Times Staff Writer

The hardest part of a gospel singer's life, said three-time Grammy award winner Larnelle Harris, is walking the "very thin line" between the religious commitment that forms the gospel message and the secular aspects of an entertainment career.

"You have to be very careful," said the 39-year-old singer, who will perform twice today with the Master Chorale at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"There is always that possibility of being caught up in circumstances in which you don't believe," he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky.

Harris, who as one of the country's most prominent gospel artists was a regular guest on many television evangelist programs, said he was troubled by the recent scandal involving Jim and Tammy Bakker on whose shows he had appeared "at least 20 times."

"It is putting a lot of emphasis on the negative aspects of the effort to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said, adding that he would not appear on the program if Bakker were to return.

Harris said he thinks Bakker--who with his wife was ousted from the PTL Club ministry they founded after revelations of his sexual encounter with a 19-year-old church secretary--made a mistake that eroded his credibility as a church leader. Still, he said such programs remain a medium where gospel performers can appear without jeopardizing their own religious message.

"The gospel will not change one iota because of what has happened," he said. "It is like the story about the man who asked Noah what it was like to ride in the ark with all those animals. Noah said things got pretty smelly on that ark, but it was still the best ship afloat."

Harris, whose previous appearances in Orange County have been at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, said he sings only music that has a religious emphasis. As a performer, he doesn't tailor his inspirational style to heighten his appeal in secular settings such as the Center, where, he said, he'll "just do what I always do, and be myself."

The upcoming gospel concert featuring Harris has proved so popular, according to Master Chorale music director Maurice Allard, that a 3 p.m. show was added to the originally scheduled 8 p.m. program.

The first half of the program will consist of the chorale on its own, singing spirituals, Allard said, adding that the chorale will back up Harris in one number, "Let Freedom Ring." Harris will be joined in the rest of his half by gospel singers hired for the event, with taped accompaniment. The selections will include "I've Just Seen Jesus," a duet for which he won one of his three Grammys, Allard said. The singer's next album, to be called "The Father Hath Provided," will be released in September. He said it will reflect the strong religious devotion that has shaped all his music since 1970. That was the year he did a tour with a group called the Spurrlows.

Harris said it was the Spurrlows, who appealed to his Pentecostal and Baptist religious upbringing, that convinced him to dedicate his musical life to Christian ideals. Until then, the music major at Western Kentucky University had been singing an eclectic mix of music--"French chansons, German lieder, top 40," in Kentucky nightclubs.

"I used to play the clubs all the time," said Harris, a trim, 6-foot, 1-inch man who wears a goatee. "Then I decided I could not do that. . . . I was new to my commitment as a Christian, and club people were bad (influences). . . . You make little concessions: you may be an abstainer in terms of drinking, and then you say, 'Well, this is not so bad'; or smoking, you say, 'This is not so bad.' . . .

"It is difficult (to sing gospel) when I am not a true example of what it is like to be Christlike."

The titles of his songs reflect the upbeat themes of faith and redemption that Harris said have driven his career: "More Than Wonderful," "Touch Me Lord," "Give Me More Love in My Heart."

The songs, he said, convey ideals that shape his own life style, which he described as "normal, conventional." Harris lives in a four-bedroom house in a Louisville suburb with his wife, Cynthia, and their two young children, Lonnie, 12, and Teresa, 7. His wife drives a Volvo and he, a Ford van.

"I find that I function best when I live a life of balance," he said. "The raw material of my life is the word of God."

Harris said he doesn't believe the increasingly sophisticated packaging and marketing of gospel will dilute the music's religious quality. He cited the Christian heavy metal rock group, Stryper, as an example of musicians whose contemporary, highly produced medium also convey a genuine religious message.

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