The right-wing news and commentary website World Net Daily has an article up this weekend with the following headline: “Who’s missing from Rock Hall of Fame? Effort initiated to induct pop pioneer Pat Boone”. The story goes on to explain that Pat is as deserving of honor by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or any other performers of his era, and reports on an effort by legendary radio programmer John Rook to petition the Hall to induct Boone. The WND article tries to debunk the idea that Pat is undeserving because many of his major hits were versions of R&B hits recorded by other people first. And, because this is World Net Daily, we are eventually told the main reason why Pat is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: It’s because he’s a conservative Christian.
Yes, Boone recorded several early rock songs (not as many as WND would have you believe, however), and yes, they sold a lot of copies. But “copy” is actually the operative word here. Boone got the chance to make his mark on music history thanks to a repeat of a familiar cultural phenomenon. It started not long after the Civil War, although it wasn’t until the Jazz Age that it became commonplace. A black cultural product–gospel in the post-Civil War era, jazz in the first third of the 20th century, early rock and R&B in the 1950s, or rap in the 1980s–is viewed as exotic by white kids, and as a threat by white parents, who fear its influence on their kids. Eventually, those threatening forms are co-opted by whites, and in the process of reconfiguration into “acceptability,” the authenticity and/or edges of the original product is sanded off. The case of 50s R&B is textbook. The kids don’t always catch the difference, as the monster sales of Boone’s covers indicates, but the process happens all the same. Boone wasn’t the only performer who did it during the 1950s, but he’s the most famous example of someone whose career was made by it. Tellingly enough, he didn’t go back to it once he’d established himself. It wasn’t like he covered the Beatles in 1963.
Boone’s contention that his cover versions were helpful to black artists represents an interesting interpretation of history. I don’t doubt that some of those artists feel warmly toward Pat for exposing their songs to a wide audience, but don’t be confused into thinking that the exposure necessarily translated into money. In the 1950s, early R&B songwriters frequently signed, or were tricked into signing, publishing contracts that robbed them of the royalties that are paid when songs are recorded. I’m glad Fats Domino made some money, but I’m guessing he may be the exception that proves the rule–many other songwriters didn’t make a dime from some extremely popular cover versions.
I’m a chart geek, and I put a lot of stock in chart positions as measures of historical worth, but in the case of Boone, chart positions are deceiving. His versions of “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I Almost Lost My Mind” reached Number One, “Long Tall Sally” got to number 8, and “Tutti Frutti” to number 12. Fats Domino’s original “Shame” reached number 10, Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Lost My Mind” didn’t make the pop chart, and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” reached number 17. Only Richard’s original “Long Tall Sally” outpeformed Boone on the pop charts, reaching number 6.
But history has had the verdict on whose versions are remembered and whose are forgotten. And in the end, Boone’s recordings, especially of the rock classics World Net Daily cites as evidence of his fitness for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, represent a clearly audible argument for why he doesn’t belong. His versions of “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “I Almost Lost My Mind” are pallid copies of the originals, aping the energy but completely missing the spirit. He sings like he’s got the vocal equivalent of latex gloves on, to keep from being contaminated by that spirit. This makes his comparison of his cover versions with those by Elvis and the Beatles especially silly, because in most cases, the love and respect Elvis and the Beatles have for the songs they covered is audible–they worked as hard to replicate the spirit of the originals as they did to remember the words. Boone’s later hits, like “April Love” and “Friendly Persuasion.” are pure mom-and-pop pop. Even a gospel record like “A Wonderful Time Up There,” which a Bible believer like Boone should be able to sing from a place close to his true soul, lacks any feeling of soul at all.
I’ve written before that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should not be exclusively for performers whose body of work stands up to serious critical examination. I’ve argued that performers whose work is considered disposable by many critics, such as Tommy James and Three Dog Night, are deserving of induction, too. Their best recordings were filled with a spirit of fun that typifies rock and roll’s heart, they were made at a high level of craft, and they meant a great deal to the people who bought them at the time. And so I’m sympathetic to John Rook, at least, because Pat Boone clearly meant a lot to him in the late 1950s. But spirit and heart are what matters most, and Pat Boone’s 50s recordings demonstrate clearly that he hasn’t got either one in sufficient quantity to be immortalized alongside those who do.
His religion’s got nothing to do with it. And anyway, fathering the woman who inflicted “You Light Up My Life” on an unsuspecting world is a much greater offense than being religious.
(A similar version of this post appears at The Daily Aneurysm.)