This past Tuesday, Rick Elias passed away from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was sixty-four. I grew up on his music, mainly through his work with one of my all-time favorite songwriters, the late Rich Mullins. Elias made numerous contributions to contemporary Christian music, or CCM, as it’s called. Elias didn’t release that many albums, as he seemed to like staying in the background, composing and singing backup vocals, sometimes with his wife, Linda. While not everyone is familiar with Christian music, most people will remember a couple of little projects Elias worked on with some guy named Tom Hanks.
Rick Elias was born in San Diego and attended Azusa Pacific University. While he was raised with a Christian background, his family was very dysfunctional. Elias tried to make it in the San Diego music scene without much success, so in 1984 he moved to LA and joined a rock band called Harlequin.
He also dabbled in acting, appearing in an episode of the Fame TV show, playing a gang member named Popeye. It was an angry time for him. Elias snarled and cursed onstage, sometimes throwing beer bottles into the audience. He was heavily into drugs and would try anything.
It wasn’t until Elias entered rehab in 1985 that he became a true follower of Jesus. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he recalled, “One night, I just said a prayer. I fell into a deep sleep, and I woke up the following morning–not a changed man, but I felt that something deep inside of me had been broken once and for all.”
Elias dropped out of his current projects and started over in Christian music, signing with Alarma Records and releasing Rick Elias and the Confessions in 1990.
Here’s a sample:
Elias didn’t care for the cookie-cutter Christian music scene; he thought it could be shallow (Having sung it for fourteen years, I mostly agree, but I digress). Yet he didn’t hate it or get snarky about it. In a 1993 interview with CrossRhythms, Elias stated,
From an artistic standpoint the question facing every musician is to create work that’s vital and intelligent and passionate without sacrificing a very unique perspective on what art is and what people should value in life. We should be able to put on Christian records, or at least the best Christian records, and they should be as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as anyone else’s record you might put on.
Fortunately, Alarma and its parent label, Frontline, allowed Elias a pretty free hand. Rick would make one other album for them, Ten Stories, released in 1991.
For the bulk of the 1990s, Elias performed and toured with Rich Mullins as a founding member of the Ragamuffin Band. Sadly, Mullins was killed in a car accident on September 19, 1997. At the time, he was in talks to produce a new album that was simply to be ten songs about Jesus.
Mullins wanted to record a demo of the project just for himself, and nine days before the accident, he went into an empty church with a cheap little tape recorder and laid down nine songs he had written. This was all Elias and the Ragamuffins had to go on when they were asked by Mullins’s family to finish the album.
The Jesus Record was released in 1998. A collaborative effort, it involved not only the Ragamuffin Band, but various friends of Mullins’s, such as Phil Keaggy, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Ashley Cleveland. Elias produced the album and handled most of the lead vocals, including the soaring opener, “My Deliverer”:
Another song from The Jesus Record was “Man of No Reputation,” written by Elias. Prior to Mullins’ death, he expressed a desire to include it on the album, except that Mullins couldn’t sing it without tearing up. When the Ragamuffin Band pinch-hitted for Mullins, Elias sang the song himself. Here he is performing it in 1997 at Studio B, introduced by Mullins:
“My Deliverer” won “Song of the Year” at the 1999 Dove Awards, and the album won Best Packaging as well, which is sort of like Art Direction at the Oscars.
Elias’s music was oftentimes quiet and deep, but he knew how to have fun, too. In 1996 he co-wrote five songs for the Tom Hanks pastiche, That Thing You Do!, which I highly recommend to those who haven’t seen it. It’s a clever and witty send-up of musical biopics, following the fictional band, The Wonders, as they go from not to hot and back again, all on the strength of a single song.
Besides writing music for the film, Elias had a bit part as one of the Play-Tone band members and can be seen pretty prominently in the fair show scenes (sporting a fabulous D.A. hairdo, by the way). He got a bit of mileage out of the songs on the concert circuit, such as at his Studio B concert with the Ragamuffin Band:
Tom Hanks got mileage out of Elias’s songs as well: In 2003’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula and Ian’s wedding band plays “All My Only Dreams,” which had been previously featured in That Thing You Do!
Elias continued to write and perform steadily, working frequently with Bob Carlisle and producing for artists like Al Denson and LaRue. He was also an adjunct professor at the Contemporary Music Center in Nashville, teaching songwriting and production. He was a busy guy, which was why it must have been shocking for people to find out he had terminal brain cancer. Me, I was gobsmacked when I heard it from a friend on Twitter. Not surprisingly, the outpouring of love and support from Rick’s fans, friends and family has been tremendous.
I think what speaks to me most in Elias’s music was that he communicates the frailty of man. He didn’t pretend to be perfect; he didn’t pretend that being a Christian required looking or acting a certain way or ticking off boxes, as if Christianity is a bright, shiny halo for everyone to admire. Elias emphasized the reality of sin and the corresponding need for God’s grace and forgiveness. It wasn’t about giving oneself a spitshine before following Jesus; it was about God’s refinement in the midst of the journey.
I didn’t know Rick Elias personally, and if any of his family members or friends ever read this they may disagree with me, but I believe this 1996 quote of Rick’s beautifully sums up his life:
“The best thing has been to trace how God links you in with people throughout your life and you just never know how those people might touch your situation in years to come… It’s been an amazing blessing.”
You’re a blessing yourself, Mr. Elias. Rest in peace.
Thanks for reading, all. See you soon…