DEBBY BOONE’S 1977 CHART-BUSTING SINGLE “You Light Up My Life” sold five million copies, earned her instant star status and a best-new-artist Grammy, and still is considered among Billboard’s Hot 100 songs of all time. Yet, the singer, actor and author says she was surprised by its success.
“Initially when I heard it, I didn’t think that much of the song except that the lyrics, for me, felt like a cry to God,” Boone told the Episcopal News recently. “I knew that it was written for a movie as a love song, but it’s just the way it struck me, that it could be done both ways. It felt very meaningful to me.”
Forty-something years later, the mother of four and grandmother of three shares candidly the journey from the church of her youth where instrumental music, movies, dancing “were off the table” to a love affair with the Episcopal Church and an ongoing passion for spiritual transformation.
Married nearly 40 years to the Very Rev. Gabriel Ferrer, vicar of St. Martin in-the-Field Church in Winnetka, she is anticipating performing at the second annual Bishop’s Concert on Friday, Oct. 11 at the bishop’s residence in Pasadena.
“I’m going to give one hundred percent,” she said of the fundraiser for diocesan ministries. “I reveal myself through music … (and) everyone’s going to have a really good time.”
Boone describes herself as light-hearted, with a good sense of humor, both privileged and pragmatic and is, at 63, “trying to be the best person I know how to be. I fall short, like everybody does, on a daily basis, but I love that it’s important to me to keep trying.”
The third of four daughters of 50s pop star Pat Boone and granddaughter of country singer Red Foley, she was born in Hackensack, New Jersey. She was four when the family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended private schools.
Performing — mostly gospel music — became a family affair when she was about 13. “We were out doing concerts, albums; we were called ‘the Boone Girls’ or ‘the Boones,’” she recalled.
But life was changing and challenging. Two of her sisters got married; there were invitations for Debby to go solo, including traveling to New York to record “You Light Up My Life.” She was still living at home, about 20 years old, and “we were a family act,” she said. “I needed to honor that. I couldn’t just ditch everybody and do my own thing.”
She erupts in infectious laughter at the eventual compromise: “So, my mother came with me to New York.”
Later, she was thankful for the company. The song was difficult to sing, and the lack of artistic freedom made the recording session “so unpleasant that, on a break, we went into a bathroom and prayed. I was crying. I wasn’t expecting it to be the way it was.
“We prayed. We went out, and got the record done. I did not expect in any way for it to be a hit. Nobody was more shocked than me.”
Time and reflection have softened the memories. Although she tires sometimes of performing her signature song, she acknowledges: “I really feel like, for whatever reason, God decided to use me and that song.
“I have countless stories over the years, of people who tell me that that song got them through a difficult time. That it was the song they clung to, when they were afraid. Or, from people who have lost a loved one, especially young children.”
She hesitates briefly, but continues: “I really feel like it somehow has an anointing. I don’t give myself credit for that. I have always felt somehow, that I got to be a part of something that God wanted to do, and continues to do.
“It’s the strangest thing,” she added. “I get tired of singing it. It is not an easy song to sing. But, the minute I start, in any venue of any size, whenever I sing it, it’s palpable. People go either to a special place in their memory or a special place in that moment, and I’m part of something, every single time.”
A journey of faith
With her family’s, and her own, celebrity came privilege, but also challenge.
Like inheriting her father’s “squeaky clean, goody-two-shoes, boy-next-door image. I became the female version of that and it’s so flat and one-sided,” Boone says.
Or, sometimes encountering the expectation that celebrities “think they’re better than most people, with a certain self-righteous quality,” she said. “I love nothing better than shattering that, and letting people know I’m just right in the middle with everybody else. I want the same things. I have the same weaknesses.”
Faith has always been bedrock for Boone, a self-described “open book” whose inclination toward happiness “has a lot to do with the way I was raised and certainly a lot to do with a very strong faith that I’m not alone in my life. That there is a power greater than me, who has my best interests always, who wants the best for me.”
But she’s no Pollyanna, she said, while applying ice to a recently replaced hip after overdoing the previous day’s activities. “I’ve had my fair share of pain and hard times.
“And I think it’s then that my faith has always gotten stronger. That when I’ve walked through the really painful things, with faith, I’m able to walk through it, that it will end, and that I will be able to know I’ve been supported.”
Like the January 11, 2019 death of her mother, Shirley Boone, a singer and philanthropist, and the daughter of 1930s and 1940s country singer Red Foley, whose “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy” recording brought stardom.
“She loved making music a family affair; she loved every second of it.” Boone recalled. “She prepared me for what I was going to be doing with my life. Although I love it and it was fun, it was also a lot of hard work. You had to be committed to that. And to missing out on the things other kids got to do.”
Shirley and Pat Boone were high school sweethearts, married 65 years. Her father, now 85, is still active professionally and “is doing as well as anyone can do in a situation like this. It’s a huge loss.”
She and her sisters sang to her mother as she was dying, and again at each of two memorial services, in Los Angeles and in Nashville. “I still love singing with my sisters.”
Discovering the Episcopal Church
Her faith was formed in the Church of Christ her family attended when she was a youngster. “It was where I learned to sing harmony without trying because that church had no organ or piano. It was beautiful, singing a capella.”
But, she said, “I learned some things there I had to unlearn.” Over time, she moved on to other churches, including The Church on the Way, a Foursquare church influential in the Charismatic Movement. “As we married and had our kids, we were there for a good long time.”
There is more laughter as she recalls her first meeting with “Gabri.”
“The short and funny answer is, I was dating his older brother, Miguel. We had a very short dating relationship. It took us two weeks to go, ‘no.’”
A year later, Gabri began attending bible studies at the Boone home and “we’d have long conversations,” she said. “He asked me to play tennis. His mom, Rosemary Clooney, lived blocks from us and they had a tennis court. It was his way of asking me out. We played tennis for a very long time until we officially felt we were going to have a relationship. I was 19 and he was 18.”
She credits her son Jordan for introducing the family to the Episcopal Church. They were attending another church but “my son was not liking it at all. He didn’t relate to the kids there; he was confused by what he was taught. I felt he was walling off to a spiritual life because he was so unhappy there.”
By then, she and Ferrer, a son of Hollywood royalty — singer-actress Rosemary Clooney (White Christmas) and Oscar-winning actor José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) — had four children: Jordan; twins Gabrielle and Dustin; and Tessa.
The family discovered All Saints Church in Beverly Hills, and Jordan loved the youth group. “Gabri instantly fell in love. It had everything he loved about Catholicism without the things he was happy to leave behind.”
But, not so much for her.
“I had never seen anything like it,” she recalled. “I didn’t get it at all. I thought okay, I’ll keep an open mind because anything was worth having a kid excited to go back to church. And our other kids liked it there, too.”
A women’s bible study sparked her love affair with the church. “When I heard other people talk about what came up for them, as they read verses I thought, this is sensational. We can all look at this and say things we think. I might not agree but that lady had something new and fresh and fantastic to think about.”
Seeing their children thrive at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood was a similarly wonderful experience.
“I entered motherhood thinking that my job was to form and shape my children to be what I wanted them to be,” she recalled. “I felt very responsible, that I was to train up a child in the way they should go, as I was trained. And that meant mostly spiritually, but also behaviorally; polite, compassionate, well-behaved, to go to church like I did and to have spiritual lives like I did and believe like me because I knew what to believe in.”
She laughs, long and heartily. But “leave it to raising kids to tell you more about God than you ever thought possible. I thought I was going to tell them about God and, in the long run, it was just the opposite.”
Rather, “when it didn’t go the way I planned and a kid wasn’t going to behave the way I’d expected them to and I behaved the way I didn’t expect to, and lost my temper and behaved abominably and my kids loved me anyway, I learned about God’s love.”
She added: “I learned, in the years of being in the Episcopal Church, and also from my husband, that my job was never to tell my kids who to be. My job was just to lay the groundwork for them to pursue a spiritual life and let God tell them who they are.”
Jordan, 39, an art director for television and movies, is married to Whitnee and has a son, Sonny Alexander. “He comes to our church and helps with the coffee almost every week if they are around and able, and helps with recording sermons.”
Gabrielle, 35, the elder by eight minutes of their twins, teaches art at Campbell Hall; Dustin is married with two children, and writes for animated children’s programming. And Tessa, 33, is an actor.
Path to the priesthood — and Sunday coffee
Nearly three decades after her Sept. 1, 1979 marriage to Gabri, Boone remembers feeling shocked “when I realized the priesthood had become his path.”
It was also challenging.
“When he became ensconced at All Saints, this was new to me. I had four kids at home and felt a little bit abandoned,” she recalled. “Like, I was not prepared for how you were going to spend long hours there and miss most of the sporting events, and oftentimes, dinner. Like, how I never got to sit with my husband ever at church and that was sad, because I loved it.”
But, she said, “I could see him coming into his own and realizing all the things in his journey had led him to this place and I was so proud of him.”
Ordained a priest in January 2007, Ferrer served as an associate rector at All Saints, Beverly Hills before beginning his current ministry as vicar in Winnetka.
“I stand in awe of what Gabri has taken on here,” she says of St. Martin’s. “I worry about him. I think it’s too much for one man, but I just have to trust God with that (she laughs) and so does he.”
So, is she a “typical” clergy spouse, if such a person exists in 2019?
“I have a busy, demanding career of my own,” Boone said. “I love what I do and I want the opportunity to do it as much as possible. But it really varies because I do different things. Musical theater can take me away for three months at a time, straight. With concerts I can be gone three to four days, come back in town and go out again.”
When she and the kids are in town and able, they are very much a part of the life of St. Martin’s, she said.
“Gabri feels really good coffee after church is imperative,” so that’s become a special ministry of hers. “It has to be pour-over coffee, ground fresh and poured into mugs and served. It takes some doing and preparation and cleanup and it’s a good commitment. When my kids can, they’re there and help.
“And when I’m there, I’m part of it and get to talk and know people that way. The cleanup is not always fun but it’s a way of being part of things.
“I try to attend events whenever I can. So do my kids. They’re fantastic. They all come to church and love their dad’s sermons.
“It’s amazing,” she added. “I cannot believe how blessed I feel to sit in church with them and see them get tears in their eyes at something Gabri will say, and laugh with them, and kneel at the communion rail. It doesn’t get better than that.”
The Bishop’s Concert will be held on Friday, October 11 at the episcopal residence, located at 3435 E. California Boulevard in Pasadena. Gates will be opened at 6 p.m. and refreshments will be served before the performance, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. Valet parking will be available. Tickets at $75 may be purchased here. Proceeds will support diocesan ministries.