A Look at the History of Contemporary Christian Music
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A Look at the History of Contemporary Christian Music
This article was originally entitled "The Pursuit of the Dream: A Look at the History of Contemporary Christian Music" and published by the staff of CCM Magazine in February 2007.
© 2007 CCM Magazine
For nearly 2000 years the church has been singing, as Psalm 96 puts it, "a new song." More songs have been written about Jesus Christ than any other person who ever lived. Historically, it was a common practice to use the modern-day vernacular in terms of music and text, but with the advent of electronic instruments and seemingly boundless limits of artistic look and sound, Christian music has never been more controversial than it is today.
Ray Repp invents the term Contemporary Christian Music
The transition from traditional church music to what has become known as contemporary Christian music really began in 1964, when Ray Repp introduced a "folk mass" to the Catholic church. In 1965, Ralph Carmichael stirred things up with the syncopated soundtrack music for a Billy Graham film, The Restless One. ("He’s Everything to Me" came from that film.) That same year, the Southern Baptists premiered Good News at a youth retreat in Glorietta, NM. (Sample lyrics: "Hear the beat?/Beat it, man/It’s our sound, our thing.") Billy Ray Hearn, who later founded Myrrh Records and then Sparrow Records, directed the premiere.
It was also in 1965 that Barry McGuire recorded "Eve of Destruction," a song that would set off a wave of protest music in the rock world and set the scene for 1967’s "summer of love" and the hippie movement. By the late ‘60s, protest against the Vietnam conflict had reached fever pitch. An entire generation was in a state of rebellion against what it called "the establishment."
Young people in the church were not quite so radical. Ralph Carmichael and Kurt Kaiser made bold steps toward modernizing the music with "youth musicals" like Tell It Like It Is and Natural High. These musicals went as far as they could, but they weren’t real rock music, and the kids knew it.
The counterculture movement—which held "free love," peace signs, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as sacred—peaked in 1969 with the Woodstock festival. At that same time, another counterculture movement was just beginning. Many who were disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of free love and the impossibility of "self-realization" began discovering personal peace and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Larry Norman Records Upon This Rock
In 1969, a young artist for Capitol Records named Larry Norman recorded an album called Upon This Rock, a revolutionary statement of faith set in authentic rock terms. In Orange County, Calif., a new church opened its doors to the hippies and held mass baptisms in the nearby Pacific Ocean. Calvary Church recognized that faith in Christ was more to do with the condition of the heart rather than the appearance of clothing or the sound of music. Consequently, Pastor Chuck Smith encouraged the musicians in his fellowship to make music to the Lord in whatever style they were familiar with. The resultant music didn’t sound "churchy," but it was from the heart none the less.
The Jesus Movement
What began in Southern California quickly spread across the country in a wave of fervor. It was dubbed the "Jesus Movement" by the media and was a cover story in many major magazines including Time. Music, the keynote of the ‘60s, was the natural medium of expression for this new generation of believers. In fact, between 1969 and 1973 more than 25 religiously-oriented songs made the national pop charts. Jesus Christ Superstar was a huge Broadway hit, as was the relatively more orthodox Godspell. On the other hand, low-budget, four-track recordings typified early releases from the Christian community, but their spiritual integrity made it easy for the faithful to overlook any production shortcomings. Like most new movements, this one was in its purest form at the beginning because no one was in it for money.
In 1971 Calvary Chapel began an outreach known as Maranatha! Music with the release of The Everlastin’ Livin’ Jesus Music Concert, which wasn’t really a concert but a collection of songs by groups like Children of the Day, Blessed Hope, Gentle Faith, Country Faith, The Way, Selah, and Love Song.
The original members of Love Song—Chuck Girard, Tom Coomes, Jay Truax, and Bob Wait—went on to record an entire album in 1971 which has since become a contemporary Christian music classic (see "The Best of All Time").
Explo ’72 in Dallas, Texas
In the summer of 1972, contemporary Christian music got a big boost when 80,000 gathered for several days in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl for Explo ’72, sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ. On a last day of Explo, a finale concert was held in a downtown parkway. With a backdrop of skyscrapers, nearly 200,000 people crowded together to hear Larry Norman, Love Song, Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson, Barry McGuire, the Archers, Danny Lee & the Children of Truth, The Armageddon Experience, and Andrae Crouch & The Disciples.
Myrrh Records Created in 1972 for Jesus Music
At about the same time, Word Records decided to create a new record label for what was then being called "Jesus music." Word executive Billy Ray Hearn decided to name the label Myrrh Records. Artists and groups released in Myrrh’s early years included Randy Matthews, Crimson Bridge, Dust, First Gear (which featured Larnelle Harris), Dove (which included Bob Farrell of Farrell & Farrell), the J.C. Power Outlet and Petra.
Radio Stations Adopt the Contemporary Christian Music Format
As the ‘70s progressed, contemporary Christian music began to proliferate—despite almost total rejection by the religious establishment and virtually no radio airplay. A new era of production quality began in 1974 with the release of two key albums – With Footnotes by the 2nd Chapter of Acts and White Horse by Michael Omartian. By ’75, even the radio situation began to change when stations began to adopt a format of contemporary Christian music.
Prior to 1976, Barry McGuire had been Christian music’s most notable refugee from the pop market. But former Buffalo Springfield and Poco member Richie Furay changed that with the release of I’ve Got A Reason. Pop star B.J. Thomas announced his conversion in 1976 and released Home Where I Belong, his first of several Christian albums. That was the start of a full-blown trend.
Other well-known rock and pop artists who went public with their faith in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s included Leon Patillo of Santana, Dan Peek of America, Joe English of Paul McCartney & Wings, Rick Cua of the Outlaws, Kerry Livgren of Kansas, and Phillip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, along with Bob Dylan, Dion DiMucci, Donna Summer, Barbara Mandrell, Tonio K., Billy Preston, Maria Muldaur, Al Green, Deniece Williams, Johnny Rivers, Little Anthony, and numerous others.
Sparrow Records Formed in 1976
1976 was also notable for the formation of a promising new contemporary Christian record company—Sparrow Records. Billy Ray Hearn had left Word to form his own company and he intended it to be a label with a small roster and a strong ministry orientation. His first artists included Barry McGuire, Annie Herring, John Michael Talbot, Terry Talbot, Janny Grine, and Candle. Within two years he had also signed the 2nd Chapter of Acts and Keith Green.
Contemporary Christian Music Published
As both the sales and the number of contemporary Christian music album releases increased, it became apparent that it was more than a novelty. It also became apparent that information about what was happening in contemporary Christian music was needed on a national level. Thus, in 1978, two key events took place which would have far more impact on contemporary Christian music than anyone knew at the time. Amy Grant released her first album and Contemporary Christian Music published its first issue. CCM—then printed in tabloid newspaper format—was sent free to 12,000 "industry" people, including retail outlets and radio stations. CCM featured the first monthly national charts of airplay and sales of contemporary Christian music, reviews of new albums, interviews, tour schedules and industry news.
It had been rumored for months, but was confirmed beyond all doubt in August 1979 when Bob Dylan released Slow Train Coming, an album which made a clear statement of Christian faith. Not uncharacteristically, Dylan preferred to let the music do the talking. When he performed a series of sellout concerts later in the year, some audiences were incensed that his repertoire included only his "born again" songs.
Bob Larson Supports Christian Music
In 1979, Christian rock lost a major critic. With books like Rock in the Church and The Day the Music Died, Bob Larson had spoken out vehemently against what he saw as the dangers of modern Christian music. But in CCM’s June issue of that year, Larson announced that he was changing his tune. He said, admittedly with reservations, that he had been wrong about Christian music. Today, through his "Talk Back With Bob Larson" radio show, he is an avid supporter.
Keith Green Shakes up Christian Music Industry
Keith Green, with his no-compromise approach to his music and ministry, made headlines in 1980 when he announced his withdrawal from the commercial side of Christian music. He decided that his albums would be available only by mail order at no set price. His intention was to make it possible for anyone – even those who couldn’t afford an album—to hear the gospel through his music.
By 1981, contemporary Christian music had grown to the point where it caught the attention of several of the major mainstream record companies. Sparrow signed a distribution agreement with MCA, CBS launched Priority Records, and Light Records signed for distribution with Elektra/Asylum. The "crossover" controversy was in full bloom.
In October 1981, CCM dropped its tabloid format for the current, standard-sized magazine style. By that time, subscriptions were no longer being sent free and circulation had gone over the 20,000 mark.
Backward Masking Hoax
There was plenty of news to cover in 1982, although not all of it was good. In fact, not all of it even made sense! "Backward masking" was the buzzword of the year. Suddenly, people began playing records backwards, alleging that certain phrases which sounded normal and intelligible forwards were actually satanic messages when played in reverse. Never mind the fact that the backward "messages" were barely decipherable and oddly-phrased at best – the devilish part is that they were supposedly perceived on a subconscious level. The paranoia peaked when proponents began discovering "satanic" messages embedded on Christian albums! Today people should be embarrassed to admit they ever bought into the "backward masking" theory.
This was also the year that Keith Green – along with two of his children, a pilot, and all eight members of a visiting family – perished in the crash of a small plane near the headquarters of Last Days Ministries in Lindale, Texas. Investigators concluded that the plane was overloaded. Green’s death was a bewilderment to the Christian public. His widow, Melody, began speaking at a series of Keith Green memorial concerts in the fall.
In November of 1982, Andrae Crouch was arrested and jailed for allegedly possessing cocaine. After a cold one-night stint in the slammer, charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. In a CCM interview a few months later, Andrae admitted that he did have a vial containing cocaine residue in his possession, but that it had been left at his apartment by friends while he was away. He had taken it so that he could confront them about it. When he was pulled over for alleged "erratic driving," he had forgotten about the vial in his pocket until police discovered it.
CCM Magazine Expands
In 1983, CCM decided to expand its coverage beyond music to include books, films, social issues, political issues, and other subjects we thought were increasingly important to our generation. In order to continue to serving the Christian music industry, CCM Publications launched MusicLine, a monthly trade magazine, in May. In July, which was the magazine’s fifth anniversary, Contemporary Christian Music became Contemporary Christian Magazine.
A&M Records Distributes Amy Grant's Music
Meanwhile, CBS pulled the plug on Priority Records and Light pulled out of its deal with Elektra/Asylum. It seems that Christian music wasn’t the big boys’ cup of tea. The fact now that Amy Grant was by now selling hundreds of thousands of albums wasn’t lost on A&M Records, however. In January 1985, Word announced that it had entered into a distribution agreement with A&M – whose first job was to take Amy into the mainstream.
With the release of "Unguarded" in May 1985, the "crossover" controversy ignited afresh. Amy’s "Find A Way" found its way into the Top 40 in Billboard, a feat never before accomplished by an artist signed to a Christian label. Cries of "compromise" were heard from segments of the Christian camp amid charges that Amy had purposely toned down the spiritual content in her lyrics in order to gain secular success. Her proponents countered that she had finally done what other Christian artists had only talked of doing for years—making a significant penetration into the pop market, where the people are who need to hear the message most.
By 1986, Amy Grant had become a full-blown celebrity. Unguarded went platinum, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Christmas in Washington with President and Mrs. Reagan, and in her own one-hour Christmas special on NBC.
The contribution of Sandi Patti cannot be discounted, however. Since she first hit the charts in 1979 with her first release, Sandi has been the favorite of fans of a more inspirational style. She came to a broad national awareness when her rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" was used as the soundtrack to the finale of ABC’s "Liberty Weekend" coverage in 1986. Together, she and Amy Grant account for more than 10% of all Christian records sold.
Commercialization of Christian music
It was one step forward and two steps back for Christian music in 1987, however. One major reason is that neither Sandi nor Amy released a record that year. Another was a growing consumer backlash to the ever-increasing commercialization of Christian music and the "crossover" attempts of not just Amy Grant, but several Christian artists in the previous few years. Critics said that the spiritual content of records and concerts was lacking. In addition, spillover from the televangelism scandals of 1987 disillusioned some fans and created greater scrutiny than ever into the personal lives of Christian artists.
The financial pressures which resulted from the sales decline precipitated a reevaluation of priorities for many artists and labels. Consequently, there seems to be an renewed commitment to ministry and a clearer sense of mission among Christian artists and industry executives as contemporary Christian music heads into its third decade.
Through the years and all the changes, the message of contemporary Christian music has remained the same. By definition, contemporary Christian music will always change with the times. As an advertising slogan from the ‘70s puts it, "The music is today, but the message is forever."
© 2007 CCM Magazine
Source: Archived pages of CCM Magazine