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Band formed by guitarist Bob Hartman in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1972; current members include Hartman; drummer Louie Weaver (joined band in 1980); keyboardist John Lawry (joined band in 1985); lead singer John Schlitt (replaced Greg Volz in 1986); and bass guitarist Ronny Cates (joined band in 1988); released first album in 1974; have conducted tours in the United States, Australia, and Europe. Addresses: Office --c/o P.O. Box 50358, Nashville, TN 37205.

From the Greek word for "rock," Petra, one of the strongest voices in popular Christian music, takes its name and its purpose. The group is committed to delivering "quality, no compromise Christian music" that runs the gamut from hard rock to lyrical ballads and lush harmonies. Petra was founded by Bob Hartman in 1972 while he was attending the Christian Training Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. With three other students, Hartman began playing around the Fort Wayne area, meeting opposition from many churches whose attitude toward rock music was decidedly negative. To many Christians the rock and roll sound was considered, very simply, evil. Petra disagreed. Said Paul Jackson, the group's business manager, "To say that rock and roll is evil is to give Satan credit for creating it. Satan created nothing. Satan robs and steals. We ask anyone to look at the fruit ... these are young people whose lives have taken positive directions because of the ministry of this band."

With the backing of their college the group managed to play some venues, and gradually, according to the Petra press kit, they became "more aware of the potential of their music." Late in 1973 the band auditioned for Word Records and was accepted onto their newly formed contemporary label, Myrrh. Their subsequent recordings, a self-titled album released in 1974 followed by Come and Join Us in 1977, met with modest success, opening the door to a brand new market. Reported Michael Levans in the Chicago Tribune, "This wasn't the same old church hymn or gospel sing-along; this was music that carried the Christian message to a younger generation through the same crunching rock chords and hip phrasing that was being used by other bands in the early '70s." It wasn't until 1979 that, as the lead act on Star Song Records, Petra achieved a hit. "Why Should the Father Bother," from their Washes Whiter Than album, provided the band with the airplay needed to popularize them on a national level.

The following year drummer Louie Weaver joined the band, and in 1982 the group spent 300 days on the road promoting their Never Say Die album, which features Petra standards "The Coloring Song" and "For Annie," a gently rendered but pointed ballad about the tragedy of teen suicide. In 1983 the band did a marathon 240-day tour promoting More Power To Ya and Not of This World, both widely varied in their use of heavy metal sounds of pounding drums and sharp-edged vocals ("Second Wind" and "Judas Kiss") as well as melodic ballads with strong harmonies ("More Power To Ya," "Road to Zion," "Not of This World"). Remarkably, Petra's songwriters, including the band's own Hartman and lead singer Greg Volz, showed the keen ability to combine verbatim passages from Bible scriptures with the music most appealing to the young audiences the band sought to reach. With the release of these albums, the group became an "'overnight success' after ten hard years of struggle."

While their next album would not be out until 1985, 1984 marked the first time Petra's work began to be recognized by the music industry. They received both a Grammy nomination (contemporary gospel group) and two nominations for the Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association. Many more would follow.

In 1985 Petra added John Lawry, a top Christian keyboardist formerly of the Joe English Band, and recorded Beat The System, a slick, fast-paced contemporary-sounding rock album that might easily do well on a secular radio station's playlist, given the chance. "It Is Finished," a driving, almost militant retelling of the Crucifixion of Christ, became one of the group's most popular live performance songs, with concertgoers joining in on the thundering chorus. "Hollow Eyes" effectively laments the situation of children starving in Nigeria; "Witch Hunt" attacks subgroups within the Christian faith who are off on "another Witch Hunt looking for evil wherever [they] can find it; off on a tangent, hope the Lord won't mind it."

The band's next change in personnel resulted when Greg Volz made the decision to pursue a solo career. The slot was quickly filled by John Schlitt, a former member of the secular rock band Head East. According to Performance, after becoming a Christian, Schlitt had almost given up rock entirely until Bob Hartman contacted him. Wrote Jackson, "John Schlitt has brought a new dimension into the band.... There has in the past been a certain ... well, mystique about Petra, not that that was deliberate; it just turned out that way. Now we are trying to make the band more accessible."

Making Petra more accessible has included the band's participation in school assemblies and speaking to youth groups. Their 1986 album, Back to the Street, reflects this slight change in direction--moving back from the slick, high-tech earlier efforts to a more straightforward rock and roll sound. All the same, the album is professional through and through, the music and lyrics just as creative, as precise and telling as in the past. This Means War!, released in 1987 and climbing immediately into the number one position on national Christian album sales charts, continued in what could be labeled a "back to basics rock and roll" direction. According to the Petra press kit, This Means War! outsold "the number two album by as wide a margin as three to one in some parts of the country and remained at the top spot on the charts throughout the end of 1987 and into 1988." The strength of the band's message and international appeal became apparent when, in 1988, the album was named Holland's contemporary Christian album of the year.

That year also marked the arrival of the band's new bass guitarist, Ronny Cates, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana. He joined in time to play on the On Fire! album, which has been called the "hardest rocking Petra album ever." Singles "First Love" and "Mine Field" filled the number one and three slots of Musicline' s four airplay charts as the group prepared for an international tour that would take them across the United States, Australia, and Europe. Said Evan James, program director of a Cleveland radio station, "this recording captures a raw musical power that reaches all the way into the headbanger's realm--'All Fired Up,' 'Hits You Where You Live' ... however, [it] does not totally abandon the Petra 'power pop' stronghold ... 'First Love' and 'The Homeless Few' satisfy the need for softer cuts."

Despite their popularity and numerous honors and awards, opposition to the group continues. Petra's sound (but not content) is often faulted for being too secular. Said James, "Petra remains the biggest name with the least amount of Christian radio play." In response, the group's members simply rock on, emphasizing a ministry that reaches young people, delivering a message to them in a language they can understand. The message, according to Hartman, is twofold. First is the ministry. The second part is the music as the device to deliver the message in a direct, "hit-you-where-you-live" manner. "Being on fire for God is not some ethereal state of mind that we psych ourselves into," Hartman asserts, "Neither is it a one-time experience that we receive from God. It is a daily dying to self that begins in the inner man and works its way out into our lives. We become a 'defector' from our previous habits, our concept of Christian charity will be readjusted, ... and we will truly be a light to a world that is 'dying to know He lives.'"

by Meg Mac Donald

Petra's Career

Petra's Awards

This Means War! named Holland's contemporary Christian album of the year, 1988.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Petra Lyrics

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