The variety of music stars in Texas is a cornucopia without equal in America. Tommie Ritter Smith of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage has a list of more than 500 outstanding country and western songsters — all from Texas. The Lone Star State has fathered world-famous performers in classical music (Van Cliburn, Olga Samaroff and I’m counting Mason Williams), while Parisian Jay Hunter Morris — from Paris, Texas, that is — is an internationally renowned opera singer. Influential Texans in soul and R&B run the gamut from Joe Tex to Beyoncé, and the state is no stranger to native-born jazz immortals like Jack Teagarden and ragtime’s Scott Joplin. Then there are the Johnnys; Mathis, the classic pop vocalist from Gilmer, and Nash, from Houston — the man who brought reggae to America. Not to be overlooked, Texas has shared with the world Tejano, rap, be-bop and blues legends.
Most Texas musicians followed an established genre. Chris Christian from Abilene, however, was a driving force in creating a new genre: contemporary Christian music, or CCM. Today CCM has its own record chart in Billboard (called Worship and Praise); a recent survey from the Tennessean reports more than 215 million airplays a year for CCM; and Don Cusic, a music historian at the prestigious Belmont College in Nashville, says in 1996 CCM total sales including tickets and merchandise peaked at between $750 million and $900 million.
These accomplishments alone would be a feather in any professional’s hat, but Christian has also played with superstars Wayne Newton, Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins. His songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Olivia Newton-John, Hall and Oates, the Pointer Sisters, Al Jarreau and the Carpenters. He achieved an admirable career as a pop singer, and he’s produced records for dozens of stars — winning four Grammys — including for B.J. Thomas, Amy Grant, the Imperials and B. W. Stevenson. Add to this list of achievements the fact that he co-owned a famous North Texas motion picture and TV studio, Las Colinas, helped produce an award-winning children’s television show, Gerbert, and now co-owns a WNBA team, the Dallas Wings. Whew! Grass has never grown under Chris Christian’s feet.
Born Lon Christian Smith in Abilene in 1951, Christian’s parents, June and his father, J.E. Smith, were devout evangelical Christians. Chris was close to his grandmother, Mayme Christian. His grandfather, W.R. Smith, was once superintendent of Clay County schools, one of the founders of the First State Bank in Abilene and a vice president at Abilene Christian College. The Smith family attended the Church of Christ, and the Bible was ingrained in Christian’s blood from an early age. In the fourth grade, Christian had an epiphany of sorts when he heard a song on the radio by Dow Patterson, the son of Christian’s elementary teacher. “Would Dow play for our class?” he asked. Upon hearing Patterson live, Christian decided songwriting and performing would be his goal. He learned the ukulele and, after saving money, bought a Montgomery Ward Airline electric guitar. He next talked his dad into buying him a piano. He was blessed with musical ability, and he’d become skilled at many instruments, including banjo and accordion.
But the Church of Christ is a fundamentalist New Testament religion — they choose to worship without musical instruments. Singing is a cappella, and voice is often taught. Polyphony singing with two- to four-part harmony is highlighted. The a cappella singing is some of the finest in the world, and many great vocalists grew up in the Church of Christ (among them Roy Orbison, Ronnie Dunn, Pat Boone, Don Williams, Glen Campbell, Amy Grant, Sonny James, Brandy, Dwight Yoakum and Meatloaf). Christian loved the singing, but in his mind he’d work out instrumental arrangements for the songs. As he grew, Christian became a fine athlete but never wavered in his desire for a music career. His grandmother told him, “You can accomplish anything you want.” She instilled in Christian the confidence to succeed, and her prayers follow him to this day.
Christian loved pop music. Not rock ’n’ roll or country — pop. He was adept at going backstage to meet many of the pop stars who played Abilene. He loved the Turtles, Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Paul Revere and the Raiders. He met members of the Association and his favorite group, the Carpenters. He loved the pop hits of the ’60s and sought out how to write the hooks. Each time he met an artist, he asked, “How do I get into the music business?” He even saw Elvis in concert, though the didn’t meet then. Christian couldn’t know he’d one day meet the King after Elvis recorded the first song Christian wrote.
At Abilene Christian College, he formed a group called Chris, Chris and Lee with Chris Dunn and Lee Paul. They received a scholarship, and the group opened and played many campus functions and fundraisers. Dunn (aka Chris Waters) would become a well-known songwriter and producer in Nashville (he’s the brother of the late country singer Holly Dunn). Christian decided to join ASCAP as a songwriter, but there already existed a Chris Smith, so he took his grandmother’s maiden name and became Chris Christian.
Christian attempted to follow his father and grandfather into banking. His dad soon realized his son’s heart just wasn’t into accounting and loans. A family friend, Bob Hunter, sent a tape of Christian’s songs to Pat Boone. Boone replied positively and encouraged Christian, telling him, “I want to record one of your songs.”
Boone’s reply made Mr. Smith realize his son needed to give music a try, so he funded Christian with $100 (about $1500 in today’s money), and Christian loaded up his Chevy station wagon and headed to Nashville for the summer. He knocked on doors in Music Row without success. He was turned down over and over but didn’t lose heart. His father suggested he contact a family friend and attend the Chet Atkins Guitar Festival. After the show, Christian once again slipped backstage, where he saw Archie Campbell, a comedian on TV’s Hee Haw. Christian was planning to attend Lipscomb College in Nashville, and he knew Campbell’s son attended Lipscomb. Deciding to take a chance, he walked up to Archie and said, “Hi, Mr. Campbell, your son and I both have Lipscomb College in common!” The ruse worked, and Campbell actually took Christian home to meet his perplexed son. Campbell took an immediate liking to Christian and asked him to house-sit at his home in Brentwood during the summer. Campbell would later introduce Christian to Mr. Guitar himself, Chet Atkins. Atkins also took a liking to the personable Christian, and he mentored the young musician. During this time, Christian met and became fast friends with another young Texan, Larry Gatlin.
In fall 1972, Christian was attending classes at Lipscomb when he told Atkins, “I need a job.” Atkins picked up the phone and dialed Jerry Reed. “Jerry,” said Atkins, “I have my friend Chris Christian here — he’s a good kid. Could you find him a job?” Reed hired Christian to manage his studio and office. In return, he also allowed Christian some leftover studio time to learn the ropes. After a few months, both Atkins and Reed took Christian with them on gigs, where he learned guitar from the best. Christian also began playing banjo with the dixieland band at Opryland.
One day, while house sitting for Campbell, the phone rang. It was Gary S. Paxton, one of the most colorful and quirky characters in music history. Paxton had produced and sang the No. 1 record “Alley-Oop” as the Hollywood Argyles, a short-lived studio band. He produced the Bobby “Boris” Pickett Halloween favorite “Monster Mash” and engineered the Association’s No. 1 hit “Cherish.” Paxton was a genius in the studio. He was working for Monument Records as a staff producer and needed to hire a studio musician. Christian, who answered the phone, hired on with Paxton for $50 a session. Paxton, who’d later become a Christian artist, gave Chris valuable tips on production.
Christian also met a backup singer named Sean Nielsen, who worked for Elvis. Elvis famously relaxed by playing gospel music with friends around a piano. At one of these events, Nielsen played Christian’s high school composition, “Love Song of the Year,” for Presley. Elvis loved the song and covered it on his Promised Land LP, which went gold and was No. 1 on the country charts. Christian would later meet the King in L.A. and in Vegas.
During his time playing Opryland, a TV special was being filmed on the steamboat General Jackson. Wayne Newton was a featured star, and Christian was asked to sit by Wayne, pretending to play the banjo for the pre-recorded music. After filming finished, Newton asked Christian, “Come join my band — I need a banjo player.” Christian was astonished — Newton hadn’t even heard him play! Christian thought Newton was “just being nice,” but a few days later the King of Vegas sent tickets for Christian to come to Las Vegas. He joined Newton’s band and was often featured during the shows playing “dueling banjos” and on other songs with Newton. Christian made a nice salary, and since he didn’t drink or gamble, during the days he worked on improving his songwriting skills.
Christian appreciated his time with Newton but felt the need to strike out on his own. He wanted to create his own music. He headed back to Nashville in 1974 and started a jingle company, writing jingles for Coca-Cola, Stouffers and a new fast-food chain called Chick-fil-A. Christian returned to his old job at Opryland and brought an old college roommate to play with him. Brown Bannister would become a key part of Christian’s future studio as a songwriter, engineer and producer.
In 1975 Christian got a call that changed his life again. Mike Curb was president of MGM records. In 1972 Curb had signed Larry Norman, a Texan who grew up in San Francisco. Norman had performed with a group called People! People! and had a smash hit with a Zombies song called “I Love You.” But Norman wasn’t happy. He had a spiritual encounter, and he and others started “the Jesus Revolution” — street minister hippie preachers who believed in the gospel of Jesus. Norman began to record rock ’n’ roll gospel. Jesus Christ Superstar hit Broadway. It was the beginning of the first break from traditional gospel music.
Curb preferred clean-cut groups who disavowed the drug culture, receiving much grief from the rock press in the early ’70s. Steve Kipner was leaving a group called Friends, and Curb needed a replacement. Pat Boone recommended Christian. Friends re-formed as the group Cotton, Lloyd and Christian. The soft-rock trio signed with MGM subsidiary 20th Century Records. The first record made by the group was a cover of Del Shannon’s “I Go to Pieces.” It charted and topped out at No. 66 on Billboard. The group appeared on American Bandstand and on The Midnight Special and recorded two albums.
Christian learned about the business side of music from Curb (who’d become lieutenant governor of California from 1979 to ’83). He also gained more valuable experience producing as the group faded. He’d later produce an album for his ex-bandmate, Aussie Darrell Cotton, in 1980 in Australia. A song he and Cotton wrote together called “Same Old Girl” hit No. 1 down under. Kipner, the singer Christian replaced in Friends, had become a well-known songwriter. He’d grown up in Australia, wrote hits for Chicago (“Hard Habit to Break”) and co-wrote Olivia Newton-John’s big smash “Physical.” Christian and Kipner would write a song recorded by Sheena Easton called “Telephone Lines.”
Christian wanted a home and his own studio. He found a house in Brentwood (near Nashville) in 1975 and, with his friends’ help, built a studio in his basement. Christian called it Gold Mine Studios. He attended church near Belmont College on Music Row. The church owned a music store/coffee shop across the street. The idea was to reach young people as well as down-and-out street people. The house band was called Dogwood. The husband and wife team of Steve and Annie Chapman, along with Ron Elder, sang beautiful harmonies and original songs in the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash — but with Christian lyrics. Without a plan, Christian asked them to make a record.
Dogwood agreed, but Christian suddenly realized he couldn’t fund the session. He contacted Pat Boone, who was launching a new label, Lion and Lamb. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, several songs with Christian lyrics had become huge hits. Norman Greenbaum wrote and sang “Spirit in the Sky” in 1970, which sold two million copies (it’s ranked by Rolling Stone as one of 500 greatest songs of all time). Gene MacLellan wrote a song for Anne Murray called “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” also in 1970. A Canadian group called Ocean covered it, and their version became the 22nd top-selling record of 1971. Pat Boone thought pop music would play songs about Jesus. He sent Christian $5000 — almost $31,000 in today’s money — no questions asked! This was the beginning of Home Sweet Home production. After the Flood, Before the Fire by Dogwood was released in August 1975. The album was a success with its laid-back country rock style.
Christian, through a series of his Australian friends, was contacted by Olivia Newton-John’s producer, John Farrar. Newton-John wanted to record her next album in Nashville, and Christian had been recommended to line up musicians and studios.
Newton-John and Farrar stayed with Christian and his wife at their home in Brentwood. Christian and Farrar co-wrote a song for the LP called “Compassionate Man.” The album, Don’t Stop Believin’, came out in 1976 and reached No. 7 on the country charts and No. 33 in pop. Christian played acoustic guitar on the LP, which went gold. Newton-John has said her favorite recording experience was making this LP.
In Waco, Stan Moser of Word Records was seeking a new sound for Christian music. Word specialized in gospel and spoken word records. Moser had met Christian, and when he heard the album by Dogwood, he knew he wanted Christian to work for his new label, Myrrh. Word had signed B.J. Thomas, the legendary singer from Houston. Thomas had hits in rock ’n’ roll, pop and country. His recording of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” had won an Oscar and Grammy in 1970. Thomas’ smoky voice is one of the most recognizable in music, and he’d eventually sell over 70 million records.
Thomas wanted to do Christian music. Christian produced and Brown Bannister engineered, and they recorded Thomas in his home studio. The result was a landmark Christian record, “Home Where I Belong,” which sold 350,000 copies in 1976, a huge amount in Christian music, where 15,000 in sales was considered a big hit. The record would win a Grammy and Dove award for Thomas for best inspirational performance. It eventually became the first CCM album to go platinum — with 1 million in sales. The music industry stood up and took notice of Christian music. Stan Moser and Word signed a deal with Christian to produce five albums a year for five years!
Christian realized his grandmother’s prayer has been answered. He wanted to write, produce and sing music that spread the word about Jesus. He didn’t want a generic ministry. He wanted to think differently, outside the box. Christian wanted to blend the instrumental melodies of pop music with lyrics about Christ. It would be called Contemporary Christian Music. Older devout Christians wouldn’t listen to rock ’n’ roll Jesus music or hard-rock Christian music. But they would buy and listen to CCM. It changed traditional inspirational music recording forever.
Brown Bannister suggested recording a young girl who attended their church. Sixteen-year-old Amy Grant had written a few songs but really wasn’t seeking a music career. Christian’s wife Shanon was best friends with one of Grant’s sisters. After listening to a demo of Grant’s songs, Christian signed her to a record and publishing deal. Grant’s self-titled first album sold 50,000 copies in three weeks. Christian had the foresight to see the talent in Grant. To date the Queen of Christian Music has sold nearly 40 million records, and has won six Grammys and almost two dozen Dove Awards.
Christian signed on to produce the legendary gospel group the Imperials. The Imperials had been a group for a decade and backed Elvis on his Grammy-winning gospel LP His Hand in Mine. But while they were one of the top gospel song groups, they desired a new sound. Christian was on vacation in Florida, and, while watching sailboats on the ocean, wrote a calypso-type spiritual song. The song was original, creative and imaginative. He called it “Sail On,” and it would win a Grammy in 1977 for best gospel and inspirational song for the Imperials.
The popular group America had great success in the 1970s with songs like “Ventura Highway,” “A Horse with No Name” and “Lonely People.” The group was produced by George Martin of Beatles fame. Dan Peek, an original founder of America, had left the group in 1977. Peek’s success with America had come at a price as he abused alcohol and drugs. His wife urged him to recommit himself to Christ. Peek left America and signed with Pat Boone’s Lion and Lamb label. Boone asked Christian to come up with material and to produce Peek’s first CCM album. During the making of the album, Peek’s house burned to the ground in Malibu, and he lost all his possessions and gold records. He got down on his knees and prayed. He decided his material possessions weren’t as important as glorifying God. With this in mind, Christian and Peek wrote a beautiful song to headline Peek’s album. “All Things Are Possible” was a huge smash — it was No. 1 on the Christian music charts for 13 weeks and crossed over to the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart where it peaked at No. 6. It was perhaps the first CCM song to hit the Top 10 on both charts at the same time. Peek was nominated for a Grammy, but he lost out to another album Christian had produced for the Imperials called Heed the Call. Today, “Sail On” and “All Things are Possible” are considered classic inspirational songs that pioneered the CCM genre.
CCM music became mainstream with the publication of CCM Magazine in 1978. John Steele and Salem Publishing put out the magazine, which contained CCM music charts and covered CCM artists. CCM records would reach peak sales in the next decade, and Christian’s studio was responsible for close to half of the hit records.
Christian became a solo artist with several of his own hits. He was invited by MCA to head up a CCM record division to be called Songbird. For his first project, Christian produced one of the most lovely Christmas albums of all time. On This Christmas Night contained mostly original songs by artists such as Amy Grant, B.W. Stevenson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dan Peek, the Boones and others. A TV special was filmed for the Christian Broadcasting Network. Christian wrote an emotive song for B.J. Thomas called “God Bless the Children.” It’s still a Christmas favorite.
Christian moved his family to Los Angeles and opened a second recording studio. In 1980, he produced an incredible CCM album titled Lifeline for his next-door neighbor, the legendary Texas vocalist B.W. Stevenson. Lifeline was one of Stevenson’s best efforts, and a song Christian wrote, “Headin’ Home,” was a hit on Christian music radio. Christian branched out and partnered in songwriting with Englishman Robbie Patton for Leeds Levy Music (Levy published Rocket Music, owned by Elton John). One of their songs, “When the World Runs Out of Love,” was recorded by Dionne Warwick.
Christian met Robert Kardashian, a young lawyer who owned Radio and Records magazine, a publication that provided charts and data for radio stations and was influential in the radio business. Kardashian was a Christian, and the young Armenian and the native Texan hit it off. They became lifelong friends. Christian still views Kardashian as “one of the best men I’ve ever met.” Christian was writing some pop songs with several friends who were Top 40 hitmakers.
In 1981, Christian and Kerry Chater wrote a hit for the Carpenters. “Back in My Life Again” would chart at number No. 14 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary (AC) Chart. Christian decided to see if he could make it in “the big fish world of pop music.”
Kardashian became Christian’s manager. Neil Bogart, who’d steered Casablanca Records to many huge hits (most with Donna Summer and Kiss) had decided to form his own record company. Christian was the first artist signed to Boardwalk Records. His self-titled debut, produced by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons, would have a hit single, “I Want You, I Need You,” which hit No. 6 on the Billboard AC Chart and No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1981. Christian made the rounds of several TV shows, including The Merv Griffin Show and Solid Gold. On Solid Gold, he’d meet an artist he’d produce in the future, Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension. The follow-up single was doing well and moving up the charts when Bogart died of cancer at age 37. Boardwalk went bankrupt, and that ended Christian’s pop career.
Christian would remain an intimate friend with Kardashian until his death from cancer at age 59 in 2003. He’s still close to the family.
Christian and his wife Shanon decided they missed Texas. They didn’t wish to rear their children in L.A., so Christian moved his family to Dallas. He bought two houses and made the second home into his third recording studio. He continued to produce top hits for CCM artists and continued to produce and write for himself. In 1987 Christian and his brother, Brad, approached an Abilene puppeteer named Andy Holmes with an idea for a children’s TV show. Gerbert would predate Barney and win an Ace and a Dove award. The Gerbert series is still shown to this day.
In 1992 at the suggestion of his friend Trammell Crow, Christian co-purchased The Studios at Las Colinas, finally partnering with Ross Perot Jr. Las Colinas is the largest studio outside of L.A. and New York, and the films Silkwood, Robocop, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and Terms of Endearment were all filmed there (along with TV shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Barney). In addition, many music videos were filmed at Las Colinas by the likes of Willie Nelson, ZZ Top, Garth Brooks, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton. At one time, Christian had one of the largest private collections of movie memorabilia in the world, displayed at Las Colinas for popular tours. He even owned Dorothy’s dress from The Wizard of Oz and the red suit Robin Williams wore in Mork and Mindy. He sold Las Colinas to Fox Sports Southwest and sold the movie studio in 2003. Much of his movie memorabilia was sold in several auctions.
Today, Christian continues his media production company and owns several businesses. He became interested in girls basketball following his daughter Savannah’s career and now co-owns the WNBA Dallas Wings. He continues to tour and sing and is often asked to speak at schools and colleges. His message is simple: “Follow your passion” and “You don’t fail till you quit.”
Through a life of extraordinary achievements, Christian remains first and foremost a humble boy from Abilene who had help along the way. When asked about his music career, he’ll readily say, “I’m a Texas artist who believed God had a plan for me.” Amen!