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How Did Larry Norman Become the Father of Christian Rock?

G. Connor Salter

“It is certainly no overstatement,” John J. Thompson writes, “to say Larry Norman is to Christian music what John Lennon is to rock & roll or Bob Dylan is to folk music.” In less than five years, Norman went from fronting a little-known 1960s rock band to being a solo artist who released the first major Christian rock record. In the 1970s, he solidified his reputation as “the father of Christian rock.” TIME featured Norman in a June 1971 article about the Jesus Movement. His company Solid Rock Records broke new ground in Christian rock, producing artists like Randy Stonehill and Mark Heard. Along the way, he reportedly shared the gospel with future Christian music greats like Keith Green and celebrities like Dudley Moore.

Despite Norman’s accomplishments and influence, he seemed to burn as many bridges as he built. Biographer Gregory Thornbury outlines Norman’s penchant for micromanaging and sometimes poor business sense that effectively ended Solid Rock. Odd behavior, which Norman later credited to a brain injury, pushed away many friends and colleagues. The fact Norman crafted a public image and mythology, with cryptic messages like “to Fehrion… wherever you are” on album liner notes, may have made it easier to dismiss him as weird or deceitful.

Fast Facts About Larry Norman

Born: April 8, 1947.

Died: February 24, 2008.

Most Important Album: Upon This Rock

Great Quote: “An artist says something because he feels it needs to be said, even if it’s something few people want to hear—even if it will guarantee the winnowing of his following and possibly bring about the end of his popularity and his income.” — Cross Rhythms, 2006

Top 10 Events in the Life of Larry Norman

1. In 1966, while Norman was performing in the band People!, the group gained a recording contract with Capitol Records.

2. In 1968, Norman was fired from People! (bandmate Geoff Levins described the problem as religious differences). Shortly afterward, Capitol rehired Norman as a songwriter.

3. In 1969, he released his first solo album, Upon This Rock. Critics consider Upon This Rock to be the first major Christian rock album.

4. In 1970, aspiring songwriter Randy Stonehill sent a letter to Norman asking if he could stay with Norman in California. Stonehill became Norman’s first protégé, but their complicated relationship soured years later.

5. In 1974, Norman founded Solid Rock Records. Over the next six years, Solid Rock would produce music by Stonehill, Norman, Mark Heard, and the band Daniel Amos.

6. On April 15, 1978, Norman was flying to Los Angeles when one of the plane’s ceiling panels came off and hit his head. He later reported the injury caused psychological issues.

7. In 1980, Solid Rock effectively dissolved over management conflicts. Norman would spend the rest of his career releasing music through Phydeaux, a label he set up in 1979 to distribute his bootlegs and new recordings.

8. In 1991, Norman reported that pastor John Barr prayed over him at a south London meeting, which healed his brain injury. The same year, he released Stranded in Babylon, often considered his comeback album.

9. In 2001, Norman performed at Cornerstone Music Festival, effectively his last touring performance. Ongoing health issues left him unable to do much recording or performing for the last years of his life.

10. On February 24, 2008, Norman died of heart failure.

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Larry Norman

1. He dabbled in theater. Norman’s early work with People! included music for several rock operas and contributed some theatrical elements to their shows. He also wrote songs for several musicals, two of which (Alison and Birthday for Shakespeare) were produced in 1968. During this period, Norman was also offered a role in a Los Angeles production of Hair, which he turned down.

2. He played to the famous and the little-known. Throughout his career, Norman played everywhere, from local churches to the White House (President Jimmy Carter invited Norman in 1979 to play at the White House’s Old-Fashioned Gospel Singing event).

3. He didn’t realize what he was inventing. While Norman kickstarted what we now call Contemporary Christian Music, he never realized that his music would start a larger movement. Various writers have noted that Norman became disillusioned or irritated at the growing genre, concerned it was becoming bland and preaching to the choir.

4. He was influenced by Francis Schaeffer. Norman met Francis Schaeffer on several occasions, visiting his L’Abri center for the first time in 1972. They would continue corresponding over the years, discussing the value of creating art outside religious subcultures. One of Schaeffer’s students, Steve Turner, worked on an unreleased book about Norman’s career.

5. He gained praise from mainstream as well as Christian musicians. Norman received praise from various mainstream musicians, including U2’s Bono and the Pixies’ Black Francis. One of the more surprising stories came from Norman’s brother Charles, who recalls meeting Bob Dylan in 1992 at Los Angeles International Airport. As they chatted, Charles said he’d just gotten off touring with his brother. Dylan responded, “Larry Norman… tell your brother I’m a fan.”

6. He was great at creating an image. While Norman’s music was groundbreaking, Turner argued in his unreleased book that Norman’s greatest talent was marketing himself. Sometimes this marketing became dubious, as when Norman copyrighted the “One Way” logo, based on a drawing by his friend Lance Bowen. Bowen made the drawing based on seeing audiences make the “One Way” sign at concerts, which Norman claimed he invented, making it something he could trademark.

7. He was often ahead of his time. One of the things that made Norman controversial throughout his career was his willingness to criticize organized Christianity, emphasizing his relationship with God over his connection to any church community. Thornbury suggests that this attitude means Norman would have gotten along well with today’s young people struggling to have faith while wondering whether to trust the church.

8. His relationships were complicated. One struggle with deciphering Norman’s difficult relationships with friends and colleagues is how complex those relationships became. This is especially true with Randy Stonehill. While Norman was mentoring Stonehill and producing his work through Solid Rock, Stonehill married Sarah Mae Finch, one of Norman’s ex-girlfriends. After their marriage ended in divorce and Stonehill parted ways with Norman, Finch became Norman’s second wife.

9. Stories followed him everywhere. Rumors about Norman’s having secret sins hounded him for much of his career. Some rumors—like that he made a “non-religious” album because he had backslidden or that his brother Charles was his son—were unfounded. Other rumors—like that Norman fathered an illegitimate child during a 1980s Australian tour—are plausible.

10. He was a trailblazer, and trailblazers make mistakes. Some of Norman’s choices—like not getting a personal injury lawyer after his plane injury apparently damaged his brain—look foolish in hindsight. It is worthing that Norman was exploring new territory, which rarely leads to a spotless record. Christian history is full of artists, missionaries, church leaders, and entrepreneurs who made huge mistakes as they blazed new territory, often because they were the only ones who thought that territory was worth exploring.

Top 10 Larry Norman Albums

The following list contains some of Norman’s best work, from the album that started it all to posthumous releases.

1Upon This Rock (1969)

2. Street Level (1970)

3. Bootleg (1972)

4. Only Visiting This Planet ()

5. So Long Ago the Garden (1973)

6. In Another Land (1976)

7. Stranded In Babylon (1991)

8Copper Wires (1998)

9. Tourniquet (2001)

10. Snapshots from the 77 World Tour (2005)

Why Does Larry Norman Matter Today?

Whichever stories about Norman are accurate, the consensus is that he made some clear mistakes. Mental health issues may have contributed to his mistakes. Being a trailblazer meant there was little support or guidance when he went too far. Still, the fact remains that he made some poor choices, even as he opened new artistic doors.

In an interview with Norman’s son Michael, John J. Thompson observed that “along with creativity exists self-destruction, along with imagination exists self-deception, alongside passion sits prejudice, and next to the potential for self-sacrifice and nobility sits delusion—it’s all in there, baked into this fascinating, terrible, beautiful cake called humanity.” Norman’s life showed just how true it is that humans are fallible yet fascinating.

Since Norman’s death, American Christians have become more honest about discussing leaders’ and trendsetters’ fallibilities. Many fallen megachurch leaders and ministry leaders have been caught making the kind of choices Norman made—arrogance, micromanagement, or just handling relationships poorly. In this respect, Norman is both an inspiration and a humbling reminder of how Christians can achieve great things and fall far from their original intentions.

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.
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