In Conversation With Debby Boone - Coming to Davies Hall

This Sunday, December 7, Michael Feinstein and Debby Boone welcome the holiday season at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Under the musical direction of John Oddo, Michael and Debby will perform a variety of holiday favorites, classics from the American Songbook, and selections by Irving Berlin from the 1954 film, White Christmas, including "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" and the very-camp duet, "Sisters (There were never such devoted sisters)". Yes! I connected with Debby Boone last week for what proved to be a lively truth-telling and laughter-filled exchange. It just goes with the territory.

DEBBY BOONE. Photo, courtesy of SF Symphony

"Michael and I are putting some duets together that we've been planning for awhile and are doing for the very first time," said Debby. "We're doing a compilation of music from White Christmas -- since we both have strong attachments to Rosemary Clooney -- and a unique arrangement of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I'll be doing two of my favorites -- 'Christmas Time Is Here' from A Charlie Brown Christmas and 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'. Michael was kind enough to let me have that one. I'll be doing a couple of songs from my new CD, Swing This, just to let people know what's up with me and Michael will be doing some stuff that isn't holiday-related as well. But the general and overall feeling of the show will be celebrating the holiday."
Click here for ticket information.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN. Photo, courtesy of the artist

Michael's fanbase -- especially here in San Francisco where he has been performing for over thirty years -- knows the polish and aplomb he brings to his vocals and keyboard skills as well as his ease at the conductor's podium. Last season at Davies, Michael played to a packed house and astounded the audience with songs by the team of George and Ira Gershwin while sharing related anecdotes from his book, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs. One of the major highlights of the evening was Michael's elegant presentation of their greatest hit, "Someone to Watch Over Me." With Michael's husband out in the audience, Ira's magical lyrics, "I hope that he turns out to be -- someone to watch over me" provided all of us with the most intimate and enticing moment to remember, ever. By the way, Michael's wedding was presided over by Judge Judy and Debby's husband of thirty-five years, Gabriel Ferrer, a recently ordained Episcopalian priest. Reverend Ferrer is the son of Rosemary Clooney.

"She was the most fantastic mother-in-law and grandmother to my kids," said Debby.

But the opportunity I got to sit at her feet and listen to her talk about music and interpreting lyrics -- and then to get to work with her and watch her do it was the greatest gift. Just being around her and all that she understood innately. She didn't study anything, but she did it for so long and culled it down to an elegant simplicity. That is always the most powerful -- and in an age where people think they need all this flashy production and do all these ridiculous runs and have five-octave ranges. What that woman could do with one octave! I got to be around that a lot and I'm eternally grateful.

I told Debby there was no way I could skirt-around the contentious political agenda and religious biases -- the "bones of contention" or "apples of discord" -- that surround her father, Pat Boone, one of the most successful Pop singers of all time. I reminded her that she would be performing in The City -- the metropolis described in the 1936 classic film, San Francisco, as the "guardian of the Golden Gate -- a queen among seaports -- the wickedest city in the world." I then confessed that as a kid, I was her father's most ardent fan. My fascination with him and his lyrical baritone voice began around this time a long time ago when 20th Century Fox released his fifth film, Journey to the Center of the Earth. At 25, Mr. Boone was irresistible as the (sometimes shirtless) subterranean explorer, "Alec McKuen." Beyond that, it was his smooth and sentimental rendition of composer Jimmy Van Heusen's adaptation of the Burns poem, "My love is like a red, red rose" -- sung to the young and lovely Diane Baker. So, I mastered the bus lines and followed the film as it journeyed out to San Francisco's smaller neighborhood theatres. Then I was first in line for both the VHS and the DVD. My partner thinks he knows the real story: Pat Boone made me gay.

Last April, Debby Boone attended the GLAAD Media Awards and was on the red carpet as she voiced her support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. She said, "I have compassion for both sides -- people coming into the future and starting to get it. It's not about good and bad people. It's just about continuing to tell the truth and the truth will do the work." Her own journey from childhood teachings to that point was a long and prayer-filled walk. Debby brought up the autobiography she wrote in 1981, Debby Boone So Far.

I wish I could find every last copy and burn them. It was right in the throes of You Light Up My Life and people wanting to exploit the fame of that song in any way they could. At the time, I was as honest as I could be. But I'm not that twenty-one to twenty-three year old anymore. And God, let's hope we all change our minds and grow and expand and have a little transformation going on over the years. I certainly have. But I read some of it and just go -- Wowee! Pretty self-righteous, Miss Boone!

"When was the turning point for you?" I asked. "What made you realize that some of the childhood teachings -- as the song goes -- ain't necessarily so? Where I would think that happened was when you started doing the Broadway musical tours. You can't be in a musical and not be around gay people."

"I wish it was that easy," she responded,

and as simple as I just was around some fantastic people -- including my very first Broadway show, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. One of my best friends -- to this day, we see each other once a week -- was in that show. He is a gay man. I didn't get it back then. In fact, in my heart was that somehow my relationship with them would convince them that there was a better way of life. That was how I had been raised, that's what I believed. I loved these guys and in the instance of close relationship, I would share my beliefs. I'm very thankful that this one guy in particular loved me enough to listen and not say, 'I've had it with you.' He knew I loved him and he couldn't reconcile what I believed with his own life and his experience. He didn't shut me out. Over the years, that was a very transformative thing -- to be loved even though my belief system made him not OK. I've cried tears over it -- the way that must have felt for many years. And also tears of joy and gratitude that this man has loved me enough to give me time and understand that I come from a different world -- and time to just love each other and reconcile these things without forcing it. It's a pretty powerful relationship that breathes like that.

Debby Boone and family. Photo, courtesy of the artist

A lot of times you get stuck with words on a page. I know I did. Because you've been told your whole life 'this is exactly what it means' -- and then you find out -- wait a second! -- that's not the proper translation, there's context here! You can only do the best with what you know. The interesting thing for me has been the quietness of my own heart when I'm thinking and open and just saying, 'God, show me -- what you want from me.' That was definitely a process - to really come to terms with that. And there's so much I've come to. I attribute that to my fantastic husband who is a really thoughtful and knowledgeable guy. The only place you have any control at all are your own actions and your own decisions. Trying to control other people is not really what we're called to do. We're called to be the best people we know how to be, to always respond and react with love. You can't really do better than that.