Pat Boone’s Christmas present to the Jews

The singer who penned the lyrics to the ‘Exodus’ theme song was here last week with a delegation of Christian supporters of Israel.

February 7, 2010 23:13
Pat Boone

Pat Boone. (photo credit: David Brinn)

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 Christian universities.

“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,” said Boone.

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 and 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 song.

“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 about.’

“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 us.

“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 one.

“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 wholesome life.”

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 songs.”

“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 the years.

“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 extremely lucky.

“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.

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