Songwriter Interviews

Pat Boone

by Greg Prato

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On the one change he made to "Stairway To Heaven," and what Little Richard and Fats Domino thought about his covers of their songs.



Modern-day pop music statistics and certifications can be impressive at times, but they are even more extraordinary if you scored high during the formative years of rock n' roll, when such legendary artists as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash were your competition (while also breaking new ground introducing rock music to the masses). And you would certainly have to include Pat Boone as part of this equation.

On the strength of such hits as "Tutti Frutti," "Ain't That a Shame," "Speedy Gonzales," "Love Letters in the Sand" and "Moody River," Boone scored 38 Top-40 hits, with six going to #1. He still holds the record for having at least one single on the Billboard Pop chart for 220 consecutive weeks. Additionally, according to Billboard's ranking of all Top-40 artists of the rock era from 1955 to 1995, Boone landed at #9, right behind The Rolling Stones and right in front of The Beach Boys.

Boone has also enjoyed success on television, most notably as the host of two variety shows, The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom (including guest appearances by Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett) and The Pat Boone Show (which featured spots by Richard Pryor, George Burns, and even Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd!), and the religious-themed show, Gospel America. And just when you think you have him figured out musically, he's been known to throw a curveball, as evidenced by 1997's In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, 2006's R&B Classics: We Are Family, and a gospel album penned entirely by Boone, 2014's Legacy.

Boone spoke to Songfacts shortly before he was due to revisit Israel as a performer (his 21st trip there), to discuss the song he has connected with the most, his thoughts on covering Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven," and the story behind a song he once penned in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): You've had a lot of hits throughout your career. Which one did you most connect with, and why?

Pat Boone: Wow. I've done over 1,500 songs, and at least 120 albums - in more genres and more diverse styles than any singer in history. I've actually had chart success in at least five or six genres. I don't think you can name any other artist that you can say that about - in rock, country, pop, movie themes, gospel, patriotic, folk, jazz.

To pick one song... I guess the one that I may be most proud of is "Exodus," the theme song from the movie Exodus. Ernest Gold wrote the melody, and it was an instrumental. This was in 1959 or '60. I wanted to sing that great melody, but there weren't any words - and there weren't going to be, because three strongly opinionated men with the right to veto any lyrics that had been submitted had turned thumbs down on lyrics that professionals had submitted. One was Ernest Gold, the composer of the melody, one was Chappell Music, the publisher, and thirdly was Otto Preminger, the director/producer of the movie.

It was Christmas Eve, and I was just trying to get an idea for a lyric to submit to a professional writer. I wasn't thinking of writing it myself then. But when I put the needle down on the record, my wife was begging me to stop doing that and help her get the presents under the tree so we could go to bed. [Laughs] So, when I heard it again for the 40th time [sings melody], the words came - "This land is mine." And I thought, "Wow, that is the whole message of Exodus." And [sings the melody], "God gave this land to me." It was like the melody was singing to me, itself. I started writing it down on the first piece of paper that I could find, so I wouldn't forget.

And then, in 25 minutes, I had written the whole lyric - as if I was taking dictation. I turned over the piece of paper, and it was a Christmas card. Now, that Christmas card is on display on the wall of the Righteous Gentile in Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, where they asked if they could have whatever I wrote those words on, because they want every Jewish child in Israel to know those words by heart. And for a Christian Gentile guy from Nashville to have written those words, which have become virtually the second Jewish national anthem, is the milestone in my life. So, I can't think of another song that means more to me than that one.

Songfacts: Some people of faith have a problem with Led Zeppelin and specifically, "Stairway to Heaven," a song you covered on your In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy album.

Boone: Well, of course I took that into account. The idea came as a joke, at first. People thought I was joking, but I wasn't. The idea came when I was with my musicians in England. We were on tour, between planes at an airport, and we were sitting around. One of them said, "We like doing your hit songs and people here love them, but why don't we do something new, ourselves?" And I said, "Guys, I would. I would pay for it. But what can I do that I haven't done ten times, that wouldn't just be 'another album'?" And one of them said, "Well, you've never done heavy metal." We laughed, and that was a joke.

But, after that, for several weeks, we kept kidding, "When are we going to make our 'heavy metal album'?" And my conductor, Dave Siebels, who is still with me after 30-something years, he said, "We've been joking about this, but there are some really good songs that only metalheads know. They've only been hits in that genre, but we can do them a different way and introduce them to another audience." And I said, "Well, what do you mean by 'different way'?" And he said, "Big band jazz, for example."

I sparked, instantly. I said, "If we can find any songs that would be great and exciting with big band jazz arrangements, I would do it." So, they started flooding me with songs, and out of them, we picked those, including "Stairway To Heaven." Although it wasn't heavy metal, it was a precursor, as was Jimi Hendrix' "The Wind Cries Mary," and "Love Hurts" by Nazareth, although it was originally introduced by the Everly Brothers as a country song. And as I got to hear these songs, I realized "Paradise City" and "Crazy Train" and "Smoke On The Water" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy" were really good songs.

But when I got to "Stairway To Heaven," I kept looking for allusions to witchcraft or drugs, and even though there were strange images, like "in the hedgerows" and all these things, there were no specific mentions of Jimmy Page's involvement in witchcraft or anything like that. The only thing that I changed was a little line at the very end - "When all are one and one is all." I changed that to "When the three and one is all and all," because "all and all" is something like a unification theology, which says that in the last days, no matter if you're Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer or whatever you may have done in this life, however horrible, that you'll be reunited with everybody and all will be forgiven. So, when Robert Plant wrote "When all are one and one is all," I didn't know if it was alluding to that, but I just changed it, and never got any objection.

With the three and one, which is the triune God - God and three persons - it sings the same, but it took away any vestige of what might be considered by some to be non-Biblical or anti-Biblical.

So anyway, I did there what I did with a couple of Little Richard's lyrics. When I was first recording rhythm and blues, when he sang, "Boy you don't know what she's doing to me," I changed that to "Pretty little Susie is the girl for me" - in "Tutti Frutti." And of course, the kids didn't care - they didn't know. And Little Richard didn't care, because as he said himself - he and Fats Domino - their songs were hits in the rhythm and blues genre, where a huge #1 hit like "Ain't That a Shame" might sell 150,000. When I recorded their songs, my records of their songs sold 10 times that - and introduced them to the white audiences, or the pop audiences. So, they were grateful for my having recorded their songs. And of course, we became friends, as well.

"Smoke on the Water," as you may know but a lot of Deep Purple's own roadies didn't know, was not about smoke and water in the sense of drugs or a pipe or something. It was about what happened as the lyrics said. When they went to Montreux, Switzerland to record, they were at a venue that burned down, and they had to go use a mobile truck to record. They made a record on that song of what had just happened - the smoke and the water was smoke from the fire, going out over Lake Geneva. It's like the "Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" or some other Gordon Lightfoot folk tune, but it's set to the [sings guitar riff], that famous riff. Maybe as famous as anything in rock. So, they loved it.

In fact, Ritchie Blackmore played some guitar on my recording - of his song. He had to do it to a track we sent him in Germany where he was recording in some castle. He played part of the guitar licks on "Smoke on the Water," but the other part is Dweezil Zappa, on a Hendrix Stratocaster [an instrument that once belonged to Jimi Hendrix, was obtained by Frank Zappa, and then played by his son, Dweezil]. It was very authentic. I was very serious about treating these songs as good music - with big band jazz arrangements.

I had no issues myself, because I went over every lyric with a fine-tooth comb. But of course, I was kicked off Christian TV for about two months until we went on again with about 70 Christian bikers! We talked about the fact that just because you ride a motorcycle and may look like a heavy metal person, it doesn't make you a bad person.

So, we got that all straightened out, and my Gospel America show went back on TV. That show, by the way, was an effort on my part to bring together all types of music that was gospel-themed, whether it was traditional, southern, folk, gospel, even rock-gospel or punk rock, as long as the content was legitimate and well-meant, well-intended, and the people performing meant what they were singing and playing. I felt that people ought to learn to like the various types of expression of gospel music. So, that's what I was doing with that show. It's still being played at like, 3:00 in the morning, on TBN, where I originally recorded those shows.

So, my career has been a very checkered, diverse kind of thing. Gosh, one of my latest albums is R&B Classics: We Are Family. All great R&B classic songs, with the original performers. New versions of the songs, like "Tears Of A Clown," with Smokey Robinson - he and I sing the song together. "We Are Family" with Sister Sledge, "Get Down Tonight" with KC & the Sunshine Band, "Celebration" with Kool and the Gang, "A Woman Needs Love" with Ray Parker Jr., and Earth, Wind & Fire's "Way Of The World" - I do that with Maurice and Verdine White. And then I went to Augusta, and recorded "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" with James Brown - he sings with me. This album is the ultimate party record, because every song is a beloved R&B classic with the original performer, and I'm right in the middle of them.

Because that's where I came in, and they knew it - all of these artists knew that I came in singing what was called "race music" in 1955, when I was doing "Two Hearts, Two Kisses" by the Charms, "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard, "Ain't That a Shame" by Fats Domino, "I Almost Lost My Mind" by Ivory Joe Hunter. I was doing flat-out rhythm and blues as a kid from Nashville before almost anybody. Elvis joined in about 11 months later. "Hound Dog" was a rhythm and blues hit before he recorded it. "Good Rocking Tonight" and all these songs were songs he and I did. But I had about an 11-month head start, and was pretty nearly the first - if not the first - to make pop-rock versions of early R&B.

Jesse Jackson recently made this statement, that he thought I had done more for race relations with my music than any other singer. Now, this is Jesse Jackson, on the Rainbow Coalition radio station in Chicago. I was being interviewed by Santita Jackson, his daughter, about the album, and what it was like recording with James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire, and Smokey, and he called in to make that statement. Anyway, I'm proud of that. Nobody much knows it.

But the other album, the very latest, they call it Legacy, which is something you leave for other people after you are gone, hoping it will benefit them. These are all worship songs that I've written in my own worship time - words and music. It's a variety of types, as you might imagine - some very worshipful and ballad, and can be sung in church, others more rhythmic and anthemic-like. The only song I had some co-authorship with was one with Paganini and Rachmaninoff - a couple of good songwriters. [Laughs]

It's variations on a theme by Paganini from that well-known [sings a bit of melody]. Everybody knows that melody, but it had no lyrics. So, I wrote a song, as if it is in the person of the holy spirit, singing:

You are not alone, I'm by your side
Although the world may seem dark, I will be your guide
No matter what may come, No matter what you feel
Put your trust in me, Know my love is real
To comfort and sustain, To hide you from the pain
I am by your side


A very range-y song, but still so beautiful. I may still put out some compilation albums and I might do some more recording, but at least currently, it's possibly the last album. So, the two are rhythm and blues classics and total worship songs - that pretty well describes me and my career.

Songfacts: And you once wrote a song in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr - "I Had a Dream."

Boone: I was in Washington, DC the night Martin Luther King was assassinated [on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee]. I sat up all night, watching all the horrific TV reports, but also, the replays - over and over - of his most famous and moving speeches. It was a very emotional time for all of us. And for me. The next day, I was flying home, and on the plane, I had my face against the window, because I was tearful and his powerful words kept running through my mind. And I was thinking, "What a sensational man this is, and has been." I thought, "There needs to be a song."

And before I got off the plane that day - to LA - I had written a song to a gospel melody. Of course, Martin Luther King was a reverend, a minister, and he was preaching. One of his most famous sermons was in a church. If not the night before, very shortly before he was killed, he said, "I have been to the mountain top, I may not get to go there with you, but the Lord has been taking me up in his right hand, and let me see into the promised land. I may not go with you, but you will come, one day, you will go into the promised land." So, I thought, "Those words need to be immortalized in music," and I recorded the song.

Unfortunately, I was on Dot Records, and a country producer, Jimmy Bowen, who produced my record, gave it sort of a "country flavor" that was not appropriate for the song. But black radio did play it right away, because I was the only one who had a song about him and his words. And to this day, I don't know of a song that really incorporates those great words into a song - other than this one. Eventually, I re-recorded it with Michael Sutton - a Motown arranger/producer - and we had some black artists singing with me on the record. It was much appropriate as a lasting tribute to Martin Luther King.

And then about nine years ago, Roy Innis of CORE - Congress on Racial Equality, as old and influential as the NAACP - asked me to come to New York, to emcee the 40th anniversary celebration of CORE, itself. I was greatly honored that they asked me to do that, because they knew of civil rights activities on my part. So, I introduced the video that Michael and I had just produced of the song with many film clips and pictures of Martin Luther King and his ministry and career. It's very moving, the video and the song. We played it that night - the first time the video had been seen or heard, on the eve of Obama's inauguration.

So, that night, they heard this song and saw the video, Martin Luther King's ringing words, that someday this is going to happen, a man will be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. And the next morning was when the first black president was being sworn in. So, all of this is very historic.

Stevie Wonder wrote a song, "Happy Birthday," but it doesn't contain the profound verbiage of Martin Luther King himself. So, I want people to know about this. The trouble is, people don't think of Pat Boone as an "issue songwriter," although I've written many, and they have been significant. But this one about Martin Luther King, I always think of it when it is about five days before his birthday. Marketing is not my strong point - I write, I create, I produce, but I'm not a great self-marketer. But I'm glad it exists.

Songfacts: And you also will be performing in Israel later this year.

Boone: It does relate to the song "Exodus," and I'm glad I told you, if I were to pick one song out of my whole 1,500 to 2,000 songs that I've recorded - of all types - it would be "Exodus." Because not only has it become the second Jewish national anthem, but it evokes Biblical truth about God calling his people back together after they were dispersed around the world, and they would come and Israel would be born in a day. That's a prophetic utterance in the Bible, that a nation would be born again in a day - and it was, on May 14, 1948.

By design, I'm hosting my last tour of Israel. I've hosted several before, and this will be my 21st trip - not always hosting tours, but 21st trip to Israel - and I'm taking 100-150 people. You can just go to patboone.com/holy-land-tour/ and come with us. We're going to do a videotaped special from the Roman Amphitheatre which is on the coast, below Tel Aviv. It's a famous place dating back to Roman times. It's a beautiful, wonderfully preserved amphitheater facing the sun as it sets. We'll be doing a concert there with the Jerusalem Symphony. I'll do "Exodus" with the Jerusalem Symphony, and we'll be focusing and starring Israeli and American artists, as well as some people from other walks of life.

Bill Gates gives Israel credit for the foundation and the genesis and the growth of the internet. He says Israel contributed more to where we are on the internet today than him or anybody else. So, we hope to have some people that will pay tribute to this nation on its 70th anniversary of its new, current state. And with Jerusalem as its capital, and all of these things going on. Very timely, very topical, historic.

And the Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, is a friend of mine - and a fan. He was at MIT at college when my record "Speedy Gonzales" was a big hit. [Laughs] And it became one of his favorite records then. Whenever we are together, he says, "Hello Speedy, come on in!" - into his office in Jerusalem. He'll make time I'm sure to meet with our tour group, and confirm that he is a fan. But we are also friends, and he knows of my undying support for Israel and the Jews everywhere. I call myself an adopted Jew. Netanyahu knows that, and we can all call each other brother - as well as friends.

January 24, 2018
For more, visit patboone.com

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Comments: 4

  • Marsha Barrett from Longview, TxGreat interview! I learned some things I didn't know about my all-time favorite entertainer. He is the only entertainer I know who has succeeded in recording, concerts, television, broadway, and best-selling author. And he is still going in his mid-eighties. Phenomenal career!
  • Shawn from MarylandGreat interview! When I heard Pat Boone got dropped by Trinity Broadcasting when "In a Metal Mood" was released, I immediately bought the CD. I love it! The best song off the CD is Panama! Better than the original! AND, you can understand the words! Hats off to you Mr. Boone for telling us about your wonderful career! :)
  • Keith Mccarthy from Southern CaliforniaFantastic interview-I haven't heard anything about Pat Boone for a very long time. . I love the story about "Exodus" - I only recently discovered that Pat Boone had written the lyrics. The interview reveals a bit about what he had to go through to get them accepted. And then Andy Williams got all of the attention for singing the song!
  • Pedro from PortugalWow. I didn't know much about Pat Boone , "only" he was a star, and had many hits. Thanks for this interview. I bookmarked it, cause its big and I want to read it right.
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