(RNS) When Christian music veteran Carman found out on Valentine’s Day that he had terminal cancer, he thought God just might be calling him home because he had nothing more to give.
“I’ve had so many harsh things happen to me over the last 12 years, it was almost a situation that made sense,” he said after he was given three to five years to live and no chance of being cured of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that affects the bone marrow.
“I thought I could see this coming to a close,” Carman said in an interview. “I wasn’t really doing anything. I’ve had hardly any requests for concerts. I wasn’t recording. I wasn’t productive. The things I needed to do best, I wasn’t doing. I figured my time was up.”
Once one of the biggest names in Christian music who could sell 10 million albums and fill stadiums with his concerts, the man born as Carmelo Domenic Licciardello said he had been rejected by every Christian music label in the last 12 or 13 years and couldn’t even find a record company to distribute one of his CD projects for free.
It was only after he went public about his terminal illness that the 57-year-old singer-songwriter from Trenton, N.J., discovered that he still had an audience.
Carman’s comeback started when he announced on Facebook that he had cancer; the number of “likes” on the page soared from 3,000 in April to more than 159,000 today.
His manager, Sam Chappell, and marketing expert Chris Estes advised him to bypass the recording industry altogether and go directly to the fans to raise the money for a new CD, video and concert tour.
Using the grass-roots fundraising website Kickstarter.com, Carman set a goal of $200,000. If the target wasn’t reached within two months, the project would be scrapped and all donations refunded.
“If God’s in it, I want to know,” Carman said. “I’ve got cancer, I don’t want to play around. If it’s my time to go, let me go in peace.”
His Kickstarter campaign was launched on April 19 and raised $15,000 in the first two hours, $58,000 within two days, and reached his goal in 25 days. So far, more than $306,000 has been donated.
Carman said he knows that after a dozen years away from the big stage, his new material “has to be current; it has to sound like it belongs in 2013.”
At the same time, he said, his fans expect to hear timeless biblical stories and a gospel message in his music.
From 1982 to 1992, Carman’s albums regularly sold more than a million copies each, and he topped the Christian singles charts with songs such as “Satan, Bite the Dust,” “Revival in the Land,” “The Champion,” and “Witches Invitation.”
He was one of the first contemporary Christian artists to incorporate the kind of elaborate — and expensive — lighting, staging and entertainment that fans expected from top-level secular artists.
Legions of screaming teenage fans would call him the “Italian Stallion” as Carman developed a niche for high-drama emotional ballads that featured demons, witches, spiritual warfare and always, a victorious Christ.
“I don’t mean this as a direct comparison,” Estes said, “but he was kind of the Michael Jackson of Christian music in the 1980s. He put on big theatrical productions. But it was not just a concert. He was there to win souls for Christ. In that sense, he was the Billy Graham of contemporary Christian music.”
But after a decade at the top, Carman’s career plummeted. He believes it was because executives in the Christian music industry are biased against some churches and affiliations.
“There’s a lot more prejudice than anyone would anticipate,” said Carman, a charismatic Christian. “I was on a run for doing 10 platinum records in a row. In the secular world, that’s not an artist you give up on.”
He continued to write, including screenplays for TV and film, did some acting, and started a Christian film festival, but going it alone he never got much industry support or media coverage.
Now, like the story in his hit song, “Lazarus Come Forth,” Carman’s career is being revived. Thanks to an outpouring of grass-roots support, he is scheduling a fall tour of churches and smaller venues to test his new material and recast the old favorites.
He said he will use any excess funds from Kickstarter’s CD project to pay for props, wardrobe, and staging and lighting on a major concert tour he is planning for next spring.
“I would go to Vegas shows and Broadway and find a lot of magic acts and see what I can put on stage that will blow people’s minds,” Carman said. “I want to do something they can’t see anywhere else.”
In the meantime, he said he is going through “naturalistic” cancer treatments and feels “pretty good, depending on the day, of course.”
Carman said he is “dumbfounded” and “shocked” by the audience response, but the way he sees it, God just might be telling him that he needs to stick around a little longer.
“If God speaks to the people and the people put up the money, and they say go make music and minister, to me that means I’m going to be alive in a year,” Carman said. “These treatments I’m going through are going to work. Everything’s going to work and I’m going to overcome this thing and reach a new generation.”
(David Yonke is the editor of Toledo Faith & Values.)
KRE/AMB END YONKE