Conversation: Ralph Carmichael
Ralph Carmichael, the son of Assemblies of God ministers, had no formal music education but became a pioneer of contemporary Christian music. Author Joel Kilpatrick spoke with Carmichael at his home in Southern California.
tpe: Tell me about your growing up.
CARMICHAEL: I was born in 1927 and grew up in Illinois, North Dakota and San Jose, Calif. My father pastored for 50 years. My mother was an accomplished Bible teacher ordained by the Assemblies of God in 1918.
When I was 3 years old, my father put a violin in my hands. That started my curiosity for sounds, chords and rhythms.
I enrolled at Southern California Bible College, now Vanguard University, to become a preacher. Someone heard me practicing my violin, and soon I was recruited to play at chapels, weddings and evangelistic crusades. My life became consumed with music. I started a menÕs quartet, ensembles and mixed groups of all kinds.
When I became a professor at SCBC I formed a full-sized band. We were invited to play on television, so we started the Campus Christian Hour on Channel 2 in Los Angeles. Now I had a weekly 30-minute show to write for. The show won an Emmy.
tpe: How did you get into secular music?
CARMICHAEL: I was minister of music at several Los Angeles churches and wrote for a missionary radio program. In 1951 I scored my first film for the Billy Graham Association, and later did 19 other films, including Joni and The Cross and the Switchblade. People heard my work and soon I was arranging music for I Love Lucy, Bonanza, The Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Show and for singer Rosemary Clooney. I scored the movie The Blob and arranged and composed music for a Bing Crosby Christmas special.
Then Capitol Records invited me to arrange music and conduct the orchestra for a Christmas album by Nat King Cole. I toured for eight years with Cole, and worked with other artists like Peggy Lee, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
tpe: How did you transition back to Christian music?
CARMICHAEL: I reached a point of despair, so I began writing hymns and Christian choruses. I wanted an outlet to publish the work, but most Christian publishers wouldnÕt take it. So I co-founded Lexicon Music. That label — along with Light Records, which I also founded — would launch the careers of Andrae Crouch, Dino, the Winans, the Rez Band, Bryan Duncan and Reba Rambo.
The Billy Graham Association commissioned me to score the film The Restless Ones, so I composed ÒHeÕs Everything to Me,Ó which sold 4 million copies. By 1970 I had left secular music entirely. In the Õ80s I served as president of the Gospel Music Association, then was musical director for The Young Messiah.
tpe: What are you doing now?
CARMICHAEL: IÕm having the time of my life taking my big band around the country. In 2007 weÕll be in Florida at Dan BetzerÕs church, First Assembly in Fort Myers, and at D. James KennedyÕs Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Fort Lauderdale, to name just two. I still conduct music at Billy Graham crusades, record in Capitol RecordsÕ Studio A, and recently made three albums with the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir.
When I do a concert, the only reason is to glorify God and share the story of the gospel. God hasnÕt promised to bless music or even excellence, but He has promised to bless His Word and to inhabit the praises of His people. When we fill an auditorium with praise, from the first downbeat to the amen at the end, He will bless that location with a sense of His presence.