THE QUESTION ON QUORA was “Who was the first rock & roll superstar to be discarded and forgotten to time?” I answered with Bill Haley, Pat Boone, and Connie Francis. Each singer was a big star in their heyday—the word “superstar” did not exist then—but each has been under-appreciated by most critics and historians since rock & roll became self-reflective decades ago.
In response to my answer, Dean Gibson added a comment agreeing with me on Haley and Francis but questioned my championing Boone. He reiterated the almost universal belief that Boone and other white artists deprived black artists of a more lucrative career:
“What he did, in my opinion, was take market share, attention, and money away from the black artists who originally did the songs, contributing to the obscurity of otherwise superior performances of those songs.
Pat Boone helped make deserving black R&B artists end up discarded and forgotten when perhaps they should have been superstars.”
This is a common belief because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t. Please keep in mind that the United States was just beginning the long process of tearing down the walls of discrimination.
Eventually, rhythm & blues would have found its way onto (white) pop radio—it just got there faster because of rock & roll.
My answer to Dean is below under the subheading “Ain’t that a shame” and indented between the images of the two magazines. Text before and after those magazines are unique to this article you are reading.
This article will make more sense if you read my piece on Haley, Boone, and Francis titled “The First Discarded And Forgotten Superstars Of Rock & Roll.”
Then come back here and read on . . .
In 1956, Pat Boone was cool enough with the kids to appear on the cover of a magazine with Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. Each of these men was considered rock & rollers by the men who made their records, the kids who bought their records, and the parents who complained about their records.
Ain’t that a shame at my front door
Dean, thanks for your intelligent and considered response. Here is a bit more on the topic: This is a common belief because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t. Prior to artists such as Haley, the Crew-Cuts, and Boone bringing rhythm & blues songs onto the pop charts, it wasn’t possible for that music to get heard on most radio stations that programmed popular music!
Those stations catered to an (almost) exclusively white, middle-of-the-road audience. And this was an audience that station programmers believed did not want to hear what had been referred to as “race music” for decades—even within the recording industry! That was probably an accurate assessment of this demographic at the time. 1
Subsequently, rhythm & blues records were not played on (white) radio stations that played pop music.
Consequently, there was little if any money for black rhythm & blues artists to lose if a white artist covered their record.
Before rock & roll, those rhythm & blues records that were played were on tiny radio stations that played (almost) exclusively black music for an (almost) exclusively black audience. 2
In ’50s rock & roll, good guys didn’t wear white and bad guys black: the bad boys wore blue suede shoes and the good one wore powdered white buck shoes!
The beginning of the rock & roll era?
For Fats Domino, June 18, 1955, was an important date: One of his records made the (white) pop charts for the first time. “Ain’t It a Shame” debuted at #48 on the Cash Box Best Selling Singles survey. While few people have pointed to this date, it may be the beginning of the Rock & Roll Era. 3
Hell’s Belles, we could argue that day in June to be the beginning of the rock & roll era!
Fats had been a regular hit-maker on the rhythm & blues charts since 1949, but none of his sides had crossed over onto the pop charts. What had changed?
When Ain’t It A Shame debuted on Cash Box, it was tied for that position with Pat Boone’s rendition of the same song. Boone’s version correctly titled the song as Ain’t That A Shame (although legend has it that the singer wanted to change the title and the lyrics to the more proper “Isn’t that a shame”).
Did Pat Boone take attention and money away from the black artists who originally did the songs?
Because of Pat Boone, Fats Domino reached the pop Top 40 before Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
Because of Pat Boone, (white) radio stations started playing Fats Domino records in the last months of 1955. They didn’t stop playing them until his career as a hitmaker ran out of gas at the end of the ’60s.
Because of Pat Boone, Fats Domino became the most successful black pop artist of the late ’50s and early ’60s!
Boone continued helping black records make their way onto the pop charts. On October 8, 1955, the El Dorados had their first pop hit the same way when At My Front Door debuted at #31 on Cash Box. It was tied with Boone’s cover version of the song tied for the same position.
Despite his heart and his conservative soul not being in rock & roll, it certainly appears that Boone helped open the door for rhythm & blues music to be played alongside pop music on AM radio in the ’50s.
Despite his being dismissed for decades by overzealous fans and critics, I do think that he has earned a respectable place in the rock & roll pantheon.
Now, all we have to do is give it to him.
In 1959, Pat Boone appeared on the cover of Life magazine looking like the heir to Bing Crosby—or maybe he looked like the Rep*blican Party’s first attempt to nominate a movie star for governor of California.
Pat Boone, superstar
From mid-1955 into 1962, Pat Boone ranked with the biggest hitmakers of the First Rock & Roll Era. Here are four of the biggest male singers of that era and their hits. As an example, Boone placed thirty-eight sides in Billboard’s Top 40. Of those, eighteen reached the Top 10, and of those, six were #1 records. 4
Top 40 Top 10 # 1
Elvis Presley 53 30 17
Pat Boone 38 18 6
Fats Domino 35 8 0
Ricky Nelson 28 16 2
If we listed the accomplishments of the 2017 inductees into the Hall of Fame into account, we could make an argument that they do not have the historical and cultural significance of Pat Boone’s achievements.
Pat Boone, Hall of Famer?
And I have been planning a piece on Boone as a follow-up to my essay on Connie Francis. I had tentatively titled it “Should Pat Boone Be In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame?”
Instead, I opted for what I believe (ha!) is a more clever title that plays on Boone’s desire to correct the grammar of the Fats Domino record and also allude to the recent passing of Aretha Franklin.
Finally, we should always keep in mind that people just didn’t take pop music so darn seriously during the First Rock & Roll Era!Did Pat Boone take attention and money away from the black artists who originally did the songs? Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is an 8 by 10-inch publicity photo from around 1955. Boone’s personal manager was Randy Wood, owner of Dot Records. Wood was the person who convinced Boone to sing homogenized rhythm & blues for the white market.
Finally, as is so often the case, I found myself lost in research on the wondrous world wide web and ended up with more text on the perceived racist practices of programmers and jocks for AM radio stations that played popular music in the 1950s than I did on Pat Boone.
Tentatively titled “About the (So-Called) Racism of (White) Pop Radio in the ’50s,” I think I have a few observations that should be of interest to anyone who cares about that era and that music. And they aren’t what you might expect.
1 In the early and mid-1950s, rock & roll was derogatorily referred to as jungle music, which I find kind of funny. It was also called nigger music, a much more unpleasant term.
2 The word almost is in parentheses because of course there could be a few exceptions to the statement.
3 Despite the fact that Domino sings “Ain’t that a shame” throughput the recording, Imperial Records incorrectly listed it as Ain’t It A Shame on the record’s labels. Ain’t It A Shame showed up on the Billboard chart a few weeks later on July 16, 1955, although it had been reviewed in the April 23, 1955, issue:
“The great blues singer socks over two showmanly sides with a personable rendition of the blues rocker Ain’t It A Shame, and an amusing rendition of the novelty La-La. Both sides are wrapped up in Domino’s inimitable style and a pounding ork beat.”
The term ork is an abbreviation for orchestra. While it’s rarely used today, it was regularly used by record reviewers in the ’50s.
4 I am using Billboard’s charts instead of Cash Box because that information is much easier to find on the Internet. Besides, the variations between Billboard and Cash Box are meaningless in this context.