The late US TV pop music host Dick Clark was affectionately known as the “America’s oldest teenager,” but he’s got nothing on Pat Boone. The legendary pop singer who presented a clean-cut, hush puppy-wearing alternative to Elvis Presley in the 1950s is still going strong at age 81. Though Boone spends much of his time in the American evangelical community as an ardent advocate for Israel and spokesman for the anti-Obamacare seniors organization 60 Plus, he can’t give up the performing bug.
Despite having given impromptu song breakouts to small groups during his dozens of visits to Israel over the past decades, Boone has never officially performed here.
However, some 60 years into a career that ranks number nine – ahead of artists like The Beach Boys and Aretha Franklin – in Billboard’s listing of the Top 100 Artists 1955-1995, the eternally peppy singer will make his Israeli debut on March 1 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.
“I was thinking that I would never get the chance to perform in Israel, that my time had passed,” said Boone in a phone conversation from his Los Angeles home earlier this month.
“Then I was approached out of the blue by an Israeli promoter, and my manager and I agreed it might work if we did it right – we’d bring five musicians and work with an Israeli orchestra. So we agreed to the first and only time I will ever appear live in Israel.”
Alert and sharp, he sprinkled his comments with recollections of previous visits to Israel, frequent biblical references and rambling stories, including the one about how he wrote the lyrics to the song “Exodus” on the back of a Christmas card.
Boone still performs semi-regularly but under the moniker of a “musical memory” concert that includes songs performed live, video clips and his own recounting of aspects of his long and varied career.
“There are some great clips from my entertainment past in TV and movies, including duets with Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis from my TV show in the 1960s, my appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and scenes from my movies with Ann- Margret and Shirley Jones,” he said.
Boone provided middle-class America with an opening to the unknown and mysterious world of rock & roll in the 1950s by providing palatable versions of raucous rockers like “Ain’t That A Shame” by Fats Domino and “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. Quickly evolving into a teen idol, he strung together hits like the novelty “Speedy Gonzalez” and ballads like “Love Letters in the Sand” and “Moody River.”
Boone endeared himself to Jewish fans and Israel supporters when in the early 1960s he took the Ferrante and Teicher theme music of the Otto Preminger film Exodus and added lyrics. The song “Exodus (This Land Is Mine)” evolved into a standard that has closed his shows ever since.
On a trip to Israel at the tail end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, 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, with the lyrics ‘This land is mine, God gave this land to me,’ and it was a moving experience for all of us,” he recounts.
Boone continues, “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 told me. ‘The place that you were singing, ‘God gave this land to me,’ is now part of the map of Israel.’ So it always gives me goosebumps to sing the song.”
While “Exodus” is a given for his Tel Aviv show, Boone explained that he wasn’t sure what other songs he would sing at his show, expressing uncertainty if the Israeli audience would be familiar with his vintage rock and pop songs.
“I’m trying to find out which songs most Israelis remember. Like in most places, a lot of my fans are no more,” he said. “I’ve never known for sure which of my hits in the US were also popular in Israel.”
One hint he received came three years ago courtesy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Boone was part of a 30-person evangelical delegation headed by former US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, which was granted a brief meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
“I stood at the back and raised my hand and said, ‘Mr. prime minister, this is your friend Pat Boone,’” recalled Boone. “He put on his glasses and looked at me and said, ‘It is Pat Boone! How are you doing, Speedy?’ So, at least I know ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ was a big hit there.”
Even though the repertoire might be in flux ahead of the Tel Aviv show, there is no doubt about the singer.
According to Boone, who trains regularly with an opera coach, his voice is still strong and clear.
“My coach – and recording engineers who I work with – tell me that my voice is exactly the same as it used to be,” he said. “I do need to stretch those vocal cords to sing ‘Exodus,’ but I’m ready to do some prep work to give the Israel audience what it deserves.”