Even thought Pat Boone has sold over 45 million albums, enjoyed 38 Top
40 hits and starred in more than 12 Hollywood movies and a hit TV show
during his ongoing 55-year career, there’s one song that his Jewish
fans keeps wanting to hear from him – the “Theme to Exodus.”
And as it turns out, it’s not only Jews, but also Christian supporters
of Israel who are smitten with the “second Jewish national anthem,” as
the 75-year-old Boone good-naturedly calls the song which dramatically
intones, “This land is mine, God gave this land to me.”
Last week in Jerusalem, the one-time teen idol gave an impromptu
performance of the song for the 170 members of the American Christian
delegation he was part of, brought over by former US presidential
candidate and current FOX News host Mike Huckabee.
“It was especially appropriate, singing it in Jerusalem, looking out
over the Old City,” said the ever-youthful Boone, still sporting his
trademark white buck shoes, as he sat in the lounge of the David
Citadel Hotel the day following the performance.
Boone, who increasingly became identified with the evangelical
Christian movement and conservative American politics during his
career, is no Johnny-come-lately supporter of Israel. He was raised
religious in Tennessee and attended both Christian high school and
“Since I was a little boy, I was reading Bible stories and fell in love
with Israel. The stories were real to me. I grew up knowing that
everything we believed came directly from Judaism. And as the New
Testament says, we are adopted into the family of God’s chosen people,”
That outlook helped the entertainer pen the striking lyrics to “Exodus”
in a blaze of inspiration, following the 1960 release of the Otto
Preminger film based on the Leon Uris book, starring Paul Newman as the
iconic Ari Ben-Canaan.
“It seems so odd that someone who’s not Jewish could write that song,
and it still stuns people, especially Jewish people, when I sing it,”
said Boone, recounting the unlikely turn of events that led to his
penning the Zionist anthem.
“When the Leon Uris book came out, I read it and it was thrilling. Then
when the film came out, the Ferrante and Teicher instrumental theme
became the number one record in the world. I kept getting goose bumps
whenever I would hear it… and I wanted to sing it,” he said.
“I asked my manager to get me a copy of the words, and he reached
Chappell publishers and was told there weren’t – and would not be – any
words to the song. There were three strong-minded principals who had to
approve any lyric, and even though writers had submitted lyrics, they
couldn’t agree on anything. The three were Ernest Gold, the composer of
the melody who had every right to approve any words, Chappell Music –
the publishers – and Otto Preminger. There were no lyrics acceptable to
all three and it didn’t look like it was going to happen. That was
really a terrible disappointment to me, and I thought, well, maybe I
can get an idea for words to submit to a professional writer.”
IT WAS a Christmas Eve, and Boone was supposed to be helping his wife
Shirley wrap presents, but instead he kept listening to the song,
putting the needle back at the beginning and hearing the melody over
“As I set the needle down, maybe for the 30th time, and the music goes
“Bum Bum… Bum Bum,” the words “This land… is mine” came out of me,”
said Boone. “I had been reading about Ari Ben-Canaan in the book, and
thinking about Moses and Joshua, and I realized that it had to be
personal, one person’s statement – not a grand scheme statement; a
declaration to the land and ownership to the land.
“When those four words came out, I said to myself, that’s it – that’s the whole story.
“And I grabbed something to write it down with, and immediately ‘God
gave this land to me’ came out. And in 20 or 25 minutes, I had written
the whole lyric, almost as fast as I could put the needle back on to
hear the next passage.
“When I turned over the piece of paper I had written the words on, I
realized that it was a Christmas card – and I had written on it what
became the second Jewish national anthem. For me, that was so
appropriate, because it was an amalgam of everything I believe coming
together. This land is God’s covenant to his people, and it’s never
going to change.”
When Boone went into the studio to record the song, he found it to be
the most challenging of his already wildly successful career.
“It took everything that I had in me as a singer to sing this song. I
hit the top note loud and clear and strong and it felt like that it was
being sung through me,” he recalled, adding that it wasn’t the last
time he felt that he was channeling a stronger presence when singing
“The next time it happened was at my first Passover seder, during my
first visit to Israel in the mid-1960s to record a TV special with my
family called Christmas in Bethlehem,” he said.
“We were invited to join the seder at the Diplomat Hotel, and we sat on
the side, following along, looking up the scriptures as we went along
and just exalting in it.
“The rabbi was from New Jersey and the cantor was Israeli and he was
singing beautifully. Near the end, someone came over to us and said,
‘the rabbi knows that you wrote the words to Exodus and wants to know
if you would sing it for us, because that’s what this whole Seder is
“I said, ‘well, I don’t have any music, I’ll just have to sing it a
cappella. But I’ll try.’ So I walked to the dais and started to sing,
and almost immediately, I started to think, ‘that sounds good.’ I was
able to step back and hear it myself.
“Halfway through, when I got to “so take my hand” I heard another voice
behind me, and I glanced back and it was the cantor, who was singing
along. He knew the words by heart, the words I had written. And when
the cantor, in his deep, rich voice finished “Until I die, this land is
mine,” the whole room exploded. People were weeping. I felt that night
I was lending my voice to the song, but it was being sung through me.”
DURING A subsequent visit to Israel soon after the Yom Kippur War,
Boone went to visit troops on the Golan Heights, and was requested to
put on an impromptu concert in a bunker.
“I asked them, ‘what do you want to hear?’ And they said ‘Speedy
Gonzalez’ – one of my rock hits. So I did the best I could to sing it
without any music, and they enjoyed it. But then I said, ‘Hey, let me
sing this,’ and I sang “Exodus” in the bunker. And again, it felt like
it was being sung through me, and it was a moving experience for all of
“A few years later, I met Yitzhak Rabin in his office and told him
about that trip, and he went to a map and pointed the location out to
me. ‘You sang a prophecy,’ he said. ‘Where you were singing, ‘God gave
this land to me’ is now part of the map of Israel.’ So, it always gives
me goose bumps to sing the song, and it happened again last night,” he
said, referring to the performance for the Huckabee bus tour.
Boone has remained in the limelight throughout his career, whether as
the father to Debby, who scored her own hit single in the 1970s with
“You Light Up My Life,” or as a black-leather, studded heavy metal
dude, promoting his 1997 cover album of hard rockers, which temporarily
landed him in hot water with Christian TV channels. But there was one
time when he was the limelight.
Married at 19 to Shirley and already on the way to having four baby
girls in three and a half years, Boone was studying at North Texas
State when he entered, and won, the 1950s equivalent of American Idol – the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
He nabbed a recording contract and his first single was a Top 10
million-selling hit called “Two Hearts, Two Kisses.” His second single,
a smooth cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” reached number
“We moved from Texas to New York and I enrolled at Columbia to finish
my teaching degree. All the while, even while I was making records and
movies... I was still planning on becoming a teacher. I thought that my
singing success was maybe God’s way of letting me work my way through
school. That was really the way I prioritized,” said Boone.
By the time he graduated though, he was a star, with his own hit TV show, The Chevy Showroom.
“I had always thought I was going to apply for a teaching job, but
things were happening so fast – such a rush, movies and records and TV,
and command performance for the Queen. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got
this seven-year movie deal with 20th Century Fox, I’ve got an ongoing
deal with ABC TV and a five-year recording contract with Dot Records, I
guess I have to see where this goes before I apply for a teaching job.’”
OBVIOUSLY, BOONE ended up opting for the entertainment career, and for
a while, he was the salt to Elvis Presley’s pepper – two opposite ends
of the pop spectrum, with Boone representing the wholesome teen image
and Elvis the bad boy rock & roller.
“I always treasured the reputation I had – to be considered a square
guy, but I winced sometimes when people compared me unfavorably to
Elvis,” said Boone. “Elvis’s career seemed much more exciting, even
though I was matching him hit for hit. I had more hits than anyone in
the ’50s except for Elvis and I ran a very close second.
“We were friends – both two boys from Tennessee. We had a lot of the
same fans, but appealing to different instincts. He was the rebel, he
was breaking all the conventions and wining big, as many rebels do. I
was the guy playing by the rules, and also winning big. Some of the
girls and guys identified with me more, because they were trying to
lead lives – I was in college with a wife and kids and living a good
Boone remembered that he first met Elvis when the young singer opened
for the already seasoned Boone at sock hop in Cleveland in 1955.
“I thought he was so nervous because backstage, I went up and said, ‘Hi
Elvis, I’m Pat Boone’. He just said ‘nice to meet ya’ and leaned
against the wall with his small entourage around him,” he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘boy, he’s scared, this might be a disaster.’ But
he played ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and he got the girls with that one. He
wasn’t hip swiveling yet, but he was twitching, sort of hyper. I went
on and sang my hits and got the screams because they all knew the
“A few years later, we were visiting each other, and I said, ‘Elvis,
that first time we met, you seemed so nervous and shy.’ He said, ‘well,
I didn’t know how to talk to you, man. You were a star,’” Boone
laughed. “He got over that real quick and we stayed friends through
“It was at the Memphis airport about a month before he died. He had
gained a lot of weight, he had white chalky stuff around his mouth,
which I thought was Maalox because he was nervous about flying,” said
Boone. “He said, ‘where are you goin’?’
‘I’m going to Orlando.’
“He said, ‘That’s the wrong way, man,’ with that little sneer of his. ‘You were always goin’ the wrong way.’
“‘Well, Elvis,’ I responded, ‘I guess that depends where you’re coming
from.’ And we both laughed, because we were both sort of mocking the
public image of us, two Tennessee boys who knew that we had both hit it
“And a month later he was dead. Of course I’ll never forget that little exchange. Those were our last words to each other.”
Boone got up to join the rest of the group, heading off to a ceremony
at Yad Vashem, still knowing where he came from, and where he was going.