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Carman, Christian music icon and Gospel Music Hall of Famer, dies at 65

The Christian music icon had planned a new tour later this year.

Carman died Feb. 16, 2021, at the age of 65. Photo courtesy of Conduit Media Solutions

(RNS) — Carman Dominic Licciardello, a Christian music legend known simply by his first name, has died.

He was 65.

Carman had been hospitalized in Las Vegas for complications after surgery to repair a hiatal hernia, according to a press release posted on the musician’s Facebook page.

“When Carman resumed touring again a few years ago, he was concerned that no one would care that he was back. He was wrong,” his manager, Matt Felts, said in a statement. “Every night fans packed out venues and his ministry was as powerful as it ever was. This world has lost a light in the darkness but today Carman saw first hand the fruit of his labors.”

He was born Jan. 19, 1956, in Trenton, New Jersey, and first began performing as a drummer in his mother’s band as a teenager. Carman came to fame in the mid-1980s during the heyday of  contemporary Christian music with the release of his hit song, “The Champion.” His 1993 record, “Addicted to Jesus,” was named Christian album of the year. His other hits included songs such as “Satan, Bite the Dust,” “Revival in the Land”  and “A Witch’s Invitation.”

Carman also put on elaborate stage shows — often for free, or just the price of a donation — that attracted thousands of fans.

Carman performs. Photo courtesy Hoganson Media Relations

Carman performs. Photo courtesy of Hoganson Media Relations

“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,” Religion News Service reported in a 2013 profile.

RELATED: Cancer diagnosis gives a second life to Carman’s musical career

Carman’s musical career coincided with the heyday of the music video era, and the musician produced a number of memorable videos that cast him in such roles as a Western gunslinger in “Satan Bite the Dust,” a sweaty revolutionary factory worker in “Righteous Invasion of Truth” and a Rod Sterling-like host of “The Courtroom.”

“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,” wrote Tyler Huckabee, senior editor of Relevant magazine. “If that’s a little bit egocentric, it’s also pretty fun. For an 11-year-old Christian boy living in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, let me tell you, it lent something to the whole concept of Christianity nothing else did: It made it cool.”

Carman told RNS in 1996 that the trappings of fame never distracted him from the ministry aspect of his music. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Carman did not charge for admission and relied on “love offerings” to pay the bills.

“When I’m standing up there in faith knowing that the Lord has sent me, totally trusting in him to provide,” Carman said in 1996. “I am a demonstration of that faith that I’m asking people to exhibit when it comes time for them to give their hearts to Christ.”

RELATED: Christian music stars face a dilemma – faith versus fame   

Carman sold millions of records during his prime but by the early 2000s his music career had stalled. Fans rallied to his aid, though, after the musician announced he had cancer in 2013; they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund a new music project.

“I thought I could see this coming to a close,” the then-57-year-old Carman told RNS in 2013. “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.” 

News of his death led to a number of tributes on social media from musicians and evangelical leaders, along with fans and former fans.

“We remember you Carman……we are grateful for the times we had with you,” wrote Christian artist TobyMac, who started his career with DC Talk, on Twitter. “You were so kind to me, Michael and Kevin. When we were young punks, you welcomed us. You are home now. A Champion for real.”

Christian radio talk show host Janet Parshall said the late musician would now be “singing God’s praises – in person.”

Chris Thornsberry, an Indiana youth pastor, wrote about how Carman’s music had inspired and comforted him in the 1990s.  “I know people make fun of the guy because of his theatrics but I believe he was the real deal,” he wrote on Twitter.

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, joked that Carman opened the door for churches to use videos.

“Thank you for providing a significant portion of my generation’s Christian soundtrack,” he wrote on Twitter.

 Carman was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2018.  He had been planning to start on a 60-city tour later this year, according to his Facebook page. He credited his fans with helping spark his musical revival and his recovery from cancer.

“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 in 2013. “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.

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