Pat Boone Remembers Little Richard: ‘He Knew He Had to Be Different’
From his voice to his piano to his pompadoured-wildman aura, Little Richard became a star and unstoppable rock & roll train for many reasons. But one of those reasons – sometimes to the dismay of his fans – was Pat Boone.
Boone, who was a year and a half younger than the rock architect, was a straight-laced white pop singer who, by 1956, had become a teen pop idol thanks to mild-mannered remakes of R&B hits like Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and the El Dorados’ “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama).” Starting that year, Boone remade three of Little Richard’s signature songs: “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up.” In a sign of how segregated the music business was at the time, his “Tutti Frutti” was far more embraced on pop radio, hitting Number 12 (Little Richard’s version only made it to Number 17.)
The two men’s lives rarely intersected after that, even though both journeyed from rock & roll to gospel, but they will forever be linked thanks to Boone’s remakes. Boone, 85, talked about Little Richard, their connection and the controversial role he still plays in the legendary musician’s career.
I didn’t get to know Richard that well. We moved in different circles. But I had a friendship and brotherhood with him.
He was invented and created. He was a poor boy trying to find a way into this world, and he knew he had to be different and exciting, and he went for it. Some of the details of his life I’ve been reading about today emphasizes how he was living. I’d heard he was a bisexual or having homosexual experiences. But when I saw all the crazy hair and clothes, I thought, “This guy, he’s going to be noticed.” Jerry Lee Lewis played the piano with his rear end just to stand out. They did crazy things and I felt it was all just to get attention. And as far as I was concerned, more power to them.
In 1956, I had up to that point six million-selling singles, all of them covers. They were R&B songs and we were calling them rock & roll. Randy Wood of Dot Records sent me “Tutti Frutti” [laughs] and it wasn’t like anything else I had covered. It was wild and crazy and obviously very commercial. I loved it. But I didn’t know what “a whop bob ba-luma bam boom” meant. I had to practice it. I had to write it out. When I did my record of it, a lot of my fans thought I was singing “a whop bob ba-luma Pat Boone,” but I wasn’t!
I knew I wasn’t going to sound like Little Richard, but I wanted to capture as much as I could of the excitement and energy and let-it-flow attitude that he had. It was like his voice was screaming at me, “Cover this!” And I did and it was a million seller.
I took a liberty now and then and changed a lyric. The hard part about “Long Tall Sally” was singing it in such a way that I didn’t draw attention to the fact that Sally was not Uncle John’s wife. Uncle John saw Aunt Mary coming and he ducked back in the alley, because he was there with Long Tall Sally. I didn’t want to ask what that was about. The subject matter was more a problem for me with “Tutti Frutti.” Some of the words, like, “She knows how to love me, yes indeed/You don’t know what you do to me,” sounded a little racy. So I changed it to “pretty little Susie is the gal for me.” Richard must have known I’d done that.
I was thrilled [when “Tutti Fruitt” was a hit]. I was glad for him too. When my record came out, he was still washing dishes at a bus station in Macon. Those R&B artists knew that me covering their song helped them get into the pop market. I got an audio tape of Little Richard in the studio after he’d had several records and the DJ says to him, “How did you feel when Pat Boone did ‘Tutti Frutti’?” Richard said, “I was still washing dishes and my record was out and I was doing good, but I wasn’t getting no money! But when I heard Pat Boone, I threw the towel down and walked out of there and said, ‘I’m gonna make some money now!’”
Richard and I met on the Dick Clark show after that. It was casual but friendly. We lip-synched our records and there wasn’t much time to hobnob. He was telling me how much he liked my records of his songs. There was a synergy there. I was good for his music and his music was good for me.
But if you asked him at the right moment, he would say he was irritated or the kids didn’t know his records. He was very shrewd. It depended on who asked him. Bob Costas asked him a question in such a way that it tempted Richard to be disparaging: “I was the originator. But the parents didn’t let their kids buy my records, they told them to buy Pat Boone records!”
Well, yeah, but my records of his songs were huge pop records. They weren’t playing what was called “race music” and R&B on pop radio. R&B had its own charts and artists and stations, and it was a different kind of music. It was loud, rocking, and rhythmic and sometimes you couldn’t understand all the words. The artists themselves were thrilled that someone was doing their songs because they weren’t on pop radio.
The proof of what I’m saying is that there are big R&B records of the mid-Fifties and you would never have heard of any of them. They were doing great in their own genre but the only ones that are remembered today — maybe two or three songs — are the ones that were covered by somebody. And the cover records did great and people like Little Richard walked through that door that was opened for them.
When Alan Freed asked teens which one to play — the original or the cover — at first the kids wanted to hear my records. Then a year or so later, he’d ask the question again and they all wanted to hear the original records. So the cover-record era ended, but it served its purpose. Elvis and I were midwives at the birth of rock & roll. Sometimes when I walked into a radio station, they were surprised I wasn’t black.
Some people put me down because they bought into this idea that I was holding artists back or they personally didn’t like what I did with the songs and therefore I didn’t have the right to be considered a rock & roller. But I was just a little ahead of them.
Little Richard and I didn’t have much contact again until about 10 years ago, after he had become a minister. He was performing again, and this wealthy guy — an oil man, I think — was having a 50th wedding anniversary, and he hired me and Little Richard. It was a private affair. Very expensive. And he and I talked about the Lord. We talked about Christian things and how God had been good to us and how we wanted to use our lives in some ways that were good for other people. It was friendly.
Years ago, I wanted to do an album with Little Richard and Fats Domino. I wanted to call it the Oreo album. Me as the white kid in the middle and the two black guys on either side. They said they would do it. I could just hear Richard singing one of my biggest gospel hits, “Wonderful Time.” I considered him my brother, spiritually and musically.