If you live in or near Murphy North Carolina then you may want to be at the One Fire Family Church on New Year’s Eve. The PETRA concert that night will mark the end of an era. A band that revolutionized the way we think of music within the Christian community will be saying goodbye after leaving us with twenty-five albums (plus two special edition farewell CDs) and many memorable concert moments.
In interviews with founder and primary songwriter Bob Hartman and John Schlitt who has served as the lead vocalist for the past twenty years, we talked about PETRA’s thirty-three year history and how they helped shape the music industry. As rock bands go only the Rolling Stones surpass their continuous and lengthy career. In fact PETRA has been making good music for so many years that it lead Hartman to comment at a recent concert, “Fans yell out the names of their favorite tunes as if we would actually remember them.” Songs such as “Rose-Colored Stained Windows” (1980), “Love” (1990) and the gritty “It’s All About Who You Know” (2003).
PETRA’S fall 2005 Farewell Tour has not seen the band go out whimpering. Hartman has proved he can still lay down some sweet licks on his Gibson guitar while Schlitt’s powerful raspy vocals has walked the Petheads (their fans) down a hit filled memory lane with songs such as “No Doubt” (1995) and “Dance” (2000).
The two men are a contrast in styles with Hartman the soft spoken guitarist giving his heart to Christ while reclining on the sofa in his parents’ living room. Schlitt on the other hand is outgoing and prior to becoming a Christian was a coke addict who also abused alcohol.
For several years Schlitt was the lead singer of rock band Head East and watched his life head south. Flat As A Pancake the first of six Head East records was a monster album that made good use of the moog synthesizer. The album’s hit song “City of Gold” provided a foreshadowing of the change of life that would come for Schlitt several years down the road.
The singer recalls those heady days, “My first record went gold. It allowed me to do some touring with all the major acts that were happening at that time from about 1973-80.”
The band’s second and third albums didn’t fare nearly as well. Head East’s song “Since You’ve Been Gone” from the fourth and self titled record flirted with the top forty chart. By now Schlitt’s life was in a deep downward spiral.
While Schlitt was experiencing the highs and lows of rock stardom Bob Hartman and three of his friends from a Bible study decided to form a rock band. Through their conversations they had discovered they shared a common interest in rock music and a belief that it could be used to deliver the gospel message.
About the same time as PETRA was beginning to make waves on the music scene another young artist by the name of Billy Smiley was fronting Whiteheart. In fact Smiley was roommates with John Slick PETRA’s keyboardist.
Smiley says, “They (PETRA) were very influential because they were doing the hardest music (being played) at that time and with a Christian message. It was unheard of back then. Whiteheart had focused more on the studio and PETRA were really focused on getting out and playing in front of youth groups. I think their biggest impact was they showed that rock had a place in the church for kids.”
PETRA was busy blazing new trails in Christian music at the same time as Schlitt was burning bridges and was eventually kicked out of Head East, due to his lifestyle and a personality clash with another member of the band. In one of his rare sober moments Schlitt fulfilled a promise he had made to his wife Dorla about going with her to see her pastor. It was through that initial August 1980 meeting with the pastor that Schlitt became a Christian.
In the interim PETRA was proving they were much more than a one dimensional rock band fusing hit ballads like “For Annie” from their 1981 album Never Say Die. The singer weaves a story of a lonely child whose family is simply too caught up and busy in their own lives to notice her needs In desperation Annie commits suicide. The song speaks to lost opportunities to comfort those in need. To the backdrop of tender cello instrumentals the lyrics softly remind us; “And it’s not too late for Annie, she could be next to you / Don’t miss the chance to tell her before her life is through / We gotta’ tell her Jesus loves her, tell her Jesus cares / Tell her He can free her, and her burdens bear / It’s not too late /.” After a brief fling with the Johnny Band Schlitt left the music industry in 1980. He says, “When I quit and became a Christian I thought I was done. I spent five years outside of music. I tried to find out what God had in store for me. I thought I would never sing again and then one day in 1985 Bob Hartman called me.”
Schlitt had already discovered PETRA’s music. “By this time I was a big PETRA fan. Somebody had given me a tape and said, ‘You have to hear this. The band sounds just like your old band only Christian.’ I listened to it and said, ‘Praise God, that is such good stuff.’ It made perfect sense to me that you could use this rock power and bring across a message that can change lives. It was just so exciting to me but at the same time it was frustrating because I felt like, man I could have been doing this. I thought it was over (his career). I was a mining engineer for a few years and miners would come in and say, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you singing? Why aren’t you a rock star?’ I answered the only way that I would sing again would be in a band like PETRA. I said that knowing there was no possible way that would ever happen. It is surprising how God will listen. You better watch out for what you say because He will take you up on it,” says Schlitt.
The year was 1986 when Hartman placed that call to Schlitt inviting him to become PETRA’s new lead vocalist. The rocker turned mining engineer now firmly established in his faith jumped at the opportunity. As Schlitt would soon discover however the Christian rock scene was a much lonelier landscape than the one he had long ago left behind. PETRA’s contemporaries were few with groups like Whiteheart, Stryper, Randy Stonehill, Guardian, Bride and Larry Norman as their peers.
Although acceptance was slow in coming and in some ultra conservative circles rock is still considered an evil, the tide slowly turned. When Hartman was asked about the turning point in terms of the Christian community embracing groups like PETRA he responded, “I don’t think there was any one turning point, but I think that more and more pastors who had been touched by CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) were coming into the church.” A style of music that today is much different than the rock genre of PETRA played a key role in PETRA gaining a foothold in the Christian music industry.
“Today, there is not one successful Christian band out there that isn’t keenly aware of the road paved for them by PETRA. The word, “pioneer” doesn’t fully describe the broad scope of PETRA’s finished work and the results concerning Christian radio, AC, CHR and even Inspo artists and of course, the lives reborn in their wake. PETRA broke new ground for the Kingdom where so many others could not,” says Alan Scott the music director for WDCX in Buffalo New York.
As we sit outside the concert venue in Toronto, Schlitt relaxes and talks about the evolution of rock as an acceptable genre in Christian circles. He says now the public’s endorsement of rock music in the Christian market is more dependent on swings in the music industry as a whole rather than being based on personal beliefs or biases. “I think it has gone up and gone down. It sort of depends what is happening with secular music. If the secular system is playing rock the Christian market will buy it. If they’re not they won’t. As far as the doubting Thomases are concerned they are always going to hate anything that is contemporary that gets past the church doors. The difference now is there aren’t as many of them that are opposed (to rock). They have listened to rock music and can see how it is going to work.” He says more people today view rock music as a means to reach a certain segment of the population with Christian lyrics than might be the case with other genres.
PETRA’s influence has extended beyond their fans and influenced other artists over the decades. “PETRA has always been one of the biggest names in Christian rock,” says Inpop Records President Wes Campbell. “PETRA’s contributions to our industry are innumerable, and the band was very instrumental in the beginning stages of Newsboys career. We are honored to have supported PETRA in its ministry and music,” says Campbell who also serves as the manager for Newsboys.
Hartman says PETRA’s music has continued to evolve over the years. “I think my earliest writing reflected the zeal and lack of knowledge of a young Christian, which I was. I would hope that my later writing reflects the wisdom of a man who has walked with the Lord for many years.”
While the band’s appeal has been North American wide Schlitt says their greatest support has always come from the Midwest United States, California and Texas.
As a group, PETRA has always wanted their audience to know that the most important thing about their concerts is not how great it sounds, but the message it has created to deliver. The band members always extend an invitation to those listening to invite Christ into their lives.
In speaking about the song “No Doubt” on his website, Schlitt eloquently puts it this way, “This song has probably become an underground classic for PETRA; it’s the title cut off of one of our albums. It’s just a statement that says, ‘Hey!’ When fear starts getting to you — you just let it go, because with Jesus Christ there is no doubt about His love, there’s no doubt about His promise, there’s no doubt about His existence with you.”
Hartman says he hopes PETRA’s legacy “will be that we were a band who would not compromise our beliefs and our calling. That we remained steadfast in our mission for thirty-three years.”
As their farewell tour draws to a close both men want their fans to know how much they are appreciated. In an October interview with WAY FM, Schlitt in a complimentary fashion referred to the fans who came to the concerts as fanatics. He said they were the ones that cared about PETRA and had kept the band going for thirty-three years.
About their concert in Toronto, Hartman had this message for their Canadian fans, “Thank you, Toronto, for making such a special night on our farewell tour!”
Photo credit Joe Montague. Copyright © 2005 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague. Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer.