Chapter 23: Aerobimania and Fallen Warriors

The year 1982 was one of the most eventful in the history of contemporary Christian music. Unfortunately there was as much bad news as good in that year.

   Attendance at the annual Christian Booksellers Association Convention in Dallas was down slightly, signaling a cautious attitude among booksellers and record-sellers waiting for a sluggish economy to show true signs of picking up. But with a recession in full swing, the casualty list was uncomfortably long. One of the first Christian all-record stores (if not the first), The Praise Company, operated by Robbie Marshall in Denver, closed its doors. Distribution by Dave, a major supplier of recorded Christian product to Christian retailers, also closed. Sonshine Artists, which had appeared to be rapidly growing concert promotion firm, went belly-up in Tulsa, following an elaborate ''gospel cruise'' to the Bahamas which failed to pay for itself. In Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles the offices of Record World, a secular trade magazine which also carried some gospel news, closed permanently. As mentioned earlier, Continental Radio, based in Portsmouth,Virginia, signed off its satellite radio network after less than two years on the air.

   While the industry adjusted itself, most album prices went up another notch to $8.98, matching cassette prices. The cassette tapes were approaching the point of surpassing record sales, while 8-tracks faded into tape history, where they belonged.

   Other than the new reign of Amy Grant as the top-selling artist in gospel music as the result of her Age to Age album, the most notable trend in contemporary Christian music was Christian aerobic-mania. Led by Aerobic Celebration on the New Pax label, a string of at least ten other Christian alternatives to Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons would be released in the following year.

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   Among the leaders in sales were Aerobic Celebration, Firm Believer, and Believercise. Not since the days of the folk musicals had there been such a glut of thematic albums, with every label getting on the aerobiwagon; and not since the days of the early Christian coffeehouses had so many inventive, punnish names popped up. By March of 1983 there were four aerobics albums in CCM's Top Album Sales chart, indicating there was a definite demand.

   The most common justification heard for the albums was from women who wanted to exercise, but preferred not to do it to secular disco music, as was the rage. The aerobics albums from the gospel labels used current contemporary Christian artists and their songs for the workout backups, and later Stormie Omartian recorded Exercise for Life, which introduced original music for alternative aerobics. Also on her album was an up-tempo medley of familiar hymns, arranged and performed by her husband, Michael.

   Another facet of music and ministry that showed strength in the midst of a recession were the Jesus festivals and conferences, most of which were well attended in 1982. Even the lights of Broadway and Hollywood marquees helped to brighten the picture with religious themes, much as they had in the early seventies, but this time perhaps a bit closer to the gospel truth.

   The outstanding success of Chariots of Fire, for instance, a motion picture about 1924 Olympic runner Eric Liddell, an outspoken Christian, had stirred new feelings of respectability among Christians. The Christian lifestyle could make a difference, it proved, and a new courage seemed to develop in believers who watched the success of the film. It won four Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture. The music from the film, especially the title song, was equally well received. It was played both on secular and Christian radio, providing an interesting and unusual fusion of two audiences.

   In New York, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was successfully playing off-Broadway to decent reviews, some fourteen years since its creation for a boy's school in England. On Broadway, the Reverend Al Green, soul-singer-turned-gospel-singing preacher, took on the stage for a lead role in Your Arm's Too Short to Box With God. The show proved a short run for the Memphis music maker.

   At the Lamb's Theater in Manhattan, an important location for Christian gatherings in a secular environment for several years, Cotton Patch Gospel debuted in late 1981. The play was an adaptation of a book called Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. The sprightly one-man show (with assistance from a musical trio called the Cotton Pickers) drew good-sized audiences, partly because the music

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was composed by Harry Chapin, a pop singer and songwriter who had been killed in a fiery auto crash in July 1981. The death had been mourned by pop-music fans and performers alike. Cotton Patch Gospel would later be staged across the United States by various touring groups before very receptive audiences.

   Somewhat ironically, in the same month only one year later, as audiences were listening to Chapin's Cotton Patch music in New York, the Christian music world would experience a comparable feeling of loss in mourning a respected singer and composer. On July 28, 1982, Keith Green and two of his young children, along with a family of friends visiting Green's Last Days Ministries complex near Lindale, Texas, left for a short sightseeing plane flight that ended in tragedy.

   The Cessna, designed to carry six passengers and a pilot, was loaded with a total of twelve people instead. At takeoff, it couldn't get enough altitude to clear the treetops, and it crashed, exploding in flames on impact with the ground, killing all on board.

   Green's wife, Melody, pregnant with their fourth child, was thereby left to carry on the work of Last Days Ministries with the help of other members of the Christian community there. Out-reaches of Last Days Ministries included extensive mission work, distribution of Keith's albums and tapes, publication of the widely read Last Days Newsletter, and the dissemination of literally millions of tracts for evangelistic and Christian growth purposes, including ambitious antiabortion literature.

   Green's sudden death stunned the gospel music community, especially those involved in the contemporary side. His songs, though searing, were an ongoing example of what contemporary Christian music could be without falling into commercial trappings and limitations. Much of his music was labeled as propheticliterally the voice of one crying in the wilderness, a voice which moved many people into changed and recommitted lives.

   But the sad news for contemporary Christians did not end with Green's death. On the day of Green's funeral, Charles McPheeters, whose most recent activity had brought his Holy Ghost Repair Service back to the Hollywood streets where he had worked years before with Teen Challenge and then Arthur Blessitt, succumbed to a battle with stomach cancer. He had known of the condition only a brief six months or so before.

   The passing of Green and McPheeters in the same summer week in 1982 showed that death didn't claim just the elderly, and that sometimes it claimed warriors for Christ in their prime. The old hymn, ''Work, For the Night Is Coming,'' took on new meaning for

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some. There was work to be done right away, and two of the leading officers in at least the music and street-level divisions of God's army on earth had been taken. Thus grew the immediate need for other bold, daring Christians who would do the work without argument and, more important, without compromise.

   McPheeters had recorded two lively, sometimes hilarious albums characteristic of his infectious humor, but mixed with compassion and an underlying urgent plea for people to see the glorious light of Jesus' salvation. His two albums were released on custom labels, with no nationwide distribution and no chart action. He never became a big name in Christian music. But not having a hit album never fazed him or deterred him from the serious work at hand, ministering to the people of the Hollywood streets who virtually no one else seemed to care about. His wife, Judy, carried on the leadership of the Holy Ghost Repair Service after Charles' death, with the same intensity and courage as was shown by Keith Green's widow at Last Days.

   Keith Green's albums, conversely, were hits. He was well-known because of his music. But rather than get carried away with the fame, he used it for the work God had called them to, even when it wasn't the easy or popular thing to do.

   The examples set forth by Green and McPheeters undoubtedly spurred other musicians to carry on the work. It would be several years before the tremendous impact of their ministries would even begin to be measured.

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