God said, “Rock!”: 8 artists who left secular music for God, then returned
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1. Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)
The former Steven Demetre Georgiou entered the pop-music world at the tender age of 18, and cut his first monster record (Tea For The Tillerman) in his early 20s. Songs like “Peace Train” and cult successes like the soundtrack to Harold And Maude planted Stevens firmly in the center of the adult-contemporary consciousness. But a series of brushes with death led him into an exploration of spirituality in the 1970s, and in 1977, he converted to Islam and changed his name. Yusuf left the music business entirely for more than a decade to work for philanthropic causes, returning with Islamic-themed albums like The Life Of The Last Prophet and the kiddie-market A Is For Allah in the 1990s. The life of a secular recording artist, he felt, was not in harmony with the ideals of the Koran, and the money he had accumulated during his brief but spectacular career needed to be put to use founding Islamic schools. In 2006, after a gradual return to performance thanks to interest in his music sparked by use of his songs in movies and television, he made his first pop album in almost 30 years, An Other Cup. Although his singles from that release and 2009’s Roadsinger haven’t charted, his re-emergence on the pop scene has earned him attention on the talk-show circuit. Yusuf hasn’t left his faith to serve the rock gods—he’s still a committed Muslim and an outspoken advocate of Muslim rights—but he seems to have accepted that he’ll always be Cat Stevens to us.
2. Al Green
High on the list of reasons to consider that you might be on a wayward spiritual path: the specter of a hot-grits attack. That’s what happened to Al Green near the height of his powers as a swooning, sensuous soul man. As the story goes, in 1974, Green’s girlfriend poured boiling grits on him during a fight, then killed herself with his gun in a fit of rage. The grits burned Green badly, and the whole episode incited him to take a dramatic turn toward the spiritual thrust of the gospel music he grew up on. His 1977 comeback, The Belle Album, proved markedly different than the classic soul records that came before, and it established the path that the newly ordained Reverend Green would follow for years to come. Green remains a devout and practicing religious leader now, but after years of swearing off the very idea of secular music, he started moving back into soul mode in the late ’80s and early ’90s, even making a 2003 album with his writhing-soul-period producer Willie Mitchell.
3. Wanda Jackson
The best-known female rockabilly singer of her era, Wanda Jackson enjoyed a career resurgence when the early-’50s style of rock ’n’ roll came back into fashion in the ’80s. The 72-year-old “Queen Of Rockabilly” has since recorded with Elvis Costello, The Cramps, and Rosie Flores, been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and continued touring honky-tonks and rockabilly festivals, where she happily treats retro-hounds to chestnuts like “Let’s Have A Party,” “Man We Had A Party,” and “There’s A Party Goin’ On.” But in the interim between her rockabilly heydays, the only partying Jackson was doing was in the Lord’s name. After finding Christianity in the ’70s, Jackson turned her focus to gospel and church-friendly country music, releasing albums like Country Gospel, Closer To Jesus, and My Testimony on small religious labels after her old record company, Capitol, showed little interest in her new direction. But even though Jackson has since re-embraced her party-girl persona, she hasn’t turned her back on Jesus, and she sprinkles current live sets with some of her God-lovin’ deep cuts.
4. Bob Dylan
At a San Diego concert in 1978, someone tossed a silver cross on stage, catching Bob Dylan’s eye and swerving his life in a new direction. Undergoing a conversion experience, Dylan began slipping biblical references into his songs. Then he recorded three gospel albums in a row: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love. The move baffled longtime fans, but the music left no doubt as to its sincerity. Slow Train Coming found Dylan preaching the gospel with an unmistakably heartfelt fervor and in a style all his own, assisted by producer Jerry Wexler and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. Dylan’s born-again phase showed no signs of abating until it suddenly did. With 1983’s Infidels, the explicit Christian themes went away, and with them, Dylan’s phase as a righteous singer for Jesus vanished.
5. Little Richard
Little Richard became a rock star in the first wave of the music and lived the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle to the fullest; anyone interested in learning what depths of debauchery could be reached as a touring musician in the 1950s need look no further than Charles White’s excellent oral history The Life And Times Of Little Richard. But Richard wanted a different sort of life, and in 1957, he denounced rock ’n’ roll as the devil’s music, toned down his wild appearance, began evangelizing, and even got married. None of it lasted, and he started to record rock ’n’ roll again in the ’60s. Then he returned to the church. Then he went back to rock ’n’ roll. And so on. Lately, Little Richard seems to have struck a balance, praising Jesus and entertaining the crowds with his hits, looking flamboyant and reverent at the same time. Because if anyone can find a way to serve God and the backbeat, it’s him.
While Hammer didn’t fully embrace Christianity in his music until long after his star had faded, he didn’t keep his inherent churchiness a secret, either. On 1990’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em—a.k.a. the one with “U Can’t Touch This”—he lifted the hook from Prince’s “When Doves Cry” for that ode to one-on-one talks with God, “Pray.” But after filing for bankruptcy in 1996 after years of comically lavish spending, Hammer began making shout-outs to Jesus his main priority. The album Family Affair was supposed to be Hammer’s pro-family, heavily spiritual hip-hop opus, but his own label, Oaktown Records, scuttled the release, and today it remains a “lost” record. (Because only a thousand copies were pressed, Family Affair now sells for big dollars on eBay—sort of the rap equivalent of five loaves and two fish feeding 5,000 people.) Since then, Hammer has only released 2001’s post-September 11 cash-in Active Duty, and it’s unclear whether God or lack of public interest has kept him out of the studio.
7. Josh Caterer
Smoking Popes singer-guitarist Josh Caterer was making his way through life like any drunken, drugged-up rocker, until a bad experience on coke had him so terrified, he asked for the Lord’s help. The Big Guy apparently answered, or Caterer thought he did, because before long, the Popes’ songs started praising the almighty. (The hit “I Know You Love Me” is about Jesus.) That budding spirituality, and the Popes’ endless grind as a band, pushed Caterer out of rock music. He released an EP of gospel, Why Me, and focused on spirituality. But even the Lord can’t overcome a man’s need to rock: In 2001, Caterer formed Christian-leaning pop-punk outfit Duvall. Eventually the Popes returned in 2005, but Caterer’s faith hasn’t dissipated: The band won’t play certain old songs that conflict with his beliefs, like “Follow The Sound,” which references reincarnation.
Making his album debut on Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records in 1997, the steel-eyed, gravel-mouthed rapper whose government name is Mason Betha certainly didn’t seem like he was on the side of the angels on early singles like “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” and “What You Want.” His second album, Double Up, couldn’t replicate the success of his early work, and fans were turned off by the unexpected Dirty South vibe of Ma$e’s flow; going from Biggie Smalls’ heir apparent to a second-stringer on his mentor’s label may account for his 1999 announcement that he was retiring from music and dedicating his life to Christ. Apparently, Jesus was just as tough to work for as Puff Daddy; by 2004, he was back in the game, and after displaying some mild Christian overtones on his third album, Welcome Back, he went straight back to his Harlem World-era hoodie persona and even tried to hook up with the sin-soaked G-Unit crew. With an untitled Bad Boy reunion album on its way, Ma$e seems to have decided that Christ may feed the soul, but Diddy signs the checks.