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PerformanceOnstageDebby Boone: 'I'm relatable, fun, flawed, and real'

Debby Boone: ‘I’m relatable, fun, flawed, and real’

Unstoppable performer to light up stage at the 'Help Is On The Way: Broadway & Beyond' HIV/AIDS fundraiser.

Singer Debby Boone is so much more than the immaculate angel whose soaring vocals winged pop ballad “You Light Up My Life” to the top of the charts for a record-breaking 10 weeks back in 1977, earning her the Best New Artist Grammy.

“It just became my image, which was never real,” she says. “There was this assumption, being my dad’s daughter, of this squeaky-clean, hyper-religious, naive, and prudish person. But the one-dimensional ‘too good to be true’ image was itself ‘too good to be true.’” 

In an illustrious career spanning five decades, she’s managed to cross over musically, challenge industry trends, and defy others’ narrow perceptions of her. 

“When I started doing musical theater,” says Boone, “cast members would say, ‘You’re nothing like I thought you’d be’ and came to realize I was relatable, fun, flawed, and real.”

A longtime supporter of HIV/AIDS charities, she will next appear at REAF’s Help Is On The Way: BROADWAY & BEYOND, a benefit for Project Open Hand and REAF’s Small Emergency Grants Program, which has raised over $4.5 million for HIV/AIDS services, hunger programs, and additional projects for underserved youth and seniors. 

The 30th-anniversary concert and gala (Sun/14; Marines’ Memorial Theatre) promises stars from Broadway, film, TV, and music, including David Burnham, Sam Harris, Faith Prince, Lisa Vroman, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Paula West, Bruce Vilanch, and the touring cast of Mrs. Doubtfire

This year’s event, honoring Vilanch (Lifetime Achievement Award) and Delta Dental of California (Corporate Partner Award) whose support has never required pulling teeth, will be preceded by a silent auction in the theater lobby and a VIP After Party at the nearby Beacon Grand Hotel. 

“The beauty of raising funds and research and getting new medications is in helping turn something tragic and hopeless into something manageable,” Boone says. “I have so many friends who have lost loved ones to AIDS, and then many who have loved ones who have benefited from these programs and the research—and are living and thriving.”

She was first enlisted to perform at REAF benefits in Los Angeles and San Francisco by theater director David Galligan.

After working in the entertainment industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s and witnessing the devastation wrought by the epidemic, Boone didn’t need convincing.

Her parents were close to Rock Hudson when he was dying from AIDS-related causes in the mid-’80s.

But what made it personal for Boone was losing David Carroll, her costar in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre in 1982. (Carroll would go on to appear in several smash shows, racking up two Tony nominations along the way before succumbing to AIDS in 1992.) 

“It’s a tragedy when you lose somebody you’ve worked with for a year and grown to care about so much to something that at that point was a death sentence,” says Boone.

The singer was just 21—half the age of Carroll at the time of his death—when “You Light Up My Life” forever changed hers.

“I was young in years and even younger because of how I was raised,” she says. “I didn’t get married [to Gabriel Ferrer, son of Rosemary Clooney and José Ferrer] until I was 24, so I was still living at home. I didn’t have a lot of experience to put behind the lyrics of a song like that. But over the years, the depth of meaning is night and day because I have so much more life under my belt.” 

While she originally interpreted the Joseph Brooks-penned number as a devotional, she says that when she sings it today, she might be thinking of her connection with the audience as a whole, individuals in her life, or the many people who’ve loved and/or lost others and continue to be touched by the song, later covered by Patti Smith, LeAnn Rimes, and Whitney Houston

As much success as the number brought her, it also hampered her pop career. 

“Because of that image being so strong, it just wasn’t cool to have me on Top 40 radio anymore,” says Boone.

After breaking the pop record for the longest-running No. 1—until Boyz II Men eclipsed it 15 years later with 1992’s “End of the Road”—she garnered acclaim for the country chart-topper “Are You on the Road to Lovin’ Me Again,” in 1980. With that achievement, she became part of a historic all-women Top 5 on the Billboard Country Singles chart.

The singer went on to win two Grammys for her devotional music and even dabbled in sultry jazz with 2005’s Reflections of Rosemary, an homage to her late mother-in-law, and saucy big-band music with 2013’s Swing This, inspired by her father’s ‘60s-era Vegas shows. 

“Maybe I was just a late bloomer, but there were songs in Reflections of Rosemary and Swing This that allowed me to express my womanhood much more freely,” Boone admits. “That was the time that I found my inner Julie London.” 

She also spiced things up by playing against type—an ex-call girl opposite Kirstie Alley and Kim Cattrall in the 1984 TV movie “Sins of the Past” and “bad girl” Rizzo in 1996’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre revival of Grease—but always remained true to herself.

“I love the career that I’ve had, the versatility of it, and even the lulls of it that enabled me to be the mother that I wanted to be,” says Boone. “I’m so grateful that at 67 years old, I have lived a rich, full life and still have opportunities to do what I love.” 

She is excited to come to San Francisco for Help Is On The Way: BROADWAY & BEYOND to help extend and better others’ lives so they can live out their dreams.

“I’ve been associated with Help Is On The Way for years now and love what they do,” she says. Every year that I’ve been a part of one of these shows has been wonderful.”


HELP IS ON THE WAY: BROADWAY & BEYOND  Sun/14, Marines’ Memorial Theatre, SF. $39-$500. Tickets and more info here.

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Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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