Although many Americans tend to be strongly religious these days, it seems that pop hits with spiritual themes are more scarce on the radio than ever before. At one time, even former Beatle George Harrison, who became interested in Indian religion, was able to send “My Sweet Lord” all the way up the charts to #1. That was in the early 70’s. Since the 1970’s, songs with religious themes have all but disappeared from the mainstream pop charts.
Here are some notable highlights of mainstream pop chart successes of songs with spiritual themes:
*Back in 1961, The Highwaymen, a folk oriented vocal group, sent the very soothing and peaceful song, “Michael” sailing up the pop charts as a favorite. It was a beautiful song that really seemed to give the soul peace and tranquility every time it was played. The song was thought to have roots as a song written by slaves around the era of the Civil War as a spiritual, however the beautiful 1961 adaption of the song was indeed a memorable hit.
*Actor Sidney Poitier was simply phenomenal in LILLIES OF THE FIELD (1963), where he starred as unemployed construction worker Homer Smith who accidentally up with some Catholic nuns from Europe, and answers their prayers by building a church for them. Smith brings some of his Black Baptist church gospel music to the nuns, with a rousing version of the gospel song, “Amen”. In 1964, the song became a big hit on the pop charts by The Impressions.
*While The Byrds were often viewed as part of the psychedelic rock movement of the 1960’s, even contributing music to the EASY RIDER movie along with Steppenwolf and Smith, their 1965 version of folk singer Pete Seeger’s song “Turn! Turn!Turn!(To Everything There Is A Season)” was entirely based on the Book Of Ecclesiastes except for one line in the song.
*The rock opera JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR contributed some early 70’s pop hits to the charts including the main theme song sung by cast member Murray Head. Yvonne Elliman, also a cast member of the rock opera, had a big hit singing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”.
*The group Ocean had a big hit in 1971 with the light spiritual number, “Put Your Hand In The Hand”, a song about trusting in Jesus. It was a soft pop classic for sure compared to so many songs with a harder sound on the charts.
*An Australian nun, Sister Janet Mead, peaked at #4 on the charts by setting “The Lord’s Prayer” to rock music. In her native country, she was helping revolutionize the Roman Catholic Mass with rock music as well as hosting a weekly radio program. She was only the second Roman Catholic nun in the history of the American pop charts to have a top ten hit. In 1961, Sister Jeanine Deckers who was performing as The Singing Nun brought her international hit, “Dominique” all the way up to #1 on the charts.
*Jewish musician Norman Greenbaum, was known mostly for novelty songs he penned, but was so amused by Porter Wagoner performing a “Jesus song” on a religious show, that he thought he’d make a satirical poke at Southern gospel music culture, and wrote and performed “Spirit In The Sky”. However, rather than being taken as a swipe at the Jesus culture of the time, the song was embraced as one of the greatest spiritual rock hits ever. With it’s searing guitar production and hand clapping contagious sound, it had a massive production sound that sounded like it extended into heaven itself. To this day, the song remains one of the greatest spiritual rock hits ever performed.
Beyond being considered one of the 500 greatest rock songs ever according to ROLLING STONE, the song also helped to spur the British glam rock movement in many ways because of the production work. The backing vocal style influenced the sound of T.Rex and other glam rock acts. And Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust both seemed greatly influenced by the song’s style as well, where “My Coo Ca Choo” seems to borrow heavily from “Spirit In The Sky”.
*In addition to his smash hit, “American Pie”, singer-songwriter extraordinare, Don McLean had a minor hit with song “Dreidel”. While the song wasn’t overtly spiritual in many ways, it still represented to the mainstream of America these tops that were a part of the Jewish Old Testament history and the religious celebration of Hanukkah. It is said that the four letters of the Jewish alphabet represented on the dreidel represent the four exiles from Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome from the Old Testament and Torah.
Will the pop charts ever see a return to spiritual music?, probably not likely, unless some song is so catchy with enough good hooks that it gets programmed. Music has become more complex these days where the simple spiritual seems to have a difficult time getting adapted to pop music. There’s always the gospel charts or Christian music channels. But, spiritual music on the mainstream charts seems to be a trend that started in the late 50’s and extended to about 1974. It seems to be a trend that has come and gone, which is surprising for a society where claim to be more religious than in the past. Music isn’t reflecting that. It’s become the most secular ever.