Singer Debby Boone is best known for her 1977 hit "You Light Up My Life," an inspirational pop ballad that stayed at Number One on the Billboard singles chart for ten weeks. It won a slew of awards that year—even an Academy Award, since it was initially written for the soundtrack of a now-forgotten film of the same title, with which Boone had no involvement. Just 21 years old when she became famous virtually overnight, Boone faded from the public eye after making a few country-and-western and contemporary Christian records. When the youngest of her four children neared college age, however, Boone returned to the stage as the star of revivals like Grease and The King and I. "It wasn't the best-managed career in the history of show business, obviously," she told Arizona Republic journalist Randy Cordova about being indelibly associated with the treacly tune. "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."
Boone was a third-generation entertainer in her family: her grandfather was Red Foley, a country music star who performed regularly at Nashville's Grand Old Opry. Foley's daughter, Shirley, married Pat Boone, a 1950s singing star who was hyped as a wholesome antidote to Elvis Presley during his heyday. Boone was one of four daughters in her family, and began performing professionally at the age of 14 with her three sisters as a support act on their father's tours. The Boone Girls sang modern gospel tunes, and Boone was thus somewhat surprised when songwriter Joseph Brooks asked her to record the title track to a film he wrote and directed, titled You Light Up My Life.
Brooks was having trouble finding a studio willing to distribute the movie, which followed the travails of a young music business hopeful played by Didi Conn, later of Grease fame, and needed a draw to help publicize it. Conn did not even sing in the film, instead lip-synching the tracks Brooks wrote that were recorded behind the scenes by Kasey Cisyk. Boone later told Entertainment Weekly writer Scott Brown that she sensed a fizzled romance between Cisyk and Brooks, resulting in Boone being hired to record "You Light Up My Life." Cisyk later became a top commercial jingle singer and was the voice behind Ford Motor Company's "Have You Driven a Ford Lately?" advertisements for many years.
Boone was just 21 when she went into the studio to record what would be her career's biggest hit, and she had little artistic input. Brooks was adamant about how he wanted it delivered. "I had no freedom whatsoever," she recalled in the interview with Brown. "Joe told me exactly how to sing it and imitate every inflection from the original recording." The song became a huge hit, and when journalists queried the wholesome singer about who the "you" might be in the song, Boone replied that she was singing about the Lord. Brooks was not happy with her assertions, telling Entertainment Weekly years later, "Debby put a religious spin on the song. That was certainly not the intention when I wrote it. But I can see why it could be interpreted that way by many people."
"You Light Up My Life" stayed at the top spot on the Billboard singles chart for ten weeks, and sold four million copies, outselling not just any release by her father, but also any single put out by the Beatles or Elvis Presley to date. Boone won the 1977 Grammy for Best New Artist as well as numerous other awards, and performed the song at the Academy Awards ceremony early the next year. The track beat out Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.
With her newfound success, Boone quickly recorded an album for the Warner label, following it a year later with a second, Midstream. Her 1980 release Love Has No Reason sold in respectable numbers, and one of its tracks earned her a second Grammy, this one for Best Inspirational Performance. "Are You on the Road to Lovin' Me Again" was also a hit for her on the country charts during this time. She appeared on her own television specials on the NBC network, and then made a few contemporary Christian albums before disappearing from sight after her 1986 MCA compilation, The Best of Debby Boone. The entertainment business had changed over the decade, she reflected in an interview with People. "In the '80s it was really about image and how hot is your video," she said. "That just wasn't an area where I could really compete."
By then Boone was married to Gabriel Ferrer, son of singer Rosemary Clooney and actor Jose Ferrer. Their 1979 nuptials also made Boone cousin to a then-unknown actor, George Clooney. Boone and her husband became parents to a son, twin daughters born in 1983, and another daughter. She wrote several children's books and took the occasional stage role, beginning in 1981 with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In 1990 she appeared in a revival of The Sound of Music, the popular Rodgers and Hammer-stein musical, with the New York City Opera, cast as the governess who falls in love with the widowed German Navy officer and his brood of singing children. Boone "makes the part her own with a solid voice and an irresistible mix of spunky enthusiasm and unblemished sexuality," asserted Back Stage reviewer Brian Bradley.
In 1996 Boone was cast in a revival of the hit musical Grease as Betty Rizzo, the rebel of the 1950s high-school drama. In the song "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," Rizzo's vulnerability is revealed, prompting Cincinnati Post columnist Nick Clooney to term it a show-stopper. "The theater was hushed," Clooney wrote. "Suddenly we were reminded that the young woman in the dark wig and sexy outfit was the owner of a world-class voice. Her talent took the play from 'camp' to riveting, all in the space of a song." The Arizona Republic 's Cordova concurred, after Boone played Phoenix in 2002 in a revival of The King and I. "All that stage work has made her an even better vocalist," Cordova noted. "Her voice is still hauntingly pretty and pure, but it's been tempered with a greater maturity and resonance."
For the Record . . .
Born Deborah Ann Boone on September 22, 1956, in Hackensack, NJ; daughter of Pat (a singer) and Shirley (a singer) Boone; married Gabriel Ferrer (a business manager), 1979; children: Jordan Alexander, twin daughters Gabrielle Monserrate and Dustin Boone, Tessa Rose.
Began singing career as member of a gospel-singing family quartet, The Boone Sisters, 1970; recorded the No. 1 single, "You Light Up My Life," and released debut LP of same name, 1977; released several more LPs of a country-and-western or contemporary Christian style; toured with musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1981; appeared in The Sound of Music, 1990, and in the Broadway production of Grease, 1996.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best New Artist of the Year, 1977; American Music Award, Song of the Year, 1977; Country Music Association Award, Best New Artist of the Year, 1977; Grammy Award, Best Inspirational Performance for "With My Song I Will Praise Him," 1980; Grammy Award, Best Gospel Performance by a Duo or Group (with Phil Driscoll) for "Keep the Flame Burning," 1984.
Addresses: Management— Weiser & Weiser, 52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, NY 10017.
With her children entering adulthood, Boone has asserted that she is eager to move forward and take on more stage roles, as well as record another album, perhaps a collection of standards with a jazz rhythm to them. Her time off to become a wife and mother in Sherman Oaks, California, was the best decision for her, she explained to Kyle Lawson in Arizona Republic. "I remember touring with my family. Trying to keep up with homework, not being in class to hear something explained … it's very stressful. I chose not to do that to my kids."
You Light Up My Life, MCA, 1977.
Midstream, Warner, 1978.
Love Has No Reason, Warner, 1980.
Savin' It Up, Warner, 1981.
The Best of Debby Boone, MCA, 1986.
Friends for Life, Benson, 1987.
Reflections, Benson, 1988.
Choose Life, Sparrow, 1992.
Surrender, Benson, 1992.
With My Song, Benson, 1992.
Home for Christmas, Capitol, 1993.
Greatest Hymns, Curb, 2000.
Contemporary Authors, Gale Group, 2003.
Amusement Business, July 20, 1998, p. 28.
Arizona Republic, March 31, 2002, p. E3; March 16, 2003, p. E3.
Back Stage, March 23, 1990, p. 48A.
Cincinnati Post, August 14, 1996, p. 1C.
Entertainment Weekly, February 21, 2003, p. 76.
People, May 15, 1989, p. 19; June 17, 1996, p. 134.
Time, October 3, 1983, p. 86.
Video Business, October 2, 1992, p. 42.
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