Singer Shirley Foley Boone Passes

Shirley and Pat Boone. Photo: Pat Boone

Former Nashville vocalist Shirley Foley Boone died on Jan. 11 at age 84.

She is usually recalled as the wife of pop star Pat Boone, the daughter of Country Music Hall of Fame member Red Foley or as the mother of Grammy-winning hit maker Debby Boone. But she was a recording artist, herself. She was also an author, philanthropist and TV personality.

Her father, Clyde Julian “Red” Foley (1910-1968), rose to fame at The National Barn Dance on WLS in Chicago. He married Eva Overstake (1918-1951) of the show’s Three Little Maids act in 1933. Their daughter Shirley Lee Foley was born in 1934.

The family moved to Nashville in 1946, where Red Foley became a Decca Records superstar and a Grand Ole Opry headliner. Shirley’s mother was billing herself as “Judy Martin” by this time. Judy/Eva’s sister, Shirley’s aunt, became Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Jenny Lou Carson (Lucille Overstake, 1915-1978).

Shirley and her two younger sisters began appearing on their father’s radio and TV shows as children. In 1950, they recorded “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with Red Foley, billed as “The Little Foleys.”

Shirley attended David Lipscomb High School, where the popular cheerleader was voted student-council secretary and Homecoming Queen. Her high-school sweetheart, Pat Boone, was a handsome boy-next-door, a student athlete and the star of the WSIX Nashville radio show “Youth on Parade.” They married in 1953, when both were 19 years old.

He won on TV’s Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts the following year. This show was that era’s American Idol, so Boone launched a highly successful recording career.

Between 1957 and 1962, he had 18 top-10 pop hits, including “April Love,” “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Love Letters in the Sand.” In the early days, his popularity rivaled that of Elvis Presley. Boone starred in 15 feature films.

Shirley and Pat released their first duet LP in 1959. Titled Side By Side, it featured them harmonizing on standards such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “My Happiness.”

I Love You Truly was issued as the couple’s second duets LP in 1962. Like its predecessor, it was comprised of familiar songs such as “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “True Love.”

Shirley taught their daughters to sing four-part harmony. Billed variously as The Boone Sisters, The Boones and/or The Boone Girls, Cherry, Lindy, Debby and Laury Boone became Grammy-nominated gospel vocalists.

Debby became a solo star with hits such as “You Light Up My Life” (1977) and “Are You On the Road to Loving Me Again” (1980). She married minister Gabriel Ferrer, who is the son of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer and the cousin of George Clooney. Sister Cherry Boone wrote the 1982 book Starving for Affection and became spokesperson for eating disorders.

Mama Shirley Boone became an author, as well. One Woman’s Liberation (1972), The Honeymoon Is Over (1980) and her other works espoused conservative religious values. Both with her husband and solo, she appeared on many Christian-oriented TV talk shows.

She helped to establish Mercy Corps, which has become an international charitable organization dedicated to addressing economic, environmental, social and political problems. She was also a major benefactor of Pepperdine University.

Shirley resumed recording with Pat Boone Family in 1971. The record was nominated for a gospel Grammy Award. This was followed by All in the Boone Family (1972), Pat Boone Family in the Holy Land (1972), the Nashville recorded The Family Who Prays (1973), The Boone Family Christmas (1975) and other titles.

She also costarred in many of her husband’s television programs, beginning with his series The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom in 1959. She performed on such specials as Pat Boone & Family (1968), Pat Boone & Family Thanksgiving Day Show (1962), The Pat Boone & Family Christmas Special (1969), The Pat Boone & Family Easter Special (1970), The Pat Boone & Family Thanksgiving Special (1978), a second Pat Boone & Family Christmas Special (1979) and Together with Shirley & Pat Boone (1983).

After living in Tennessee, Texas, New York and New Jersey, Shirley, Pat and their four daughters moved to Beverly Hills, CA in 1960. She passed away there last Friday with her daughters singing hymns at her bedside.

She and Pat were married for 65 years. She is also survived by 16 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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