The early 1970s I remember to be a particularly fertile time for catchy radio pop that preached the Good Word. Researchers at Zero to 180 initially pegged Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” – a compelling mash-up of gospel and psychedelic rock that moved 2 million copies in 1969 & 1970 – as a catalyst for much of the “God Pop” that followed. Further examination, however, revealed popular culture to be reflecting a broader hunger for spiritual and religious guidance in a time of great social tumult.
1969, for instance, saw the release of The 5th Dimension’s worldwide hit, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which foretold of an imminent age of love, harmony, and understanding. 1969 would also see The Byrds’ country rock version of “Jesus Is Just Alright” – the A-side of a Columbia 45 – barely manage to squeak into the US Top 100.
But wait – 1969 would also witness the unexpected commercial success of an 18th-century hymn given a fresh gospel reworking: Edwin Hawkins Singers’ international smash hit, “Oh Happy Day” (#4 U.S., #2 U.K.).
God Pop in the Early 1970s
In the early 1970s there was no escaping the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar – 1971’s #1 album that also produced two Top 30 radio hits: “Superstar” by Murray Head with the Trinidad Singers, and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” by Yvonne Ellman. According to the Rhino 70s Box Set, “Superstar” stayed on the charts for 31 weeks, “longer than any other single since Chubby Checker’s early 60s smash, ‘The Twist.'”
Nipping at the heels of Jesus Christ Superstar was Godspell, the musical based on the Gospel of Matthew that yielded an original cast album on Bell, with the single “Day by Day” spending 14 weeks on the charts (peaking at #13 in 1972).
Against the backdrop of Superstar and Godspell a surprising number of religious-themed songs would appear on pop & rock radio in the early 70s:
– “Love One Another” (1969 single) and “United We Stand” (#13 1970 hit) by Brotherhood of Man.
– “Let’s Give Adam & Eve Another Chance” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap: the group’s final charting single (#41) on Billboard’s Top 100 the week of April 4, 1970.
– “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before” by Harpers Bizarre: a single that appeared to have cracked the Top 100 (based on this regional sample) in October 1970.
– “Valley to Pray” by Arlo Guthrie: single that “bubbled under” (#102) the pop chart in October 1970.
– “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison: love letter to the Lord that topped the charts in many countries worldwide in 1971.
– “Put Your Hand in the Hand” by Ocean: million-selling single that was released March 1971.
– “Magnificent Sanctuary Band“: Dorsey Burnette’s song, as covered by David Clayton Thomas (of Blood, Sweat & Tears), hit the Top 40 in 1972.
– “Speak to the Sky“: Rick Springfield’s debut single hit #14 on the Billboard pop charts in 1972.
– “God Gave Rock and Roll to You“: Argent’s kick-off track to 1973’s In Deep did well as a single in the UK (#18) but much less so here in the States (#114).
– “The Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead: a million-selling hit from 1974.
– — Honorable Mention — –
While not strictly God Pop, “Judas to the Love We Knew” by Spiral Starecase nevertheless deserves special attention for its curious use of a charged biblical reference for the song’s lyrical hook:
[Pssst: Click on the triangle above to play “Judas to the Love We Knew” as sung by Spiral Starecase.]
I’d have to agree with the legal team at Mclane & Wong, who observe that “the last Spiral Starecase single, “She’s Ready,” kept the name alive by also reaching the charts (Billboard #72); but sadly, Columbia did not focus on the incredibly hit-worthy Pat Upton original on the flip side – ‘Judas To The Love We Knew’ – which equals or surpasses ‘More Today Than Yesterday’ [their 1969 million-selling hit] in hooks and vocal performance.”