One of the most interesting, influential, and tragic figures in modern evangelical Christianity would have been 70 years old on Saturday—if he had lived that long.
Nobody doubted Larry Norman’s gifts. They were evident from an early age. Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 8, 1947, Norman became a Christian at age five, and at age 12 tried out for Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, a show that helped launch the career of Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, and Gladys Knight. It was a precursor to “Star Search,” “American Idol,” and “America’s Got Talent.” The young Larry Norman passed the audition, but his parents wouldn’t let him travel to be on the national show.
Norman’s parents moved the family to California, and in high school it became evident he was gifted not just musically, but also intellectually. He won an academic scholarship to study English in college, but it was here that Norman’s equally large appetite for anti-establishment chaos got the upper hand. He flunked out of college in less than a year, and he poured all his energies into his music. A band he had formed in high school opened for The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and that led Norman to the band People!, a short-lived Flower Power band that had one big hit, “I Love You.”
When the members of People! put pressure on Norman to become a Scientologist, he quit to become an in-house songwriter for Capitol Records. Soon thereafter, he had a powerful spiritual experience that led him to the streets of Los Angeles. He later wrote, “I walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard several times a day . . . witnessing to businessmen and hippies, and to whomever the Spirit led me. I spent all of my Capitol Records’ royalties starting a halfway house and buying clothes and food for new converts.”
As I have written here before, the late ’60s in Southern California was a time of powerful spiritual ferment, a great deal of it centered around Calvary Chapel, the Salt Company (a coffee shop and outreach of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood), and student ministries on the scores of college campuses in the region. Norman became an important part of that movement, and in 1969 Capitol Records released Norman’s “Upon This Rock,” now considered to be the first true Christian rock album. It contained the Jesus Movement classic “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”
The album flopped by the financial standards of Capitol Records, but it caught fire among younger Christians, pushed along in part by independent Christian bookstores in college towns. Larry Norman, much to his later dismay, helped birth the Christian music industry. I say “to his dismay” because by the mid-1970s he had a love-hate relationship with the industry, often criticizing labels and other artists. He complained that Christian music meant “sloppy thinking, dishonest metaphors and bad poetry,” and that he had “never been able to get over the shock of how bad the lyrics are.”
A 1978 head injury caused Norman’s behavior to become erratic. He became an equal opportunity offender, abusing relationships with perceived enemies in the music industry as well as close friends. He had well-publicized breaks with Christian artists like Randy Stonehill and the band Daniel Amos, both of whom he helped mentor.
These broken relationships, marital infidelities, ongoing physical challenges, changing musical tastes, and bad business decisions caused Norman to live the last 20 years of his life in a kind of exile from the church, the Christian music industry, and many of his former friends. He died in 2008 at age 60. His tombstone reads:
Evangelist Without Portfolio
Still, there’s no denying Norman’s influence, or the fascination that many people still have with him and his music. More than 300 artists have recorded his songs, including Cliff Richard, Petula Clark, Steve Camp, Grammatrain, DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, and (believe it or not) Pat Boone. The Library of Congress, in 2014, honored his album “Only Visiting This Planet” with inclusion in the National Recording Registry, a list of recordings that are “cultural, artistic, or historical treasures.”
Of course, Norman has critics, too. At least one scathing film documentary, “Fallen Angel,” has been made about Norman’s life. Dr. Gregory Thornbury, now president of The King’s College, has written a biography of Norman due out early next year. Thornbury says Norman is “the forerunner of the millennial generation’s attitude toward religion.” If that’s true, then his legacy is mixed, at best. Still, for a new generation of Christians, especially those who have a vocation in the arts, he is a man worth remembering and learning from—both what to do and what not to do.