With a superb debut solo album BOB CARLISLE has made a mark on America's crowded Christian music scene. Tony Cummings reports.
In the opinion of several reviewers -this one included - the smouldering ballad on the 'Bob Carlisle' album "Getting Stronger" is a classic. It is also autobiographical, telling of a man finding that strength comes out of a consciousness of his weakness and his willingness to go continually to God in prayer. Bob Carlisle told journalist Perucci Ferraiuolo, "It seems that there are a lot of male singers out there in Christian music who whine and cry and moan before God too much in their music. I wanted to sing a song about courage and the Christian male mettle and what it means to be a Christian man, breaking before God and proud of it, because you're actually just recharging your batteries."
'Bob Carlisle' is Bob's debut solo album but it is the culmination of two decades of Christian music ministry. Like so many others in Christian music, Carlisle came out of the West Coast version of the Jesus Movement. Bob fronted a band called Good News who recorded two albums for Maranatha! Music. But Bob was unable to earn a living in Christian music and sang in a number of Top 40 cover version bands and then a country-rock team. His break came in 1984 when he got a phone call from Randy Thomas suggesting that they form a new band. "Randy had just come out of the Sweet Comfort Band which was a popular band back then," remembered Bob. "There was a void at Light Records (the Sweet Comfort Band's label). They knew me as a session singer and songwriter, they knew all of us. And so they signed the band we put together and that was the start of the Allies."
The Allies became popular mainstays of America's Christian music scene. For nine years the band recorded and toured and their albums 'Virtues' ('84), 'Surrender' ('85), 'Shoulder To Shoulder' ('87), 'Long Way From Paradise' ('89), The River' ('90) and 'Man With A Mission' ('92) show a band with a dizzying variety of styles taking in everything from funky pop to power-chording Petra-style rock. The band toured extensively - festivals, auditoriums and, on occasions, churches. One particular Allies gig stands out in Bob's mind.
"I can remember one time we were doing a concert in a big church. We didn't do that many churches as the band was so big and loud and all that. They had to have the stained glass windows taped up. They had run some extra staging and some big sound and lights and all the stuff and we were back in the dressing room. We had smoke on the stage, and lighting going, and so that we wouldn't be distracted by that we shut all the lights off stage before we opened the door to come out. So of course it was dark. There were a few stairs to go down and open another door. The guy on stage was shouting, 'And now ladies and gentlemen...', and we hear the word 'ALLIES!' and everyone starts screaming and yelling and all of us run out the door onto the stage except we hear this 'thump, thump, thump, thump, thump' and we look back. Our drummer Jimmy had opened the wrong door and fallen into the baptismal! He was lying in the baptismal - which didn't have any water in it of course - wondering what had happened!"
One of the Allies most popular Christian radio hits was a stunning doowop-style rendition of the Orioles/Elvis Presley oldie "Crying In The Chapel" which showed Bob Carlisle to be a dazzling vocalist, able to leap an octave like few white rock singers in authentic R&B style. In fact R&B had always been a major influence on Bob. He said, "I grew up playing in R&B bands in my younger days. Listening to a lot of the early R&B performers - Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and then into the late 60s and early 70s, the Tower Of Power and Sly And The Family Stone - and a lot of those real strong, powerful singers not so much dance-orientated, although you could definitely dance to that sort of stuff, but it wasn't so exclusively directed towards dance. It was very passionate, soulful music and it really caught my ear and I've loved it since."
In 1993 the gritty voiced, soul-tinged vocalist decided to leave the Allies and embark on a solo career. "It was just God's timing, it was very peaceful, there was no inner turmoil, no explosion. We all still get along famously. It was just time. I'm not the same person I was a decade ago, any more than you are or anyone else -just we all started to develop different interests and decided we'd had a good long run of it and after the last album 'Man With A Mission' we just decided not to make another one."
Bob's solo debut with fine production from Bill Deaton (and on three tracks Charlie Peacock) is almost a blue-eyed soul album in Michael Bolton mould. It's an album full of spiritual reality, with a strong autobiographical note and considerable maturity. "I think Christian music has come a long way," said Bob. "There's a lot of baby boomer Christians who just aren't being communicated to, and they don't want to hear a whole bunch of 'C'mon, let's have a radical, wild, paint-our-hair blue Bible study song test.' They want songs about passion, love and their relationship with their God and their family, and nothing does that better than soul music."
Bob has to admit that leaving the security of a group identity for the solo spotlight wasn't easy. "It was difficult. It was something I definitely wanted to do, I didn't hesitate, but any major change is difficult. Just stepping out in the front line by myself without the support of the band on stage and without the security of all those people to interact with on stage - you know, it was a little bit spooky but I got over it."
With a 15-year-old daughter, Bob Carlisle is of an older generation than one would normally expect of a new solo CCM singer. "As I get older and have a fuller understanding of what a great blessing that is to be able to convey messages and deep concepts to people in a capsulised form, great emotional messages, thoughts, experiences, to take a few words and through the right setting of music to be able to pierce people's hearts with it. I just love that ability - I don't take it for granted. Having said that, I'm not a minister, I didn't go to theological seminary, I haven't got a degree in Christian apologetics, or theology, I'm a guy who picked up the guitar because I like music, and I had a father and mother who were very diligent in encouraging me to continue with it. I think they saw in me the budding of God's gift and so that's what I am - I'm a musician, that's what I was extensively schooled to be and I just happen to love Jesus. But I'm as imperfect as you can imagine, as any of us are - I'm just as saved by grace as anybody out there. So in my music and in my performances I don't get preachy, I don't point my finger - I'm just another goofball, just another guy on the planet trying to get from Monday to Tuesday like anybody else, you know."
Now Bob is hard at work on his second solo album. It is again produced by Bob Deaton. "We felt like we were kindred spirits on the last record. He came at the music with the same kind of unbridled power that I like to approach. He did production-wise what I like to do vocally, and so we really got along well that way. So we're going to do the whole album together this time. It's great to go back to the roots things - good, honest, soul music - power soul I guess you'd call it. I love it - it's passionate music."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.