Debby Boone: The Song They Said Couldn’t Be Reviewed
January 2, 1978
Ideological and symbolic confusion seethe inside the dynamic career of “You Light Up My . . .
Wait a minute! Hold it! You say you’re not sure, but if this article’s about that horrible song by Pat Boone’s daughter? . . . you can’t stand that song? . . . and you’re going to Quit Reading Now and Turn The Page? STOP
It’s a great song. Honest. It’s just a little different from the kind of stuff you’re used to. Listen to the way it starts off. That repetitive piano chord. The simple vocal. And then those anticipation-building chord changes. The way the melody goes up the scale on “you’ve come along” (and later “to be all alone”) as the instrumentation fills out. Then, that dramatic chorus: “You, you light up my life.” And those final violins. Wow.
What? You still don’t like it? Look, try this: Get in your car and drive to California listening to AM radio the whole time. Then take a nap, and then get up and take a shower. I’ll bet that sometime in the shower you’ll burst out singing “You Light Up Myyyyy Life.” And that you’ll sing it again whenever you’re alone in your car for the next month.
I know, you don’t care, you don’t like it anyway. O. K. But listen, if you’re going to be stubborn, I’ve got to be honest with you. It doesn’t really matter whether you like the song or not, pal, because IT”S THE BIGGEST F***ING SONG OF 1977! As I write it’s been the number one song on the Record World charts for 12 Straight Weeks. It’s sold 2,400,000 copies. Variety says it’s “the biggest pop single since Bobby Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife’ in 1959.” And it’s not going to be over when it finally fades from the charts.
Because this song is a standard–a song that will sound good sung by lots of people. Lots. And all of them the kind you can’t avoid. You’re going to hear it sung on Johnny Carson by those singers who say, “Thanks, Doc, that was great. Wasn’t the band great, folks?” Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas will open their show with it if they haven’t done so already. TV special hosts will sing it with TV special guests. It’ll sprout up from Las Vegas to the Catskills and work its way into medleys with “Something” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” You’ll be hearing it for years.
So you might as well come to some kind of terms with it now.
Maybe you don’t like it because unlike most rock (and country and r&b) in which we value the projection of the singer’s persona, “You Light Up My Life” harkens back to an earlier convention. In this convention, kept alive by Barbra Streisand (one of Ms. Boone’s two acknowledged sources–the other is Melissa Manchester), we value singers for how well they play various roles, ala opera stars, rather than how well they pour out their confessions, a la Walt Whitman, Hank Williams, Allen Ginsberg, or Robert Johnson.
Or maybe you don’t like it because Debby Boone is Pat Boone’s daughter, and her success a symbol of the the victory of the ’50s over the ’60s. (It was exactly 20 years ago that dad had a hit with “Love Letters in the Sand”.)
But Debby’s voice isn’t Pat’s. In his day Pat was the personification of clean-cut romance, and good-natured mainstream squareness. His rich baritone was smooth and even, but sensual, and unique enough to stamp his identity on all his hits. Can you imagine “April Love” or “Bernadine” sung by someone else?
Debby’s voice may be strong, but it isn’t rich, so it’s not as sensual. And it isn’t always smooth and even. In fact, it indulges so often in its own dramatic possibilities that it’s almost sleazy. And rather than communicating intimacy, they way Dad’s once did, it communicates self-absorption. The examples I used of singing in the shower or alone in a car weren’t accidental. Pat Boone only hinted at how much he loved the sound of his own voice. Here Debby Boone exploits it.
I suspect this testing-one’s-sexual-dramatic-spectrum-out-for-oneself-on-no-particular-love-object style, with no clearly projected identity is a typical and valuable tool for adolescents, in this case, girls.
But I don’t know. I’m 31, and I thought Pat Boone was great when I was young. So the whole thing’s a shock to me. Sure, father and daughter are both clean, mainstream, non-controversial successes. But there’s a non-WASPy vulgarity in Debby’s dramatic vocal slides, and a Marilyn Monroe pout that sometimes pops up on her sometimes-severe face, that suggests someone straining past the limits set by her father’s style.
So we may have uncovered an untapped Father-Daughter conflict. But I doubt it. Pat has lent himself to so many tradition-inspiring publicity shots recently that I suspect these are just different approaches within a Boone family consensus. After all, Pat himself has been casting around for a while for a way to re-enter the pop mainstream. And fans of American weirdness will be pleased to note that Pat “White Cover Version” Boone (I once heard him introduce “Tutti Frutti” as “a song Little Richard wrote for me”) has released two albums recently on Motown’s country music label.
Unfortunately, although Pat is from the South and is married to Red Foley’s daughter, the country music approach tried out on these albums doesn’t fit his voice. Watered-down country is what the middle-class, middle-aged, suburban audience Pat is aiming for listens to, but it’s not his bag. What’s more disturbing though, is that the new album (The Country Side of Pat Boone) lifts three songs off an earlier album – but not the pro-cop and pro-Virgin Mary ones.
I found Pat’s evangelical Christian, politically conservative, family-oriented career of the early ’70s honest and interesting. It felt like a logical extension of his ’50s pose. But it took place outside TV. So maybe the powers that be at Motown have told Pat to cool the ideology. If so, I call that watering down and selling out, as surely as if Pat Boone were Bob Dylan.
Debby, along with her three sisters, was a crucial performer in that part of Pat’s career, and Debby’s album (which is top-10 too) does contain a few mild pleas for brotherhood and monogamy, but there is nothing clearly Christian on it. So aging Pat Boone freaks like me can only speculate. Has Debby broken with Pat’s hard core religion? Has Pat relaxed? Or are they both just being cautious?
But all this Boone family stuff is just half of the “You Life Up My Life” story, the Singer Half. In a dramatic break with early ’70s practice, there is an entirely different Songwriter Half to this story!
The writer (and producer) of The Song is a guy called Joe Brooks, who’s also the writer, producer, and director of the movie with the same name. Brooks, according to Janet Maislin in The New York Times, is an ex-adman who’d originally called his movie Sessions. But to promote the movie he renamed it after the song and developed a romantic ad campaign.
That’s great, except that the movie’s not a romance, but a success story, about a female singer-songwriter trying to break into the big time in L. A. In the movie, she writes the song, and tries to get it recorded, but ditches her groom-to-be, breaks with her father, and gets jilted by a glamorous producer. No one lights up her life. Unless it’s herself. The movie does contain a thick slice of Do Your Own Thing, I’m My Own Best Friend, pop-psychology ideology that runs counter to the romantic dependence that the song exploits.
But that’s not all. While the movie’s about a singer-songwriter (artist-with-values) we know that it’s actually Joe Brooks who wrote the song and the screenplay, and produced the record. On top of that, he used one woman, Kacey Sisyk, for the dubbed-in vocal in the movie, and another woman, Debby Boone, for the single he produced. But both versions, soundtrack on Arista and hit single on Warners have the exact same instrumental track.
So we have a falling-in-love theme song for a movie about autonomy, supposedly written by a singer-songwriter with ideals but actually written by a behind-the-scenes producer-director whose ideals are hard to figure out. On top of that, the milieu of the movie is clearly Jewish, while the song’s a monstrous hit for the daughter of the most famous white pop Christian of the 1950s, a woman who sounds more like Barbra Streisand than like her Dad. What a mess.
Even so, if Joe Brooks isn’t clear about what he’s doing, he’s still doing something right. The side of Debby’s album that he more or less produced fits her just right, and extends the schlocky drama of her hit. The other side, more or less produced by Mike Curb, sounds like an earlier attempt to market all four Boone sisters, and is predictable and dull.
So that’s the scoop on “You Light Up My Life.” You’ve almost read the article to the end, and it was written by someone who likes the song, and finds Debby Boone really interesting. Was that so painful?
Besides, even if the song is reactionary in some ways, even if it’s a throwback that’s got some of the Old Guard ecstatic, it wasn’t calculated or predictable. The biggest monster in years came out of left field and Surprised the Industry. Anyway, one big flukey giant single isn’t what the corporations want. They want someone who will sell lots of albums for lots of years.
So what will happen next? Joe Brooks is directing, producing, writing, composing, and starring in his next movie, so maybe that will make what he’s trying to say clearer. Will he continue to produce Debby Boone? Will Warners fashion a long-lasting career for her? Or will she be chained forever to her one gigantic hit?
I know what I’d like to see. I’d like Joe Brooks to exploit the understanding of a father-daughter relationship he shows in his movie and make an album using Debby and Pat. Or even work in the three other sisters and the mother. Or make a movie using Debby Boone. And then remove her vocal. And dub Natalie Cole over that instrumental track.
Tom Smucker, Village Voice
Well, that didn’t happen. Debbie Boone frequently tours in well received musical comedy revivals and released a tribute album to her mother-in-law Rosemary Clooney in 2005, but 13 years after this piece was published Natalie Cole revived her career by dubbing herself into a duet with her father on “Unforgettable.”
New York Daily News, Page 3, May 24, 2011:
Singer Debby Boone spoke out yesterday about the suicide of songwriter Joseph Brooks, asking fans to seperate the rape charges he went to his grave with from the hit song that launched her career.
“My only real association with Joe was in 1977 for a couple of hours in a New York recording studio when I recorded his beautiful song, “You Light Up My Life,” she told the Daily News.
“That recording . . . has meant so much to so many people. I will continue to sing it proudly and hope that people will be able to separate the song from Joe’s severely troubled life,” she said in a statement. . .