Pat Boone is at it again. His next record, We Are Family, is a spirited collection of R&B favorites that features the singer dueting with an array of soul luminaries, including James Brown, Smokey Robinson, and Sister Sledge. The CD promises to garner some attention—how could Entertainment Weekly and Access Hollywood resist the quintessential white guy crooning "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"?—but the singer knows it will be nothing like the tempest generated by his last outing.
Boone's last album was the cause of the most fascinating event in the history of Christian television. It happened on the Trinity Broadcasting Net work, April 15, 1997, when Boone stood trial for allegedly becoming a hard-rockin' apostate.
While not as legendary as the scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, Boone's TBN inquisition was replete with heady moments of real-life drama. Where else on the tube could you find a fifties teen idol, a blustery Pentecostal media mogul, a revered megachurch minister, a frizzy-haired exBlack Sabbath lead singer, and a vaguely familiar black-movie-star-turned-evangelist all on the same stage, praising Jesus Christ and debating the merits of "secular" rock music?
The bizarre saga had begun two months earlier when Boone, dressed roguishly in a leather vest and studs, showed up on the nationally televised American Music Awards accompanied by his friend, shock-rock icon Alice Cooper. Boone was poking fun at his squeaky-clean image and creating some buzz for Pat Boone in a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, his just-released album of classic heavy-metal songs set to big-band arrangements. He knew people would be surprised by his outrageous appearance (an earring and stick-on tattoos completed the rebel effect). That was the point. What he didn't know was that the name he had earned as a celebrity ambassador of conservative Christianity would be thrown into jeopardy.
The mainstream media lapped it up, relishing the idea of the born-again crooner posing for the dark side. Newspapers pasted the new-look Boone on their front pages; Entertainment Tonight flashed footage of his head-banging transformation.
America seemed to get the joke. But many among Boone's Christian fan base were not laughing. Genuinely puzzled by his erratic behavior, and wondering whether he had backslidden into some wanton lifestyle, viewers of Boone's TBN music program, Gospel America, wrote and phoned the network demanding an explanation. Feeling the heat, the viewer-supported TBN yanked the weekly show until the singer could justify his actions. Hence his appearance on TBN's flagship talk show, Praise the Lord, to answer his critics and assure his audience that Pat Boone was still safe, saved, and square.
Boone is still smarting from his heavy-metal escapade. But he's not regretting it. In a Metal Mood was his first album in more than 30 years to hit Billboard's Top 200 charts. More important, it launched Boone back into the mainstream consciousness as an entertainer who, while outspoken about his Christian faith, is not afraid to laugh at himself or rub shoulders with folks whose public images are decidedly less virtuous than his own. Most of all, the controversy has presented him with a compelling metaphor for the church's often uneasy relationship with popular culture.
"Christians don't understand the business of what is really happening in pop culture," Boone says, sitting in his Sunset Boulevard office. "They don't understand that if you don't do something out of the ordinary—something truly eyebrow-raising—to an extent, you're not going to get heard." He doesn't say this in a sour or condescending way but as hard truth, wisdom gained from more than 40 years of moving and shaking in the heart of America's entertainment world.
The huge window of Boone's tenth-floor office offers a glorious view of Hollywood's dry, sprawling hills. But the real attraction of the office is the colorful, some might say cheesy, memorabilia strewn throughout the room: a Barbie-size Pat Boone doll from the fifties, a wooden bust of the singer, a bronzed pair of his trademark white bucks, gold 45s from his original Dot Records label. Interspersed with the kitsch are a cluster of family photos, a bachelor's degree from Columbia University, a large painting of Daniel Boone (the singer claims to be a descendant of the legendary frontiersman). Propped in the corner is a banjo. Taken together, the decor could be a portrait of Pat Boone himself—larger-than-life glitz fused with a homespun sensibility.
Boone's hazel eyes still have their youthful shine, but his hair is now frosted with gray, and a close inspection reveals assorted creases in his face. But at 65, this grandfather of 15 is no golden oldie.
It's hard to believe anyone could think Pat Boone had lost his religion. An unabashed charismatic who speaks nostalgically of his first "baptism of the Holy Spirit," the man oozes evangelical zeal. "I've been using this One Year Bible for a while now, and I love it!" he says. "July 8, 1996, is the day I began recording In a Metal Mood, and the last words of the reading for that day come from Psalm 81: 'You would be fed with the finest of wheat, with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.' " He stares dreamily at the text before looking up. "I know, when Asaph wrote that, he wasn't referring to my heavy-metal album, but I knew that morning, as I dropped to my knees, that the Lord had something special in mind for that project.
"Some Christians were looking down their noses at me, saying, 'It's a disgrace the way Pat Boone looked on that awards show. He must be having some midlife crisis or something.' Meanwhile, going through airports and public places, I see college kids and bikers and metal heads saying, 'Yo! What's happening, dude? You looked great! We like that album.' And I got calls from all over the nation—from Howard Stern and New York magazine, wanting me to do a joint interview with [techno-music artist] Moby. I got to speak to people I ordinarily wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet."
At first, Boone did not think of In a Metal Mood as an evangelistic endeavor. Then his American Music Awards cohort and occasional golf partner Alice Cooper turned him on to the possibility. Cooper, whose creepy rock-concert persona belies his deep Christian faith, assured him: "God's in this. I feel it. You feel it. You didn't know this was going to happen, but God is doing something."
What God was doing, Boone now says, was changing something inside of him. No one truly understood the in tense spiritual struggle that was going on during that time, he says.
To observe the media's take on the episode, one could come away with the impression that it was all a farce, a case study in evangelical buffoonery: Pat Boone hyping a record to jump-start a dormant music career and getting slammed by his fundamentalist constituency in the process; angry Christians doing what they do so well—exuding self-righteousness and mean-spirited intolerance.
In truth, the media could not comprehend the flesh-and-blood reality behind the stereotypes. Boone's detractors were not necessarily reacting out of intolerance but out of genuine fear that they had lost yet more ground in the culture wars, that a cherished hero who had been faithful for so long had finally fallen victim to the lures of Babylon. And Boone, although he put on a brave public face, was deeply wounded by the situation. Many of the letters he received were "downright vicious," he says, and having his TBN program taken off the air so abruptly suggested a lack of trust and loyalty on the part of the network, despite his years of unblemished service. His statements to the media during this period reveal not only a renewed passion to reach the lost but a sincerely fractured heart: "I have been identified in the minds of millions of people as another one of those metal scourges and scumbags, and I am being judged in the same way that I judged," he told reporters. "Christians have got to deal with this judgmental, self-righteous, opinionated attitude that if somebody doesn't dress like we dress, or doesn't like the same music, or maybe rides a Harley-Davidson, he must be a heathen. That mindset—'we don't want to have anything to do with you or anything like you'—is a turnoff to the very people we would like to reach."
Red, white, and Boone
It's a splendid trivia question: Who was the second most-successful rock star of the fifties after Elvis Presley? The list of likely candidates is stellar: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. But the answer is—Pat Boone.
His stats were truly impressive. From 1955 to 1962, the singer registered 54 hit singles. For four consecutive years, 1955 to 1959, he was never off the pop charts. "It's a record I still hold," Boone says matter-of-factly. "Elton John is the only artist who has come close to matching it."
When you see the black-and-white footage of the 1950s Boone in his white bucks, argyle socks, and collegiate sweater, singing Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" or Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," two words generally spring to mind: white and sanitized. His moves seem mechanical. The voice feels sterile, technically precise but void of the guttural soul needed to make the songs convincing. It's like hearing Chopin played on a Casio keyboard or Coltrane on a kazoo.
Still, despite his blandness, you can see the warmth and charm in his eyes. You recognize the commitment to excellence and the youthful determination to engage the audience, to translate what might have been a risque lyric in its former life into a sweet, harmless melody for the kids of Middle America.
Boone has been lambasted by some rock historians as a white singer who exploited the racial Zeitgeist of the fifties by recording cover versions of black R&B songs that white radio stations refused to play. The mention of this ongoing criticism visibly rankles the singer; his golden grin morphs into a frown. "I was not a rip-off artist," he insists. On the contrary, he believes he helped open the door for white acceptance of black artists by bringing more attention to their songs.
"I call myself a midwife of rock 'n' roll," he says. "I was not, like Elvis, a watershed performer; he was a white boy who could legitimately sing black music. But I provided a necessary transition. I was a bridge."
He was born Charles Eugene Boone in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 1, 1934. (His parents took to calling him "Pat" after the daughter they had hoped to name Patricia turned out to be him.) The Boone family later relocated to Nashville, where Pat, the eldest of four children, excelled as a student and as an industrious singer. He sang hymns, gospel tunes, and Bing Crosby standards. He sang at his Church of Christ congregation, at ladies' club meetings, at ice-cream socials, and in the barn as he milked the family cow.
It was during those moments in the barn that Boone dreamed about his future, about how he might one day appear on television and use his singing talent to get a college education and become a schoolteacher. "I would sit there, praying about how an entertainment career could be a springboard to ministry, to having an influence as a teacher and preacher." The prayers were answered. Soon Boone was on national TV, winning the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and then Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Next came a recording contract with Dot Records, then movies and television.
Along the way, Boone managed to court Shirley Foley, a fellow student at his high school and the daughter of Grand Ole Opry star Red Foley. The couple eloped in 1953 and went on to have their four daughters in rapid succession. As Boone's career boomed, he attended college at Columbia University in New York, majoring in English. While he juggled classes and celebrity, Shirley kept the family running.
By the time he graduated in 1958, Boone's star was at its zenith. He had two bestselling books of advice to teens, a string of hit records, a five-year television deal with ABC, a seven-year movie contract with 20th CenturyFox, dozens of concert dates, and the promise of several million dollars in income.
For the most part, Boone remained levelheaded despite the fame and riches. He did, however, abandon his lifelong dream of teaching. "I decided that whatever influence I had as an entertainer, God had given it to me, and I was going to use it to the maximum of my ability. I was going to use it for good."
Boone carried his Church of Christ sensibilities with him throughout much of his early career. He tweaked racy lyrics, turned down questionable film roles, and even refused to kiss a young Shirley Jones in the 1957 movie April Love. In Hollywood circles, he developed a reputation as, in the words of one gossip magazine, "a too good to be true goody-goody." The late Dean Martin, renowned for his hep, boozed-up stage persona, frequently joked about the young star. "That Pat Boone," he quipped, "he's so religious that when I shake hands with him, my whole right side sobers up."
"I replaced Shirley Temple as the epitome of square," Boone says in a plaintive voice. "I became the butt of so many jokes." Eventually, he says, he began to chafe against his wholesome image.
A personal Pentecost
In the sixties, the spirit of the times conspired against Boone: The Beatles, Motown, the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War. Suddenly the singer seemed even more out of step. He attempted to gruff up his image with an earthy role in 1962's The Main Attraction, but the movie bombed. By decade's end, he was doing the Vegas circuit, wearing love beads, telling crude jokes, imbibing at parties, getting friendly with attractive young groupies. A prodigal Boone had usurped the goody-goody family man.
"I used to come home late at night, smelling of alcohol, and, of course, that drove a wedge between Shirley and me," he says. "Gradually I broke every vow and would still get up in the morning to take my family to church. I convinced myself that I could lead a double life."
Boone's deliverance from his reckless slide has been well documented, particularly in his 1970 spiritual memoir, A New Song. In short, Shirley's revival of faith, through a charismatic encounter with the Holy Spirit, convinced the singer of his waywardness and slowly, radically, led him and his daughters to awakenings of their own.
When Boone talks about his revived faith, he is visibly moved. He gets teary-eyed as he recounts how close he came to destroying his marriage and family, of becoming just another Hollywood casualty. He beams as he recalls the peace and reconciliation that came through his personal Pentecost. His "infilling" of the Spirit, evidenced by his speaking in a foreign "prayer language," revolutionized his outlook. "How can I describe such a thing?" he writes in A New Song. "It was an uplifting, inspiring, joyful experience—the most profound of my life. I had a deep sense of knowing that I was singing a new song to God."
Boone's "song" was a tune heard across Hollywood in the early seventies. He and Shirley hosted Bible studies for celebrities and others at their Beverly Hills home. Doris Day, Glenn Ford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Priscilla Presley, and many others would come to sit in on the meetings. The Boone residence became an unofficial church to the stars. "Many of those people were distrustful of the church," Boone says, "and they didn't think they could make any type of commitment without harming their careers. Our meetings were a nonthreatening, nonpublicized opportunity for them to hear about Jesus."
While the stars were getting religion, Boone's Church of Christ elders (and other "concerned Christians") were getting mad. After the release of A New Song, a virtual infomercial for charismatic belief, Boone says he was variously branded a "heretic," a "mystic," a "spiritual deceiver," a "doctrinal lamebrain." In one of many meetings with his elders, he was told how wonderful it was that his family was demonstrating a fresh love and spiritual zeal. "We don't want to rob you of that," one elder said. "If it just wasn't mixed up with this 'Holy Spirit' bit!" Boone says he chuckled and replied, "What you're saying is you like the fruit you see, but you want me to get that tree out of my backyard. Brother, it can't be done!" The Boones were soon "disfellowshiped" from their congregation.
For the past 29 years, Boone has been a member of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, a Foursquare Gospel congregation led by well-known pastor Jack Hayford. The huge Pentecostal church is home to numerous celebrities. Boone has been an elder for the last 20 years.
Hayford, Church on the Way's senior pastor since 1969, has become one of Boone's closest friends. "Pat has been a committed part of this church, faithful in his service to the Lord," Hayford says. "The fact that he is Pat Boone isn't impressive to me from the standpoint of fame. But I've watched Pat through the years, and I can tell you he is an intelligent, godly man who's able to graciously communicate with people in both the secular and Christian arenas."
Musician and Los Angeles talk-radio host Jerry McClain is another long-time Church on the Way member. A show biz veteran, he had a hit in the seventies with the theme song from Happy Days. "No one in this town is more solid than Pat Boone," McClain says. "He is really the pioneer for all of us Christians who work in Hollywood. He has never caved in to the traditionalists in the church, to do things the way they think he should. Yet he has never forsaken his beliefs."
Showdown on TBN
The night of his TBN appearance, one could sense the lingering uneasiness beneath Boone's upbeat demeanor. But the singer was not alone. The studio audience offered an extended ovation when he took the stage. And out in the stands, in addition to the Praise the Lord show's usual flock of innocuous groupies, sat an entire row of rugged, leather-clad bikers. They had come to cheer on their new friend.
Jack Hayford was one of the featured guests that evening. A thoughtful, professorial-looking preacher, Hayford was joined by a ragtag lineup of TBN regulars: musical evangelist Jeff Fenholt, a former singer for Black Sabbath; actor Leon Isaac Kennedy, who starred in such forgettable eighties films as Penitentiary and Body and Soul; and TBN founder and Praise the Lord host Paul Crouch, a sort of Pentecostal Ted Turner in both looks and tenacity.
"We're gonna give the Devil a couple of black eyes tonight, in Jesus' name," said Crouch to a wave of applause. "If you tuned in thinking there was going to be a knock-down, drag-out brouhaha, you're going to be disappointed. You're going to see brothers come together in love tonight."
Crouch knew that the widespread publicity surrounding his network's conflict with Boone would ensure a larger-than-usual viewing audience. He predicted it would be the most-watched event in his network's history, so he wanted to use it not just to clear up the controversy but to tell curious viewers about Jesus. The son of Assemblies of God missionaries, Crouch launched TBN in 1973 with one low-power TV station near Los Angeles. Twenty-six years later, the network is carried on more than 700 stations worldwide. It does not receive Nielsen ratings, so it's hard to know how many viewers actually tuned in to watch the Boone saga play itself out. But even people normally turned off by TBN's nightly schedule of taped preaching shows, with their clashing theologies and predictable appeals for cash, could find this evening's Praise the Lord palatable.
Perhaps unbeknown to himself, Paul Crouch was creating a new type of television when he decided to broadcast the resolution to the Pat Boone fracas. The Praise the Lord studio, with its crimson carpeting, shiny-white grand piano, garish chandelier, and thronelike red-velvet chairs, made Crouch and his guests look like actors in a community-college production of Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. But there was a deeper drama going on beneath the over-the-top, Christian-TV veneer. As the men began their forum on Christianity and popular culture, the TV cameras were capturing life moments usually reserved for the private, informal environs of Christian-college classrooms or Wednesday-night small-group meetings. The gritty interaction that followed was part Oprah, part McLaughlin Group, and part men's Bible study.
They debated the evils of secular rock music but also the secular roots of such hymns as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and "Amazing Grace." They discussed the world's need for Christ, and then the church's need to reach out to the world. Fenholt, preferring a Sunday-morning tenor over the Black Sabbath wail, sang a rousing worship song. Kennedy explained how famous entertainers are often unfairly judged and exploited by the church after they be come Christians. Crouch read letters from viewers who had been offended by Boone's awards-show get-up: "Are we attempting to take the place of the Holy Spirit when we say we must act like and dress like the world in order to reach the world?" asked one letter; another one questioned the sadomasochistic origins of the spiked dog collar Boone had worn. Hayford defended his famous parishioner, suggested that Boone might do well to apologize to those whom he may have unintentionally offended, and finally stressed how imperative it was that the body of Christ refrain from attacking one another out of personal fear and distaste.
Crouch asked Boone how he could remake a song like Led Zeppelin's "Stair way to Heaven": "Can you take a demonic, worldly song like that and get it saved?" Boone, not missing a beat, replied: "Well, since we serve a Redeemer, my answer is yes."
Crouch's most compelling argument against Boone came from an unlikely source. Richard Mouw, president of the progressive Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, had earlier submitted a brief op-ed piece to the Los Angeles Times that took Boone to task for his awards-show appearance. Crouch read the editorial on the air:
Pat Boone's leather-and-tattoos masquerade was not unforgivable, but neither was it a harmless spoof. We evangelicals have come a long way since the days when we simply issued whole sale condemnations of worldly music. We've become more discriminating, even creating our own versions of contemporary music. But there is much about the heavy-metal culture that, with its in-your-face flaunting of promiscuity and satanic imagery, we find deeply repulsive, indeed blasphemous. For Boone to proclaim his innocence in donning the attire that many of us associate with moral ni hil ism, and for the court jesters to treat the controversy as a joke, is to display an amazing naivete about the power of symbols.
In person, Richard Mouw is no less forthright regarding his misgivings about Boone's behavior. He elaborates on the power of symbols: "We say a lot by our use of symbols," he says. "For Christians, the display of the cross or the fish or the dove is meant as a message about deeply held convictions. The secular rock culture has also made extensive use of symbols, many of them borrowed from religious contexts as a way of showing disdain for the religious beliefs traditionally connected to the symbols. For a Christian to make use of these symbolic expressions is a very sensitive business."
Boone's antics at the American Music Awards were not an "attempt to show that Christ can transform rock culture," Mouw argues, adding that the singer's "dress-up act" was "needlessly offensive to Christians and not a very effective witness to the larger world."
Mouw, however, concedes that Boone has a "good record of representing the cause of the gospel in the larger arena of pop culture." He adds: "We desperately need a well-thought-out Christian aesthetic that includes serious attention to so-called entertainment, and Pat Boone has much to contribute to this."
Back on Praise the Lord, Boone calmly listened as Crouch read Mouw's editorial and the comments of other critics. His nervous smile and pensive stares hinted at a restlessness with the proceedings, but his the-show-must-go-on pluck, no doubt infused with a sense of divine mission, carried him forward. He picked up a Bible and read from 1 Corinthians 1:27—"But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise." He explained how he had discovered true artistry in hard-rock songs that he had once summarily dismissed, how God had opened his eyes to his own prejudice against certain members of the pop culture, how he had built new relationships with heavy-metal musicians during the making of his album. "I just wanted to record some great songs," he said, "but later I began to see a purpose in it. I saw an opportunity to have communication with talented people who were really nice when I got to meet them in person. We have common ground, now, to share ideas and thoughts."
A chorus of amens rolled through the audience.
In the end, the TBN viewers were asked to call in and vote on whether Boone's show should return to the air. The response was overwhelming: Gospel America—and Pat Boone—should come back. The night's business resolved, the men embraced, prayed, and expressed their solidarity.
TBN would soon revert to its usual formula of made-for-TV church services and Southern Gospel hoedowns, but at least for one night, the network had given the world a glimpse of what Christian television might look like if its purveyors were more willing to engage and grapple constructively with the world outside insulated church walls. What Boone had tried to impress upon his panel of TBN peers, and those who tuned in that April evening, was that having a positive influence on the wider society is not just about changing it but also changing ourselves.
Still crossing over
More than two years later, Boone's Gospel America is still not back on TBN. Though Boone and Crouch remain close friends, the network has not made reinstating the show a priority. In Boone's mind, it's probably just as well. The singer's packed schedule keeps him busy enough. In addition to hosting two syndicated radio shows, performing live, and producing music of his own, Boone is a tireless entrepreneur: He has launched PatsGold.com, a colorful Web site selling classic CDs and videos to nostalgic consumers, and he recently started the Gold Label, a record label for veteran singers who, because of age and changing tastes, were without recording contracts. The company has signed such notables as Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Roy Clark, and Connie Francis.
Boone's civic pursuits keep him hopping as well. As a board member of the Year 2000 National Educational Task force, he was one of the first in what has become a glut of high-profile Christians warning the public about the Y2K computer bug. In fact, the New York Times dubbed him "the Millennium Spoke singer." Boone also serves as a spokesman for the Easter Seals Society, the Israeli Tourism Department, and Mercy Corps International, a faith-based humanitarian group. And, of course, he stays active in conservative politics as a card-carrying supporter of the Christian Coalition.
Yet it's heavy metal that has become his most provocative theme. One suspects you will never be able to mention the name Pat Boone again without resurrecting thoughts of his In a Metal Mood persona. It has reinvigorated the singer, given him a new platform in the entertainment community.
"God definitely has worked through it," Boone says. "He has taught me about my propensity for judging mainstream culture wholesale, without looking for anything good in it. If we're going to communicate with our culture, we've got to find ways to commend as well as to condemn. Otherwise, what kind of ministry are we going to have?"
Boone points to the ongoing debate stirring in the church regarding the phenomenon of contemporary Christian music artists "crossing over" into the mainstream as an example of how difficult it is for Christian entertainers to plug into the culture. "I greatly honor the gospel artists who have been willing to cross over into the secular arena," he says, "people such as Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Kirk Franklin, and Jars of Clay.
"Amy, especially, has taken such heat because she dared to sing songs that weren't all overt gospel songs. I went to see her at the Greek Theatre, and the place was packed. Sure, she did a lot of her pop songs, but when she got around to singing 'Father's Eyes' and some of her other Christian music, it had a great impact because the audience realized that they were listening to somebody who was in touch with what they consider reality. She earned their respect."
Boone seems to like this idea. Earning their respect. In a way, this is what he's been doing in show biz all along: working unapologetically in the mainstream; slowly, naturally, building relationships with his fans and celebrity peers, sharing his faith with them whenever appropriate. Laugh at his wholesome image all you want (he welcomes it), but the guy was "crossing over" long before Christians had a name for it.
Still, Boone's inherent optimism is tempered by a serious awareness of what he's up against as a Christian in Hollywood. "Honestly, I don't think there's any chance of some massive revival in this town," he says bluntly. "There's too much concern about image and money."
He pauses, smiles thoughtfully, then adds: "If there's going to be any change, it will come one on one, one heart at a time."
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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