I became an active Christian a few years after what is now called ContemporaryChristian Music came on the scene. Back then it was simple called “Jesus Music.” Over the last 35 years or so I have seen this genre of Christian music morph from a small segment of the music scene to a rather large and profitable industry. I really don’t listen to too much of the new stuff in fact unless the artist was around in the late 1970s or early 1980s I probably wouldn’t know anything about them or their music.
In those days it was still possible to hang out with groups when they came into town. In 1979 the group The Sweet Comfort Band came to my hometown, Stockton California for a series of concerts in local high schools (God forbid this happen today) culminating with a Friday night concert at one of the larger churches in town. The guys were down to earth and real and talked about real life, even movies not just church. That was eye opening because it kind of blew away my idea that “Christian” artist were somehow a step above the rest of us. These guys showed me that Christians could be down to earth and able to relate to people. I was able to meet others at the 1979 Continental Singers rehearsal camp as I prepared to go as a Spotlight Technician with the Continental Singers Tour G.
When this genre of music first came out the record labels that carried the new contemporary artists were either labels that had previously carried gospel singers such as Word and Light and start ups such as Maranatha! Music, Sparrow/Birdwing Music and Larry Norman’ Solid Rock Records. When larger secular labels discovered that there was money to be made they acquired most of these labels giving them more visibility but I think less independence than they had previously.
The music was as diverse and the artists performing the songs, everything from rock and country rock, to jazz and middle of the road music. Some artists had been successful secular recording artists before becoming Christians or rediscovering the faith that they had grown up with. The music varied in quality, some groups were very good and even pushed the edges of artistic license allowed in Evangelical Christianity while others were not that good and were pushed into the limelight because they had long hair and played guitars. Some of the bands such as Love Song would achieve a certain status in Contemporary Christian music that long outlived the length of time that they were in existence. Some bands were one album wonders while some like Daniel Amos remained together for many years.
As the genre grew a sub-genre of contemporary praise and worship music grew out of Calvary Chapel beginning with an album called The Praise Album. These were simple worship songs that small groups especially youth groups and college age groups could easily sing with just a guitar. They fit what John Wesley said about hymns was that they must be easily sung and not complicated. As such they grew in popularity and many other churches and recording labels got in on the game in opinion saturating the market with music that is only remarkable in its poor quality and insipid theology. The theology in most of the early songs was simple, based around Jesus and God’s love and not written to advance quasi politic agendas. There was not the warlike quality of many of today’s so called “worship music.” I know that some will rake me over the coals for this but I have a hard time calling something worship when it is nothing more than a rally or fight song. Some of these early songs are here: Freely, Freely http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCLconoyX9I As the Deer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvQwvDfY5dk&p=90917541439498D0&playnext=1&index=82 In His Time http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pjab00qQG3k&feature=related, Karen Lafferty’s Seek Ye First http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LMQfOp9w8k&feature=related The Servant King http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIukabdw3E and the Spirit Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqkvIhs7Ijg
But in this essay I’m going to go back in time and look at some of the early artists and their music beginning in the early 1970s and ending in the mid-1980s. This is kind of an arbitrary line because in 1984 I left the United States for a three year tour with the Army in Germany where I lost track of most of what was going on in Christian music and when I returned did not find the newer artists as much to my liking. For me it was simply a matter of musical preference. It is hard to find much of this music now. Many songs were only on LPs and produced in limited quantities. Since many were obscure and this was before the digital age very few video recordings exist for many groups. As such some people have taken audios and mixed them with slide shows or videos or the videos are from “reunion” type concerts 20-30 years after the songs were first introduced.
The revolution in Christian music began in Costa Mesa California at a little country church called Calvary Chapel. The church made the effort to reach the “hippies” that hung around the beach towns including many musicians. The group Love Song was perhaps the first group to reach any form of national prominence and their songs such as Little Country Church http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZkWrn9SXwo&feature=related, and Two Hands http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW12P7upc6o&feature=related became early examples of how the music could be popular and contemporary. The lead singer of the group Chuck Girard went solo and made a number of albums but Rock and Roll Preacher was one of his signature songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_I3R3tC6Rk&feature=related
Other Calvary Chapel Groups that recorded on the new Maranatha! Music lable included the Children of the Day who released For those Tears I Died http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Np8GJGZ3Vv8 Mustard Seed Faith who released Sail on Sailor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPDAC4-ZkEc&feature=related the country rock band Bethlehem and Desert Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMkpLzomcxM&feature=related as well as Bill Sprouse and The Road Home who had one song that made the group before Sprouse died, the song Psalm 5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gJ2XPDf_jE and The Way who produced two albums under Marantha one of their songs being Song of Joy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77Le6G63eZY .
Two other groups Daniel Amos and the Sweet Comfort Band also hailed from the early days of Maranatha Music. Both groups endured and although they had different music styles they could both have fun with their music as well as make provocative statements about the church and how Christians related to society. Daniel Amos initially was a country rock band with a sound somewhat similar to the Eagles. They would retain some of this but moved on to some of the more cutting edge New Wave Rock styles of the 1980s. Their signature album was Shotgun Angel a country rock album with a side two that was a mini concert about the Second Coming of Christ from a Pre-Tribulation Dispensational theology understanding, an understanding that was quite common in the groups of that day. That album included Black Gold Fever, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZkWrn9SXwo&feature=related, Shotgun Angel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFD8_-v4bhw&feature=related, Posse in the Sky http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwa5gep9CBc&feature=related and Fall in Your Father’s Arms http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOTar60srFg&feature=related. Their First Album include one of my favorite songs of the ear I Ain’t Gonna Fight it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=intea3oCcDk Later releases include the albums Horrendous Disc and Alarma! The song I Believe in You http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMkpLzomcxM&feature=related from Horrendous Disc and Walls of Doubt http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFTcGAAQkk&feature=related from Alarma! Interestingly enough Daniel Amos is considered by some to be one of the best bands from a creativity standpoint in the 1980s Christian or secular. The group stayed together and after they broke up Terry Taylor the leader of the group formed other bands including The Swirling Eddies and the Lost Dogs. One of the more interesting songs of the Swirling Eddies is Hide the Beer the Pastor’s Here” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b74VWclpH6c which deals with some of the hypocrisy of some Christians who will condemn someone for drinking yet excuse all sorts of other unseemly behaviors.
A second group from the Maranatha label was the Sweet Comfort Band. This band led by Bryan Duncan and Randy Thomas had a light jazz and rock style that featured Randy Thomas Jazz Guitar and brothers Kevin Thompson’s Alembic 5 string bass guitar and Rick Thompson’s drums. The group produced a number of albums before they broke up in the late 1980s with Bryan Duncan going solo. They have on occasion gotten together in reunion concerts though Kevin Thomas died in May of this year. Their first album Sweet Comfort which came out on the Maranatha label included Childish Things http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6R8wY0DCI3A&feature=related When I was Alone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFTcGAAQkk&feature=related It’s so Fine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igp9WJ7QLUE&feature=related and Get Ready http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EhcPuwBvZg where Kevin had a great bass solo. They left Maranatha and signed with Light Music where they made a number of albums including Breakin’ the Ice which featured Breakin’ the Ice http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ4cddT0Eh0&p=20C05334BBE82D2F&playnext=1&index=1, Good Felling http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJWwcRYT1p4 and Got to Believe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3x7Myegr24 Other later albums featured songs like Ride the Tide http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8oSc7jY288&feature=related
The interesting thing was that many Christians had a hard time with both Daniel Amos and the Sweet Comfort Band. The members of SBC were frequently berated for their jazz, rock, funk style by Christians who felt that the style was “of the Devil” and both groups frequently played for free on places like the Sunset Strip because they felt it was more important to play for non-believers than believers. Wow, imagine that? When one looks at much of what is called “Contemporary Christian Music” now these groups stand in stark contrast. They were not playing for the approval and entertainment of Christians.
Other artists emerged outside of Calvary Chapel, some who had been successful in their own right prior to becoming Christians such as Barry McGuire who had been with Credence Clearwater Revival, had been in the musical Hair and had his own hit Eve of Destruction for which he is best known. McGuire’s music is harder to find online and much of what is now available comes from a series of concerts with Peter York, Phil Keaggy, Terry Talbot and others on the music of the 1960s. However Eve of Destruction http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntLsElbW9Xo and his post conversion song Calling me Home http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxoRzqZnP98&feature=related make for interesting listening. Barry still tours and is still entertaining. I remember seeing him a number of times in Sacramento in the late 1970s at a church called The Warehouse.
McGuire recorded on the Sparrow label founded by Buck Herring. The label also featured the long lived Second Chapter of Acts who performed such memorable songs as Mansion Builder http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmxcotW-O0w and the Easter Song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gggPpVtEKQ&feature=related,
and Keith Green the Jewish convert to Christianity who wrote Make my Life a Prayer to You http://vodpod.com/watch/2188390-keith-green-make-my-life-a-prayer-to-you-subtitles He’ll take Care of the Rest http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAe0q21YgTQ&feature=related, The Victor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wil0PBylyW0&feature=related and When I Hear the Praises Start http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIgVU_5FsqA&feature=related. Green would produce many songs that have endured among his fans and those that wound never see him in person. Green had a hard edge to his message and died in a private plane crash with two of his children in the summer of 1982. His wife Melody carries on his musical legacy.
Another artist on the label was John Michale Talbot who along with his brother Terry had been founding members of the group Mason Proffit before becoming Christians. John Michael produced two albums on the label before his conversion to Roman Catholicism where he became a lay Franciscan. He remained on the label for years producing albums which helped introduce a generation of contemporary Christian listeners to the liturgy and Catholic spirituality. His album The Lord’s Supper was a breakthrough as he adapted music from the Mass into a beautiful album. His adaptation of the Apostle’s Creed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxACNt-QRAo was amazing in its musical style and difficulty and his Holy is His Name http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aYecuDlDYM is an enduring classic. Talbot’s brother Terry also recorded on Sparrow one song which is entitled No Longer Alone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xR0KBRO-e7g
Other artists included Larry Norman who might be considered the first Christian rocker and Randy Stonehill who recorded on Norman’s Solid Rock label. Norman is best known for his songs The Rock that Doesn’t Roll http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzB638GRfJ0&feature=PlayList&p=44A2023098B233CF&index=0&playnext=1 I’d Wish we’d All Been Ready http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1FcTKNXlO0 and Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWh8-FPelHU&feature=related
His friend Randy Stonehill wrote songs like King of Hearts http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1Q0RO3yi8Y&feature=related, First Prayer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmhsY7NeFhM&feature=related Keep me Running http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP2dB208ISI&feature=related and Song for Sarah. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crDIHKaMwyA&feature=related Norman died in 2008 after a long illness and Stonehill has continued to produce often touching on topics that other Christian artists fear to tackle.
Guitarist Phil Keaggy has had a long and illustrious career in both Christian and secular music with his song Your Love Broke Through being among my favorites. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wil0PBylyW0&feature=related
Paul Clark and Liberation Suite brought an English twist to the genre, this song Make a Joyful Noise was taped during their 1976 European tour http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYfa4iQg8e4 while the Pat Terry Group produced You’d be There http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWMBV0WoTeI&feature=related and Don Francisco recorded the classic He’s Alive! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2slLdaK5Wg&feature=related Amy Grant produced many albums beginning in the late 1970s and still remains popular. Song’s like My Father’s Eyes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmOEJXNtF0E and El Shaddai http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYcEHguYwtc&feature=related remain hits to this day. Likewise Evie Tourquist (Karlsson) was incredibly popular, especially with young Christian guys in the mid to late 1970s and the song Pass it On http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHQLRm_O9mU was a staple of many high school groups.
Other groups have passed into obscurity with their albums nearly impossible to find. The early “Jesus Music” often produced in primitive studios was certainly sincere it varied in quality as well as theological content. At the same time the early artists pioneered new ways of expressing their faith in music which has influenced the music of churches that in the 1970s considered such music to still be “the Devil’s music.” I could go on to write about other artists but most of those came later and really don’t fall into the early years that I am trying to limit this musical essay to, but the fact is that these artists as well as others changed Christian music. The impact has been mixed while there is much positive in the music many Christians and churches threw out their musical and theological heritage in the rush to become more relevant. Likewise the absorption of Christian music labels into secular labels which were later acquired by multinational entertainment groups is not necessarily a good thing because those corporations are totally profit driven and undoubtedly influenced the content, theology and style of the music produced by current artists causing some of the older artists to become independents.
I guess in the long run we will see the fruit of this movement, the good and the bad and hopefully the good will outweigh the bad and maybe, just maybe the music will again be the music of the church and not merely of publishing houses that sell a product to churches.