After a 40-year career in Christian music, Carman died in Las Vegas Tuesday night due to complications from surgery. He was 65.
He was a one-name celebrity, and for those who knew him, the Christian singer and showman ranked in the highest echelons of American stardom, up there with the other mononymous divas: Madonna. Cher. Liberace. Carman.
For those who didn’t know him, the name was repeated as a question. Carman? It could as easily evoke the vague recollection of a boy from high school (was that his name?).
But if Carman’s star never quite secured its place at the zenith of American fame, he never let that dim his belief in his own celebrity, the awesome power of the concert-show-crusade-event, and his commitment to producing a pop spectacle for Jesus.
“The music is the best means I have of reaching the most people in the quickest way to win them to Christ,” Carman said. “I think an artist owes it to his audience to thrill them and impress them. It lets people know there is joy in being Christian.”
Carman, born Carmelo Domenic Licciardello and raised the youngest of three children in an Italian American family in Trenton, New Jersey, won seven Dove Awards. He was nominated for four Grammys, named Billboard’s Contemporary Christian Artist of the Year in 1990 and 1992, and sold more than 10 million albums. In 2013, 30 years after his first hit and on the heels of his cancer diagnosis, his fans raised $280,000 for him to go on a 60-city tour.
“When Carman resumed touring again a few years ago, he was concerned that no one would care that he was back. He was wrong. Every night fans packed out venues, and his ministry was as powerful as it ever was,” Matt Felts, Carman’s manager, said in tribute. “This world has lost a light in the darkness but today Carman saw firsthand the fruit of his labors.”
A little bit of a vanity project
The singer had many fans who loved him effusively and described how much he had strengthened their faith.
“All of his music touches my heart. I thank God for blessing Carman with the gift of music,” wrote one Christian on Carman’s Facebook wall.
Another described how much his song “Satan, Bite the Dust” meant to her.
“That was the best Carman,” she wrote. “When the enemy attacks you[,] remember he’s defeated and when we get to heaven you’ll have the grand opportunity to kick the devil’s fat butt back into hell [where] he belongs.”
The singer also had fans who celebrated him as the pinnacle of the weirdness of 1990s youth group culture. They could, like Carman himself, be both incredibly earnest and completely tongue-in-cheek in their appreciation of his art.
“It’s impossible to look at this body of work and not conclude that being a Christian pop/spoken word star wasn’t a little bit of a vanity project for Carman. Even more so than being a Christian pop star is in general, I mean,” wrote Christian pop culture critic Tyler Huckabee, ranking the singer’s top 10 music videos, which all star Carman.
“But let’s give him more credit than that. … He saw it all, first and foremost, as something exciting; a call to be Clint Eastwood, James Bond and William Wallace all rolled into one. If that’s a little bit egocentric, it’s also pretty fun.”
Carman was born in 1956 to a meat cutter and a musician. He described his mother Nancy Licciardello as a “child prodigy on the accordion.” She gave Carman his love of the stage and his first chances to perform. He filled in when a band member failed to show up at a local New Jersey gig.
“I knew I wanted to,” Carman recalled, “and once I gave it a try, I loved it.”
Carman dropped out of high school at 17 and achieved some early success performing Top 40 in Atlantic City. When he turned 20, he decided to try to make it as a lounge act in Las Vegas.
In Carman’s heightened version of the story, repeated to reporters numerous times over the years, he was doing so well performing in the New Jersey casinos that a talent agent approached him about “representing my interests and helping my career,” but the agent was linked to the DeCavalcante crime family, which was known for extensive extortion and racketeering in New Jersey. The young Carman decided to leave town in his green Chevy Vega.
In Las Vegas, Carman struggled to break into the music scene or make a name for himself. He took a break to go visit his sister, also named Nancy, in Orange County, California. Nancy and her husband, Joe Magliato, pastor of the Son Light Christian Center, were worried about Carman’s salvation and tried to convince him to accept Jesus. Carman resisted, later recalling that he believed what they were saying but was just too proud.
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Source: Christianity Today