Feb. 25th, 2008, Salem, Oregon - Larry Norman, the singer, songwriter, and producer known as the "father of Christian rock music," died of heart failure on Sunday (Feb. 24) in his Salem, Oregon home. He was 60. Norman was an eccentric visionary whose songs drew controversy from both the conservative religious establishment and the secular music press for his lyrical mix of radical religious, political, and social themes. His 1969 solo album Upon This Rock is regarded as the first Christian rock record, and his milestone 1972 release Only Visiting This Planet is considered one of the best albums in the genre and was chosen by the United States Library of Congress in 2014 as an American cultural treasure. His music was an influence on such diverse artists as U2, John Mellencamp, and the Pixies.
Pixies singer Frank Black said upon hearing of Norman's passing, "Larry was my door into the music business and he was the most Christlike person I ever met."
Norman was born on April 8, 1947 in Corpus Christi, Texas. At the age of 3 he relocated to San Francisco, California with his family and in the mid-'50s became fascinated with the music of Elvis Presley. During this time he also frequently accompanied his father on Christian missions to prisons and hospitals. At the age of nine, Larry began writing and performing original rock and roll songs at school, experimenting and incorporating a spiritual message into his music. In 1959 he performed on Ted Mack's syndicated television show The Original Amateur Hour on CBS. Upon moving to San Jose, California, he began recording for Capitol Records with his band People! in 1966 and for the next 3 years performed concerts supporting The Doors, The Who, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, among others. People! scored a Billboard Chart hit in 1968 with a cover of The Zombies’ song “I Love You.” Norman left the band the day People!’s debut album was released.
His solo albums recorded in the 1970s on his own independent label Solid Rock, and the albums of other artists he discovered and produced laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Christian rock music industry, a genre which largely shunned him and his music. According to Portland, Oregon news/radio station KXL, Norman's early social positions caused a stir among many conservative Christians. His views against racism and poverty caused him to receive multiple death threats in the 1970s. A widespread ban on Norman's music, which is largely still in effect today, existed in Christian stores. This ban was due not only to Norman's social positions, but his preferred company as well. Said Norman in a separate interview, "The churches weren’t going to accept me looking like a street person with long hair and faded jeans. They did not like the music I was recording. And I had no desire to preach the gospel to the converted."
Time Magazine once called Norman “the most significant artist in his field.” Over 300 cover versions of his songs have been recorded by artists such as Petula Clark, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Black, and Cliff Richard. His songs have also been recorded by contemporary Christian artists like DC Talk, Rebecca St. James, and Audio Adrenaline. He performed for The White House, twice - and in Moscow at the 80,000 seat Olympic Stadium. He headlined venues like The Hollywood Bowl, The Sydney Opera House, The Palladium and London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall, which he sold out six times, once filling it twice on the same day.
In 2001 Norman was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame alongside Elvis Presley. At the time of his death he was working on a concept album with Frank Black and Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse.
In a message he wrote on Saturday, Feb 23, the day before he passed away, Norman said:
"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. I won't be here much longer. I can't do anything about it. My heart is too weak. I want to say goodbye to everyone. In the past you have generously supported me with prayer and finance and we will probably still need financial help. My plan is to be buried in a simple pine box with some flowers inside. I'd like to push back the darkness with my bravest effort. There will be funeral information posted on my website, in case some of you want to attend. We are not sure of the date when I will die. Goodbye, farewell, we will meet again.”
“Goodbye, farewell, we'll meet again
Somewhere beyond the sky.
I pray that you will stay with God
Goodbye, my friends, goodbye."