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What most space age pop fans hear of Ralph Carmichael's work is just the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath the surface, hidden to those listeners who fear to dive into icy waters marked by that dreaded label, Christian music, is a prodigious oeuvre as impressive and influential in its own genre as Duke Ellington's was in jazz. And just as the genius of Ellington was shown in the ease with which he moved in and out and around different styles and types of music, so Carmichael has defied stereotypes by moving back and forth between sacred and secular music.
A pastor's son, Carmichael lived in Illinois and North Dakota before moving with his family to southern California in his teens. Carmichael's father encouraged his musical talents, paying for private lessons beginning at the age of four and letting him venture into a variety of instruments. And he never censored his son's interest in popular as well as classical and gospel music.
Carmichael was born again in 1944, and enrolled in Southern California Bible College. While in college, he began appearing on a local television station leading a big band playing gospel tunes on a show called "The Campus Christian Hour," and won an early Emmy in 1949. After graduating, he went to work as musical director at an L.A. Baptist church, and began a long-standing partnership with World Wide Pictures, the motion picture arm of Billy Graham's crusades. By the late 1970s, Carmichael had scored over 20 feature films for the studio, including "His Land," a 1970 drama starring born again British rock star Cliff Richard.
The early World Wide scores were recorded at Capitol Records' studios in Hollywood, and in the late 1950s, Carmichael began taking jobs arranging, composing, and conducting for Capitol's pop artists. One of his earliest works was a Christmas album with Nat King Cole that became one of the biggest sellers of that seasonal genre. Over the next few years, Carmichael wrote and arranged pop tunes for Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Sue Raney, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, and even Stan Freberg. He even served as the musical director for "I Love Lucy" in the show's waning years and composed for "Bonanza" and "The Danny Kaye Show."
He also became acquainted with another Capitol artist, Stan Kenton, who had a similar disregard for genre stereotypes. Carmichael began writing for Kenton as his popularity had begun to fade, and became one of his right hand arrangers throughout his many experiments in the 1960s--including the big band take on the rock musical, "Hair," described by more than one Kenton fan as "his most embarassing record ever."
Throughout the 1960s, Carmichael also worked with one of the decade's most successful space age pop performers, pianist Roger Williams. He arranged over 20 albums for Williams and earned a gold record credit for "Born Free." Williams' label, Kapp, even signed Carmichael to record one of his very few pop albums under his own name, Man With a Load of Music.
Yet all these pop music credits are dwarfed by the range and size of his work in Christian music. He has written and recorded with virtually every type of ensemble imaginable, from large choirs and string orchestras to rock combos, from big bands to to Moog synthesizer to small a capella groups. He has composed songs, hymns, carols, symphonies, chorales, and suites. Several of his hymns have become standards--"He's Everything to Me" has been recorded by Elvis and other pop singers. His folk-rock Christian church musicals of the late 1960s played a major role in the introduction of pop music styles into Christian music and church services. He went on to form his own label, Light Records, and worked with Andrae Crouch and others to create what is now known as contemporary Christian music.
In the 1990s, after organizing a very successful touring Christian musical, "Young Messiah," Carmichael returned to the big band format and recorded a number of CDs of popular and gospel tunes with "The Ralph Carmichael Big Band" on the Brentwood label. Now in his seventies, Carmichael continues to create music: "I don't know how many notes I've got left in my pencil, but I know I want them used to glorify God and present His message to the world."
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