Billy Ray Hearn, a pioneer of contemporary Christian music (CCM), died Wednesday.
Hearn, 85, launched the careers of Amy Grant, Keith Green, Steven Curtis Chapman, and BeBe and CeCe Winans.
“He was the first true label A&R (artist and repertoire) guy who started the very first professional Christian record company,” his son, Bill Hearn, toldTheTennessean. “He was a giant of a person; he had so much impact and influence on people in his life and his work. His legacy is going to continue to inspire people for years and years to come."
Hearn, a Baylor University alumnus and a Korean War veteran, was a Baptist music minister before getting into the music business in the mid-1960s, according to the Tennessean. He signed Grant to Myrrh Records, a label he started, in 1977.
He later started Sparrow Records in the mid-1980s, which became one of the most successful Christian music labels. By 1989, Sparrow had $20 million in annual sales, reported the Los Angeles Times.
By the mid-1990s, Christian music had become big business, and major record companies snatched up Christian labels, including Sparrow. Albums sales at Sparrow and other record labels jumped from 31 million in 1996 to 44 million in 2000. After Sparrow was sold to EMI in 1992, sales more than doubled and the company’s value grew from $35 million to a reported $135 million in 2002. That growth prompted fears that the Christian message of CCM was being lost, reported CT under the headline, “CCM’s Growing Pains.”
Hearn never lost his focus on the message of Jesus, said Michael Card, a former Sparrow artist.
“He was a profoundly good man,” Card told CT.
Card recalled first meeting Hearn while standing in line at a movie theater in the 1980s. At the time, Card was stuck in a contract dispute with another label and things weren’t going well. Hearn introduced himself to Card, and later help him get out of that situation. He later signed with Sparrow and stayed for 14 years.
“Without him, I probably would have quit,” he said.
Bill Hearn, president of Capitol Christian Music Group, told CT that his dad’s life was filled with stories like that. He loved artists and songwriters who made the music and wanted as many people as possible to hear it.
That was his calling in life, said Hearn.
“He believed in the power of music to share the gospel,” Hearn said.
That belief was shaped during the years the elder Hearn spent as music minister in the South. Hundreds of young people sang in his choirs, his son said, and he saw how gospel music moved them. That inspired him to leave church ministry for the fledgling Christian music business in the 1970s.
“He knew instinctively that they would respond to this music,” Bill Hearn said.
In the beginning, Christian music was more about community than anything else, said Card. The elder Hearn had the gift of making friends and drew a number of musicians around him, such as Keith Green, John Michael Talbot, and Terry Talbot, among others.
“The west coast hub of Christian music was Billy Ray’s house,” Card said.
Hearn’s time in the music business earned him many long friendships, who paid tribute to him Thursday.
“My mentor and spiritual father in Christian music, Billy Ray Hearn, went to Jesus today. We knew this was coming,” posted John Michael Talbot on Facebook. “Words cannot express my feelings. Joy and sorrow all at once. A treasure chest of memories from the beginning to the end.”
“I am mourning the loss of the gracious mentor who gave me my start in music. Billy Ray Hearn was an American original,” said Steve Taylor on Twitter.
“My family and I are saddened today by the loss of Billy Ray Hearn, a great pioneer and visionary, and a blessing to everyone in Christian Music, as well as all those who listen,” posted Twila Paris on Facebook. “Please join us in praying God's grace and peace for his family.”
“In the ‘70s when Billy Ray launched his visionary label, Sparrow Records, he opened the door for me and every other Christian artist to record contemporary faith music,” Amy Grant told the Tennessean in a statement Thursday.
Amid the business success, Hearn suffered family tragedy when his beloved first wife, Joan, died of cancer—a loss that pained him for years.
“It was a shock when your wife says ‘I have cancer,’” Hearn told the Tennessean recently.
After Joan’s death, Hearn became involved in charities that benefit those suffering from cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. He was honored for that work earlier this year.
Last year, Hearn realized a lifelong dream at 84 when he and his son traveled to South Africa for a two-week safari.
It was something his father always wanted to do, said Bill Hearn.
“It was the first time we’d ever spent two weeks together and not done any work,” he said. “After all those years of working for other people, it was great to have that time together.”