Contemporary Christian Music pioneer Ralph Carmichael has passed away, according to his official Facebook page. The composer and arranger was enormously successful in a variety of genres through his 94 years but was particularly influential in CCM, where he defied the traditional conventions of his day and dragged church music kicking and screaming into modern times. He inspired the likes of CMM legends Andraé Crouch, the Resurrection Band and George Beverly Shea, but also popular icons like Nat King Cole, the Carpenters, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley himself. He was often heralded as “the father of Contemporary Christian Music.”
The son of a Pentecostal preacher who let him listen to mainstream music on the radio, Carmichael’s music career began at Southern California Bible College (now Vanguard University) where he started a men’s quartet, blending old hymns with modern jazz. For this innovation, he was rewarded with being unwelcome at many churches and his college wouldn’t even allow him to store his saxophone on campus, for fears that it was too “worldly.” Other churches made him hide the drumkit backstage and pastors would even pull the plug mid-concert when things got a little too secular.
But Carmichael attracted the approval of one very important Christian who changed everything: Billy Graham. Carmichael was asked to score the soundtrack to the Billy Graham Association’s The Cross and the Switchblade movie, and his funk-laden soundtrack brought him widespread acclaim. He arranged music for shows like I Love Lucy and Bonanza along with movies like The Blob, introducing his style to households across America. When he helped Bing Crosby with a Christmas special, his denomination urged him not to renew his ordination. But Carmichael hardly needed it, since his work with Crosby helped connect him to Nat King Cole, and the two were fast friends and regular collaborators for the remainder of Cole’s life.
It was around this time that Carmichael brought his creative energy to Christian music which, at the time, was still skeptical of drums and guitars. Carmichael founded Light Records as a way to get the Jesus People’s music a bigger audience, ignoring the cries of “heretic” from his critics who chewed their nails down to stubs over the blend of old hymns and big band. Among his first clients was Thurl Ravenscroft, whose CCM career never took off but you’re definitely familiar with his other gigs: voicing Tony the Tiger’s “t-h-e-y-r-e GREAT” and singing “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch” for Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Carmichael also championed his fellow CCM pioneer Crouch, who took on the role of his protege.
In 1985, Carmichael was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. A statement posted to Carmichael’s social media says “Ralph enjoyed his life to the fullest. He was passionate about the music that flowed from his soul and created it as the consummate professional. He cared deeply for his family and friends, and he lived out his cowboy dreams with the many horses that he owned along the way. He laughed easily, loved deeply, enjoyed a good joke or a prank, and charmed anyone who came across his path. Undergirding it all was his abiding faith in his Lord Jesus Christ.”