One of the pioneers of Contemporary Christian music, Larry Norman has remained a stubbornly independent artist for more than three decades. Best known for such gospel-infused rock tunes as “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus,” he has recorded an impressive body of work that combines witty topical statements of faith with an expert sense of pop/rock songwriting. Beyond his own performing career, Norman has sponsored other talented Christian artists as a label owner and record producer. Despite battling serious health problems in recent years, he has continued to release CDs through his record company, Solid Rock.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Norman relocated to San Francisco with his family at age three. Raised in a religious home, he accompanied his father on preaching missions into hospitals and prisons. In 1956 Norman became enamored with Elvis Presley’s music and started to perform his own original songs at his elementary school. From the start, he sought to mix entertainment with a spiritual message. “The kids at school seemed impressed with Elvis, [but] none of them accepted my invitations to go to church,” Norman told Contemporary Musician. “So one day I brought church to them, walking around from bench to bench singing.”
Norman’s musical gifts helped him win an appearance on the popular television program Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour in 1959. By the mid-1960s he had moved to San Jose and became active on the local rock music scene. Opening shows for the likes of the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, he attempted to share his faith with his fellow young rockers offstage. He formed the six-member band People in 1968 and after signing a deal with Capitol Records, released the single “I Love You” that same year. Soon afterward he fought unsuccessfully with Capitol to have a picture of Christ featured on the cover of his group’s album, We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus and a Lot Less Rock and Roll. When the record company balked, Norman left People and decided to embark on a solo career.
The late 1960s saw many young rock fans turn away from drugs and sexual promiscuity and embrace traditional religion. This “Jesus Movement” took a radical approach to Christian faith and encouraged born-again believers to launch their own street ministries. It was in this climate that Norman released his solo debut album, Upon This Rock, in 1969, a recording often considered the first example of Contemporary Christian music. By turns funny, angry, and enraptured, the album’s songs are as well written as they are fervent. Norman displayed his comedie talents on such tracks as “Ha Ha World” and “Moses in the Wilderness,” using hipster language to examine biblical themes. Other tracks took a more serious approach: “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” Upon This Rock’s centerpiece, was a dramatic narrative describing the earth’s final days. Intentionally frightening, the song went on to become a Christian music standard and was later covered by the hit-making Christian group dc Talk.
Upon This Rock reflected Norman’s ambitious goals as both an artist and preacher. “I wanted to push aside the traditional gospel quartet music, break down the church doors and let the hippies and the prostitutes and other unwashed rabble into the sanctuary,” he recalled to Contemporary Musicians. “I wanted to talk about feeding the poor, going into the world… I wanted the church to get active and go out and do what Jesus told us to do. I felt that while the hymns had great theology soaked into their lyrics, that most of the modern music was anemic and needed a transfusion.” Norman’s message was confrontational, challenging conservative Christians as well as nonbelievers. On-stage, he criticized churches for their lack of commitment to the disadvantaged, a habit that made it sometimes difficult to get bookings at Christian coffeehouses. His upstart attitude, though, won him a loyal following among young believers across America.
For his part, Norman kept a certain amount of distance between himself and his youthful followers. “I did not particularly feel comfortable with the Jesus Movement,” Norman told Contemporary Musicians. “I was not one of the kids who had recently become a Christian. I did not have any scintillating ‘testimony’ of getting high on Jesus and then giving up drugs, girls and the pursuit of material possessions…. In fact, I felt that I was neither part of the ‘establishment’ [n]or part of the alternative
For the Record…
Born on April 8, 1947, in Corpus Christi, TX.
Began career as member of the band People, 1968; released first solo album Upon This Rock on Capitol, 1969; signed with MGM, released Only Visiting This Planet, 1972; formed Solid Rock Records, released In Another World, 1976; performed at White House, 1979; formed Phydeaux Records, released Something New under the Son, 1980; toured internationally, released additional albums on Phydeaux and Street Level labels, 1980s-1990s; released studio album Tourniquet, 2001.
Awards: Induction, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Solid Rock Records, 3760 Market NE, Suite 306, Salem, OR 97301. Website—Larry Norman Official Website: http://www.larrynorman.com.
lifestyle enclave which felt itself so superior to their parents and our civic leaders.”
Norman kept up a busy recording schedule during the early 1970s. Parting company with Capitol, he launched his own record company, One Way. (Its name derived from the “one way” upraised index finger gesture, a popular expression of Christian faith that Norman is credited with inventing.) The live albums Street Level and Bootleg were both released by this label in 1969. From there, he signed with MGM Records’ Verve label and recorded 1972’s Only Visiting This Planet in London with arrangement input from legendary Beatles producer George Martin. This album became Norman’s best-known work.
More musically eclectic than his earlier efforts, Only Visiting This Planet mixed quiet, acoustic-flavored folk pieces with heavier rock/R&B tracks. Lyrically, the album’s songs attack racism and hypocrisy (“I Am the Six O’Clock News”), warn against self-destructive lifestyles (“Why Don’t You Look into Jesus”) and depict the life of Christ with fresh imagery (“The Outlaw”). The playfully upbeat “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” makes the case for using rock ‘n’ roll in Lord’s service. One of the most significant Christian rock albums ever released, Only Visiting This Planet managed to combine intense moral commitment with a highly polished pop/rock sound.
Norman’s momentum was slowed by a squabble with MGM over song choices for his next album, 1973’s So Long Ago the Garden. According to Norman, the record company dropped several Christian songs in favor of more lightweight love songs like “Fly, Fly, Fly,” the album’s opening track. Despite such meddling, So Long Ago the Garden contained a number of strong tracks, including the bluesy, Bob Dylan-influenced “Nightmare #71.”
Heading off on his own once again, Norman launched yet another record company, Solid Rock. His first release for this label, In Another Land, appeared in 1975. Running the gamut of musical styles from Southern rock to 1920s-style theater music, the album’s outstanding tracks included “Six Sixty Six” (a portrait of the Antichrist) and “I Am a Servant” (a graceful, melodic declaration of faith). In addition to his own work, Norman released albums by such important Christian artists as Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, and the band Daniel Amos on Solid Rock as well. His stature as an artist was reaffirmed when President Jimmy Carter invited him to perform at the White House in 1979.
Ever the maverick, Norman turned away from the increasingly slick sound of Christian music during the late 1970s and started yet another record company, Phydeaux (named for his dog) in 1980. The label released albums of varying Christian content. Norman’s own 1980 LP Something New Under the Son emphasized traditional blues songwriting over explicitly religious content. A series of live albums—including Israel Tapes, Come as a Child, and Stop This Flight—appeared throughout the 1980s, capturing his concerts in far-flung locales. In 1989, he earned a rare Christian radio hit with “Somewhere Out There.”
After years of frequent touring and recording, Norman suffered a serious heart attack in 1992 and decided to reduce his touring schedule. Despite his health problems, he continued to record and release albums under various label imprints, including Street Level and Solid Rock. The 1998 album Copper Wires found him returning to his folk-rock roots and included a remake of his People hit “I Love You.” Vineyard, a two-CD 1999 release, featured songs from throughout his career performed in an intimate live setting.
In 2001 Norman released a new studio album, Tourniquet, and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. That same year, his health declined further after a series of heart attacks. Though largely unable to play or sing, he supervised the release of several compilation CDs, including Agitator and Survivor.
A passionate, uncompromising artist, Larry Norman ranks among Christian music’s most important innovators. The best of his songs stand as uniquely powerful expressions of faith and social concern. His commitment to evangelism and activism remain strong. “I still want to change the world but I know I can only do my part for social change through one person at a time,” he told Contemporary Musicians. “Inner reformation is something only God can help you with completely. And I want my music to be part of that process in a person’s life.”
Upon This Rock, Capitol, 1969.
Only Visiting This Planet, MGM/Verve, 1972.
So Long Ago the Garden, MGM/Verve, 1973.
In Another Land, Solid Rock, 1976.
Come as a Child, Phydeaux, 1980.
Israel Tapes, Phydeaux, 1980.
Something New under the Son, Phydeaux, 1980.
Archaeology, Phydeaux, 1986.
Rehearsal for Reality, Royal, 1986.
Home at Last, Solid Rock/Benson, 1989.
Best of Larry Norman, Royal/Word, 1990.
Omega Europe, Street Level, 1994.
Totally Unplugged, Street Level, 1994.
Copper Wires, Solid Rock, 1998.
Vineyard, Solid Rock, 1999.
Blarney Stone, Solid Rock, 2000.
Tourniquet, Solid Rock, 2001.
Agitator, Solid Rock, 2002.
Survivor, Solid Rock, 2002.
Alfonso, Barry, The Billboard Guide to Contemporary Christian Music, Billboard Books, 2002.
Baker, Paul, Contemporary Christian Music, Crossway Books, 1985.
Brothers, Jeffrey L., Hot Hits—Christian Hit Radio, CCM Books, 1999.
Howard, Jay R., and Streck, John M., Apostles of Rock, University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
HM, May/June 2001, p. 67; July/August 2001, p. 70-71.
Larry Norman Official Website, http://www.larrynorman.com (April 2, 2003).
Phantom Tollbooth, http://www.tollbooth.org. (November 27, 2002).
Additional information was obtained from e-mail and telephone interviews with Norman in August 2000, October 2000, and February 2002.
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