June 2018 – Since the 1970s, contemporary Christian music pioneer Larnelle Harris’s (photo above) distinctive and powerful tenor voice has helped define Christian music. He recently took time to give AFA Journal a look into his storied career.
AFA Journal: How early did you grasp that your voice was a gift?
Larnelle Harris: I don’t know that, as a child, I ever did. Singing as a boy soprano was never something that I necessarily wanted to do.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, the principal sent for me to come to his office. I was terrified, certain that I had done something wrong and was going to get a paddling. But what he did was sing. The principal sang. Somehow, my young heart grasped that it was OK for a man to sing.
AFAJ: Did that make you want a career in music?
LH: No. But God was ordering my steps even back then.
AFAJ: How did music and faith merge in your life?
LH: I met the Spurrlows [founder Thurlow Spurr]. I was about to graduate from Western Kentucky University in 1969, and some friends were auditioning with them. They encouraged me to audition as the drummer. I did, and I got the job.
The testimonies they shared during concerts made me uncomfortable. Then, through Stan Morris, an arranger and conductor, I first began to understand what God is all about. Finally, at an audition camp in 1969, Stan asked me directly, “Are you a Christian?”
Now, I had been raised in church on a regular basis. My dad was a bootlegger, but believe it or not, some bootleggers go to church. However, at that camp, I finally asked Christ into my heart. That changed everything. [Editor’s note: Fortunately, Harris’s dad later made that same decision.]
AFAJ: How did your time in secular music impact you?
LH: It’s dark in there. We were a Christian group, but we performed mostly in high school assemblies and clubs. After a few months of that, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. As a young Christian, I had to get out.
Then I started having voice trouble – nodules on my vocal cords. I wanted to leave, and now I had to leave. Doctors listened to older recordings and warned me that I might never reach that level of ability again.
I became depressed, anemic, tired from life on the road, unable to sing. I hit a wall. But I still sensed that God had something special for me to do. I began to bathe in the Scriptures.
AFAJ: Give us a couple of elements that are critical for music to facilitate true worship.
LH: One, even in music, we must still grasp that Christian life is spiritual warfare [individually and corporately]. Safety is not guaranteed. In the Old Testament, the singers often led the troops into battle.
Second is something we do before each Sunday service at our church. We pray with the choir and the deacons. We are to offer an opportunity for people to hear the message of Christ … through our music.
AFAJ: Share a favorite highlight of your ministry years.
LH: There are many, but singing at the Kremlin after the coup in 1991 was an overwhelming one. I got to be part of a Spurrlows outreach with International Bible Society. Officials questioned us extensively, but the Kremlin guards helped us carry all the cases of Bibles inside.
The people would eagerly take these Bibles, caress them, and hold them to their hearts. I grew upset when I saw some people ripping their Bibles apart, but then I saw they were doing that to share a part of their treasure with friends.
I sang “Let Freedom Ring” and realized that many in that audience were hearing for the first time about a new kind of freedom in Jesus.
AFAJ: What do you see as the taproot of your music ministry?
LH: Miss Georgia Donehy. She was my first promoter. She gave me piano lessons – not that I wanted them – and she discovered I could sing. She soon had this nine-year-old singing at churches, ladies’ teas, and book clubs.
Many of us kids thought there was only so high we could go. But “Miss Georgie” started a dream in my heart, and sometimes took the lid off.
AFAJ: Tell us about your family.
LH: My wife Mitzy and I met in college. We’ve been married 46 years, and we’re still figuring it out. It’s a daily thing. We determined to build our marriage on spending time together – not just quality time, but quantity time as well.
But when we got married, I could be on the road three weeks at a time. Early on, she could travel with me sometimes. But after our son was born, she was home alone with him. I came home from a tour one time, and he was totally different – he had grown and changed so much.
That did it. I changed my schedule. It made it harder on my agent, but family had to be a higher priority. For years, I was never gone for more than a few days at a time.
AFAJ: Give us some parenting wisdom.
LH: By personal experience, we learned the wisdom of the old adage, “Kids do more of what you do than what you say.”
So we determined to be role models for Christian living. They saw us reading the Bible regularly. We told them Bible stories. Church attendance was a given. We prayed daily that we’d be encouragers for our son Lonnie and daughter Teresa. We resolved never to spoil their dreams.
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” we told them. “You have enough time to fail and start all over.”
I remember Lonnie was about 5 years old when he rolled a huge stump in a wagon into our garage one day. “I’m gonna make me a slingshot,” he told me. I smiled inside, and just gave him the tools.
Lonnie has a master’s degree in electrical engineering today, and Teresa has a degree in finance.
AFAJ: What advice do you offer for living as a Christian in our secular culture?
LH: It’s not easy. It’s always been difficult to row upstream. One practice I’ve worked out is to put myself in a place where God can impress something on my heart, teach me, and show me how to give my faith away.
The past is past; today’s a new opportunity. I’m moved every time I recall these lines from the song “I’ve Just Seen Jesus:”
All that I’d done before
Won’t matter anymore.
I’ve just seen Jesus
And I’ll never be the same again.
Awards and accolades
Predictably, Larnelle Harris’s career has resulted in countless recognitions in Christian music, including more than 20 Music Hall of Fame, Dove, and Grammy honors. In the secular realm, he has received the 2014 Kentucky Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, honorary doctoral degrees, and Orchestra Kentucky’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts and Humanities.
His recently released autobiography Shaped Notes is available at retail and online booksellers. See a review in the April AFA Journal (afajournal.org) and learn more at larnelle.com.