There’s no doubt that music and Christianity are heavily intertwined. You can find music and God’s message anywhere from gospel to rock and roll. No one would understand the connectivity of music and God’s gospel more than Christian artist Larry David Norman. Norman was an American musician, songwriter, singer, and record producer and considered a pioneer of Christian rock music. Outside of his musical career, Norman was also known to preach God’s Word on the streets of Los Angeles to anyone who would listen. Throughout his career, Norman released over 100 albums.
Early Life and Career
Larry David Norman was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, to Joe Billy Norman and Margaret Stout. His father served as a U.S. Army Air Corps sergeant during World War II. He also worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad while studying to become a teacher. After Larry was born, his family joined the Southern Baptist church. When the family moved to San Francisco in 1950, they went to a Pentecostal church before joining a Baptist church. It was at the Baptist Church that Norman became a Christian at five years old.
While he was in high school, Norman created a group called The Back Country Seven with his friend Gene Mason and his sister Nancy Jo. Norman graduated from high school in 1965 and won an academic scholarship to San Jose State University. Unfortunately, Norman flunked out after one semester and lost his scholarship. However, the band continued to perform around town. Norman could play numerous musical instruments but never learned how to read music.
Norman opened a concert for People! in 1966 at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. He eventually became the band’s main songwriter, sharing vocals with bandmate Gene Mason. People! performed around 200 concerts a year, appearing with numerous iconic bands and musicians like The Doors, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and more. Norman left People! in 1968 as Capitol Records released the band’s first album in 1968.
Right after leaving People!, Norman had a spiritual encounter that left him indecisive about his life, and he experienced what he believed was the Holy Ghost. After receiving a job offer to write musicals at Capitol Records, Norman relocated to Los Angeles, where he spent time spreading the gospel on the streets. According to Norman, he would walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard seeing business people and hippies, going wherever the Spirit led him.
Capitol Records released Norman’s first solo record, Upon This Rock, in 1968. The album was produced by Hal Yoergler and is considered to be the first full-blown Christian rock album. However, Capitol deemed the album a flop and dropped Norman from the label. Various television evangelists denounced Norman, but he gained a following from emerging cultural movements. Album sales increased after it was distributed in Christian bookstores. By the start of the 1970s, Norman was performing in front of large crowds, appearing at some Christian music festivals. He also created a halfway house where he would house, feed, and drive people to Church on Sundays.
In 1970, Norman started a record label called One Way Records, where he released two of his albums and Randy Stonehill’s first album. Norman went to England in 1971, where he lived for many years. While in England, he recorded two albums, Only Visiting This Planet and So Long Ago the Garden. Only Visiting This Planet has been ranked as one of Norman’s best albums, meant to reach flower children disillusioned by the Church and government. On the other hand, in November 1973, So Long Ago the Garden was met with controversy by the Christian press because the album’s cover art and some songs gave Norman the persona of a backslider.
In 1974, Norman created Solid Rock Records to produce Christian records, producing music for artists like Randy Stonehill, Tom Howard, and Mark Heard. Norman released his best-selling album In Another Land in 1976. However, tragedy would enter Norman’s life in 1978; Norman was injured in a plane landing at LAX, claiming to have suffered mild brain damage due to being hit by parts of the cabin’s roof. He would struggle to focus artistically because of this damage.
Throughout his career, Norman strained relationships with the wider Christian Church and the Christian music industry. His music addressed many topics like the occult, free love, and religious hypocrisy that were outside the scope of his colleagues. In September 2007, he wrote, “I love God, and I follow Jesus, but I just don’t have much affinity for the organized folderol of the churches in the Western World.”
Norman’s Musical Influence
There’s no doubt that Larry Norman influenced music outside of Christian rock. In 2008, John J. Thompson, a Christian rock historian, said, “It is certainly no overstatement to say that Larry Norman is to Christian music what John Lennon is to rock & roll or Bob Dylan is to folk music.” Thompson also gave Norman credit for his impact on the genre as a producer, musician, and businessman.
Norman is also said to have influenced numerous emerging alternative and punk rock artists. Documentarian Larry Di Sabatino said Larry Norman was an early influence on the band U2. In 2002, when Bono met with a summit of Nashville Christian musicians to gain support for an African aid campaign, he asked to see Norman specifically. More than 300 artists have covered Norman’s songs.
Norman suffered a nine-hour heart attack in February 1992 that left him with permanent damage. He would suffer from frequent hospitalizations in the years later. By 1995, Norman was hospitalized 13 times and had a defibrillator implanted, allowing him to perform occasional small concerts. After a long-lasting illness, Norman died at 60 years old on February 24, 2008, at his home in Salem, Oregon. After a public memorial at the Church on the Hill in Turner, Oregon, Norman was buried in Salem at the City View Cemetery. His tombstone says, “Larry Norman/Evangelist Without Portfolio/1947-2008/Bloodstained Israelite.” Larry Norman was a man who used God’s gospel to uplift the masses and spread God’s love.