From Texas to LA with a Christian music legend
Chris Christian remembers the people who helped him along the way, from Elvis to Robert Kardashian
Chris Christian was one of the driving forces behind Christian music in the 1970s and ’80s, though in recent years other ventures have taken him out of the Christian music mainstream. A musician himself, Christian had several hit records. But he made his biggest mark as a songwriter, producer, and record executive, producing hundreds of albums. He’s probably best known for his long-term collaboration with Amy Grant. With his friend Brown Bannister, he discovered Grant while she was still in high school and produced her first album and many others after that. Christian leveraged his success in the music business into other entrepreneurial ventures. He’s owned a movie studio, produced the popular children’s television program Gerbert, and now owns part of the Tulsa Shock Women’s National Basketball League team. He also forged a close relationship with Robert Kardashian while working in Los Angeles. I talked with him at his home in Central Texas.
Where are you from, and what was your first big break in music? I grew up Abilene, Texas. I was born with the name Christian Smith. I was known as Chris Smith my whole life, up until I went to Nashville and then Elvis recorded one of my songs. There was already a Chris Smith with [the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers]. They said I had to change my name, so I just took my middle name and made it my last name. It’s important for me to have everybody understand I did that way before Christian music, so it had nothing to do with doing Christian music later on.
What song did Elvis record? “Love Song of the Year.” It was on his Promised Land album. … Actually, he recorded it in December 1973, but I think the album came out in 1975.
Elvis was already obviously a big star by then. How did he find you? When I was in Nashville … Gary Paxton said, “Hey, we need a guitar player over at Monument Studios.” These gospel groups would come into Monument Studios. They’d get out of their bus, they’d play their songs … and at the end of the day, maybe 8 or 9 p.m., they’d leave with an album. Literally, they recorded the whole album in one day and take off on the road and sell the album.
I was part of that group, and many people played in that as they were starting out because they didn’t have the top musicians. They just had people that were fairly good but were looking for a job. Sherrill Nielsen … and Donnie Sumner formed a group to tour with Elvis called Voice. And then one night, as Sherrill said, he was at Elvis’ place in Memphis. They sang gospel songs until 2 or 3 a.m., which was normal.
After that Elvis said, “Hey, y’all sing me some songs. I want to hear some new songs.” Those of us that hadn’t had any success, we learned each other’s songs because nobody was recording them. Sherrill knew my song, “Love Song of the Year,” and he loved that song, which I wrote in high school, which is pretty unusual. He sang it. From what Sherrill told me, Elvis started getting a tear in his eye and said, “That reminds me of Priscilla.” And he said, “I’ve got to record that song.” Sherrill comes back to Nashville. He calls me [and says], “Hey dude, you’re not going to believe this. I think Elvis is going to record ‘Love Song of the Year,’” and I said, “What?”
You were born in Texas, and you went to Abilene Christian University with some people you ended up working with in Nashville. How did that happen? On the steps of orientation the freshman year, I was sitting by a guy named Chris Dunn who later became Chris Waters, Holly Dunn’s brother, and then a guy named Lee Paul. We formed a little group: Chris, Chris, and Lee. I also met at orientation Mike Blanton and Brown Bannister. Literally they were in orientation. Mike had come from Amarillo, Brown had come from Fort Worth. Mike and Brown and I were three musketeers. We just hit it off, we were always together, and we were always hanging out together.
Then when I went to Nashville, when I started to have success, I always wanted to get my friends Mike and Brown up there. That’s a long story of how that all happened. They came, and then Billy Sprague knew we were up there, so he came.
How did you all end up becoming Christian music producers, particularly of Amy Grant’s work? I think Brown and I have some musical talent; we were born with musical talent. Mike was more on the business side, management side. … Stan Moser [head of Word Music] called me and he said, “Hey.” I didn’t know what Word was. He said, “We’re with Word. Would you consider doing B.J. Thomas’s first Christian album?” Because I’d had hit pop hits, and I was a Christian. It was hard—there wasn’t a Christian industry so you couldn’t go out and find a Christian producer. They didn’t exist. … Brown came on, and he was the engineer on that album. … I paid him $1.25 an hour, which was about all I could afford at the time.
B.J. Thomas led to a five-year deal for five albums a year. I said, “Brown, the good news is we have five albums a year for five years. So we can make records for five years.” That’s what we wanted to do, was to go to Nashville and make records. I said, “The bad news is, who do we record?” He said, “Well, Amy. She sings at church, she’s written some songs.”
Tell us about your relationship with Amy Grant. When I signed Amy, she was 16, but my wife grew up with the Grant sisters. My wife grew up in Nashville with two sisters, and they all knew the Grant sisters. [To] Burton Grant, Amy’s father … I was a little more acceptable as an older guy coming in with his 16-year old daughter wanting to do a record because the families knew each other.
You signed her in 1976. What happened next? It was almost two years after I signed Amy that we put out the first album because we didn’t know what an Amy Grant was. She’s a 16-year-old girl, and she had written some songs and recorded some of those, but they’re very simple songs from a 16-year-old girl.
Brown wrote some songs, I wrote some things, we all got together and some different writers got involved. You couldn’t go to publishers and say, “Give me your best contemporary Christian songs.” There wasn’t even a contemporary Christian industry. So everybody would just write, and eventually after recording a lot for almost a year and a half, we finally started putting 12 or 14 songs together that sounded like an album. … Then as that really started to get big, she needed more management, she needed different things, and that came a few years after.
After you worked with Amy Grant for five years, you went to L.A.? In 1981, two things happened. Amy was getting very big and popular, and Brown and I had done four or five years of Christian albums. We were always on the charts and we were always doing that. I really wanted to go to L.A. to see if I could do it in the big world. …
I went to L.A. and … that’s where I met Robert Kardashian and had a hit record with Boardwalk Records. Amy was getting very big, so we divided it in three pieces. Brown started being Amy’s producer. Blanton and Harrell started managing, and I was the publisher of whatever Amy wrote. … Obviously, that was a good thing but it didn’t require a lot of my time. … We all got what we really wanted to do and, of course, I think it was a pretty much win-win-win situation.
How did you meet and become friends with Robert Kardashian? Another Church of Christ friend, Randy Nicholson, in Abilene. I called him, and he said he knew a stockbroker out in L.A. I didn’t know anybody in L.A., just like I didn’t know anybody in Nashville when I drove there for the first time. He said, “I got a stockbroker, and I’ll introduce you to him, named Joe.” I met Joe and I said, “Joe, do you know anybody in the music business? I just need to start meeting somebody that can help me start getting traction here.”
He said, “I just know one guy, Robert Kardashian. He owns Radio and Records, which is the No. 1 tip sheet for radio stations.” He introduced me to Robert, and we became absolutely best, best, best friends. Our families became great friends. Kris Kardashian was in the delivery room when my second daughter was born. She was filming my second daughter being born. We were at each other’s house almost every day. Robert was my best friend. The world knows of Robert now for different reasons.
The O.J. Simpson trial, of course, and through his daughters, who have become reality TV stars. They were family friends. We were just two families that had kids about the same age. … Until Robert died, I talked to Robert probably two, three, four times a week. Even during the O.J. trial, almost every night we would talk on the phone. Robert was a great man, funny man, dear, dear, dear friend. I always called him “Dash.” I just came up with the nickname Dash, and the Kardashian stores are called Dash now, after their father. I love that family, and to me they’re just one of our longtime family friends and I love all of them.
Did you ever have any conversations about faith with Robert Kardashian? Half of our conversations were about faith. We went to church together. We talked just like you do with any of your two Christian friends. You talk about struggles, faith, relationships with different people, with your family, all that. Robert and I were best friends. We talked about everything.
Reality television doesn’t make out the Kardashians today to be pillars of Christian virtue. Are they being misrepresented, or has it been tough losing Robert? It’s been tough for me losing Robert. I know that. That’s like losing one of your dear, dear friends. Anyone would really suffer losing one of your best friends. I’ve stayed in touch with Kris and with the girls, and I go out there every other time I go to L.A. and visit. They’re my family friends.Whatever they’re doing, I’m not the judge of anything. They’re just friends, and that’s how I look at them. … That’s how I see them and I love them dearly.
You own a stake in the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. How did that happen? Savannah was my youngest daughter. She was the one that was a great basketball player—four-time, all-state, recruited by all these great colleges and universities.
I fell in love with women’s basketball because I went to all of her games. Every time she had a basketball in her hand from the second grade on, I was filming, so I’ve got it all on tape. … She was recruited by Rice University, and the coach at Rice said, “The commissioner of the WNBA would like to meet you.” So I talked to Donna Orender at the time, and she invited me up to a WNBA finals game. I met a guy named Bill Cameron there, and he was bringing a WNBA team to Tulsa. He asked if I would like to get involved with him and Tulsa and I said, absolutely, because I knew one day my daughter was going to stop playing basketball. She wasn’t going to play it her whole life. My wife and I got so much enjoyment. At least I felt like with a professional team, even though you have different players, the team keeps going on. It doesn’t have a four-year run and it’s over. That was my thinking, and I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed it and met some incredible people. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of a WNBA ownership group.
Is it more of a hobby or vanity project for you, or is it one you make money at? I don’t think it’s vanity because most people say, “Women’s basketball, what’s that?” There’s no vanity in it. It’s a labor of fun. I didn’t do it to make money. The point was to enjoy women’s basketball, do what I could to help women’s basketball. At first I was really quiet at the ownership meetings because I didn’t think I knew anything about professional sports, but what I realized pretty quick is that professional sports is entertainment.
I told my ownership group, “This is all very familiar to me. It’s about making stars because people want to follow stars and buy their product. It’s about selling tickets to big arenas, it’s about selling merchandise after the event and it’s about selling Pepsi, Coke, and popcorn. That sounds like a guitar player on tour to me. The only difference seems to be you’re either playing a guitar or you’re bouncing a basketball.” I see professional sports as very similar to the entertainment business that I was very familiar with.
It seems the church has become that way, as well. Do you think that’s a good thing? I can stand on either side of the fence and make a case. I could say it’s maybe a little too star-driven, success-driven, and look-at-me-driven. And then I can stand on the other side and say, “Well, that’s what gets millions and millions of people interested in listening to what these artists have to say. If you have millions and millions of people listening, they’re going to be singing about their relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I really can argue on both sides. I don’t really have a strong opinion one way or the other. I did what I felt like was the thing to do when I was in the middle of making many Christian records. I’ll tell you a little story that, to me, is kind of special. The Church of Christ, one of their beliefs is you should follow the Bible exactly with what it says. You should follow word by word, to a T. There is a passage in the Bible that says, “Go into the world and preach the gospel.”
As a small boy—second, third, fifth grade—when God wants you to go into the world and preach the gospel and there is no internet, can you imagine what a heavy burden that would be? How am I going to go into the world and preach the gospel? I prayed hundreds of times, “Show me how to go into the world and preach the gospel.”
Fast forward 40 years. There’s about 3,000 songs that I’ve been a part of that talk about different areas of the Christian walk and they’re all over the world preaching the gospel. In my viewpoint, that’s God answering that little boy’s prayer.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s complete interview with Chris Christian on Listening In.
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