In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US number three with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two millions copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.
Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against in the beginning is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, but that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Good Friday and Easter Weekend, I give you songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the last time Dylan had a hit single—#24 in 1979).
In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it as sacrilegious. By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at number one in the US and five weeks at number one in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.
Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rockin’ souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs alongside hymns from the British Isles—making way for a form of expression that gave voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to theological ideas and arguments toward fighting what he characterized as demonic institutions like slavery and Jim Crow law by evoking a more powerful spirit.
Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus’ greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a number two as well as a three). The song was originally cut by “Snowbird” Anne Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” itself hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. Jackson was of course gospel’s reigning queen throughout the civil rights era, until the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, essentially dethroned her. The story of how Aretha, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and other church singers turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are the stories of the blues, a music where heaven and hell and Jesus and the devil go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues and soul more extensively on this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).
The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name. In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at number 20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the him being Jesus, and the I being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.
Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for “when the Lord gets ready” and “You Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (on Sticky Fingers). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining in on vocals.
In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There”, “Respect Yourself”, and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”
In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray’s Head’s chart hit version.
Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.
In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.
Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist Jerry Wexler. “Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar,
blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”
In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.
Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world. In rap, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.
In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.
I chose to end with this clip from Gotta Serve Somebody, The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan because it features writer Paul Williams, speaking to Dylan’s Christian period.
A version of this piece originally ran in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.