Bill Gaither, a Christian music impresario who’s written more than 700 songs, won eight Grammys and sold more than 40 million gospel-concert videos, knows how he’d like to be remembered.
The 86-year-old Mr. Gaither said in a telephone interview hopes his eventual epitaph would highlight the connections he’s made in the industry.
“I would like for them to say he was a bridge,” he said.
The millions who’ve sung along with “Because He Lives” or “He Touched Me” as adults — not to mention the children’s song “I Am a Promise” — will get a chance to recall the bridges Mr. Gaither and his wife/collaborator Gloria have built on Friday evening when TBN airs “Gaither: A Legacy in Music” at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
The remembrance pairs the Gaithers with TBN hosts Matt and Laurie Crouch, the network said.
Mr. Gaither, who said he and his wife still live in the house they purchased decades ago as young high-school teachers, said their astronomical success — typified by the global impact of “Because He Lives” — wasn’t at all calculated.
The lyrics to that song speak about Jesus’ advent as a baby and compares it to the birth of a newborn who “can face uncertain days because He (Jesus) lives.”
Written at the height of turbulent days in the early 1970s, the song’s message exploded into what Mr. Gaither called “an international phenomenon.”
“You don’t sit down and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna write this song. And the whole world is going to sing it in their own language.’ You just write the song because something you felt in your heart, and you felt like you had to get it out. If you didn’t get it out, you would explode,” he said.
When his firm this year compiled videos of “Because He Lives” in several languages, Mr. Gaither said, “When that happens, you say, ‘Wow, that must have been a God thing.’”
The “God thing” component of the Gaithers’ career is a recurring theme when Mr. Gaither recalls what’s happened over their decades in the music business, a career which began before Bill and Gloria married in 1962.
It was a miracle, he said, that the late George Beverly Shea, a Canadian-born gospel singer best known for singing at the Rev. Billy Graham’s crusade meetings, even considered their songs.
Mr. Shea would only record royalty-free songs, such as classic hymns written centuries earlier by the likes of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and John Newton.
“How do you compete with dead people?” Mr. Gaither asked rhetorically. “It was hard, it was hard.”
But Mr. Gaither, his wife, and his brother Danny — who died in 2001 at age 62 — formed a trio that had great success in getting songs “in the pipeline” by teaching them to audiences at concerts.
The tunes then migrated into other church settings and got Mr. Shea’s attention. The Gaither trio sang at several Graham events, and their music took off.
The trio begat the Gaither Vocal Band, an assemblage of gospel singers that launched many solo careers, and subsequently begat the “Homecoming” concert events Mr. Gaither produced and then recorded on video, selling the aforementioned 40 million copies.
Added to the mix were gospel-music cruises, on which Mr. Gaither said he and his wife will embark for Alaska next month.
Measuring Mr. Gaither’s impact on the Christian music industry can be challenging, said Don Cusic, a professor at Nashville’s Belmont University who has studied the field for years.
“He’s a colossus in the world of White gospel music,” Mr. Cusic said in an interview. “In terms of contemporary Christian music, he is a key figure and probably the key figure.”
Mr. Cusic said the 1973 album “Alleluia! A Praise Gathering,” which sold more than 500,000 units and became a gold record, marked a turning point in Christian music. Yet, he said, while the Gaithers broke ground, it was not by pushing the envelope.
“When you listen to his music, you’re surprised by the familiar,” Mr. Cusic said. “It’s not earth shaking, but it’s comfortable.”
That comfort level is not without challenges, Mr. Gaither admits. Recent “worship wars” over exactly how “contemporary” today’s Christian music should be are something he’d like to resolve.
“I don’t believe in any kind of segregation” of worship formats such as a “contemporary” service for one age group and a “traditional” one for others, he said.
“I think old people need to be with young people. I think old people need to learn some things that the young people are learning, culturally and musically. And I think the old people ought to loosen up,” he added.