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.

Pat Boone (photo credit: David Brinn)
Pat Boone
(photo credit: David Brinn)
Even thought Pat Boone has sold over 45 million albums, enjoyed 38 Top40 hits and starred in more than 12 Hollywood movies and a hit TV showduring his ongoing 55-year career, there’s one song that his Jewishfans keeps wanting to hear from him – the “Theme to Exodus.”
And as it turns out, it’s not only Jews, but also Christian supportersof Israel who are smitten with the “second Jewish national anthem,” asthe 75-year-old Boone good-naturedly calls the song which dramaticallyintones, “This land is mine, God gave this land to me.”
Last week in Jerusalem, the one-time teen idol gave an impromptuperformance of the song for the 170 members of the American Christiandelegation he was part of, brought over by former US presidentialcandidate and current FOX News host Mike Huckabee.
“It was especially appropriate, singing it in Jerusalem, looking outover the Old City,” said the ever-youthful Boone, still sporting histrademark white buck shoes, as he sat in the lounge of the DavidCitadel Hotel the day following the performance.
Boone, who increasingly became identified with the evangelicalChristian movement and conservative American politics during hiscareer, is no Johnny-come-lately supporter of Israel. He was raisedreligious in Tennessee and attended both Christian high school andChristian universities.
“Since I was a little boy, I was reading Bible stories and fell in lovewith Israel. The stories were real to me. I grew up knowing thateverything we believed came directly from Judaism. And as the NewTestament 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 OttoPreminger film based on the Leon Uris book, starring Paul Newman as theiconic 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 hispenning the Zionist anthem.
“When the Leon Uris book came out, I read it and it was thrilling. Thenwhen the film came out, the Ferrante and Teicher instrumental themebecame the number one record in the world. I kept getting goose bumpswhenever 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 reachedChappell publishers and was told there weren’t – and would not be – anywords to the song. There were three strong-minded principals who had toapprove any lyric, and even though writers had submitted lyrics, theycouldn’t agree on anything. The three were Ernest Gold, the composer ofthe melody who had every right to approve any words, Chappell Music –the publishers – and Otto Preminger. There were no lyrics acceptable toall three and it didn’t look like it was going to happen. That wasreally a terrible disappointment to me, and I thought, well, maybe Ican get an idea for words to submit to a professional writer.”
IT WAS a Christmas Eve, and Boone was supposed to be helping his wifeShirley wrap presents, but instead he kept listening to the song,putting the needle back at the beginning and hearing the melody overand 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, andthinking about Moses and Joshua, and I realized that it had to bepersonal, one person’s statement – not a grand scheme statement; adeclaration 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 ‘Godgave this land to me’ came out. And in 20 or 25 minutes, I had writtenthe whole lyric, almost as fast as I could put the needle back on tohear the next passage.
“When I turned over the piece of paper I had written the words on, Irealized that it was a Christmas card – and I had written on it whatbecame the second Jewish national anthem. For me, that was soappropriate, because it was an amalgam of everything I believe comingtogether. This land is God’s covenant to his people, and it’s nevergoing to change.”
When Boone went into the studio to record the song, he found it to bethe most challenging of his already wildly successful career.
“It took everything that I had in me as a singer to sing this song. Ihit the top note loud and clear and strong and it felt like that it wasbeing sung through me,” he recalled, adding that it wasn’t the lasttime he felt that he was channeling a stronger presence when singingthe song.
“The next time it happened was at my first Passover seder, during myfirst visit to Israel in the mid-1960s  to record a TV special with myfamily called Christmas in Bethlehem,” he said.
“We were invited to join the seder at the Diplomat Hotel, and we sat onthe side, following along, looking up the scriptures as we went alongand just exalting in it.
“The rabbi was from New Jersey and the cantor was Israeli and he wassinging beautifully. Near the end, someone came over to us and said,‘the rabbi  knows that you wrote the words to Exodus and wants to knowif you would sing it for us, because that’s what this whole Seder isabout.’
“I said, ‘well, I don’t have any music, I’ll just have to sing it acappella. 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 wasable to step back and hear it myself.
“Halfway through, when I got to “so take my hand” I heard another voicebehind me, and I glanced back and it was the cantor, who was singingalong. He knew the words by heart, the words I had written. And whenthe cantor, in his deep, rich voice finished “Until I die, this land ismine,” the whole room exploded. People were weeping. I felt that nightI 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 toput on an impromptu concert in a bunker.
“I asked them, ‘what do you want to hear?’ And they said ‘SpeedyGonzalez’ – one of my rock hits. So I did the best I could to sing itwithout any music, and they enjoyed it.  But then I said, ‘Hey, let mesing this,’ and I sang “Exodus” in the bunker. And again, it felt likeit was being sung through me, and it was a moving experience for all ofus.
“A few years later, I met Yitzhak Rabin in his office and told himabout that trip, and he went to a map and pointed the location out tome. ‘You sang a prophecy,’ he said. ‘Where you were singing, ‘God gavethis land to me’ is now part of the map of Israel.’ So, it always givesme goose bumps to sing the song, and it happened again last night,” hesaid, referring to the performance for the Huckabee bus tour.
Boone has remained in the limelight throughout his career, whether asthe 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 metaldude, promoting his 1997 cover album of hard rockers, which temporarilylanded him in hot water with Christian TV channels. But there was onetime when he was the limelight.
Married at 19 to Shirley and already on the way to having four babygirls in three and a half years, Boone was studying at North TexasState 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 10million-selling hit called “Two Hearts, Two Kisses.” His second single,a smooth cover of Fats Domino’s  “Ain’t That a Shame” reached numberone.
“We moved from Texas to New York and I enrolled at Columbia to finishmy teaching degree. All the while, even while I was making records andmovies... I was still planning on becoming a teacher. I thought that mysinging success was maybe God’s way of letting me work my way throughschool. 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, butthings were happening so fast – such a rush, movies and records and TV,and command performance for the Queen. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve gotthis seven-year movie deal with 20th Century Fox, I’ve got an ongoingdeal with ABC TV and a five-year recording contract with Dot Records, Iguess I have to see where this goes before I apply for a teaching job.’”
OBVIOUSLY, BOONE ended up opting for the entertainment career, and fora while, he was the salt to Elvis Presley’s pepper – two opposite endsof the pop spectrum, with Boone representing the wholesome teen imageand Elvis the bad boy rock & roller.
“I always treasured the reputation I had – to be considered a squareguy, but I winced sometimes when people compared me unfavorably toElvis,” said Boone. “Elvis’s career seemed much more exciting, eventhough I was matching him hit for hit. I had more hits than anyone inthe ’50s except for Elvis and I ran a very close second.
“We were friends – both two boys from Tennessee. We had a lot of thesame fans, but appealing to different instincts. He was the rebel, hewas breaking all the conventions and wining big, as many rebels do. Iwas the guy playing by the rules, and also winning big. Some of thegirls and guys identified with me more, because they were trying tolead lives – I was in college with a wife and kids and living a goodwholesome life.”
Boone remembered that he first met Elvis when the young singer openedfor the already seasoned Boone at sock hop in Cleveland in 1955.
“I thought he was so nervous because backstage, I went up and said, ‘HiElvis, I’m Pat Boone’. He just said ‘nice to meet ya’ and leanedagainst the wall with his small entourage around him,” he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘boy, he’s scared, this might be a disaster.’ Buthe played ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and he got the girls with that one. Hewasn’t hip swiveling yet, but he was twitching, sort of hyper. I wenton and sang my hits and got the screams because they all knew thesongs.”
“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,’” Boonelaughed.  “He got over that real quick and we stayed friends throughthe years.
“It was at the Memphis airport about a month before he died. He hadgained a lot of weight, he had white chalky stuff around his mouth,which I thought was Maalox because he was nervous about flying,” saidBoone. “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 comingfrom.’ And we both laughed, because we were both sort of mocking thepublic image of us, two Tennessee boys who knew that we had both hit itextremely 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 ceremonyat Yad Vashem, still knowing where he came from, and where he was going.