Innocuousness That's Insidious
AAAAAAAAGGGGHHHHHH! Oh! Let's Go!" It begins with a blood-shriek more frightening than Iggy's "TV Eye" -- commencing with "LAAAWWWDDDD!!!" Frightening, because it summons drunken redneck hatefest images, of the let's-git-tanked-and-strang-up-some-shines variety. A two-note rush follows, the same pair of notes that fuels both "Pipeline" and "Pablo Picasso," but taken at double -- nay, triple-time! The singer kicks back in, and he's Presley pushed to such extremes that comprehension's out the door. You just swim through the lust and the echo and hope for the best, and the best you can hope for is: "Don't hesitate, Ah Cain't Wait!!!" Then death-drop silence. "Love meh," the singer commands. "Love meh!"
The record's "Love Me" by the Phantom, one-and-a-half of the most insane minutes in rock & roll history, and perhaps the first thrash record. It was masterminded by Pat Boone.
Wait a minute!
No, brethren, I josh thee not. Pat Boone, star of bogus pimple cream ads and Roger &Me, right-wing Christian superstar, a figure villainized in rock & roll documentaries from hither to thither with a few celluloid seconds of his Bing Crosby/loosened-tie way with "Tutti Frutti," is also the Svengali behind a reckless rockabilly obscurity that became a cult classic in punk circles. The mind boggles, and the irony delights 60-year-old Charles Eugene Boone of Nashville, Tennessee.
The Phantom gets brought up at the end of what should have been a 30-minute phone interview. Suddenly, Boone wrecks his appointment at the racquetball court at the Riverside Hotel in Laughlin, Nevada, where he's spending two weeks crooning a mix of greatest hits and (natch) holiday standards, another stop on his year-long 40th-anniversary-in-showbiz tour. And the 30 minutes grow into an hour.
"The Phantom was my creation," Boone boasts in his relaxed, folksy manner that brings to mind no one more than Ronald Reagan. "He was a guy named Marty Lott, from somewhere down in Mississippi. He was a complete wild man, he was even wilder than Elvis! I had this idea that if an artist came along like Elvis, but with an air of mystery, where nobody knew who he was and he wore a mask and called himself the Phantom (which was my favorite comic book character), that he could be a smash! The kids would love him! I'd learned of this fellow Marty, and he came to New York, and he had this demo which I got onto Dot Records, and he loved the idea of wearing a mask. In fact, he said he'd done that some already down in Mississippi."
Boone then goes on to describe the opening of Lott's act, which involved Lott entering in a mask extending from his 14-inch pompadour down ("I remember we cut some of it off, because the long hair wasn't in yet."). Anticipating Gene Simmons by some 20-odd years, Lott would then "start quivering" to "some romping riff" as he'd "fix some girl with a stare through his mask and jump off the stage." With a lighter in one hand, a microphone in the other, Lott would then spark up the lighter and scream, letting loose a stream of Ronsonol. "So, this burst of flame would shoot out of his mouth at this girl that was already wetting her pants!" continues a Pat Boone as close to hysterics as he probably allows himself. "Everybody went insane! This was his opening!
"So," Boone chuckles, "I thought, `This is my man! This is the Phantom!'"
Pat Boone soon found himself playing with fire in more than one way. "Love Me" was released at the height of the radio payola scandals in the Fifties, and deejays would grab one earful of this barely organized chaos and blanch: "I love it, but this record's so crazy, they're gonna know I'm on the take!" Lott then made a very unimpressive TV debut on American Bandstand, wherein his Phantom mask slipped over his eyes, and in his confusion, he neglected to lip-synch as "Love Me" revved over the airwaves. Once Boone and Dot Records discovered Lott's favorite way to kill a Saturday night was getting ripped with his pals, heading to the poor side of the tracks, and firebombing tarpaper shacks, they dropped Lott like a nice warm tube of herpes. Lott was later rendered quadaplegic in a '66 car wreck (Lott: "Boy, was I pissed!"), and the last Boone heard of him was when Lott called after the Stray Cats had covered "Love Me" on the b-side of one of their UK hits, demanding his publishing money. Lott eventually died in the mid-Eighties, largely forgotten except as the creator of a psychotic reaction that became a punk cult classic, resurrected by dumpster-divers ranging from the Cramps to Poison 13.
The news of "Love Me's" endurance thrills Pat Boone to no end. Which may shock anyone knowledgeable of the Pat Boone who surely asked Dot Records' Randy Wood, when he presented Boone with Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" as a follow-up to his first hit: "Gee, isn't this song awfully ungrammatical?" True, Boone is undeniably square, and probably proud of it. But as the tale of the Phantom proves, there's a latent subversive streak buried deep in Boone's makeup, and his claims that his R&B bleach jobs may have snuck rock & roll through the back door like a stag book stuffed down Junior's blue jeans are not without credibility. Without seeing it coming, rock was suddenly, irrevocably entrenched in the American home, and Pat Boone may have been (partly) to blame.
Gagging on that? Consider this: Duane Eddy, one of the most menacing of rock guitar pioneers, once cut a typically cut-throat version of Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind." All the hallmarks of the Eddy style -- fat reverb, big blaanging bass notes, a sinister attack -- were firmly in place, and it was one of Eddy's more masterfully moody performances. When assembling the Duane Eddy box set for Rhino Records in the recent past, compiler Dan Forte asked Eddy about the tune. Eddy claimed never to have heard the Ivory Joe Hunter original. He'd copped it from Pat Boone's mid-Fifties hit rendition.
Now and again, Boone was even able to transcend what could be seen as his hokey nature and pull a real gem out of the bag. He managed during the fall of '56 to scoop Elvis on a song submitted to the both of them, "Don't Forbid Me," that would have provided Presley with another "Don't Be Cruel" dead easy. Later, he rode a fairly nasty suicide ballad, "Moody River," to the top of the charts that would have given Tipper Gore-types fits in any other hands.
None of this is lost on Boone. He knows how ridiculous he looks in the context of those rockumentaries: "When I get really excited," he jokes, "I'd snap both hands, and take turns patting one foot and then the other. So, I really went nuts! And when I got really outta control, I'd loosen my tie!" He also admits, "When I listen to my records today, and I compare my versions of things like `Tutti Frutti' or `Long Tall Sally' to Little Richard's, they do sound anemic.
"They sound vanilla. But you have to judge these things by the times and the context. Although I laugh at my own records now, when I compare them to the originals, they're not cute like `How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.' They were more exciting than my role models, Eddie Fisher and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who got their share of screams in their times. And the sales speak for themselves."
Indeed, they do. Boone has sold more than 45 million records, and his walls boast 13 gold singles, two gold albums, and one platinum album. Only Presley sold more records than Pat Boone between 1955-63. Chart expert Joel Whitburn ranks Boone the number seven singles artist of all time, and believe it or not, Boone even made 10 appearances in the very R&B charts he was raiding for material. Now chew on this: As he was racking up these stats, making concert appearances worldwide, and hosting his own TV series (The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom, recently anthologized on the Rhino Home Video volume Pat Boone: 40 Years of Hits), he was also raising four daughters with wife Shirley, and completing a teaching degree begun at North Texas State (where he was classmates with Roy Orbison) that was finished at Columbia University, where he graduated magna cum laude.
There you have it: What more subversive tool could be used for the propagator of rock & roll than an All-American family man and scholar in white bucks and chinos? The surface innocuousness is perfectly insidious. Why, Boone was even vicious enough to put one over on no less than Col. Tom Parker.
"I'd decided to do a tribute album to Elvis," relates Boone. "He was my buddy, and I loved a lot of his songs, and I thought I'd like to do my own versions [of Presley's songs]. I was going to do light jazz versions of his songs, because nobody even tried to do them that way, and I didn't want to try to do them the way he did them. So, I had to find a new way, a different way, yet [one that was] tasty and hopefully commercial.
"So, I happened to be with Col. Tom Parker while I was in the midst of recording it and told him what I was doing, and he said, `Oh, the boy'll lahk 'at! Ah'll tell 'im. Now, we're gonna hafta talk about the royalty.' I said, `Oh, goodness, you guys are gonna git lots of royalties. After all, you published most of the songs, and you've got Elvis listed as writer on some of 'em, much to the surprise of the other writer!'
"And the Col. says, `No, I mean the royalty for the use of his name! We were gonna call it Pat Sings Elvis! I mean, what else?' I said, `Col.! This is a tribute to him! What else would we call it?' `Oh, it's a good title,' he said, `but you've got his name in the title, and it's gonna sell records. So, you're gonna hafta pay him an extra royalty for the use of his name. I mean, we're friends, but this is business!'
"So, I went back to Randy Wood. Randy got irate. He said, `Let's scrap it! Let's drop it!' And I said, `No, Randy, it's too good. We've got a good album, and it's some of the best stuff I've done. I tell ya what: Let's just don't use his name!' So, I had a painter I had brought over from Holland named Leo Jansen, a great portrait painter. I had him do the cover of me in a gold lamé suit with a guitar in a sort of Elvis stance, and we just called it Pat Boone Sings Guess Who? Then I wrote the liner notes on the back about my friend Guess Whosley. And we never mentioned Elvis' name, but we had all his songs: `Hound Dog,' `All Shook Up,' `Teddy Bear.' It couldn't be anyone else!
"Anyway, Tom Parker had this little exclusive club called the Snowmen's Club; that is, con artists that snow other people. And only reeeeaaaallll top hustlers and con men got into that little exclusive club of his. He sent me a gold membership card, engraved with my name in it, making me a member of the Snowmen's Club. And I got in because I got around him, and not too many people got around Tom Parker. It's one of my crowning achievements. To me, it's as significant and more of a prized possession than one of my gold records."
Parker should've known better. Always beware the clean-cut ones. After all, they say Pretty Boy Floyd was pretty wholesome looking, too. n