Sandi Patti's Heavenly Voice Bears Testament to the Growing Power of New-Time Gospel

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Deep in the heart of the world's most sinful metropolis, nearly 6,000 people are fidgeting in their Radio City Music Hall seats. Middle-aged housewives in bowed floral blouses, clean-cut young couples holding hands, teenagers in freshly ironed shirts and slacks...these are clearly not your typical New York City concertgoers. Suddenly the holy moment arrives. As an electric piano, guitar and drum strike up a throbbing rock beat, a spotlight frames a blond lady in flowing white gown. Part Streisand, part Sills, the powerhouse voice of 29-year-old Sandi Patti launches into Shine Down, which, if not for its heavenly lyrics, could sit squarely among pop's Top 40.

"I was in Israel earlier this year," she explains to the audience. "It was so exciting to walk where Jesus walked, to see the places Jesus saw, and to visit the tomb"—she pauses—"where He is no longer." The crowd cheers. "But there was one place that intrigued me, a simple road that led from Jerusalem to Calvary, where He walked when He had been sentenced to be crucified. And I wonder what must have gone through Jesus' mind when He knew His final hours on earth were coming to an end." As the music builds to a crescendo, Patti belts out an anguish-laden rendition of Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrows). Before she finishes, there will be nearly 6,000 music-loving true believers shouting, "Praise the Lord."

Twisted Sister this isn't. And wouldn't it hearten anti-rock-porn mothers and fathers throughout the land to know that for every navel-baring, crucifix-eared teenybopper spouting dirty, violent, drug-violating, devil-loving lyrics, there are thousands of young urban Christians who have ears only for messages of redemption and salvation? This, of course, is the heart of contemporary Christian music—also known as gospel rock or evangelical pop. Patti, who last spring beat out the better-known Amy Grant for Gospel Artist of the Year, is one of the hottest of several hundred Christian acts—from folk and country to R&B to heavy metal bands like Petra and Stryper—that comprise a fast-growing segment of the American music industry. Controlling about 7 percent of the retail market (more than jazz and roughly equal to classical), Christian music last year moved 15 million records and grossed more than $75 million.

In 1984 Patti won a Grammy for More Than Wonderful, and she captured three Dove Awards for Gospel Artist of the Year. That kind of success has broadened her exposure beyond programs like Robert Schuller's Hour of Power and magazines like Virtue and Contemporary Christian to the Today Show and Good Morning America. Still, Patti is sensitive to criticism of straying too far from the Christian music fold: "Jesus didn't say, 'I'm only going to talk to people familiar with my message.' "

Nevertheless Patti, who now averages more than 125 concerts each year, considers music her "form of ministry. I don't tell people 'You have to believe this,' but rather, 'Hey, the things that Jesus taught and continues to teach flat out work, and this is where I've been and learned and maybe it fits where you're at right now.' Music is a powerful tool. We should use it to help shape positive values."

Powerful indeed. Patti and her manager husband John Helvering, 31, have built a mini-empire out of their home base in Anderson, Ind.—a rambling house they share with 18-month-old Anna. "Sandi's success comes from her sincerity," says John. "She talks to the audience about hating piano lessons when she was little, about our courtship, about Anna being sick, as well as about the Lord's message."

Patti's upbringing couldn't have been more appropriate. The Oklahoma City-born daughter of a church minister of music, she was blessed with a set of nuclear-powered pipes that had her performing Jesus Loves Me in her hometown Church of God when she was 2 years old. Father Ron, a performer with the Fred Waring Pennsylvanians in 1957, moved his family to Arizona, then to San Diego. Sandi and her two younger brothers performed regularly with the family singing group, the Ron Patty Family, which toured small gospel churches around the country.

The singer's personal conversion came at the tender age of 8. "I really wasn't a rotten kid," she says, laughing. "I had a messy room, but I got along with my parents and I enjoyed school. Saying you were 'born again' has taken on a negative idea for the general public, but I knew that one day I would have to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It was my eighth birthday and I decided that was as good a time as any. It was very special, a personal and public commitment. I felt then that I wasn't alone."

Patti studied voice for two years at San Diego State before transferring to her parents' alma mater, Anderson College in Indiana. There she earned money as a studio backup singer and recorded jingles for Juicy Fruit gum. It was at Anderson that Patti met John Helvering, a quiet business major who also worked as a sound engineer for the college singing group, New Nature. It was John who urged her to record a custom album, For My Friends, that proved significant. First, her name was misspelled "Patti" on the album, a mistake the couple decided to let stand. Then an executive from the Milk and Honey record company heard the album and in 1979 offered her a contract. "I honestly don't think I would have done this without John," admits Sandi, who has recorded seven albums.

Not that Patti needs fame and fortune. "Success for me doesn't depend on charts and dollars and cents," she explains. "I'll know I've made it if I have a happy husband, and if my child grows up loving us and loving the Lord. The verdict's out on all those." Then Patti bursts into a deep-throated laugh. "Well, not on my husband."

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