Ralph Carmichael, a composer and record producer who shaped the sound of contemporary Christian music, died on October 18 at age 94.
A violin prodigy with perfect pitch and a love for jazz chords, Carmichael built his reputation in Los Angeles TV and film studios before turning to Christian music and throwing open the doors for a new generation to use any and every style to sing about Jesus.
When he recorded his best-known song, “He’s Everything to Me,” featured on the Billy Graham World Wide Pictures production The Restless Ones, he brought two guitars, an electric bass, and drums into the studio and kicked off a firestorm of controversy. He featured the new sound in several popular youth musicals and later established Light Records as a label for rising contemporary Christian artists.
“What I have been doing most of my adult life,” he told the Christian Herald in 1986, “is waging stubborn battle for the freedom and liberty to experiment with different kinds of music for the glory of God.”
When tributes poured in near the end of his life, many called Carmichael the “father of contemporary Christian music,” a title he sometimes shared with Christian rocker Larry Norman, despite their obvious differences in style.
Carmichael, for his part, didn’t buy into honorific titles or strictly defined music genres.
“I want neither credit nor blame for creating today’s musical forms,” he once told CT. “I ask only for guidance to know how to use them in good taste to reach ‘now’ people with a message that never changes.”
His “now” music would borrow from any style: pop, jazz, country, rock—all packaged with slick arrangements that sounded good on radio and television. Despite these commercial roots, his music became popular in evangelical worship services and influenced a rising generation of Christian music artists.
“I remember growing up going to my church in Kenova, West Virginia, and singing the music of Ralph Carmichael,” Michael W. Smith told CT this week. “I sang in the New Generation Choir every Sunday night—and I just had not heard anything like it. … He brought a fresh new sound to the 1970s that literally changed my life.”
Always thinking big, Carmichael persuaded the owner of Sacred Records to record a project with full orchestra. He recruited the studio players, paying them union scale, and rented Studio A at Capitol Records. Carmichael chose 12 hymns and wrote arrangements to sound exactly like the popular “dinner music” of the era. When Rhapsody in Sacred Music was released in 1958, it signaled a milestone in the fledgling industry.
Carmichael had discovered his secret sauce—the top-notch Los Angeles studio musicians who could play anything he imagined, with a level of perfection unattainable by the average church group. For the rest of his career, he enjoyed a unique relationship with these first-call players, and many played on his projects for decades.
His new album was discovered by a producer for Nat King Cole, who was planning a new Christmas album. They got along famously—Cole was also a preacher’s kid—and Carmichael ended up touring with him and arranging his studio albums.
For the next 40 years, whenever Hollywood needed a hymn arrangement or a Christmas album, they called Carmichael, the affable minister with the golden ears.
The celebrity musicians included Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, Bing Crosby, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl (Fatha) Hines, Eddie Fisher, Tex Ritter, Elvis Presley, and dozens more. He spent a year as music director for I Love Lucy, arranged music for several variety shows, and wrote film scores for Finian’s Rainbow (Fred Astaire) and The Blob (Steve McQueen).
He scored or produced 200 albums and wrote 3,000 musical arrangements.
Near the end of his life, he donated his music library to the Great American Songbook Archives, Baylor University, and the University of Arizona Jazz and Popular Music Archive. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the National Religious Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Carmichael is survived by his wife, Marvella; children Andrea, Greg, and Erin; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.