Ralph Carmichael, a composer and record producer who shaped the sound of contemporary Christian music, died on October 18 at the age of 94.
A violin prodigy with perfect pitch and a love for jazz chords, Carmichael built his reputation in Los Angeles TV and film studios before turning to Christian music and opening the doors to a new one. generation to use any style to sing Jesus.
When he recorded his best-known song, “He’s Everything to Me”, was featured on the Billy Graham World Wide Pictures production The restless, he brought two guitars, an electric bass and drums into the studio and sparked a storm of controversy. He featured the new sound in several popular youth musicals and then set up Light Records as a label for emerging contemporary Christian artists.
“What I have done most of my adult life,” he told the Christian messenger in 1986, “is waging a fierce battle for the freedom and the freedom to experience different types of music for the glory of God.
When tributes poured in towards the end of his life, many called Carmichael the “father of contemporary Christian music,” a title he sometimes shared with Christian rocker Larry Norman, despite their obvious stylistic differences.
Carmichael, for his part, did not adhere to honorary titles or strictly defined musical genres.
“I don’t want credit or blame for creating musical forms today,” he once told CT. “I’m only asking for advice on how to use it tastefully to reach people ‘now’ with a message that never changes.”
His music “now” borrowed from any style: pop, jazz, country, rock, all complemented by elegant arrangements that sounded good on radio and television. Despite these commercial roots, his music became popular in evangelical worship services and influenced a rising generation of Christian music artists.
“I remember growing up going to my church in Kenova, West Virginia and singing the music of Ralph Carmichael,” Michael W. Smith told CT this week. “I sang in the New Generation Choir every Sunday night and just hadn’t heard anything like it. … He brought a new sound to the 1970s that literally changed my life.
Play the “bad” notes
Carmichael was born in Quincy, Illinois on May 27, 1927. His father, an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God, noted Ralph’s precocious affinity for music and began taking violin lessons at age. three years.
When his father founded a church in San Jose, California, Ralph joined the local orchestra while still in high school. Insatiably curious about music theory, he often listened to radio orchestras seated at the piano, choosing the notes they played. Immediately he noticed a different sound than the conventional harmony hymn – chords with flattened fifths and ninths, jazz progressions that he himself learned to play.
At 17, he enrolled in Southern California Bible College (now Vanguard University), intending to become a preacher like his father and grandfather. Within weeks, he was organizing music groups to minister in local churches, a passion that soon overshadowed his studies.
His classmates noticed his attentive ear: he could write entire scores sitting in a corner, away from the piano. The music school tried to correct his “wrong” notes, but Carmichael persisted and his 17-piece stage group began performing on a local television station. The resulting spectacle, Christian campus time, has become a regional favorite.
After hearing Evangeline (Vangie) Otto sing on the radio in 1948, Carmichael found her and they started dating. Soon they got married and for a while their musical relationship seemed ideal. A daughter, Carol Celeste, was born in 1949, but Carmichael’s professional obligations seemed to leave her family little time.
The TV show won an Emmy in 1951, and suddenly Carmichael was very busy. Two Christian record companies were making their debuts in the Los Angeles area — Sacred Records and Alma Records — and both needed musical arrangements.
Carmichael also joined the staff of Temple Baptist in Los Angeles. Despite his Pentecostal roots, he was ordained a Baptist minister.
“At that time,” he said later, “I would work for anyone who could afford it, regardless of their denominational affiliation, as long as they named Christ’s name.
Success in the studio
As the church grew, Carmichael created increasingly sophisticated musical programs that required the skills of professional musicians. He started hiring studio players for special church events. Soon he used the same players for his recording sessions with Christian artists.
Still thinking big, Carmichael persuaded the owner of Sacred Records to record a full orchestral project. He recruited the studio’s players, paid them union-wide, and hired Studio A from Capitol Records. Carmichael chose 12 hymns and wrote arrangements to make them sound exactly like the popular “dinner music” of the day. When Rhapsody in sacred music came out in 1958, it marked a milestone in the nascent industry.
Carmichael had discovered his secret sauce – the premier Los Angeles studio musicians who could play anything he imagined, with a level of perfection unattainable for the average religious group. For the rest of his career, he had a unique relationship with these top players, and many have played on his projects for decades.
His new album was discovered by a producer Nat King Cole, who was preparing a new Christmas album. They got along wonderfully – Cole was also a preacher’s child – and Carmichael ended up touring with him and arranging his studio albums.
For the next 40 years, whenever Hollywood needed a hymn arrangement or a Christmas album, they called Carmichael, the affable minister with the golden ears.
Famous musicians included Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, Bing Crosby, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl (Fatha) Hines, Eddie Fisher, Tex Ritter, Elvis Presley and dozens of others. He spent a year as musical director of I like lucy, arranged music for several variety shows and wrote film scores for Finian‘Rainbow (Fred Astaire) and The blob (Steve McQueen).
Despite his newfound success in the music business, his nonstop schedule took a toll on family life. Carmichael admitted to “indiscretions” and a growing addiction to Dexamyl, which kept him updated for the late night scoring sessions.
After a year of separation from Vangie, the couple divorced in 1964. Carmichael hoped this would remain silent, but the family separation was reported by the Los Angeles Times: “The song is over for the Carmichaels.”
He immersed himself even more in music, working non-stop. In this difficult and lonely time before marrying a second time to a woman named Marvella Grace and becoming the father of his three children, he reflected on his failures.
“Until we surrender to God, we can never be free,” Carmichael said in his 1986 autobiography. “Of course, by ‘free’ I certainly don’t mean irresponsible. The point is, the more free you are, the more responsible you become. “
“He is everything for me”
Social redemption came from an unexpected place. Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows watched their crusading audience and noticed a lot of gray heads. Their formula for stadium events seemed flat and their innovative music Youth for Christ was now 25 years old. They wanted a new movie that was about contemporary issues, and they wanted Carmichael to mark it.
A year earlier, Carmichael had experimented with rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation for pianist Roger Williams, turning “Born Free” into a million dollar hit. Now he tried the same with the center song in The restless, “He’s Everything to Me”, giving it a pace of eighths and a hint of backbeat.
The song has sold five million sheet music copies and has been recorded by over two hundred artists.
Was it rock? Kind of. The vocals were sung by a cool-sounding youth choir, and the song ends with an eardrum roll – not exactly a whim, and certainly not “rock” for upstarts like Larry Norman. But church leaders have offered plenty of criticism, whatever it is.
But Carmichael continued to write in the new style, especially with composer and friend Kurt Kaiser, who referred to their new style as “folk musicals.”
Carmichael continues to broaden conceptions of “Christian music” with the discovery of Andraé Crouch, who directed the Teen Challenge Addicts Choir. Carmichael followed Crouch for eight months, asked him about his spiritual commitment, and then signed him to Light Records. They became quick friends, and the relationship led to several other black musicians signing with Carmichael.
Although he considered himself a maverick, Carmichael lived long enough to see his music go mainstream. He recorded Hit the band in 1994, a full-length gospel jazz album, but found that many stores stock it on traditional shelves. The same was true of many of his songs. They have become popular with youth groups, and a few have even been added to gospel hymns, such as “The Savior Awaits Me” and “He Is All To Me.”
He has scored or produced 200 albums and wrote 3,000 musical arrangements.
Towards the end of his life, he donated his music library to the Great American Songbook Archives, Baylor University, and the University of Arizona Jazz and Popular Music Archive. He has been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the National Religious Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Carmichael is survived by his wife, Marvella; children Andrea, Greg and Erin; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.