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Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Songs for the Family

David Seay

Whispers of expectation ripple thought the darkened expanse of the Indianapolis Convention center. A packed crowd – young and middle-aged couples, grandparents and toddlers – perches in the seats to catch a better view of the circular stage at the center of the cavernous hall. Bouquets and potted palms are crowded amidst musical instruments, and from high above a soft white light brightens.

The murmur dies briefly, to be replaced by applause building to an ecstatic crescendo as a solitary figure makes her way down the aisle and up the steps of the stage. From towering speakers, a lilting, instantly infectious melody swells. The singer takes the microphone and with clear, ringing notes begins her song.

“It’s a really good night to be praising Your name,” she sings. “This place is so full of your light. And I thank You for brothers and sisters like these, and the songs that we’re singing tonight.” The crowd is on its feet, clapping and swaying and singing along.

These are Sandi Patti’s people: heartland Christians, everyday believers who seem, in this special moment, to know and be known by her. Sandi Patti is one of them. Her aspirations are their aspirations. They share common dreams and are anchored to the same rock of faith. The barriers that invariably separate audience from entertainer are thrown aside. The voice ringing in their ears is the one they would use for praise and worship if God gifted them as He has this remarkable young women.

Sandi Patti smiles. There is nothing flashy or forced in the beaming pleasure she sheds over the audience, as she exchanges a few words of greeting with the crowd. They laugh and clap with delight, raising their hands as the strains of the next song sweep to the rafters. The singer holds aloft a finger, directing the audience’s attention to the One for whose sake they are gathered. “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth,” the words resound.

First impressions are important, and in the case of Sandi Patti, the first impression is actually a combination of two distinct, yet complementary, aspects. The first is the astonishing quality of her voice. It is by any measure remarkable – pure, controlled with seemingly effortless ease, soaring and free. Sandi Patti’s vocal talent is more than a gift or a tool. It's is a palpable presence, filling the room, reaching deep into hearts, coaxing subtle shades of meaning from every note.

The second impression she makes is the sort of sincerity that can’t be counterfeited. She conceals nothing. There’s no act or artifice, no clever manipulations or hoary show business deceptions. The quality that’s brought her to gospel stardom springs from a source of genuine gladness and contentment that seems as much a part of her being as her voice.

A Simple Soul

“I have no emotional story to tell,” Sandi Patti once wrote when asked to detail her testimony. “There has been no one significant ‘turn-around’ time in my life when I have been totally desperate and someone told me about Jesus. It’s much more simple.”

In the story of Sandi Patti, there’s a clue to those qualities so apparent on stage and in person – the deep assurance and abiding faith that shine from her like a light.

Anderson, Indiana, is a town Norman Rockwell would have liked to paint. A quintessential mid-western community planted in rich Hoosier bottomland, it’s the place Sandi Patti calls home, the place she settled in after her college years as a music major, and the place where she met her husband, John Helvering.

The couple set up house in Anderson, first in a small apartment, and later, when success came knocking, in a rambling frame house a few miles east of town. And it is there, in the nurture and support of an extended family and traditional Christian values, that Sandi Patti, the daughter of a music minister, finds the strength and love that she brings to millions through her music.

“Nothing is more stabilizing than family, having them close around you. Both Jon’s parents and mine live in Anderson. So do all our brothers and sisters. Sometimes, out on the road, you have a tendency to think that it’s reality – that everyone is supposed to wait on you and come to your beck and call. When I get home, the first thing Mom asks me is how my concerts went. Then she tells me to get in the kitchen and help with the dishes.”

From Patty Family to Sandi Patti

It is the last day of Bill and Gloria Gaither’s Praise Gathering for Believers – the annual autumn celebration that brings Christians from across America to Indianapolis. As a featured performer, Sandi’s just finished her last concert. She will be leaving shortly for the next stop on her current tour, coinciding with the release of her fifth album, Songs from the Heart.

After this long day, pale light from an overcast twilight ebbs from the hotel room as night approaches. It seems a perfect time for reflection, but even now Sandi’s looking ahead a few hours to when she’ll be back on the tour bus, holding Anna, her five-month old daughter and the couple’s first child. Even in all the rush and excitement that surrounds one of contemporary Christian music’s brightest lights, Sandi Patti retains a firm grip of her priorities.

Priorities and opportunities are key words in the story of Sandi’s meteoric rise as a recording and performing artist. “I made my living through school as a back-up singer,” she explains. “My growth as a solo artist has been mercifully very gradual. I really had no aspiration or dreamed to be doing what I’m doing now. I was going to teach, and my husband was going to be an accountant.”

What happened to change all that was the gradual realization of a few individuals that Sandi possessed an extraordinary talent. As a teenager she toured with her family singing group, The Ron Patty Family, and later branched out into commercial jingles to earn money for college.

After her marriage to John in 1978, Sandi was encourage to release her own custom album, For My Friends. A mistake at the printer changed her name from Patty to Patti on the LP cover, and it’s stayed that way ever since.

“It just grew from there,” she recalls. “We put together a little tour in California and it was around then that we began to realize it was more than just a part-time hobby. We told the Lord that if what He wanted was for us to get into music full time, then we were ready. Not long afterwards, Bill Gaither called and asked if I’d be interested in singing back-up with them. It was a real confirmation.” For My Friends was subsequently heard by the A&R ears at Milk & Honey Records, and her first commercial release for the label was Sandi’s Song in 1979.

Since then, it’s been a literal whirl of success. Love Overflowing in 1981 and the following year’s Lift up the Lord brought Sandi’s voice to millions of gospel stalwarts and earned her three Dove awards in 1982, including Song of the Year for the now-classic “We Shall Behold Him.” The Gift Goes On and Sandi Patti Live: More Than Wonderful came out in 1983, along with two more Dove awards and a Grammy nomination for yet another Patti standard, “Lift Up the Lord.” This year has become a highwater mark in her remarkable career: three more Doves and a Grammy award for Best Gospel Performance for her soaring duet with Larnelle Harris on “More Than Wonderful.”

A Family of Her Own

It would be, for most of us, a far too rapid climb to the top, with barely a chance to check for firm footing, to test the wind for a sense of where it was blowing us. But for Sandi it was an opportunity to strengthen and confirm the priorities in her own life.

“I know now who I’m singing for,” she confides. “My ministry is directed to the body of Christ. The assumption I make is that people already know about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that there still isn’t hurt, or that marriages aren’t falling apart, or that there might not be emotional, financial , or physical needs. I used to feel that I had to do everything – to minister to people on the street and reach the unsaved. But here’s where I belong. Maybe I don’t participate directly in healing the body, but I believe that my music serves as an encouragement and, perhaps, will give others insight and a way to apply God’s truth.”

By any measure, it’s a high calling and, for Sandi, answering it has not come without sacrifice. “I’m a real homebody,” she admits. “There was a time when I wondered if I wasn’t going to get a station wagon, or a chance to go to the post office, or to drop the kids off at school, or do any of those suburban things I’ve always wanted. In the beginning, it was hard to pace myself. There were so many opportunities, so many places to be. And I began to lose sight of what it was I was doing.”

One pivotal event in Sandi’s life helped bring into sharp focus what really mattered to her. “The birth of Anna caused me to take what I do a lot more seriously. Not just the music, but every aspect of my life. It made me realize what a tremendous responsibility has been placed in the hands of John and me, a responsibility not just to sing the words that are in my songs, but to live them out.

“I can’t just blow into her life one day and out the next. I need to get involved now in the things that will affect my daughter’s life 20 years from now. This is the time, when she’s too young to go to school, that we will do the most traveling. Afterwards, it’ll be summers and weekends. It’s not fair for her to grow up in an unrealistic environment with no one she can really relate to.

“When she’s in college, I don’t want her to say she never went to elementary school because she was studying on the road. I don’t want her – or any of the kids we want to have in the future – to miss out on those beautiful experiences.

“Sometimes I do feel torn,” she sighs. “I’m so happy that we can take her with us now. She rolled over for the first time in Spokane, and I cried, thinking how happy I was that I was there to see it and didn’t have to hear about it from a babysitter over the phone…because that’s the last ‘first time’ forever. Right now I spent two and half hours on the stage. The rest of my time is hers and John’s.”

Lyrics in the Spirit

Sandi’s abiding love of music has also been tested and strengthened through the trials and temptations of success. “I still want to be used of God,” she asserts. “That will never change. I want my music to be an extension of who I am and what I have to say to people about the Lord.

“That’s why lyrics are so important to me. Nobody knows better than I do what I want to communicate. And since I don’t write a lot myself, I’m very selective about the material I choose. A song must speak the truth, but it’s got to do it in a creative way – it needs an artistic and emotional element to express the truth. We must listen to 500 songs a year to get enough for one album.”

As one of gospel music’s leading artists, Sandi is more than a little excited about the direction contemporary Christian music has taken in recent years. “The whole level of ability and talent is so much higher, “ she enthuses. “There are fabulous songwriters and musicians who could, and should, be measured against the very best.

“Ten years ago there just wasn’t the variety that we have today. If you didn’t like country or southern gospel, you were left out. Now there’s really something for everyone and so many more chances to reach out. Music ministry is a real challenge. People need to relate to what they’re hearing, but at the same time we need to broaden horizons and give them a sense of excitement.

“Even though I don’t see my primary goal as stretching my audience and getting them to appreciate new types of music, I still get very excited when I hear someone like Mylon LeFevre or Steve Taylor. They can reach people in a way that I couldn’t in a million years. And vice versa. You need to trust the Lord that He’s provided them to do their part and me to do mine. I just have to stay out of their way. We all have such special functions. That’s the beauty of the body of Christ.”

Art and Truth Together

Talk of her latest album, Songs from the Heart, sets Sandi to thinking about the themes and concepts behind her recorded efforts. “I don’t start an album looking for a theme, but by the end there’s always a thread. Love Overflowing was really about God’s love, while Lift Up the Lord was dedicated to praising Him.

“I think this new album is really the most personal and vulnerable I’ve ever done. If you really listen, you can tell a lot of what I’ve been through recently. Not only how I’ve grown as an artist, but what's affected me as a person.”

It’s a contention borne out in the eleven cuts of Songs from the Heart. “The Stage is Bare” reveals, in Sandi’s words, how easy it is to think we’ve had a tremendous spiritual experience in front of 10,000 people, when it’s really the one-on-one encounter with the Lord that counts. “The Cradle Song,” about the advent of Anna into the lives of John and Sandi, is dedicated “to every new parent.” The LP’s most rollicking selection is “Purest Praise,” performed with a children’s choir. “I really love kids,” she confesses. “I want so much to put some positive input in to their lives.”

But the centerpiece of Songs from the Heart is an electrifying retelling of Christ’s climb to Calvary titled “Via Dolorosa.” It fully reveals Sandi Patti’s unquestioned vocal artistry, as she makes the song her own with a virtuoso performance. “That’s the best example I can think of where art and truth combine to create a whole,” she says.

Songs from the Heart is clearly Sandi’s best, most assured and exuberant work to date, an album that utilizes the full breadth of her rich talent. A 50-date fall/winter tour brings these songs to an appreciative and growing audience that includes, invariably, a contingent of hearing-impaired fans.

“I was doing a concert in Florida,” she relates, “when I first noticed the deaf section. I was so fascinated by the signing. It really made the song come alive. So, I learned how to sign ‘We Shall Behold Him,’ and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Back to the Family

Aside from a continuing interest in the work of World Vision (Songs from the Heart contains an album sleeve insert on behalf of the relief organization), Sandi expresses an interest in one day working on stage and television. “I’d really like to do a Christian variety show,” she explains. “Not syrupy or preachy, just good music. Mind you, I’m not going to do any of this tomorrow. The time and situation need to be right.”

The day is over, as darkness covers Indianapolis and a light drizzle falls. One question remains: How does Sandi Patti so consistently and generously combine her natural sincerity with her extraordinary musical gift…what is the source of her strength?

“There are times when I feel I have nothing left to give,” she admits. “They’re not the norm, but they do happen. For me, the audience is so important. I like to stand backstage for 10 minutes before the concert starts, just to listen to them. And when I’m singing, if I can see their facial expressions or catch a glimpse of them holding hands, it makes all the difference. I feel as If I’m being understood. It’s like I’m part of the family.”

The phone rings and Sandi reaches for the receiver. “Hi, honey,” she says to husband John. “Where’s my baby?” she asks. A bright smile grows across her face. “I can’t wait," she laughs. “I’ll be right there.”

Sandi hangs up, a warm glow of expectation in her eyes. “First things first,” she says with a smile and makes her way out the door.

 
 
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