NASHVILLE (Billboard) - One of Christian rock music’s most influential and controversial figures, Larry Norman died February 24 of heart failure at his home in Salem, Ore. He was 60.
Inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001, Norman is often referred to as “the father of Christian rock music.” He is known for such groundbreaking anthems as “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” and “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”
“Larry was an interesting person in every sense of the word,” Gospel Music Assn. president/CEO John Styll says. “He was one of the first to record what later became known as contemporary Christian music, but what he did in the early ‘70s was far edgier than most of what comes from that genre now. I found Larry to be likable and personable, although unpredictable. I always suspected that he wrote much of his own publicity and spun it so as to further his own mystique, and he did have a way of rewriting history. But he earned his place, and history will always show that he was an original — an iconoclast.”
Born April 8, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas, Norman began writing and performing at age 9. He later moved to San Jose, California, where he became part of the local music scene, opening for the Doors and Jimi Hendrix.
Norman began recording in the mid-‘60s and first garnered attention with 1968 release “I Love You,” which he recorded while lead singer for the group People! The title track was a cover of the Zombies tune, which reached No. 7 on Billboard’s pop singles chart.
Norman left the group as soon as its album was released and embarked on a colorful solo career. Capitol Records issued his first solo album, “Upon This Rock,” in 1969, widely considered the first Christian rock album. In 1972, with help from Beatles producer George Martin, he recorded the landmark “Only Visiting This Planet” for MGM Records. The following year, he released “So Long Ago the Garden,” also on MGM, before opting to pursue the indie label route the remainder of his career, launching his own Solid Rock Records.
Norman pushed the boundaries by creating rock music that incorporated his faith and targeted nonbelievers. He was never one to preach to the choir, and his brazen passion sometimes irked religious conservatives. But no amount of criticism could deter him. With his long hair, faded jeans and outspoken political and social views, he was the original Christian rock rebel.
Many Christian bookstores banned his product, but his fellow musicians always held him in high esteem.
“I remember the exact moment when I first heard Larry’s music,” says EMI Christian Music Publishing president Eddie DeGarmo, formerly of pioneering Christian rock outfit DeGarmo & Key. “It was June 1972. I was 17. We were just kids in a rock band on a mission to our generation playing wherever we could. None of us were aware that anyone else was doing this, probably due to us being sheltered in the Bible Belt. ‘Only Visiting This Planet’ truly changed the way we looked at things and what was possible. There was somebody that had blazed the trail for us.”
Norman’s music has influenced a variety of artists, from mainstream rockers to today’s young Christian bands. “Larry Norman is without a doubt my greatest lyrical influence,” ForeFront artist tobyMac says. “He was socially relevant, spiritually significant and passionate about challenging his generation to new heights of love. Larry put Jesus on the streets — right where he belongs.”
More than 300 acts have recorded Norman’s songs, among them Sammy Davis Jr., Petula Clark, Rebecca St. James and Geoff Moore & the Distance. In 1995, St. James, dcTalk, Grammatrain and Audio Adrenaline were among the Christian acts participating in the tribute album “One Way: Songs of Larry Norman.”
At the time of his death, Norman had been working on a new project with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock and Pixies frontman Frank Black, who cites Norman as a major influence. That music will be released later this year.
Just hours before he died, Norman, who had struggled with heart disease for years, dictated a message to be posted on his Web site. It said, in part, “I feel like a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks with God’s hand reaching down to pick me up. I have been under medical care for months. My wounds are getting bigger. I have trouble breathing. I am ready to fly home.”