In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”
Reasons abound for maligning Pat Boone’s career in popular music. The catalyst for his career was a string of covers of R&B tunes by black artists for whom the legacy of segregation never afforded the same amount of wealth. White artists made substantially more than their counterpart artists of color. Major record labels had larger distribution chains, promotional budgets, and stronger connections to radio and television networks to advantage their artists. By contrast, black musicians on “race records” benefited from none of these privileges. While artists like Little Richard, Big Joe Turner, and Fats Domino have enjoyed staying power and wide acclaim for being architects of rock music, in the early decades of that genre, white covers were commercially more successful. Added to this was the exploitative nature of covers on larger labels that made more money than the originals while paying out no royalties to the black originators. Boone was unapologetic that his career benefited from this exploitation.
It is also noteworthy that Boone’s performance and lyricism of some of rock’s first generation of are a case study in the sanitized tastes of the burgeoning white middle class in the 1950s. His smooth vocal delivery was reminiscent of crooners rather than the raspy, full-throated yowl of Little Richard. And the lyrical changes on “Tutti Frutti” were a nod to teenage infatuation stripped of any of the sexuality in Little Richard’s original.
Despite Boone representing the residuals of white privilege while Jim Crow reigned supreme, there is a note of appreciation to be made for Boone and contemporaries Elvis Presley and Bill Haley in helping to extend the reach of rock music to new audiences at a critical juncture in that genre’s history.
Boone’s career as a smooth-voiced rock interloper declined in the 1960s as racial barriers began to perforate due to the reintroduction of “race” music by British Invasion bands and black artists signed to major labels. He was more at home in gospel music, which was more amendable to his fanbase.
Yet for all of his marbled history with rock music, there is a tone of tongue-in-cheek humor to his music that deserves our appreciation. Nowhere is this humor more evident than in his 1997 compilation In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. The original idea for the cover album was a running joke that Boone had with members of his backing band that turned into a serious idea pushed by the band’s composer. Boone has stated that a mix tape of metal hits turned him onto the genre and kickstarted his insatiable appetite for the music.
However, Boone would not compromise his righteous brand to play the devil’s music. He carefully curated a list of songs that were not offensive to his religious convictions. And he eschewed the hard-driving and aggressive sounds of the originals in favor of a big band sound that had become part of his trademark. In most cases, the band’s horn section takes over duties for the iconic riffs in these songs. There are occasions in which the distorted guitar shines, such as Richie Blackmore’s smoldering guitar solo during the session for “Smoke on the Water.”
Much of the album showcases Boone’s lounge singer style. Take, for example, his cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” in which his crooning “heirs of the Cold War is what we’ve become” sounds more at place in the early years of the Cold War rather than its reignited arms race near the end. “Stairway to Heaven,” meanwhile, is a lilting waltz shorn of its mysticism in favor of a jazzy back beat. It also lacks Jimmy Page’s fluid guitar solo that has served as the piper’s tune calling young guitar aspirants. As for Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” it maintains the same somber tempo, but the arrangement is more evocative of “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers than of a hard rock band trying its hand at a ballad.
A few particularly comical moments include Boone’s ham-fisted attempt at mimicking Rob Halford’s singing about the hard living of a leather-clad rocker in “You Got Another Thing Comin’.” The same is true of his laments of a down-and-out rocker in AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock and Roll).” Nor is Boone all that convincing in “Paradise City,” when he sings whimsically about green grass and pretty girls of Axl Rose’s fantasies. And then there’s his rendition of “Panama,” which reaches south of the border and makes use of the bossa nova to reinterpret the Van Halen anthem that was the bane for Noriega.
Boone punctuated the humor of this covers album by appearing on stage with Alice Cooper at the 1997 American Music Awards to present the award for best performance in the Hard Rock/Heavy Metal category. Boone and producer Dick Clark thought that Boone appearing in black leather, a studded dog collar, and temporary tattoos would shock audiences. Well, they were right. Especially shocked was Boone’s loyal fanbase of aging white Christians who decried Boone’s appearance a new musical direction as a sign that Boone had backslid. Some lobbied to have his Gospel America program removed from Trinity Broadcast Network. In the end, it was much ado about very little. Boone apologized and set the record straight on PTL, and soon he was back to his old shtick.
But the episode reveals something about Boone and what he represents about his legacy within popular music. He covered and sanitized controversial music in order to make it accessible for middle class white audiences with religious convictions. And while he profited from pilfering the catalogs of black artists in the 1950s, he helped to popularize their music such that rock and roll could flourish and evolve into the hard rock and heavy metal that he would later come to appreciate and appropriate.
Thus, a fitting closing image of Pat Boone is one of him crooning Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in a cardigan sweater at an Amway-sponsored fundraiser while backup singers of color perform just out of camera.