By Bob Smietana
The late Larry Norman’s life can be summed up in one question. “Why should the Devil have all the good music?”
Norman, often considered the father of Christian rock, was perhaps the most influential Christian singer and songwriter over the last 50 years.
When he burst on the scene in the late 1960s, Christian music had little popular appeal outside the church. Norman set out to change that—and in doing so, created a whole new genre of music—marrying rock and roll to lyrics about Jesus.
By the time he retired due to poor health 2001, Christian contemporary music had become a billion dollar industry. That same year, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
His songs earned list of fans from Paul McCartney and Sammy Davis Jr. to Bono and the Pixies. He played at the White House for Jimmy Carter and was an opening act for a who’s who of 70s rock: the Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix.
“I want the people to know that He saved my soul but I still like to listen to the radio,” Norman sang in one of his most popular songs, which also includes the line, “Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away.”
Here are a few reasons why Norman’s music lives on long after his death. And what modern Christians can learn from a long-haired hippy Jesus freak.
He put righteous rockers on the map.
Before Norman, contemporary Christian music didn’t really exist, says Greg Thornbury, author of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music, a new biography on Norman.
He helped create a new genre of music—and did it with style.
Billboard magazine called Norman “the most important writer since Paul Simon,” after the release of his 1971 album, “Only Visiting This Planet.”
That album was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry for its artistic and cultural value.
Some of the biggest names in early contemporary Christian music—folks like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Steve Camp, the Daniel Amos Band, and Randy Stonehill—have all credited Norman for paving the way for their careers.
Norman didn’t just talk about engaging culture. He made it.
“We are constantly talking about cultural engagement,” says Thornbury.
“For many evangelicals, that means blogging and talking about culture. But it’s a different thing altogether to do it and have the respect of the world. Larry Norman had that. I think we have a few things to learn there.”
Norman was open about his faith but friendly to those who didn’t share it. And he stuck with it—despite opposition from inside and outside the church.
“We should care about Larry Norman because he was truly an artist living out his faith—against almost impossible odds,” says Thornbury.
“The secular music industry thought he was completely nuts to waste his talent on religion. On the other hand, you had church leaders, preachers, saying rock and roll is of the Devil, your children should not be listening to this.”
Norman led the Jesus movement.
The 1970s brought a religious revival, as young Americans—many in California’s counterculture—decided to look into Jesus.
The so-called “Jesus freaks” became a national phenomenon. Even Billy Graham noticed.
Graham and Norman were both featured at Jesus Explo 72—a “religious Woodstock,” which drew more than 75,000 young Christians to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Norman was also featured in a cover story in Time entitled “The Jesus Revolution”—about how young people’s lives were being reshaped by the teaching of Jesus.
Norman wanted Jesus to save your soul. And change your life.
Norman loved to be around famous people, says Thornbury. But he was uncomfortable with the trappings of stardom.
After concerts, he refused to sign autographs. But he’d stand around for hours talking with concertgoers and praying with them about their troubles.
Other singers, Thornbury wrote, sang about finding forgiveness for sin. But Norman wanted to show that forgiveness should transform the lives of listeners.
“Larry Norman, in contrast, was incredibly effective at getting crowds to enter into his ‘message’—how, through God, coming to terms with your secret sins made you more compassionate to the poor, the needy, and the lost,” he wrote.
Norman’s songs still speak to today’s culture.
Nothing was off limits for Larry Norman. He sang about drug abuse, racism, greed, pride, loneliness, war, and the news media.
His songs were often bittersweet—filled with regret and hope, joy and sorrow—and almost always sing-able.
He might be the only artist who could sing about the end of the world to a calypso beat, as he did in “Revolution Peace and Pollution.” Or sing a catchy melody about the KKK, fake news, injustice in the courts, race, and religion.
Norman’s songs are popular among other artists.
More than 300 artists have covered Larry Norman songs, from British 1960s pop singer Petula Clark and 1950s country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford to modern CCM rock bands like DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline.
Five great introductory Larry Norman songs
- I Wish We’d All Been Ready: Probably his best-known song, it features an all-star backing band (including legendary drummer Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew.) You’ll find yourself humming along.
- Great American Novel: A classic protest song that points to Jesus in the end. Could have been written today.
- UFO: Like C.S. Lewis, Norman wondered what would happen if Jesus appeared to residents of another planet.
- The Outlaw: A look at all the ways people see Jesus—from rabble-rousing moral teacher to Son of God.
- Shot Down: Larry Norman was no saint—he had failings like any other person. And he had his critics. So he answered them in a catchy song.
- Sound Theology: Teaching Your People Through Music
- Christian Media Barely Reaching Beyond the Faithful
- How Steven Curtis Chapman Fought Through the Tears to Play “Cinderella” Again
- 13 Things You May Not Have Imagined About “I Can Only Imagine”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.