Calling Larry Norman a “Christian rock pioneer” is easy, and true enough. But before becoming the personification of the Jesus Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, he got his start in the mainstream pop world.
In 1966, he joined San Jose area band People and signed to Capitol Records. They scored a pop hit with their cover of The Zombies’ “I Love You (But the Words Won’t Come),” before disbanding over internal spiritual conflicts and Norman’s frustration with the label’s re-naming of the band’s debut album. Norman stayed with Capitol for the release of his solo debut, Upon This Rock, a wildly eclectic folk/rock record often referred to as the first Christian rock record of any consequence.
He moved to MGM Records for two critically-acclaimed albums, including Only Visiting This Planet (called “The Best Christian Album of All Time” by the editors of CCM Magazine). But sales were few, and by 1972, Norman went underground, starting Solid Rock Records in the U.S. and Europe, beginning a 35-year run of independence that brought about not only more great music of his own, but also introduced other artful, progressive artists including Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, Steve Scott, Tom Howard, Mark Heard, Chris Eaton (Lyrix) and others.
Unlike the safe, southern gospel influenced Christian records of the mid-’70s, Norman’s albums were richly layered in the best tradition of acts like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Crosby, Stills and Nash, with a dark, apocalyptic streak. His message engaged the culture with authenticity and conviction, and his imagination articulated the disconnectedness felt by so many people in the aftermath of the ’60s.
Odd and controversial business practices and broken personal relationships would bring about the end of his Solid Rock Records imprint and cause friction between Norman and some of his closest friends. As Christian music came into its own, he sent himself into a sort of exile. He emerged occasionally, often with surprising stories of personal injuries and even conspiracies. But for the most part, he spent the last two decades of his life communicating directly with his die-hard fans and performing solo acoustic concerts around the world in small venues.
He released a few new projects and re-assembled his classics for release through his website, larrynorman.com. Occasional festival appearances were rare treats for the faithful fans, but he was so far outside the mainstream that most of today’s Christian music fans have absolutely no idea who Larry Norman is.
The fire he fanned continues to burn to this day. Much of the current faith-fueled music scene can trace its existence all the way back to this lanky San Jose kid with the quizzical face, the ripped blue jeans and the simple message that Jesus loves us. His reach extends well into the mainstream where he was admired by artists like U2, John Mellancamp, Bob Dylan and alternative/punk legend Frank Black of Pixies fame. Black, with his ’90s band The Catholics, covered Norman’s song “Six Sixty Six” and frequently went out of his way to laud his impact. In a statement issued the day after Norman’s death, Black called the singer “The most Christ-like man I ever knew.”
In 2002, when U2’s Bono visited Nashville to speak with Christian artists about his DATA campaign, the only artist he specifically asked about was Larry Norman. Norman couldn’t make that trip, so Bono visited him on the road later that year.
His flaws were many, and unfortunately, often kept him at more than arm’s length from the industry he inadvertently helped create. But in time, most of his harshest critics accepted that despite his faults, maybe because of them, he was an amazing person who had given the Church an incredible gift. One-time protégée and best friend Randy Stonehill had distanced himself from Norman for over 20 years following deep personal conflict between the two. In 2001, they reconciled, reuniting onstage at Cornerstone.
Norman struggled with heart disease for most of the last decade. On Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008 his struggle ended. He died peacefully. He was 60. It is certainly no overstatement to say Larry Norman is to Christian music what John Lennon is to rock & roll or Bob Dylan is to folk music. His contributions deserve to be discovered by future generations, and his enduring legacy includes the fantastic truth that despite his personal weakness and frailty, God used him to accomplish amazing things.
John J. Thompson is an artist, author, pastor, music journalist and industry veteran. He founded True Tunes and Gyroscope Arts and currently resides in Nashville. JohnJThompson.com
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