Ralph Carmichael, pop and Christian music songwriter and bandleader, dies at 94

Ralph Carmichael, a Christian composer whose music was recorded by Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, and the Carpenters as well as gospel stalwarts George Beverly Shea and Bill Gaither died Monday aged 94 at his Camarillo, California, home, his family announced Wednesday.

“Ralph enjoyed his life to the fullest,” his family wrote on Facebook. “He was passionate about the music that flowed from his soul and created it as the consummate professional.”

Mr. Carmichael arranged “The Magic of Christmas” in 1960 for Cole and went on to become the R&B crooner’s most-used music arranger.

Their final collaboration was on “L-O-V-E,” the singer’s last album, recorded two months before Cole’s February 1965 death. He also wrote arrangements for such mid-20th century legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Jack Jones, Peggy Lee, Julie London and Al Martino.

Mr. Carmichael also had a prolific television music career, arranging music for “I Love Lucy,” “Bonanza,” and “The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show,” as well as writing and conducting the theme music for the 1965 comedy “My Mother the Car.”

Although he scored secular films including “The Blob” and “4D Man” and arranged the 1965 hit “Born Free” for pianist Roger Williams, Mr. Carmichael was perhaps best known as the “Father of Contemporary Christian Music,” a genre praised for bringing new listeners to songs celebrating the faith and at times criticized for backbeats and repetitiveness.

Mr. Carmichael composed more than 300 gospel songs, including such favorites as “The Savior Is Waiting,” “There Is a Quiet Place,” “Reach Out to Jesus,” and “He’s Everything to Me,” the latter serving as the title for his 1986 memoirs.

His Christian film scores included the soundtrack for “The Cross and the Switchblade,” which told the story of gang preacher David Wilkerson. He also wrote film music for evangelist Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures production company, including releases “Mr. Texas,” “Oiltown, U.S.A.,” “The Restless Ones,” “For Pete’s Sake” and “His Land,” the latter a tour of the Holy Land.

Mr. Carmichael’s parents were members of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination and his father was a pastor.

“I’m proud I’m a preacher’s kid and for what my folks gave me as a spiritual heritage,” he told Pentecostal Evangel magazine in 2002.

“I’ve thanked God a thousand times over for the Bible teaching I received growing up in the Carmichael household,” he added.

During his studies at Southern California Bible College, an Assemblies of God school today known as Vanguard University, Mr. Carmichael said he underwent a spiritual awakening.

“I realized that I needed to allow Jesus Christ to become the supreme Lord of my life. I made a commitment to God that if He would make my musical dreams come true, I would give them all back to Him,” he said in that 2002 interview.

Asked what his motivation was to modernize Christian songs, Mr. Carmichael told Pentecostal Evangel, “the message we must share is timeless and unchanging, but if we are to communicate it to a changing world, the medium must be constantly changing.”

Mr. Carmichael’s life suggested those dreams were more than fulfilled, his secular and sacred music careers combining to provide a steady flow of musical work and recognition.

In 1972, for example, Presley recorded Mr. Carmichael’s song “Reach Out to Jesus,” while “Pass It On,” a 1969 collaboration with Kurt Kaiser, has become a standard for Christian churches in the years since its debut.

Along with composing, arranging, and conducting, Mr. Carmichael founded the Light Records label to bring contemporary Christian artists to the fore.

Among the singers he helped promote was Andraé Crouch, a Black musician whose work crossed racial and musical categories.

Among his honors were inductions into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1985 and the National Religious Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame in 2001.  

The family said survivors include Mr. Carmichael’s wife Marvella; children Andrea, Greg, and Erin; numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews. A daughter Carol Carmichael Parks died in 2010.

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