A Conversation with Legendary Composer/Conductor, Ralph Carmichael

Carmichael concert tour poster  Trivia question: what does Dr. Billy Graham and the cult sci-fi film classic, “The Blob” have in common?

Answer: The 83-year-old composer/conductor Ralph Carmichael wrote film scores for both of them.

Although many people associate Ralph Carmichael with being the Father of Contemporary Christian Music, before the 1960s he was an established composer, writing music for singers Debbie Reynolds, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Tex Ritter, The Carpenters, Rosemary Clooney, Pat Boone, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald. Carmichael composed music for such popular television shows as “I Love Lucy,” “Bonanza,” “Red Skelton,” and “Roy Rogers& Dale Evans,” and he also had a long time association with pianist Roger Williams with whom he scored the million-selling hit song, “Born Free”. Besides “The Blob”, he composed music for popular television shows such as “I Love Lucy,” “Bonanza,” “Red Skelton,” and “Roy Rogers & Dale Evans.” He wrote film scores for Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures and he – along with Roger Williams – scored the hit song “Born Free.”

As if all of that isn’t enough, in 2013, he is launching the 30 plus city Ralph Carmichael Legacy Tour, complete with full symphonies, his big band, a mega choir and celebrity guest artists.

Carmichael recently spoke with Paula K. Parker about his past, his music and his purpose.

Dr. Reverend Billy Graham and Ralph Carmichael

Dr. Reverend Billy Graham and Ralph Carmichael; photo courtesy of Adams PR Service

Paula K. Parker: What was your musical influences?

Ralph Carmichael: Well, let me pay my father a compliment. My dad was very encouraging to my sense of curiosity. He let me listen to all kinds of music. If I listened to the radio late at night and listened to the big bands, that was okay, just as long as I went to sleep in time to get up for school the next morning. If I listened to classical, he had a great appreciation for that. In fact, when I was a teenager, he had me audition for the San Jose Civic Symphony. I was the youngest member of the symphony.

PKP: What instruments do you play?

Ralph Carmichael: My father started me on violin lessons when I was about three and a half years old. When I was in high school, I took a few years of trumpet lessons. I facetiously say that I left a string of broken-hearted piano teachers all across the United States. [laughs] Somewhere along the way, after I left home, I took vocal lessons. So I had a little bit of everything.

Early on, I decided that it was more fulfilling for me to write notes for other people to play than it was for me to play myself. I always was a little afraid of facing an audience and playing a solo instrument; I preferred to conduct, so I could stand with my back to the audience.

PKP: This is a chicken and egg question. Were you influenced by the music of the Jesus Movement or vice versa?

Ralph Carmichael: Well, I think the experiments that I made were simultaneous with what was happening elsewhere in the Jesus Movement.

I would go out to my car in the morning and discover that my daughter had borrowed my keys during the night and come out and played the radio. She was listening to the first rock and roll station, KFWV. I gave her an allowance and she would spend her money on the new rock records that were coming out. I did not like rock music at all. The chords weren’t there and it didn’t have the kind of tempo or beat that I was appreciative of. I remember having some arguments with my daughter about the records that she was buying and listening to.

On the other hand, [I realized] if I wanted young people to listen to the message of the songs that I was writing, I had to put it in their musical vernacular. So we began to experiment.

Ralph Carmichael and Nat King Cole

Ralph Carmichael and Nat King Cole; photo courtesy of Adams PR Services

I remember one day, after I had done the record for Roger Williams called, “Born Free.” It was a smash hit. I had used a contemporary beat for it. After school, my daughter came into my little writing room and threw a record down. ‘That says, “Ralph Carmichael’,” she said. ‘Is that the same Ralph Carmichael as my father? He’s writing rock and roll?’ [laughs]

I knew that we were going to have to move into new experiments if we were going to communicate with the kids. That is why the musicals, “A Natural High” and “Tell It Like It Is,” were written. I thank the good Lord that I was able to be a part of those experiments.

PKP: I understand that you faced challenges when you first introduced the contemporary Christian music you wrote.

Ralph Carmichael: Oh yes, In those days, we did what we called ‘workshops’ to introduce our musicals. There would be a group of maybe ten or fifteen – or occasionally fifty or a hundred – ministers of music who would assemble. I remember actually getting sick to my stomach before a workshop, because there were so many times where somebody would stand up and say, ‘Folks, this music is of the Devil and I’m leaving. Any of you that feel the same way, join me.’

Sometimes nobody would join him; on the other hand, half a dozen to a dozen people would leave. We were always being confronted. They were frightening days.

PKP: How did you deal with that?

Ralph Carmichael and Amy Grant

Ralph Carmichael and Amy Grant; photo courtesy of Adams PR Services

Ralph Carmichael: I think the good Lord helped me. In the first place, my motivation was to reach that generation of kids with the Gospel. I really believed that we should use everything at our disposal to accomplish that. I never lost my love for the old hymns. As you know, we’ve done several albums with symphony and choir using the old hymns. I love the old hymns. On the other hand, I loved the ability to communicate with the younger people and, if it takes using a contemporary music form to do that, we have to brave the hardships that come with it.

PKP: What do you think of Contemporary Christian Music today?

Ralph Carmichael: I’m going to take the liberty of sharing a little of my own taste. I still enjoy a well-rehearsed adult choir. I still enjoy soloists that have fully prepared. My personal taste is that I enjoy full orchestras.

However, I say, let’s use whatever is getting the job done. I would be against prohibiting using contemporary music forms in our worship services. If that is what it takes to reach the young people, then that is what we ought to use.

Debbie Reynolds and Ralph Carmichael

Debbie Reynolds and Ralph Carmichael; photo courtesy of Adams PR Services

Looking back at history, we should be ashamed of ourselves, at the tough time we gave that person who invented the printing press. He used it to print multiple copies of the Word of God and we ran him out of town because we thought it was evil.

In the early days of the church movement on the East Coast, one of the leaders began to use harmony. We criticized him, and said, ‘It was worldly to use harmony,’ when all he was doing was taking thought for the people who had alto and baritone voices and giving them harmony to sing.

I remember when my dad [who was a pastor] used church money to buy radio time to preach the Gospel once a week. He was criticized for that and they stopped him from using church funds. They said that, ‘Radio is the Devil’s little black box.’ He had to use his own money.

I also remember in the early days, when I began writing film music for Billy Graham, there was a lot of criticism. [People said] you couldn’t use film to communicate the Gospel, because films were of the Devil. I remember, even back when I was a kid, my father had to stick his neck out to have our missionaries and show their films. Some of the people didn’t want any films in the church, because it was evil.

We have been slow to use new ideas and I never want to be a part of that.

PKP: You are about to launch a rather ambitious tour.

Ralph Carmichael: This is a dream come true. I look back over my life; this is something I have been preparing for for the last half century.

The concert promoters have contacted various major cities that have full symphony orchestras; those are the cities we’re going into. So, on stage, we’ll have a full symphony and, right in the center, we’ll have my big band, which is eight brass, 5 saxes and rhythm. In addition to that, we’ll have a mass choir of 150 to 200 voices. We’ve got all kinds of equipment and sounds that we can use to proclaim the Gospel.

We’ll do everything from great old standards of the Faith to the contemporary songs, a few of which I’ve written, some for the Billy Graham films. In addition to that, we’ll also have some celebrity artists, such as First Call, Wayne Watson, Twila Paris, and The Archers. I’ve worked with all of them and they are the best.

Right now, I think on the calendar for 2013 there are thirty cities we’re going into. Each day, the promoters call back and tell me that we’ve booked a few other cities.

PKP: Do you have any last thoughts?

Ralph Carmichael: Would you like to know what my favorite Scripture verse currently is?

PKP: Yes, I would.

Ralph Carmichael: It’s John 3:30. “He must increase and I must decrease.”

It’s frightening to be pulled into a celebrity position. I know I do not deserve it. The only thing that I want to do is to make sure that, in all of these concerts that we are doing, the Gospel shines through clear and very visible. I want to make sure that Christ is lifted up. There is a verse of Scripture that says that we are surrounded by songs of deliverance. I want these concerts to be a great spiritual experience for all who attend. We’re going to make sure that Christ is lifted up.

Holt International, an adoption agency established over five decades ago, will serve as a sponsor for the tour. The producers have opened the Mass Choir participation to choir members and singers from all walks of life. To join a choir or order advance tickets for the concerts, visit the tour website: www.RalphCarmichaelLegacyTour.com.