65 years ago, Ralph Carmichael changed the Church’s tune. And he’s still making an impact on the music industry today.
In 2013, Ralph Carmichael will make history as the oldest conductor to embark on a 30-city tour across the U.S. But then, making history is something Ralph has been doing most of his career. He is affectionately known as the “Father of Contemporary Christian Music,” but his musical contributions have run the gamut over the past six decades. Ralph’s resume’ crosses all musical lines and includes many of the biggest names in music including Nat King Cole, The Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Tex Ritter, Rosemary Clooney, Pat Boone, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. Ralph composed music for some of television’s most beloved shows including “I Love Lucy”, “Roy Rogers & Dale Evans,” and “Bonanza.” He had a long time association with pianist Roger Williams with whom he scored the million-selling hit song, “Born Free,” which was made popular by the successful book and movie.
But it was Ralph’s mark on Christian and gospel music that redirected a generation of young people in the 1960s who felt disconnected from their parents’ church music, back toward the faith. Ralph remembers those days as a dichotomy -- a time of great creative contributions coupled with reluctant, often tenuous, acceptance. “In the late 60s, when we recorded and published the first youth musicals (“Tell it Like it Is” and “A Natural High”), I would do workshops in major cities across the nation introducing our new publications to music directors. Before each workshop, I would actually get sick to my stomach, anticipating the ruckus that often erupted during the reading sessions. I would be introduced, and then, either at the beginning or during the first half hour, some local choir director would stand and announce that this music was inappropriate or even ‘of the devil,’ and they would invite others of the same opinion to ‘leave the workshop now!’ Sometimes several would leave, sometimes only a few, and sometimes nobody but the complainer. Then we would just continue the reading session. We got a lot of criticism, but we also began to get a lot of great responses from young people.”
Ralph’s desire to expand the boundaries of Christian music came early in his life. His father, a pastor, and his mother, a Bible teacher, both played the piano. His dad also liked to play the fiddle, but the church called it an “instrument of the devil” and he gave it up. Undaunted, Ralph’s father gave his young son a violin and arranged for private lessons beginning when Ralph was only three and a half years old, soon followed by trumpet and piano lessons. After high school, Ralph attended Southern California Bible College (now Vanguard University) in the late 1940s where he became enamored with the popular big bands and orchestras of that era and how they reached massive audiences. Ralph then began experimenting with these musical styles as vehicles to more effectively reach people with the Gospel. His youthful pranks almost got him expelled and his lack of interest in homiletics and Hebrew cost him a diploma, but the college recognized his musical talents and hired him after graduation to set up their first Department of Evangelistic Music. Ralph put together a band comprised of seminary students that landed a spot on a local TV station with a program called the “The Campus Christian Hour.” Fearful of what the public might think of a Gospel Big Band, the college asked that their name be kept off the credits, but after the program won an Emmy Award in 1950, they relented. Nearly 50 years later, in 1997, Ralph was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music degree from his alma mater.
Following his successful stint in pop music, that included being Nat King Cole’s arranger for many years until the singer’s death, Ralph formed Light Records/Lexicon Music in the late 1960s. The label would become a vehicle for the new musical genre he had helped to create, soon to be dubbed “Contemporary Christian Music.” Light Records went on to sign and launch the careers of some of Christian music’s most recognizable icons, including Andrae Crouch, the Winans, Bryan Duncan, Dino, The Archers, and Rez Band, among many others. Ralph’s self-penned contemporary hymns began to take hold and his song, "Reach Out to Jesus,” was recorded by Elvis Presley on the singer's 1971 Grammy Award-winning album of sacred songs, He Touched Me. Ralph also worked for several years with World Wide Pictures, the company that produced full-length feature movies for the Billy Graham organization. Throughout his career, Ralph composed numerous songs and hymns that became popular with churches of all denominations.
“If I had to pick my favorite songs,” says Ralph,” I would say ‘He's Everything to Me’ was one that stands out. It was originally written for the Billy Graham film, ‘The Restless Ones.’ Another favorite is ‘The Savior is Waiting,’ which churches use as a hymn of invitation. How rewarding it has been over the last half century to have people tell me that my little songs were influential in their conversions. I thank God for opening doors of opportunity to serve Him through the ministry of music.”
In every passing decade, Ralph continued to impact Christian music. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1985. His album, Strike Up The Band, was awarded Instrumental Album of the Year at the 25th Annual Dove Awards (Gospel Music’s Grammy equivalent). He toured as conductor for the highly successful Young Messiah Tour for several years. And in 2001, he was made a member of the National Religious Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame.
The Ralph Carmichael Legacy Tour in 2013 will feature some of the most notable vocalists in Christian music and some special surprise guests are also in the works. And Ralph, himself, believes this tour will reflect a lifetime of preparation. “This tour is a dream come true for me,” says Ralph. “We want the audience to be entertained, but we also want to present the Gospel loud and clear. Psalms 32:7 says, ‘You shall surround us with songs of deliverance,’" and we will use a big band, a full symphony and a mass choir to accomplish that in every city.”
Ralph Carmichael’s own musical legacy and influence on Christian music cannot be overstated. He was a pioneer who desired to communicate his faith in a new musical style, offering a fresh sound to the age-old Gospel. In reality, his efforts became the catalyst that sparked a renewal of faith and love of worship in a generation of young people, helping define and expand the importance of praise and worship to Christians of all denominational backgrounds. Would there have ever been an Amy Grant, a TobyMac or Jars of Clay without first, a Ralph Carmichael? Most of his peers would say no, but Ralph himself, remains humble about his musical impact. He is always eager and attentive to assist up-and-coming artists and music ministers who share his same vision of using music to share Jesus.
“My advice to young ministers of music today would be three-fold,” says Ralph. “First, stay relevant and be open to change. Second, never forget our musical heritage because the old hymns are precious. But third, and most importantly, stay Christ-centered in all that you do, for the Bible promises that if we lift Christ up He will draw all men to Him - and that should always be our ultimate goal.”