Once a washed up teen pop star and a drug-addled hippie, Keith Green found God who led him to record one of the most dynamic and enduring debut albums in the history of CCM.
“As for me, I repent of ever having made a record or ever having sung a song unless it’s provoked people to follow Jesus, to lay down their whole life before Him, to give Him everything.” Keith Green, speaking at the 1978 Jesus Northwest Festival in Washington, USA.
The seeds of Keith Green’s eventful musical and spiritual journey were sown long before he emerged as one of the biggest contemporary Christian recording artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Born in 1953 into a musical family where his grandfather worked as a composer for Warner Brothers and his mother had trained as a singer at Carnegie Hall, Green later moved with his family from New York to San Fernando Valley in California where he was raised under the Christian Science religion.
Trained by his mother to sing at a very young age, Green could hum the melody to “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” by the time he was 9 months old. At 5 he was playing the ukulele and by 7, his parents had bought him his first piano. Aware of his obvious musical talent, Green’s parents sent him for both music and acting lessons. Not long after, he shot his first television commercial and performed in his first major theatre production where he received strong reviews from LA Times. During this time, Green also started writing music, and with the help of his grandfather, released his first record at the age of 12. Not surprisingly, he was labelled by Teen Scene magazine as “the youngest new face on the Hollywood scene”.
With record companies taking notice of Green’s musical ability, his father started to manage him and after knocking back offers from Capitol Records and other labels, Green eventually signed a five-year recording contract with Decca Records. He appeared on popular TV shows like The Jack Benny Show and The Joey Bishop Show, and also made an appearance on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Colour. After one of Green’s television appearances, Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker, was so impressed with the young boy that he said he would offer to manage him if he wasn’t tied up with Elvis Presley’s career.
With all the momentum behind Green, and Time magazine hyping him as the next big thing in the teen music world, Green’s ambitions were dashed when another emerging pop star by the name of Donny Osmond took Green’s mantle and went onto become a massive star.
Upon entering high school, Green, having been brought up in an alcohol- and drug-free home, became swept up in the ethos of Southern California living, experimenting with drugs and adhering to the mantra of the “If it feels good, do it” generation that he lived in. Seeking not just physical but also religious fulfilment, Green experimented with hallucinogenic drugs while visiting hippie communes in California, searching for answers to his spiritual questions. Though his divergent interests brought him to many different locales, Green’s passion for music never abated, and he regularly gigged at cafes and taverns in Southern California. This eventually lead to him signing a recording contract with Amos Records in 1971, but his album never took off.
Eventually abandoning his new age beliefs, a bad acid trip led him to reading two books: the Bible and Science And Health (the Christian Science Bible). Returning to his upbringing in the Christian Science faith and then reading the words of The Bible, Green realised that the common denominator in the two texts was the man Jesus Christ, and with this understanding, Green asked Jesus into his heart.
Not long after, Green met and dated his soon to be wife, Melody Steiner, another free-spirited seeker from California, and they started living together. With Steiner under his influence, Green sought to find a deeper meaning in their shared existence, and with their differing upbringings (Green being Christian Science and Steiner, Jewish), the couple wrestled with their doubts about the Bible and the deity of Jesus Christ. As Green’s faith in God grew, he felt convicted that living out of wedlock with Steiner was wrong so he proposed to her and they got married.
SAVED FOR GOOD WORKS
Still with a view to becoming a pop star, Green continued to play his piano-driven music at local venues, bars and cafes waiting for his big break, while his life see-sawed back and forth with God as he tried to make sense of his faith. Unable to give up their drug-taking and using it as a crutch to cover up their fights, Green and his wife decided to attend a church for the first time, thinking that was where people who believed in Jesus Christ hung out. After attending a church service with their friends Randy Stonewall and future Christian recording artist, Larry Norman, the Greens went onto to attend a Bible fellowship at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Beverly Hills. Carrying in doubts about God and the validity of his own personal salvation, Green raised his hand at the altar call given and gave his life to Jesus Christ and made Him his Lord and Saviour.
With Green’s newfound Christian salvation helping him shake off the teachings of his Christian Science upbringing, and with his wife’s salvation later confirmed, the Greens replaced their former party lifestyle with regular Bible studies sessions as the teachings of Jesus Christ touched every part of their lives. With a heart to spread the gospel and help the less fortunate, Green and his wife opened their home to young unwanted pregnant women, giving them a safe place to live and grow in their newfound faith.
At Green’s local residency at the Bla Bla Cafe, he began sharing his Christian testimony to the audience, putting his faith on notice to those he played for and over time, Green started to question his musical direction, knowing that if he was to be completely submitted to the Lord then so should his music. At the time, Green and his wife had been contracted as songwriters for CBS Records and Green decided to quit playing live until God gave him a definitive answer as to what to do with his music.
After a three-month break from playing live, Green was invited to play at a benefit concert for the Hollywood Free Theatre, a Christian theatre company. He initially turned down the offer, but eventually Green broke his hiatus and performed at the concert. After mesmerising the audience with his song “The Prodigal Son Suite”, receiving rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the entire theatre, Green believed that God had given him the green light to perform. The word-of-mouth publicity stemming from the benefit concert opened doors for him to perform at churches across Southern California.
Green was contacted by Arista Records and flown to meet its legendary founder Clive Davis. Though the meeting did not lead to a recording contract, Green believed that God was telling him to record a Christian album. With this inspirational leading and calling, Green toured the West Coast of America with his wife, playing his growing list of eclectic evangelical songs to churches. In 1977, Green was approached by Sparrow Records President, Billy Ray Hearn to record an album.
After protracted negotiations with Sparrow Records over the terms of the recording contract, a deal was cut between Green and the fledgling Christian recording label. Bill Maxwell was selected as co-producer for the album, but though he came with heavyweight production credentials, having produced gospel singer Andraé Crouch’s albums, Green was reluctant to work with him and made it known to Maxwell on their first meeting in the studio.
In the build-up to the recording, Green continued to play live and would seek spiritual support from his concert audiences asking them to pray for his album. In the biography penned by his wife Melody, No Compromise: The Life Story Of Keith Green, he reportedly told his audiences, “I really need your prayers more than anything, because I’ve pretty much got the songs picked out, and the producer, and some of the musicians. But in the studio, a spiritual song can sometimes lose its anointing. I want the Holy Spirit to come through. I want to make sure the Spirit is producing it and recording it. If you all would just put me on your prayer list… I need that!”
In the early stages of the album recording, Maxwell noticed a disconnect between the energy of Green’s live playing and the lifeless sound of his recorded demo songs. Seeking to find a remedy, Maxwell attended Green’s concerts and found a solution to the problem. Discarding the usual studio recording practice of laying down individual instrument tracks and then adding vocals to the mix, Maxwell decided to record Green’s playing live, with few overdubs, allowing Green’s vocals to play off his energetic piano playing.
The album’s opening track “You Put This Love In My Heart” is the perfect demonstration of Maxwell’s vision for successfully capturing Green’s anointed sound on tape. With its pounding piano-driven energy and Green’s infectious and passionate vocals, this effervescent praise song encompasses the thankful joy in every believer’s heart when God comes into their life.
“I found it hard to believe
Someone like You cared for me
You put this love in my heart
I tried but could not refuse
You gave me no time to choose
You put this love in my heart”
Green’s unrelenting joy in his Christian salvation is further displayed in “Because Of You”. Here, his vocals and piano work are led by a jaunty swinging bass line, and as he bears witness to how God has changed his life, the listener is carried along by the groove in the music. Lyrically light-hearted yet sincere in its tone, the song serves as a wonderful reminder of how God’s love not only changes the heart of a believer but also causes that renewed heart to reflect God’s love to the world.
“It’s because of You
People smile at me and they say, ‘What a lucky guy’
Yeah, it’s because of You
I can raise my hands and reply and say, ‘I’m happy because of You’”
Humour can often help to break down barriers to understanding, and like Larry Norman before him, Green was not averse to using humour to get his point across. On the bluesy song “He’ll Take Care Of The Rest”, we find Green using his uniquely Southern California hippie sense of humour to communicate the important message that even though we are all fallen beings, God will carry us through the many trials we face in this life if we place our faith in Him.
Citing Old Testament heroes Moses and Noah, who were both asked to perform awesome tasks for God (Moses confronting the Pharaoh of Egypt, Noah building an ark), Green shows us that even though it is human nature to doubt, there is one so much stronger who can help us.
“The Lord said, ‘Hey Moe
Don’t you worry about you going down south
I’ll be saying every word that comes out of your mouth
You just keep doing your best and pray that it’s blessed
Hey Moe, I’ll take care of the rest’
“But the Lord said, ‘Hey Noah
Be cool, you just keep building that boat
It’s just a matter of time till they see who’s gonna float
You just keep doing your best, and pray that it’s blessed
Hey Noah, I’ll take care of the rest, I’m the weatherman’”
On the powerful confessional ballad “Your Love Broke Through”, a song that stands out as one of Green’s most enduring and endearing, the singer leads us through his spiritual journey to salvation, giving full expression of his gratitude for what God has done for every believer. The song, co-written by Green, Randy Stonewall and Todd Fishkund was released the previous year by American-Australian singer Marcia Hines, and had entered the Australian charts, but here with Green’s emotive turn and heartfelt rendering of the lyrics, backed by orchestral strings, the R&B gospel leanings of the original version are replaced by a powerful and anointing-filled performance which stands out as one of the album’s highlights.
“Like waking up from the longest dream
How real it seemed
Until Your love broke through
I’ve been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me
Until Your love broke through”
The album—the title of which takes inspiration from Rev 2:7, “For him who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”— was finally released in 1977 and quickly became the biggest-selling debut record by a Christian artist. With more than 300,000 copies sold, the album reached number one on the Christian album charts and established Green as a major Christian music star.
Green went on a 52-stop, nine-week tour of the United States, playing to churches, youth group meetings and cafes around the country, often using his disarming style to introduce himself to an audience who was not used to a former hippie singing to them about Jesus Christ.
With his star rising, and still a fairly young believer, Green released his sophomore album No Compromise in 1978. With his wife, he established the nonprofit Last Days Ministries (LDM) as a call to the world of the importance of Jesus Christ’s return.
As Green became more fervent in his faith, he became deeply troubled by what he saw as the blatant hypocrisy in the way many Christians were living their lives in American society. Using his music as his ministry platform, Green began calling out what he saw among his peers, and made repeated pleas at his concerts for believers to right their lives before God. Christian magazines took notice of his calling cries and started labelling Green a fiery young prophet as his concerts efforts shifted from music performance to spiritual ministry aping church services to believers and non-believers alike.
The furore around Green’s actions increased further when he questioned whether he should be accepting money as a Christian recording artist. Acting on his newfound convictions, Green took the radical move of being released from his newly re-signed recording contract with Sparrow Records so he could self-fund and release his third album, So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt—featuring the much-loved and covered “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful”—through his non-profit ministry. Baffling the Christian recording industry, Green used a “pay whatever you like” business model for the sale of his album, which led to many albums being given away for free. He agitated industry pundits even more by printing on the record jackets that people could make copies of the album and give them away—not sell—to their friends.
In 1982, Green released the album Songs For The Shepherd, a worship album that featured songs written by both Green and his wife Melody. Two months after the album was released, Green and his two oldest children were tragically killed in a plane crash that claimed the life of the pilot and eight other passengers. The small plane had been used to aid in Green’s ongoing touring commitments and on that fateful flight was dangerously overloaded with 12 passengers onboard.
The outpouring of grief in the Christian community was enormous, and not long after his death, a series of Keith Green Memorial Concerts were held in 110 cities throughout the US, with over 300,000 people attending. During these concerts, Green’s wife, Melody, shared about her husband’s newfound heart for the mission field, and with the help of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an interdenominational Christian training organisation, many young Christians were encouraged and eventually entered the mission field to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The legacy of Keith Green will be forever linked with his fervency for God and his uncompromising view of the gospel message. More than just a popular and anointed musician who helped establish the genre of contemporary Christian music, the fruit of Green’s efforts can be seen through LDM. After Green’s passing, the ministry went on to distribute over 16 million Christian newsletters and magazines to people all over the world, create the pro-life advocacy group Americans Against Abortion (famed for conducting the largest non-war petition in American history to then President Ronald Reagan), fund missionaries across Europe and Mexico, and also set up orphanages to help unwed mothers find loving homes for their babies.
Last Days Ministries is still active today, 40 years after Keith Green’s passing, a lasting fruit born from the hearts of Keith and Melody Green to see people saved and empowered to live Spirit-filled lives. Green might have only served Jesus Christ for seven short years before he passed away, but his life bears incredible testimony to what God can do through someone who listens, obeys and acts on His commands.