Career all relative to Boone
Grammy-winning singer inspired by Clooney's legacy

Randy Cordova, The Arizona Republic, Mar. 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Debby Boone

WHERE: Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino Resort, 15406 Maricopa Road, Ak-Chin Reservation, Phoenix

WHEN: 1 and 3 p.m. March 27


DETAILS: (480) 802-5000

Some people have to pay for singing lessons. Debby Boone did it another way: She married a great singer's son.

"It was like having a master class," Boone says about her mother-in-law, Rosemary Clooney. "I continue to be amazed at the simplicity in the way she sang, but there was always this depth to it."

Dealing with Clooney's death last year of cancer has been "horrible" for Boone and her husband, Gabriel Ferrer. (George Clooney is his cousin.)

"It's such a huge loss on so many levels," says Boone, herself the daughter of a famous singer, 1950s icon Pat Boone. "I counted on her advice for so many things. She was really the hub of this whole family. When that's gone, it's huge."

Clooney was a performer who got better with age. The same could be said of 46-year-old Boone. She was only 21 when she became an overnight sensation with the movie theme You Light Up My Life. The song spent a numbing 10 weeks at No. 1 in 1977. Her album of the same name was a million-seller; the single sold more than 4 million copies.

Ask Hootie & the Blowfish: When you start at the top, there's only one way to go. Even Boone got tired of hearing herself lovingly croon about the he (or He) who was illuminating her existence.

"Nobody would let me do anything else," she says. "It got a little frustrating. On TV, they would let me sing another song if I sang that one. It was never even my favorite song to begin with."

The lifelong California girl is often tagged a one-hit wonder, but that sells short her accomplishments. Although she never had another Light, she reached No. 1 on the country charts a few years later with Are You on the Road to Lovin' Me Again. She was a major presence on the Christian-music scene in the 1980s, winning two Dove Awards. Add to that her three Grammys, and you've got a surprisingly wide-ranging career.

"I had one pop hit, and what that one record afforded me . . . I mean, it's going on 25 years," she says. "It wasn't the best-managed career in the history of show business, obviously. I mean, I would love to be able to sing a medley of my hits, but I'm not complaining. I still feel incredibly fortunate."

Theater has kept her busy in the past decade. She earned solid reviews for The King and I, The Sound of Music and the very un-Boone-like role of bad girl Rizzo in Grease. That one raised eyebrows, but Boone is more grounded than her white-bread image would suggest.

"People always expect me to be prim and proper . . . and nothing could be further from the truth," she says. "People think, 'If I swear in front of her, she'll turn purple.' Please, you should hear what can fly from my mouth."

All that stage work has made her an even better vocalist. Her voice is still hauntingly pretty and pure, but it's been tempered with a greater maturity and resonance.

Now that her youngest child is getting ready to enter college, the mom of four is ready to concentrate on music again. This time, she's focusing on standards sung against a jazz-flavored backdrop. She wants to land a recording contract with a small boutique label. The move recalls what her mother-in-law did in the '70s, when she emerged as one of the premier interpreters of the great American songbook.

"It's a really transitional time," Boone says. "I can focus on what my options are without feeling like I'm sacrificing my children's needs. And I'm not doing this because I feel like I need to be some high-profile success. What I need to do is be fulfilled creatively.

"I swear to you: I would be happy at a piano bar, singing. I just want to home in on being the best singer I can be."

You know Rosemary would approve.