"Petra" means bedrock. And it is the bedrock of America from which they came and it is on the bedrock of Jesus Christ that PETRA was built and on which it stands today.
For the first two years of their existence, Petra played mainly in the Midwest, appearing at coffee houses, high school assemblies, church basements, colleges, and even in city parks. After each concert the band shared the Gospel with those who came to hear the music.
In 1973, Petra signed a recording contract with Myrrh. In 1974, the debut album appeared, recorded for a mere $900 in two weeks. Self titled, Petra was not a pacesetting album in terms of sales, although it was on the cutting edge musically for what was called "Jesus Music," featuring hot double guitar leads and powder-keg drumming. In spite of slow sales, the band was generating a reputation for rousing live performances.
It was on Petra's second album, Come And Join Us, that Bob Hartman invited Greg X. Volz to be a guest vocalist. Doing leads on two songs and backups on the others witnessed the beginning of a long-term relationship between Hartman and Volz.
When it was released, Come And Join Us was also a slow seller so they were released from their contract with Myrrh.
The band pressed on. Live performances were the only source of income and ministry, and they continued honing their craft all over the country. During this time such classics as "God Gave Rock and Roll To You", "Disciple", and "Killing My Old Man" were performed, only to be committed properly to vinyl years later. "Backsliding Blues" always brought the house down, a 45 minute version complete with 10 minute guitar, bass and drum solos. Most churches and Christian radio stations found Petra's music much too intense musically and lyrically, hence acceptance came only from the more "radical" members of the Christian community.
While touring without a record contract, a young visionary record label, StarSong Records, approached the band with another offer. Convinced that StarSong understood them, Petra signed with them and produced their third album, Washes Whiter Than, which yielded the band's first radio hit, "Why Should The Father Bother."
Once again in 1980, StarSong ventured out for another Petra album. This time, Jonathan David Brown was brought in as producer and began to mold the band's sound as we know it today.
Never Say Die was the breakthrough album Petra had been praying for. The album contained the radio hits "The Coloring Song" and "For Annie" as well as concert favorites "Chameleon", "Angel of Light", "Without Him We Can Do Nothing", and "Praise Ye The Lord". Petra had the opportunity to tour with Servant which helped them get out on the road again. Since the release of Never Say Die, the road has been Petra's home. They have been tenacious with the vision, feeling that "second wind" many times.
Petra performed 161 concerts in 1982. They took five weeks off in June of 1982 to record More Power To Ya which yielded the radio hits "More Power To Ya", "Road to Zion", and "Stand Up." 152 concerts the next year, then six weeks off in August of 1983 to record Not Of This World.
In November of 1984, Petra put the finishing touches on their newest album, Beat The System. Petra has sold over one million records in their career. The amazing thing is that 900,000 of them have been sold since their breakthrough in 1981.
Embraces the Future while Honoring Its Past by Steve Rabey
For the members of Petra, early 1995 was the best of times and the worst of times. They were enjoying unprecedented critical and popular acclaim, picking up their third Grammy Award for Wake-Up Call, their umpteenth Readers Poll Award from this magazine, and numerous other honors. But under the surface, they were worried about the future of Petra, the band whose name comes from the Greek word for "rock," and which is the world's second oldest contemporary Christian rock group. (Petra was founded in 1972. Only Chicago's Resurrection Band, founded in 1971, has been around longer.)
And when they looked out into their audiences, they saw fewer excited kids and more laid back adults. That scared them, since they weren't ready to start touring retirement homes or doing commercials for prunes and dentures.
The release of vocalist John Schlitt's solo album, and the announcement that band founder Bob Hartman would no longer be touring with the group, added credence to speculation that the band might call it quits.
But rumors of the band's demise were premature.
"Petra's probably more alive now than it's been for years," says Schlitt, whose excitement can be felt over the phone lines. He's calling from outside an Arkansas hotel where he and the band--drummer Louie Weaver (who joined in 1982), bassist Ronny Cates (a member since 1988), keyboardist Jim Cooper (1994) and new kid on the rock, guitarist David Lichens--are staying prior to performing at a local music festival.
Schlitt is excited about No Doubt, the band's 20th album release, which bristles with youthful energy, an updated sound, and the biblically-based lyrics which have become the band's trademark.
"This is the best record we've ever done," says Schlitt. "It sort of gets your blood running."
Lichens (which rhymes with "kitchens"), a 21-year-old guitar whiz who formerly played with Bon Jovi and the Dan Reed Network, expresses the same exhilaration, but with fewer words: "This record is cool, groove stuff," he says.
Lichens, who has been playing guitar for 13 of his 21 years, auditioned for Hartman's vacated spot in early April, and three weeks later he made his first appearance with Petra in front of hundreds of industry bigwigs at the Gospel Music Association's annual convention.
Raised in a loving Christian home, Lichens said his faith was growing cold before artists like Petra, Amy Grant and Steve Camp challenged him to get right with God and devote his instrumental abilities to a higher purpose.
Already, he's experienced both the joy and the responsibility of ministering through music. "We were at a record company sales conference, and a sales rep came to me to get an autograph on a Petra CD. He was crying, and talking about how his ex-wife had kidnapped his kids, how there'd been a fight over custody, and everything. He said during that time, Petra was the only bond he had with his kids. Now he has his kids back, and they go to Petra concerts together. That was extremely humbling. I'll remember that forever."
You know you're listening to a Petra record when you hear straight-ahead rock like you'd hear on FM radio combined with straightforward scriptural lessons like you'd hear at a church Bible study. For example, the opening track of No Doubt combines in-your-face rock 'n' roll with theologically challenging lyrics.
"A biblically based message that is usually edifying in nature--that's been one our biggest trademarks," says Petra founder Bob Hartman. "The songs are sometimes taken directly from scripture. They're not a wimpy message. They usually have some meat to them." Hartman, who wrote the lyrics for 10 of the 11 songs on No Doubt, also played all the guitars on the album. His playing has never sounded edgier, the result of hours spent listening to current rock, pop and alternative rock records.
In April, Hartman announced that he would no longer tour with Petra so he could spend more time producing the band's albums, handling its administrative affairs and being a more attentive husband and father (see "What About Bob?" in the September CCM magazine).
But that doesn't mean he's lost heart for the ministry of Christian music. Instead, Hartman says kids need positive musical influences even more now than they did two decades ago. "Families are not as strong as they used to be," he suggests, "and teenagers have more temptations today than in the past. It's like everything is right there for them, and the pressure is tremendous."
"That's why we began worrying when we realized we weren't reaching the kids as well as we wanted to and weren't seeing young faces in our audience as much as we were before. We really care about the kids. We really feel that's where our ministry is. That's where the battle is biggest, at that age when people are just starting to make all kinds of important decisions." In fact, Schlitt feels today's popular music is much more negative than the music he grew up listening to or even the music he himself sang between 1973 and 1980 as a member of the popular mainstream rock band Head East.
"As a father, I'm scared," says Schlitt, who has four children: a 20-year-old daughter who is a student at Nashville's Belmont University and sons aged 16, 11 and six. "When I was growing up, the Rolling Stones got in trouble for singing 'Let's Spend the Night Together.' Even Head East looks like choir boys compared to even the mildest stuff out there now. But my attitude is not hopelessness, which as far as I'm concerned is never from God. It just makes me that much more committed to our mission. "Or as Lichens puts it, "We want to go out and show non-Christians, as well as Christian kids, that there is a good alternative to what they might have.
"We want to be able to go out and show people what a kicking time five Christians can have playing on stage, just like the four guys in Van Halen, and show them that no matter what they find, nothing is going to be more fulfilling than Jesus."
Petra's current tour will be the first time in 23 years that Bob Hartman hasn't been with the band on stage. But he'll be watching from the wings, and the members of Petra seem to have adjusted to life after Bob.
"Hey, the only difference is that we'll have a skinnier guitar player," jokes Schlitt. But Hartman's departure means that Schlitt has inherited an armload of new duties from managing the band's activities backstage, determining the nightly song list, deciding who will handle media interviews, working out details with promoters, and delivering the concert-ending altar call.
The new responsibilities could be mind-boggling for some musicians, but for Schlitt they're a perfect match for his high-energy personality.
"It means I have to wear two or more hats, and it keeps me busy," he says. "But I'm sort of hyperactive person anyway, and I'm happier right now than I've ever been."
Schlitt is also happy that Petra continues to have a role to play in God's eternal drama of redemption.
"We have a mission that's more than just entertaining people," he says. "Our main goal is to be able to go out and win the listening ears of the kids and bring across a message we've been giving for 22 years.
"Sure, the ways of doing that have changed through the various stages of Petra. But the final goal has always been the same. And we're convinced that God has some really cool things for us in the future."