The Early 1970s When “Jesus Rock” Ruled the Airwaves

First, let me assure you that no matter what you might think from the title, this is not going to be preachy — it’s simply an observation of a phenomenon along the lines of those I made regarding the fashions of the 70s, 1974’s chart toppers, or the “two hit wonders” of the 70s. “Jesus Rock,” or “Jesus Music” as it was called, was an early 70s genre of music that briefly populated the Top 40 airwaves, giving rise to the belief that music about religion could be both mainstream and cool. During the period between 1970 and 1972, iconic/seminal/classic rock performers such as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, and Jethro Tull had trouble making the Top 40, and none of them cracked the Top 10 even once. In the meantime, now largely forgotten artists such as Pacific Gas and Electric, Murray Head, and Norman Greenbaum were ruling the charts with rock songs about Jesus. So what was this so-called Jesus Rock movement all about?

It would probably take a dissertation-length study to figure that out (and I’m sure there have been a few); but again, I’m not about trying to root out the cause. I’m simply trying to make a few salient observations about the fact that it just was. Obviously the increasingly popular Christian-themed rock operas were partly responsible, when audiences who once turned out on Broadway for the likes of Hair in the 1960s were now treated to Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell instead. These musicals spawned some really good songs regardless of what they were about; and, independently of this, a number of songs about faith came out that used pop, rock, and R&B rhythms rather than the traditional “church-music” sound. Suddenly it seemed everyone was singing about their relationship with God. That being said, what follows is a list of a few of the most popular songs during a period when Jesus Rock ruled the airwaves.

“Jesus is a Soul Man,” Lawrence Reynolds (1969); Billboard #28

The first song in this survey is actually one I’d forgotten about until it started running through my head when I was writing this piece. The first version I came across was Johnny Rivers’ 1970 recording, but as soon as I did I knew that wasn’t the one I remembered. I looked at little further and discovered it was this one: the original released in late 1969 by co-writer Lawrence Reynolds.

“Lawrence who?” That’s what I thought too. This was his only Top 40 hit, but as you’ll see from the songs that follow, a track record of successful recordings is largely an anomaly here. The song is almost painfully slow and mellow, but tries to relate to the youth of the day with “hip” language. For example, “Oh, they say that He’s a square/That Jesus, He ain’t nowhere.” I guess it worked – it went to #28 on the pop charts. This might have been the first indication that Jesus was becoming cool in popular music circles.

“Are You Ready?” Pacific Gas and Electric (1970); Billboard #14

Having a positive message in a song is a great thing, but let’s face it: if it’s 1970 and you’re trying to sell tunes like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Shall We Gather at the River” to teenagers, it ain’t gonna happen. Take these lyrics, for example:

Are you ready to sit by His throne?
Are you ready not to be alone?
Someone’s coming to take you home
And if you’re ready, then He’ll carry you home

Put it to a gospel melody and it’s suitable for church but not for the Top 40. Back it with a funk/rock guitar and drum-driven tune, however, and you just might have a hit — and that’s exactly what Pacific Gas and Electric (or PG&E as they came to be known) did. “Are You Ready?” was such a powerful song that they could have had lead singer Charlie Allen sing about just about anything and I think it would have charted. And it was big: it went all the way to #14.

“Spirit in the Sky,” Norman Greenbaum (1970); Billboard #3

Speaking of guitar-driven, this song exemplifies that. It’s got a catchy tune, one of the all time great riffs, and in sum is a very good song. It’s a bit odd because Greenbaum was Jewish, but he didn’t let that stand in the way of scoring a Top 3 hit about Jesus.

Never been a sinner, I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

Note the dancing, frolicking hippies in the video — “Jesus Freaks” as they were called in the 70s. They really exemplify the spirit of the age.

“(Jesus Christ) Superstar,” Murray Head (1971); Billboard #14

Jesus Christ Superstar was a rock opera written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which eventually became one of the most popular musicals of the 1970s. The first single, “Superstar,” reached the low end of the charts in both 1970 and 1971, never making it into the Top 40. It entered the charts for a third time in 1971, this time rising all the way to #14.

The song features Judas questioning Jesus’s motives, singing:

Every time I look at you,
I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand.
You’d have managed better
If you’d had it planned,
Now why’d you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

Judas repeatedly sings “Don’t you get me wrong/I only want to know,” while the chorus sings a variety of verses, including

Jesus Christ,
Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

The film clip above features actor and singer Murray Head as Judas. Head wouldn’t have another chart single for almost fifteen years until “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical Chess would chart in 1985; it peaked at #3.

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” Yvonne Elliman (1971); Billboard #28

This was the second single released from Jesus Christ Superstar. As I mentioned in a recent article I did here in REBEAT, I think Yvonne Elliman has a powerful voice, and her 1978 Bee Gees penned #1 hit, “If I Can’t Have You,” was one of the best pop songs of the decade. Long before that song made her a household name, Elliman played Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar for four years, where her character sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” about her struggles with her more human feelings for Christ. More than any song on this list, this one — which some critics have called a torch ballad —  doesn’t seem to related to Christianity at all if taken out of the context of the film and Mary Magdalene.  I certainly had no clue it was related to either when I first heard it.

By the way, the scene above is from the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Supertsar, and as a result is largely acapella. While this showcases Elliman’s fine voice, it sounds slightly different from the version that peaked at #28 on the pop charts in 1971.

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” Helen Reddy (1971); Billboard #13

Though on this list the Helen Reddy version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” comes after Elliman’s version, and although Elliman’s was recorded first, Reddy’s actually hit the charts first. The reason for that is that after the Jesus Christ Superstar album was recorded the title song by Murray Head was chosen for the initial single release. While it was stumbling and sputtering up the charts for two years, Reddy recorded her version of the song Elliman had performed on stage, the song generally considered the best song from the production. Reddy’s entered the charts, and Elliman’s was released shortly afterwards and tried to play catch-up. Consequently, by the time Elliman’s version came out many listeners probably didn’t hear enough difference to spend money on two recordings of the same song. Also, Reddy’s version, freed from the connection with the musical, seems to simply be a love ballad, since Jesus is never once mentioned.

Interestingly though, it created the rare occasion where two versions of the same song rode the charts at the same time.

“Put Your Hand in the Hand,” Ocean (1971); Billboard #2

This song was first recorded by Canadian Anne Murray as an album cut, but she didn’t release it in this country as a single. A group of fellow Canadians called Ocean came along with their version, and it obviously did quite well. While no out-and-out example of Jesus Rock ever topped the charts, “Put Your Hand in the Hand” came closest, peaking at #2.

Put your hand in the hand
Of the man who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently

By puttin’ your hand in the hand
Of the man from-a Galilee….

Every time I look into the holy book
I wanna tremble
When I read about the part where
A carpenter cleared the temple….

Oddly enough, the Jesus Rock song that charted the highest was also the most fundamentally religious and “preachiest” (for lack of a better word). I think you can get a sense from the video above that unlike some of the others on this list that came across as pop/rock songs by pop/rock performers that just happened to be about Jesus, this one sounds (and Ocean looks) like a religious group trying to do a “cool” rock song. This may have been the beginning of the end. And like several other groups and performers on this list — Pacific Gas and Electric, Norman Greenbaum, Godspell, and Lawrence Reynolds — Ocean would never have another Top 40 hit in America.

“Day by Day,” The Cast of Godspell (1972); Billboard #13

When you look at the clips from Jesus Christ Superstar and hear the music you get the sense, again, of a pretty cool rock musical that happened to also have a religious theme. Just as “Put You Hand in the Hand” may have gone a step too far, Godspell clearly did. The message is standard Jesus Rock fare:

Day by day
Day by day
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day

The singer, though uncredited, is Robin Lamont (that’s her singing in the clip). This song is performed well, and I remember thinking it was a pleasant enough song when I heard it on the radio. But the accompanying clip from the movie Godspell doesn’t come across as cool to me – it’s an example of the worst kind of 70s feel-good hippy-dippy movie dreck. I find it unwatchable today.

“Jesus is Just Alright’,” The Doobie Brothers (1972); Billboard #35

Unlike the one hit wonders I listed above, and even artists such as Elliman (who had six Top 40 singles including a #1), the Doobie Brothers were a big-time act in the 1970s. That being said, this was kind of a weird song for them to do. It was preceded on the charts by “Listen to the Music”(#11), and followed by “Long Train Runnin”(#8) and then “China Grove”(#15); they’d eventually rack up 16 more Top 40 hits including two #1s.  It was originally written as a standard gospel song in 1966, then covered by the Byrds as an album cut in 1969. The Doobie Brothers version was by far the most successful.

By this point, perhaps the whole “Jesus Rock” trend was starting to grow tiresome. Think about it like this: what if you heard a song on the Top 40 about some serious issue such poverty, the Pope, homelessness, or whatever. Then a few months later another. Then another. And another. Throw in religious songs not necessarily about Jesus (George Harrison’s 1970 #1 hit “My Sweet Lord” is a good example) and soon you’re saturating the market. Throughout the course of Top 40 radio most songs have been about love, relationships, and partying, and serious fare about societal problems, though not unheard of, are rarer.

It’s not surprising then that by 1973 the religious-rock bloom had started to fade.  There’d be a few more – such as Sister Janet Mead’s “The Lord’s Prayer” (1974, Billboard #4) — but by the middle of the decade the fad largely seemed to have passed. And it’s not that there’s not Christian Rock out there at present, and in fact my sense is that although I don’t think the songs are Top 40 mainstays now it’s a bigger industry than ever. But for a very brief period, almost every Top 40 chart over the course of several years had a song about Jesus moving up or down it at any given time.

One could be forgiven for thinking for a while there in the early 1970s that Jesus ruled heaven, earth – and the airwaves as well.

About Rick Simmons 75 Articles
Dr. Rick Simmons was born in South Carolina and currently lives in Louisiana. He has published five books, the two most recent being Carolina Beach Music from the '60s to the '80s: The New Wave (2013) and Carolina Beach Music: The Classic Years (2011). Based on his interviews with R&B, “frat rock,” and pop music artists from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, his books examine the decades-old phenomenon known as Carolina beach music and its influence on Southern culture. His next book, The Reference Guide to Carolina Beach Music Recordings and Artists, 1940-1980, will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • George L

    Interesting to note that in the early 70s, the “real Christian rock” was just beginning (Larry Norman; Phil Keaggy, etc). In one of his songs, Larry Norman, sarcastically noted that Jesus was becoming a “superstar”. He then proceeded to say “Dear John, who’s more popular now?” Also, a point of interest is “Spirit in The Sky”. Just about all of the lyrics of the song don’t match up to New Testament Scripture. I never really noticed the lyrics of “Are You Ready”. I need to listen again. Also, Johnny Rivers did a version of “Jesus Is A Soul Man” which was much more upbeat.

  • tony

    Seems to me like you are trying too hard. They hardly ruled the airwaves. They rippled the airwaves maybe… I was 16 in 1970. I was there. Songs from JC Superstar? “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was a love song first and foremost. Many did not even know it was from JC Superstar. And the song “Superstar” was questioning the motives of Jesus. Heck the whole musical questions his alleged divinity and the original ends with his death. Later versions tacked on a symbolic resurrectuion.. “Spirit In The Sky” by Norman Greenbaum… he was Jewish and was simply ripping off gospel music. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_in_the_Sky