Chapter 3: Jesus Is Just Alright

''He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.'' ''When the Saints Go Marching In.'' ''There'll Be Peace in the Valley.'' ''There's a Gold Mine in the Sky.'' ''He.'' ''Angels in the Sky.'' ''The Bible Tells Me So.''

   It may sound like a grand old sermon, but actually it is a list of songs which were popular in the mid- and late 1950s—and not just popular in churches and at camp meetings, either. The songs, recorded by artists such as Pat Boone, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and the Crew Cuts (Does anyone remember the Crew Cuts?), made their way to the top of the secular hit charts.

   Popular music of the 1950s was a potpourri of musical styles, ranging from ''Sixteen Tons'' by Tennessee Ernie Ford and ''Around the World'' by Mantovani to ''Heartbreak Hotel'' by Elvis Presley and ''Rock Around the Clock'' by Bill Haley and his Comets. The variety of pop styles allowed some inspirational or gospel songs to become hits right along with the other pop songs.

   In the early 1960s, however, the musical tastes of America began to change. The ''war babies,'' conceived in the years of World War II, had become high-school teenagers and would soon be in college. The comfortable ''Fabulous Fifties'' faded, and there began the growing unrest of civil rights inequities, and later a Viet Nam war.

   The generation gap widened. Religious sentiments in pop songs faded. From 1961 until 1964, except for Christmas music each December, there were no major pop hits of a religious nature.

   In 1964, the nation's music entered a new phase. The music industry was jarred so radically by the Beatles that in some ways it was as if popular music had just started. The mood was brightened by British rock, and in the midst of the renewed enthusiasm and

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hope pop hits of a religious nature began showing up again. Peter, Paul & Mary made the Top 40 charts with ''Go Tell It on the Mountain.'' The Bachelors sang ''I Believe.'' ''You'll Never Walk Alone'' was a hit twice in two years, 1964 and 1965.

   Also in 1964, the nation was treated to a motion picture starring Sidney Poitier, entitled Lilies of the Field. The movie carried a religious theme and featured ''Amen,'' a gospel song written by Jerry Goldsmith. ''Amen'' quickly caught on as a hit for a soul-music group known as the Impressions, and reached #7 on the national charts. The Impressions had recorded ''Amen'' with a march beat rather than a gospel beat; the brass choir in the recording gave the effect of a Salvation Army band, which was many people's idea of what ''religion'' was supposed to sound like.

   In fact, the images of ''religious'' people and religion in general were an interesting concept. Most people outside of Christianity had been convinced through motion pictures that in order for someone to be ''religious,'' one had to be a mild-mannered, meek priest wearing a clerical collar, or a nun dressed in her habit, feeding and caring for orphan children. Even less sympathetic views of preachers were the ranting, raving images presented in Hawaii and Elmer Gantry. To the Hollywood directors and producers, an average, everyday, level-headed, commonly dressed businessman could in no way represent Christianity or religion.

   Thus, the people began believing the images they saw—one extreme or the other, pious or delirious, seldom normal. God was given the image in music of being ''the Man upstairs.'' Seldom was He portrayed as Something or Someone touchable and real. He was nearly always kept aloof. Thus, the religious feelings in pop songs had to be subdued, couched in nebulous terms. Religion was kept cute and harmless, never convicting.

   Though the songs weren't always evangelistic, religious music managed to break into the top 20 several times during 1965. The Impressions, hot on the heels of their success with ''Amen,'' recorded ''People Get Ready,'' which reached #14.

   Elvis Presley sang ''Crying in the Chapel'' in 1965 too, and the song smashed all the way to #3. But the top religious hit for the year was the Byrds' recording of ''Turn! Turn! Turn!,'' composer Pete Seeger's paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 3, with certain alterations given to make it a ''peace song.'' ''Turn! Turn! Turn!'' became the #1 song in America on October 23, 1965.

   Then, in the late sixties, another trend in religious pop songs began. Just as the Jesus movement was drawing people into recognizing Jesus as a personal Saviour, the name of Jesus began appearing

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in pop songs for the first time. Heretofore, song lyrics had referred to God only as "He" or "Him" or "the Lord."

   In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel recorded the soundtrack music to a movie entitled The Graduate. The most popular song from the film became "Mrs. Robinson" in which this line appeared: ''Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson; Jesus loves you more than you will know." The song was a tongue-in-cheek poke at religion and was by no means religious, but it was apparently the first time in the rock era that the name Jesus actually appeared in a popular song. It was ironic that it should take a sarcastic song to open the floodgates of Jesus music!

   The ironies didn't end with "Mrs. Robinson" though. In the late sixties, a group of black California high-school students, known collectively as the Northern California State Youth Choir, recorded a hymn which was more than two hundred years old.

   The recording of the hymn was sent to a few radio stations in California, and soon people were calling and asking to hear "that choir record." A large record company caught wind of what was happening with the song and pressed a new copy of the single for national distribution. To remove some of the religiosity from the group's name (so more pop stations might play their music), the name was changed to the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

   "Oh Happy Day" was the hymn. Legend of how the record became a hit says that the song was played as a joke by a rock disc jockey in San Francisco. The joke backfired, and the phones started ringing with requests for it. The superhymn began its stupendous climb all the way to a #4 chart status in June 1969 and sold over a million copies. The message "Oh happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away" was being heard by millions in a popular song.

   A two-century-old hymn sung by a black choir had become a top hit in a rock world. Even more ironically, the name of the record company which distributed the first "Jesus hit" was Buddah Records. The popularity of "Oh Happy Day" heralded the start of a long succession of hit songs mentioning Jesus.

   Just as a hymn was an unlikely candidate to find its way into the top record charts of the late 1960s, so was a country gospel recording. While "Oh Happy Day" was still selling in stores all over the world, an unknown singer named Lawrence Reynolds recorded a song entitled "Jesus Is a Soul Man." Warner Brothers Records released the single, and it emerged on the national hit charts in September 1969 and managed to rise to #28 in Billboard. Not only was it country music, it was country gospel music—unlikely company for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

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   Norman Greenbaum, another newcomer to the charts, was the next artist to use Jesus' name in pop music. "Spirit in the Sky," which first seemed to be a genuine Jesus-rock song, was later exposed to be a tongue-in-cheek flay at the Jesus people who were actively witnessing all over the West Coast. Greenbaum told Hit Parader magazine, "I wanted to write a thing called a religious song. Jesus Christ is popular and in actuality I used the most popular religious character in my song. . . I'm not a Christian and I don't go to church." Regardless, thousands of young people adopted the hit as a Christian "theme song" during that year. "Spirit in the sky" became the nations' #3 song in February 1970.

   There were several reasons why songs about Jesus began showing up more and more frequently in 1969 and the early seventies. The Jesus movement was gaining momentum, and the Jesus theme was a little more acceptable than it had been in years past. Secondly, the youth of the generation gap were opening up to any possible religion. They were considering each faith's claims and experimenting with each, searching for spiritual fulfillment. To these youth, Jesus represented just another religious possibility. Though many of them had turned down the Jesus of their parents, they felt they had discovered a new Jesus, with long hair, a beard—so many of the characteristics adopted by the prodigal youth of the late sixties and early seventies. To them, Jesus was a revolutionary.

   A third reason for the increasing number of "Jesus" hits was the simple fact that fresh new lyrics were needed as more and more pop songs were vying for hit status. The lyrics seemed to appeal to the masses; so more and more record companies followed the lead established by "Oh Happy Day."

   Though not generally recognized by the public as a "Jesus song," the late-1962 #2 hit of singer Tommy James, "Crystals Blue Persuasion," was written as a result of James' realization of Christ as Savior.

   The Youngbloods' recording of "Get Together," which had already been a hit in 1967, returned to the charts in 1969 and reached #5. "Get Together" is one of three "Jesus hit" recordings to become hits in two different years. The other two were Billy Preston's "That's the Way God Planned It" (1969 and 1972), and the questionable "Superstar" (1970 and 1971).

   One of the classic albums of Jesus-rock music was released in 1970 by Cotillion Records. The album, which unfortunately never reached the hit charts, was Mylon, and featured Mylon LeFevre and his band performing a dozen Jesus-rock songs. Mylon had been a part of the Gospel Singing LeFevres, a family southern-gospel

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group. He was singing at the early age of five, when, he recalls, he would "stand on the end of a piano bench and face the microphone." He continued to sing with the other LeFevres until he was twenty-five, when his long sideburns and his love for rock music caused a rift.  

   Mylon had already written songs for Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Don Gibson, Porter Wagoner, and Mahalia Jackson. Some of the songs became award-winning gospel favorites. But Mylon wanted to rock. He explained to everyone, upon his resignation from southern-gospel music, that he wanted to ''reach'' young people with what I believe inthat Jesus gave His life for my sinsbut I'm not gonna shove religion at them.''

   Mylon's debut rock album contained nearly all Jesus music. His subsequent recordings drifted from the Christian theme, but the first remains an important event in the history of contemporary Christian music.

   Ray Stevens, whose ''Ahab the Arab'' and ''Gitarzan'' had record buyers assuming that the singer never took things seriously, recorded a song in April 1970 which turned many heads and sold a million copies. ''Everything is Beautiful'' easily reached #1. Although the composition itself was not actually Jesus music, the lyrics told of love for one's fellowman. What put it into the Jesus music category was for the children's chorus of ''Jesus Loves the Little Children'' at the beginning of the recording.

   Later that year the popular Columbia recording group the Byrds released ''Jesus Is Just Alright.'' Though the song was caught up by many Christians, the recording never scored as a big hit. More successful was Pacific Gas & Electric, another popular rock group. Their record, ''Are You Ready?,'' was a powerhouse single that even to this day is not recognized by some as Jesus rock, although the entire content of the lyrics is spiritual and scriptural. The song managed to secure the #14 spot in the nation in the summer of 1970.

   The year 1970 was also a banner year for non-Jesus music ''inspirational'' hits. They were songs which were more or less worldly carbon copies of the trendy Jesus-music songs.

   Simon & Garfunkel's ''Bridge Over Troubled Water'' was wrapped in an ethereal aura and became a hymn for the pop world. The music was right, the lyrics and recording were stirring; thus, to many people, it was religious. But it was not Jesus music. Indeed, its lyrics were suspected of having extensive references to drugs.

   James Taylor, Johnny Rivers, and R. B. Greaves all reached the Hot 100 in 1970 with Taylor's composition ''Fire and Rain.'' Here,

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once again, was a borderline case as to whether or not the song was really Jesus music. The song alluded to a definite call for help from Jesus, but Taylor tended to use the word euphonically rather than with conviction. The Taylor version of ''Fire and Rain'' hit #3 on the charts.

   The Jackson Five produced a stir with ''I'll Be There,'' a song assuring that when everyone else had deserted, ''I'll be there to protect you.'' No one seemed to mind that the singer providing all the reassurance, Michael Jackson, was an adolescent.

   Motown Records, who released the Jackson Five song, also had a #7 hit in 1970 with the Supremes' ''Stoned Love.'' The song passed by many people without their realization that the lyrics in part spoke of God's great love, citing the sun in the sky as a ''symbol'' of that love.

   Much more obvious were the lyrics of ''Amazing Grace,'' an astonishing hit indeed for Judy Collins in 1970. The hymn was written by converted slavetrader John Newton in the second half of the eighteenth century. Collins' #15 recording of ''Amazing Grace'' was not an updated version, but rather a traditional, congregational singing of the hymn.

   In 1971, there was hardly a week when at least one ''Jesus song'' was not on rock radio stations coast to coast. B. J. Thomas sang ''Mighty Clouds of Joy.'' Kenny Rogers and the First Edition even nudged the Hot 100 with another handclapper, ''Take My Hand.'' Rogers, in a personal interview, said he had been influenced by his Baptist upbringing in writing the song. (Several years later he would make a hit country recording of the hymn ''Love Lifted Me.'') Johnny Rivers sang ''Think His Name.'' Sha Na Na even contributed a parody of all the Jesus hits: ''Are you on the top 40 of your Lordy, Lordy, Lordy?'' Ray Stevens revived a 1938 song, ''Turn Your Radio On,'' all about gospel radio.

   One of the most memorable of the 1971 ''Jesus songs'' was the #2 hit for a Canadian group, Ocean. The song, ''Put Your Hand in the Hand,'' was picked up and recorded by scores of other artists, but Ocean's version stood alone on the charts.

   Noel Paul Stookey, on his own as a solo performer following the breakup of Peter, Paul & Mary, made a hit out of a song he had written for Peter Yarrow's wedding. Noel felt so impressed that the Lord had given him the words for ''Wedding Song (There Is Love),'' he published it under the ''Public Domain Fund,'' and most of the proceeds from royalties for the #24 hit were sent to ''The Children's Foundation.''

   ''I assigned the writing and the publishing to them,'' Stookey

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said, ''because I didn't really feel it belonged to me. I had put up the request before Jesus to write the song for Peter's wedding. It took two or three days for me to get out of the way, but eventually Jesus created the tune. I just wrote it down when it came.''

   Songs such as ''Wedding Song (There Is Love)'' and ''Amazing Grace'' were true Christian songs in the midst of many trendy Jesus songs. At times the dividing line was hard to draw, but in general the Jesus songs of the late sixties and early seventies were no more than pop songs about a current topic. By 1971, it was nearly impossible to avoid hearing mention of Jesus in pop music. For some people it was a pleasant state of the art. Other people had almost had their fill. But the most publicized exploitation of Jesus in the rock-music world was just around the corner.

Chapter Four  ||  Table of Contents