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Published: Saturday, 3/1/2008

Norman blazed trail for Christian rock

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

Larry Norman, the long-haired singer-songwriter whose 1969 Capitol Records album Upon This Rock was widely considered the first Christian rock album ever recorded, died Sunday of heart failure at age 60 at his home in Salem, Ore.

He was a pioneering and influential artist and also a complex and controversial one. Among the artists who have cited Mr. Norman as an influence are U2, Paul McCartney, dc Talk, Van Morrison, Clay Crosse, and Frank Black of the Pixies.

In 1972, he recorded the landmark album Only Visiting this Planet with help from Beatles producer George Martin.

Mr. Norman was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and his songs have been covered by artists ranging from Sammy Davis, Jr., and Petula Clark to dc Talk and Rebecca St. James.

While paving the way for today s contemporary Christian music scene, Mr. Norman was also highly critical of the business side of the music industry.

God doesn t charge us a fee to worship him, Mr. Norman once said. Isn t it enough that the publisher and writer make money from the CD sales? Do they also have to be paid every time a congregation sings their song?

Mr. Norman was divorced twice, endured serious health problems in the last few decades, and experienced broken relationships with a number of fellow musicians and friends.

Larry consistently seemed to derail relationships throughout his life, said Randy Stonehill, another Christian rock pioneer.

In a statement on his Web site, Mr. Stonehill said Larry is the man who introduced me to Jesus, but that the two artists experienced 20 years of friction and distance beginning in 1980.

Mr. Norman told The Blade in 2001, when he last performed in this area in a concert at Family Christian Center in Defiance, that it was not easy being a trailblazer.

In the late 1960s when Upon This Rock was released, most Christian artists sang in choirs or gospel quartets.

I guess there s no reward for being ahead of your time, just punishment, Mr. Norman told The Blade. A lot of people didn t think what I was doing was Christian at all. I got a lot of negativity, a lot of criticism.

But he said he was not writing and performing music for Christians. He was trying to create music that would reach people who did not know Jesus and did not go to church.

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, Mr. Norman told one interviewer.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Mr. Norman lived in San Francisco s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the 1960s and later moved to Los Angeles. Many of his early songs were written when he dropped out of the business to be a street performer and evangelist.

He held an informal Bible study in his home that was part of the early Vineyard Church movement.

Mr. Crosse, one of the top Christian singers of the late 1990s, said Mr. Norman has been at the top of my personal list for about 28 years now.

He said Mr. Norman once asked him, Clay, if you can t sing your songs on street corners, then why are you singing them at all?

I was young, and shallow, and his words didn t quite sink in, Mr. Crosse said in an online posting. But over the years I have embraced his words to me to mean this to me: Take every opportunity to serve. Sing wherever God opens doors. Don t just wait for the cool gigs.

Vonda Hogle, of Toledo, a former morning show host on YES-FM Christian radio station, said she saw Mr. Norman in concert several times and met him backstage.

If you look at his music, especially the 1970s stuff, it was very cutting-edge. It dealt with political topics and things like that. And yet when you talked to him, he had such an innocence about him. He was sweet and softspoken. He observed things but he didn t get jaded personally, she said.

Barry McGuire, the singer known for the hit song Eve of Destruction, told The Blade that Mr. Norman was always a source of strength and encouragement for me personally. I loved the way he saw things out of the box and did his absolute best to mirror society as it truly is, both church society and society at large.

He said he will miss his friend but I m so happy Larry was scheduled for an early departure. :



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