For Carman, a Rewarding Career Is a Matter of Faith

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's likely that some visitors to Disneyland have gotten religion while hurtling terror-stricken through the dark on Space Mountain.

The conversion that Carman Domenic Licciardello experienced in the Kingdom of the Mouse was gentler, and lasting.

Licciardello, now known simply as Carman to millions of Christian-pop fans, heard the call when acquaintances dragged him to a Christian music festival at Disneyland 20 years ago. A performance by gospel star Andrae Crouch changed him from a would-be Las Vegas lounge entertainer (and one with no religious background at that) to a single-mindedly evangelistic pop singer.

Having rung up seven gold albums in a recording career that stretches to 1982, Carman may be the biggest figure in contemporary Christian music to have virtually no recognition among the larger, mainstream-pop audience.

Speaking Tuesday from a hotel in Phoenix, the 40-year-old singer said his career focuses strictly on the cross, and not at all on crossing over. To spread the word as widely as possible, Carman since the late 1980s has adopted a policy of playing most of his shows free of charge, including his concert tonight at the Pond of Anaheim. When he does charge a $4 fee, it is because venues ask him to do it to prevent overflow crowds.

Since his Disneyland conversion--which led to a five-year stay in Orange County while developing his craft as a Christian pop singer-songwriter--Carman's message has been steadfastly religious, unlike some who have had mainstream hits--among them Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, D.C. Talk and Jars of Clay.

Typically, those artists have some songs that can be taken as personal reflections rather than overtly religious declarations, thereby providing a point of entry for fans who are looking for entertainment or spiritual content, but not necessarily a connection to Christianity.

It's a path Carman says he has no interest in exploring.

"I think the Bible says the trumpet should blow a clear message, so people know how to respond," he said. To Carman, if a Christian message is muted in a crossover bid, "it makes it confusing."

"It's almost like a guy who's married who doesn't want to wear his ring, but somehow convinces his wife it's cool, so he can flirt with all the single girls. He's really not gotten away with anything. He's lost part of himself in the process."

That hard-line stance makes Carman a polarizing figure on the Christian pop scene, says John Styll, publisher of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) magazine.

"What Carman does is a polemic," the Nashville-based journalist said. "Those who love him really love him; they'll think Carman is truly God's gift. But because he is so strong in what he says, there are people who are put off by his approach as being overly doctrinaire, rigid and uninteresting musically. I don't know of an artist in Christian music who is liked or disliked as intensely."

Styll said Carman doesn't get much airplay on Christian radio stations. His popularity is fueled by the charismatic showmanship at those free concerts and by a weekly television program, "Time 2," on the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Carman is faulted by his critics for lacking subtlety in his lyrics--Styll describes his approach as "Jesus cheerleading"--and for lacking a cohesive style in his music. His latest album, "R.I.O.T. (Righteous Invasion of Truth)," leapfrogs from rap and Janet Jackson-style polished funk to country music and big-band swing. But Carman says the point is to bring people the right message in clear terms, using any musical style that can serve the purpose.

'You're not so concerned about having your own style as reaching those kids," he said. "You'll conform to the sounds of the day."

Carman grew up in Trenton, N.J., the son of a meat-cutter father and an accordion-playing mother who was a professional entertainer. He dropped out of school at 17 to make his living playing in Top 40 cover bands; in 1976, he took a fling at auditioning for showroom gigs in Las Vegas.

Being out West gave him no further excuse to keep ducking his older sister, Nancy, a minister's wife living in Orange County. He says she had long been after him to take Christianity seriously.

"I avoided her all through my teens. You know older sisters. She would always try to get me to go to youth groups and retreats, and I'd never go."

Carman could not avoid a religious environment during his family visit to Orange in 1976: Nancy's husband, Joe Magliato, was the founding pastor of an independent church there, the Son Light Christian Center. Soon, Carman was trouping off to Disneyland, and the Andrae Crouch performance, with people he had met through his sister and brother-in-law.

"It wasn't that [Crouch] was doing anything musically that hadn't been done," Carman recalled of his epiphany. "But when he was singing you could feel the presence of God, and it was a whole new ballgame. It had purpose and meaning and [dealt with] absolute right and wrong."

Carman stayed in Orange, gave up his other musical ties and began writing Christian songs and performing them at his brother-in-law's church. That led to other singing engagements at area churches and, eventually, to a record deal. Tulsa, Okla., became his base in 1981. A year ago, he moved from Tulsa to Nashville, hub of the contemporary Christian music business.

But with his free-admission policy at what he calls his "concert-crusades," Carman hardly is pursuing music business as usual. His donations-only policy enabled him to pack the Pond in 1994 (Carman and evangelist Benny Hinn are the only attractions to have invited the public into the building free of charge, according to venue spokesman John J. Nicoletti); another capacity house of about 17,500 is expected tonight on what will be the closing date of Carman's 90-show "R.I.O.T." tour. Stops have included shows in stadiums as well as arenas, with crowds of up to 60,000.

Although staging free shows has helped make Carman a big deal in the Christian pop world, it also has lost him a great deal of money recently. To reach his goal of breaking even, Carman said, he has to raise an average of $95,000 each night in pass-the-bucket donations and receipts from sales of albums, videos and souvenirs.

He said the current tour, which includes elaborate staging, a seven-piece band and six dancers, will end up losing about $700,000, because he had to invest extra money up front to buy his own stage and other equipment. Carman said his nonprofit ministry had enough of a surplus going into the tour to weather the loss without being financially jeopardized.

Besides supporting his musical projects, Carman says he has been paying the overhead for about 15 new, youth-oriented storefront churches in inner cities that he dubs "R.I.O.T. Centers."

A feature-length film he made to go with the "R.I.O.T." album casts Carman as a tough but caring cop who despairs over the hold that gangs and drugs have over many youngsters. In the end, a dynamic preacher who serves a flock of street kids persuades him that even the hard-core cases can be reached.

Next up, Carman hopes, will be a dip into the entertainment mainstream, but on his own terms. He says he has talks scheduled with executives at the Showtime cable channel about writing, producing and starring in another feature film.

"They're looking for family programming. The door's open now to do something," he said, noting that the recent escalation of social and political pressure for less sex and violence and more traditional values in entertainment could work in his favor (although the casting of comely female dancers in his videos indicates that he isn't rejecting sex appeal altogether).

Carman says that going Hollywood will not mean toning down the trumpet blast of his Christian message. "I'm not going to abandon what I am to do a movie," he said. "If it doesn't present itself as a Christian-based movie, I have no interest in it."

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