had to drive 50 miles to work, but technically, it made me a music professional.
You also put out several records in 1954, but none of them charted.
I went to New York to the talent shows because I was thinking, “If I get on the Arthur Godfrey show in the mornings, I could finish my college degree and maybe even at an Ivy League school.” Scan ahead two years and I had replaced Julius La Rosa on the Godfrey show and I was attending Columbia, where I graduated magna cum laude.
But you were on the big Ted Mack show for finalists. How did that go?
Yes, I was on Mack with other three-time winners. But I was stuck in New York in a seedy little hotel off Times Square and I thought that while I was in town I’d go over and audition for Arthur Godfrey. So I went over and I asked the receptionist if I could possibly audition. She took me into a cold empty room. If I remember correctly, I had no musical accompaniment, so I just performed cold acapella. They asked me, “Can you come back in three weeks?,” and I told them, “I’ve got to get home to Texas. We’re expecting our baby.” So instead of saying, “See you later,” they said, “We’ll put you on tonight.” And that week I did three mornings on Godfrey’s show, which then made me a professional and disqualified me from winning Ted Mack.
You were on Godfrey, but taken off Mack. Which was bigger?
The prize money on Ted Mack was $6,000. I could have put myself through school with that money. It was a big show, very much a forerunner of “The Voice” and “American Idol.” I thought I had blown it all by being overly ambitious.
You didn’t have to worry about it for very long. Within a year you had a No. 1 record covering Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and then had a big hit with Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and lots more hits after that.
I came into some criticism for singing rhythm and blues songs and for supposedly taking something or obstructing something. But my versions of their songs became big hits and opened the doors for them to become the stars they so richly deserved to become. I like to say I was the midwife at the birth of rock and roll. In fact, there was no such thing as rock and roll. It was called “race music” and the artists were limited to their own stations and charts.
There’s an early interview with Little Richard where he complained that your records were in the stores and his records weren’t, but later he gave you a lot of credit for helping him break into the big time.
Both Little Richard and Fats said they made more money from my versions crossing over into the mainstream. There’s an interview with Little Richard where he was asked about me and how he felt when he heard my version of his song and he said, “I was washing dishes at the Greyhound Bus Station in Macon [Ga.] and when I heard Pat Boone doing my song I threw down my towel and knew my time had come.”
Malcolm Gladwell said that while Elvis tried to imitate the black artists, you never did.
Listen to Fat’s Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” He rolls it. Then listen to mine. [Boone starts to sing his more staccato take on the song.] See the difference? I rock it.
Did you ever hear what Fats thought about your version of his song?
In New Orleans after we were both doing great, I was working at the Fairmont hotel and he asked me to come over to Al Hirt’s place where he was playing. In the middle of his set he held up one of his diamond rings and said to the audience, “You see this ring? This man Pat Boone bought me this ring.” And we sang “Ain’t That a Shame” together.
Going back to 1954, Elvis was also discovering black music and starting to have success with his cover versions. Who was influencing whom at the point?
Elvis took rhythm and blues and country music and he figured out a way to combine the two. But in 1955, I had already had three national hits. Bill Randle was the No. 1 DJ in the country. And he called me up and said come to Cleveland and headline Brooklyn High School. He told me he
was flying in this kid who was coming in from Shreveport to open for me. “He’s had one Top 10 hit and sold a million records, and he’s named Elvis Presley.” And at that point I had heard his record on the jukebox, but the big news was that RCA had bought his contract from Sun records. So those of us in the business were curious. It was kind of like, “Let’s see what RCA thinks they have.” Elvis came in with two or three of his buddies. And he seemed very shy. It was like nobody had really taught him how to shake hands. Nobody said, “Squeeze, squeeze!” He was socially immature, just a kid, a truck driver.
Did you catch his act?
Yes, I remember looking through the curtains and thinking, “OK, he’s cute, but he doesn’t look like the kind of boy a girl’s mama could let her date.” Then he did “That’s Alright (Mama).” He was charismatic and sounded great. But that 1 million selling hit was all he had. I was on my third million-seller and so I got the screams. Years later, we were both living in Bel-Air. I ran into him and I said, “We met in Cleveland and you seemed very shy and nervous.” He told me, “That was flop sweat. You were a star, man. You were on the charts.” And then a few months later “Heartbreak Hotel” hit and we all knew that RCA had bet on a winner.