Larry Norman, who led a San Jose band into the Top 40 before becoming a revolutionary force in Christian music, died Sunday in Salem, Ore. He was 60.
“He never tried to become the father of Christian rock,” says Charles Norman, a guitarist who toured the world with his older brother. “He was just talking about the world as he saw it.”
The man who asked the musical question, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” moved to San Jose with his family as a child. In 1966, Mr. Norman formed the band People! with Gene Mason, Geoff Levin, Robb Levin, Albert Ribisi and Denny Fridkin.
With the band, Mr. Norman appeared on “American Bandstand” and toured the country with groups such as the Who. But as People! found success with its single “I Love You,” which hit No. 14 in Billboard in spring 1968, Mr. Norman left to embark on a solo career.
His first album, “Upon This Rock,” virtually defined the new genre of “Jesus Rock.” Mr. Norman’s rugged appearance and often gritty language appalled some conservative Christians as it galvanized countless young people.
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“It was the best example of the fusion of faith and rock ‘n’ roll,” says David DiSabatino, a young fan at the time who is working on a documentary about Mr. Norman. “He was the icon of the Jesus Movement when you’re talking music. He’s their Bob Dylan character.”
Another early fan was Charles Thompson III, who called himself Black Francis when he led the influential rock band the Pixies. Thompson named the band’s first album “Come On Pilgrim” after a line of Mr. Norman’s.
The two later became friends and collaborators. “People might think of him as a so-called Christian singer or songwriter or whatever,” Thompson said in an interview last year, “but he’s an individual. He has his own kind of thing going on. He’s not all slicko, you know? He’s real.”
Serious health problems dogged Mr. Norman for decades. A plane crash in 1978 left him with brain damage, and he had his first heart attack in 1992. Yet he kept performing whenever he was able, through diabetes and congestive heart failure and diminishing vision that left him legally blind.
People! drummer Fridkin performed with him last year on a final tour of Europe. “He looked like he could have dropped over at any second, but then I’d get him up on stage, get the guitar on him, and all of a sudden he just came to life,” Fridkin says. “He was just filled with so much joy doing the music.”
Mr. Norman’s final performance occurred in October in San Jose when he reunited with his old bandmates as People! was inducted into the San Jose Rocks Hall of Fame.
“He wasn’t in top form vocally, but just the fact that he could even get there and get up on stage was amazing,” Fridkin says. “I just can’t tell you how great it was.”
Born: April 8, 1947, Corpus Christi, Texas.
Died: Feb. 24, 2008, Salem, Ore.
Survived by: Mother Margaret Norman of Salem, Ore.; brother Charles Norman of Salem; sisters Kristy Norman of Salem and Nancy Norman of Davis; and son Michael Norman of Salem.
Services: A public memorial ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Church on the Hill, 2707 Maranatha Court, Turner, Ore.