Chapter 18: Hits and Singles

Part II


The first and second editions of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? ended with the preceding chapter. It was the most difficult of the chapters to write, for it dealt with a tremendous challenge ahead for an art form and ministry which had taken on much of the color of a full-fledged industry not unlike its secular counterpart. Though the growth and the increased availability of Jesus music was definitely worth celebrating, there was a fear that the industry aspects would overshadow the original, ministerial purposes behind the music.

   Except for the veterans who had been with it pretty well from the start, Jesus music was no longer called Jesus music by the end of the seventies. It had gradually been absorbed into the more all-encompassing terms of ''contemporary gospel'' or ''contemporary Christian music,'' which included everything from middle-of-the-road music to the hardest rock. Those terms proved to me more favorable and less exclusive in the marketing of the music. But the spirit of Jesus music was still found on the cutting edge, in songs of the performers who continued to encourage Christian-music reform and experimentation.

   There is a certain irony in the fact that the term ''Jesus music'' was coined in order to avoid the use of the term ''Christian,'' at a time when the established church was being criticized for complacency and hypocrisy. Now, a brief decade later, the term ''Jesus music'' has faded from the vernacular, because it might prove to be ''too exclusive'' or ''too smug'' to the outside world. The term ''Christian'' was once again preferred.

   By 1979 contemporary Christian musicno matter what the tag put on itwas, as a whole, becoming much more tolerated and even accepted within the church. Many church bodies were opening

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up to many forms of music to which they had been adamantly opposed only a few years prior. As had been the tradition, many churches had gradually (if not reluctantly) followed behind the world's patterns of style and expression by several years. (By the late seventies, the hair on the deacons' heads, and the shirts and ties they wore, more closely paralleled the fashions of the Beatles of 1964 than most would want to admit.)

   Folk music and occasional jazz masses continued to be the contemporary music of the Catholic church in America at the end of the seventies. In the evangelical churches, contemporary Christian music had finally begun making its way in, not so many years after groups as righteous and evangelistic as the 2nd Chapter of Acts had been criticized at theaters such as the Baptist Baylor University's auditorium because they dared wear bluejeans onstage. Ironically, a few years later 2nd Chapter of Acts would upgrade their dress, while the college students, in many cases, settled into jeansdesigner jeans, at least.

   As the number of musicians involved in the penning, production, and performance of contemporary Christian music rapidly increased and the family grew, many songs began to take on a hybrid character, influenced by church music, street music, and pop music. The lines of definition between Christian-music styles continued to blur, much as had already happened in secular pop music.

   By 1979, when President Jimmy Carter invited Christian singers and musicians to participate in ''Old Fashioned Gospel Singin' '' at the White House, there was a fascinating diversity of talent represented under the gospel-music banner. In Washington to represent the contemporary branch of the gospel family tree were Larry Norman, the Archers, Barry McGuire, Reba Rambo, and others. This appearance further entrenched contemporary Christian music in the gospel-music camp, and added further respectability to a music form shunned only a few years before.

   Two major songs released on albums in the late seventies greatly contributed to the depolarization of Christian music, probably more than any others. One of them, written and performed by Don Francisco, was a dramatic account of Christ's resurrection, done in a storytelling style of musicfolk in nature, but big on production. The soaring chorus of ''He's Alive'' was a triumphant restatement of the Christian faith, taken up by evangelicals en masse. Some radio stations would report in 1980 that even after being there for more than a year, the song was still in their Top 10 popularity charts, based on listener requests and sales.

   Francisco, who had already been writing his folk-style music for

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ten years, was taken aback by the extreme popularity that came to him as a result of recording such a dynamic song as ''He's Alive'' and touring with the Bill Gaither Trio, themselves great contributors to the expansion of Christian music tastes.

   ''I was taken from my own crowd of a few hundred people and put before ten thousand,'' Don recalled in a 1981 interview. ''The first time I got up to sing in front of them, I was terrified! I tried to tell myself I wasn't terrifiedthat I was gonna do this for the Lord. I was still terrified!''

   Francisco had committed his life to the Lord in the summer of 1974, after living a prodigal life which took him through Eastern philosophies, drugs, and the other, all-too-usual entrapments of the sixties and seventies. After a period of spiritual and physical healing and study in the Word, he began to write Christian songs. Noted producer Gary S. Paxton was impressed by Don's music and produced the first Francisco Christian album, Brother of the Son.

   But it was the stunning ''He's Alive'' on a later album which not only made Don Francisco a popular name, but also introduced a singing style unique to contemporary Christian music. Further, it helped popularize the crescendoing, elaborate production style which would later be further utilized in songs by artists such as Sandi Patti and the Imperials, as well as the other innovators of that style, the Bill Gaither Trio and Doug Oldham.

   The other song which most helped to break down the barriers between Christian music styles was ''Rise Again,'' recorded by Dallas Holm & Praise. They were a Texas-based group, an active part of David Wilkerson's crusade evangelism. Much like Francisco, Holm in no way expected his composition to be one of the first ''smash hit'' songs in contemporary Christian music. As he said on their Live album, where the song first appeared on vinyl:

This one came to me in a real special way. I couldn't really describe or explain how it happened. Some songs that I've written I've just maybe sat down and decided, 'Well, today's job is to write a song. . . .' But there's other times that . . . (comes) just a special kind of inspirationsomething you can't put your finger on, but it happens. And this was one of those times when this song came to me. It's really what the Lord was saying through me.

   As with ''He's Alive,'' Holm's portrait of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection was a victorious Easter song around which believers rallied. Though perhaps not as overtly contemporary as ''He's Alive''

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the song managed to attract fans of both traditional and contemporary Christian music. Both songs became anthems for much of the contemporary body of Christ, much as ''Easter Song'' by the 2nd Chapter of Acts and ''Alleluia'' or ''The King Is Coming'' by Bill and Gloria Gaither had become earlier.

   Though there obviously had been other popular Jesus-music songs before 1979, the proliferation of contemporary Christian radio gradually turned the concept of ''popular'' gospel songs into ''hit'' gospel songs. If enough stations played a song such as ''Rise Again'' or ''He's Alive'' regularly, the concerted buying power of the consumer began to be realized in the record sections of the Christian book and record stores and at the record companies themselves. Not every city had stations playing contemporary Christian music, but where they were, sales followed, such as in Denver and northern Colorado in response to KBRN and KFKZ.

   It was partly through such an effort that the Live album by Dallas Holm & Praise ultimately sold more than five hundred thousand copies and would earn gold-record status by 1984, only the fourth on a gospel label to do so at that time.

   The record companies began paying more and more attention to selecting single cuts from albums and putting them onto 45-rpm singles, to help target radio airplay on specific songs. By doing that, they reasoned, the play would be more concentrated, and the album would have longer ''shelf life.'' As the first hit waned, they could press a second 45 single and send it to the radio stations in order to sustain the interest in the album.

   If that reasoning sounded a bit like the pop music industry, it was no coincidence. Leaders in the gospel music business admitted that much of what they did was patterned after the secular. It was the only effective model they had.

   Gospel music did present a challenge that differed from the secular industry, however. The life of some albums on what sales charts there were for gospel music at the time indicated an admirable staying power not often experienced by secular recording artists. The same went for single songs on the radio airplay popularity charts. The longest a normal secular song could survive on the hit charts was about twenty-three weeks, while some gospel songs remained for more than a year.

   The gospel labels thus reasoned that they could get even more mileage out of the albums by focusing on one single at a time. Some of them eventually went a step past pressing singles for radio play: they began releasing only singles to the radio stations (and not the album), even after the album was available to consumers in the

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stores. By this method, they reasoned, play on the specific song would be insured, and that would help bring about a more successful, unified hit across America. Some programmers balked at the method, complaining that this left them little latitude in programming their own particular stations.

   ''That's right,'' the labels responded, citing their own justification for the strategy. Only in recent years had there been Christian-music radio stations. Sadly, Christian radio did not have the grandest reputation for knowledgeable music direction. Though there were some music directors who knew very well how to program the music, there were an equal number, or perhaps more, who didn't. The latter would receive an album and play all or several of the cuts on it right away, rushing to be the first.

   The record companies argued that the result was no concentrated play, hence no staying power, and the album was spent prematurely. The programmers would retort that if a song was good enough to be a hit, it would be chosen on its own merit and get that desired concentrated airplayin other words, rise to the top on its own.

   In the programmers' defense, the supply of quality contemporary Christian music had been greatly limited over the years, and often picking just one cut at a time from an album was too prohibitive to the programmer and to the station's listeners. After all, if an artist had recorded an album, didn't they want it played? More perturbing was the embarrassment the programmers faced when the consumers could get records at stores before the radio stations had them.

   Unfortunately, even as late as 1984, the system would not be worked out to everyone's approval. In the words of one record company spokesperson, ''It's all being fussed about in the secular side of the business too.'' Conferences held for the benefit of secular broadcasters experienced the same debate between radio station programmers and record companies.

   There was one difference, however. Christian radio had the added dimension of spiritual import in the lyrics performed by Christian artists. Songs were intended to minister as well as entertain. Going for the most commercial song on an album did not necessarily mean going for the most valuable one from a spiritual perspective. Was holding back on these songs quenching the Spirit? While commercial-sounding, hookish songs got radio exposure, how many edifying and ministering songs never got nationwide exposure because of the system?

   Thus the debate continued, gradually moving on to less heated

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diatribes and more helpful and constructive discussions at seminars, workshops, and conferences across the country. Both sides had good points; the challenge was to work them out for the good of all concerned.

   Perhaps the greatest irony of the gospel singles ''market'' was that there was, even as late as 1984, no market. Singles, sent to radio stations to concentrate airplay, were used only as promotional tools to direct listeners to albums. But, with only one or two exceptions, the singles could not be bought. (Word released an ''Ageless Medley'' by Amy Grant on a 7-inch, 33 ½ disc for promotion of one of her albums, and PTL Records successfully marketed a Christian version of ''Up Where We Belong'' and a Pat Boone single in several regions in the early eighties.)

   Many Christian bookstore proprietors didn't want to carry singles, citing that they were ''too much trouble'' to display or handle. Record companies didn't want them for virtually the same reason, plus they had more interest in long-term albums.

   In other words, gospel music was an album market, and both the record labels and the stores liked it that way, evidently regardless of how the consumer felt. Though there were many times when certain popular Christian songs would have sold well as 45 singles, the few major labels nixed the idea, perhaps because a ''hit'' still did not constitute enough sales to merit selling singles. Thus the majority of inroads were closed, except for small, independent labels selling their singles by mail or in a very limited number of outlets. If a song was a ''hit,'' the consumer had to buy the albums to get the song. (The booming blank-cassette business helped remedy the problem to thousands of radio listeners anyway, who just taped their favorite songs from the radio instead of being obliged to purchase an entire album from which it came.)

   This put the young, radio-listening (or jukebox-listening), record-buying consumer at a marked disadvantage if he or she preferred or switched over to Christian music. Such a consumer was already usually hit with full retail record prices, which most stores charged. The stores' special prices, when they had them, were on special ''albums of the month,'' or new budget lines for records which started in the early eighties. The other major way of buying records and tapes in the stores at a discount was through bonus clubs, in which the consumer could buy a certain number of albums and then get one free. These were a beneficial service extended by the record labels to the consumer.

   But when it came to singles, the gospel music industry had the dubious honor of having national popularity charts of hit single songs which were not available to consumers as single songs.

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   Helping to establish a gauge of popularity (or at least sales) of specific albums or songs were the song charts appearing in various publications over the years. They included, at one time or another: Harmony, which folded after its twelfth issue, in 1977; Gospel Trade, a relatively short-lived Nashville publication; Singing News, an influential southern-gospel newspaper which by the early eighties was at least accommodating some contemporary-music news items and charts; Bookstore Journal, the most respected monthly journal of the large Christian Booksellers Association; Christian Bookseller, which premiered their ''Music Makers'' section in May 1978; Foreversong Journal, a 1978-79 radio-oriented worksheet published by Dan Hickling; The Radio Report, originally edited and published by John Taylor; Contemporary Christian Music, which debuted in July 1978; and MusicLine, the 1983 offshoot of Contemporary Christian Music, begun when the latter became Contemporary Christian Magazine. Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) quickly became the most influential magazine for that branch of gospel music.

   CCM undoubtedly helped to focus widespread contemporary music efforts into a more unified industry, much like Harmony had done earlier on a smaller scale. Such a publication was definitely needed to create a ''team effort'' in further developing Christian music. Not only did it help the industry to expand, but it also created an accessible forum where the technical and spiritual aspects of current Christian music could be discussed.

   CCM began as a trade newspaper, more or less an offshoot from Contemporary Christian Acts, a general interest tabloid aimed at the Christian consumer, especially in Southern California. When Acts announced they would have to begin charging for the publication instead of distributing it free, support waned and the paper folded. Out of those ashes came CCM.

   Later the magazine would be changed from a trade tabloid into a type of Christian Rolling Stone, becoming an alternative publication which unabashedly defended Christian rock and sought to further all types of contemporary Christian music. Its design was sleekened over the ensuing years, going to a large, glossy format much like the secular international music newsweekly Billboard. In late 1981 CCM was again modified, into a more compact, standard, newsstand-favorable size. Newsstand distribution was a long-range goal in publisher John Styll's mind.

   In 1983, at a circulation of close to forty thousand, enjoying the position of second-best-selling magazine in Christian bookstores, CCM again reformatted, this time to become a contemporary Christian, general-interest magazine. The editors sought to give more in-depth attention to nonmusic news and issues, while preserving the

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music slant to much of each issue. Renamed Contemporary Christian Magazine in 1983, the publication began showing a marked increase in reports on where contemporary Christian music was making inroads into the secular music and entertainment scene, or at least where Christian music makers were being seen in secular company. The new CCM, skewed toward the California music and entertainment industry, also included reviews of secular movies such as Footloose and Gremlins, secular albums such as one by the Police, open quotes from known antichristian performers such as Ozzy Osbourne, photos of Christian musicians in the company of movie and recording stars, and the like.

   Though CCM contained meaty, issue-oriented articles and interviews with Christian leaders and with newsmakers, the inclusion of the entertainment-slanted material bothered some purists, who felt that the magazine of contemporary Christian music in general should not fraternize so freely with the world or seek to be so ''hip.'' These conservatives felt that the magazines should have stayed within the Christian community entirely. The change in emphasis also left the gospel labels less opportunity for articles and items on their artists, including cover publicity.

   In May 1983, CCM Publications premiered MusicLine, more or less the early CCM revisited. MusicLine took on the trade-oriented features and articles which had earlier been a part of CCM. Thanks to its newspaper-type layout and production, it provided the gospel trade news in a much more timely fashion than the more polished and preplanned CCM could do.

   MusicLine offered first-class mailing of its issues to subscribers (a first for gospel music), and provided a vehicle for prompt dissemination of trade information and news. Such a service helped to jettison the gospel-music trade into the information age.

   There were a few other notable magazines published in the late seventies and early eighties which carried substantial news on the contemporary gospel music industry. Cornerstone continued its insightful articles about music, as well as advertising and reviews about records. Progressive Pacer, published in Minnesota, was a Jesus-rock music magazine. Motif, published out of Georgia, was a Christian arts magazine which included some music coverage. Windstorm was a short-lived, full-color, glossy publication predominantly about contemporary Christian music. Sounds of Triumph was a newspaper published as an adjunct to a Jesus-rock radio program hosted and produced by Gord Driver in Toronto, Ontario, published in the late seventies. Firewind was another Canadian newspaper, edited by Chuck Clements, and filled with news about contemporary Christian

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music, published in the late seventies. Concert was a music-oriented publication out of the northeastern U.S., the last region of the country to get a solid hold on contemporary Christian music.

   Magazines such as Campus Life, Group, and a few others occasionally ran features on musicians or the music, but their coverage was limited. By the mideighties, there was a definite gap needing to be filled. The big, national publications put much more emphasis on the well-known and well-promoted musicians and singers, the ones usually with major record labels to push for coverage in the press. In a situation similar to the plight experienced by Jesus music in its infancy, the local, regional, and less-hyped musicians had virtually nowhere to go to inform people of their whereabouts or their ministries. There were only a few exceptions: self-published papers or newsletters; paid ads in the national publications; the FCCM National Newsletter; or the Christian Activities Calendar, published in Southern California and in Chicago for those respective areas, with listings of all known concerts. For effective communication between all ministries and the people served by them, there was a definite need for much more extensive work and coverage.

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