Baylor Mourns Passing of Distinguished Alumnus Billy Ray Hearn

  • Full-Size Image: Billy Ray Hearn
    Billy Ray Hearn
  • Full-Size Image: Hearn Award
    In July 2008, Baylor University presented Billy Ray Hearn with the Award for Exemplary Leadership in Church Music. (L to R) Dr. Will May, then-dean of the Baylor School of Music; Hearn; Dr. Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music at Baylor; and Dr. Randall Bradley, The Ben H. Williams Professor of Music, professor of church music and director of Baylor's Center for Christian Music Studies.
April 21, 2015

WACO, Texas (April 21, 2015) – Baylor University is mourning the death of Billy Ray Hearn, a distinguished Baylor graduate and former University Regent renowned as the “father” of contemporary Christian music. Hearn died April 15 in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 85.

Visitation will be 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, April 24, at BMI, 10 Music Square East, in Nashville. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 25, at Brentwood Baptist Church, 7777 Concord Rd., in Brentwood, Tennessee.

A 1954 church music graduate and member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, Hearn was known for launching the careers of Amy Grant, Keith Green, Steven Curtis Chapman, and BeBe and CeCe Winans, among so many others.

“Billy Ray Hearn was one of the earliest graduates of our church music program, and he was a pioneer then just as he was for decades in the field of Christian music. Billy Ray had many gifts, but his singular gift was that he could see around the corner. He understood the culture, he understood Christian life and he could see how Christian music was going to evolve,” said Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr.

“But Billy Ray also had a servant’s heart. He has been so helpful in every way – his time, talent and generosity of spirit that has translated into gifts to the University – but above all, his love for Baylor led to him serve nine years on our governing Board of Regents, the ultimate fiduciaries of the University, which was a sign of Billy Ray’s great and sacrificial love for his alma mater. We mourn his passing, yet we rejoice in the remarkable legacy with which he has blessed generations,” Starr said.

The founder of EMI Christian Music Group, Hearn spent nearly 60 years leading the way as a Christian music industry entrepreneur, contemporary Christian music visionary and a creative supporter of Christian music education. With a life committed to risking everything for the sake of the Gospel, he built a far-reaching legacy of its message and music, a legacy that will continue to unfurl for generations to come.

“As one of the first to sign artists in the Contemporary Christian genre, Billy Ray Hearn set the pattern for a movement that shaped the music that has influenced millions of Christians for decades,” said Randall Bradley, D.M.A., The Ben H. Williams Professor of Music, professor of Church Music and director of the Church Music Program and The Center for Christian Music Studies in the Baylor School of Music.

“Billy Ray loved Baylor, and he was always grateful for the role that the Baylor School of Music played in affecting his ministry and career,” Bradley said. “His generosity is keenly felt through the ongoing use of the sound studio in the McCrary Music Building, and particularly through his endowing the Hearn Innovator Series.”

The Hearn Innovator Series is a three-day residency that brings a Christian Music innovator to the Baylor campus each semester to interact with students through meals and coffee times, lectures and class discussions and a public forum for interested students.

“This one-on-one interaction was Billy Ray’s dream come true – his goal in everything he contributed to was to create avenues for students to be influenced and transformed,” Bradley said. “He believed that lives were most effectively impacted through connections that occur in individual and small group interactions.”

With lifelong decisions made from the need to bring together faith, music and cultural relevance, Hearn’s life was full of firsts: he was the first to graduate from Baylor with a degree in church music, and his involvement with the wildly successful and innovative youth musicals, “Good News” and “Tell It Like It Is,” sparked the idea that contemporary music had a place in the church. In 1972, Hearn started Myrrh Records — one of the first labels devoted to contemporary Christian music — at Word Inc. in Waco, Texas.

Hearn had great faith in the music and vision of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. In 1976, he formed his own label, Sparrow Records in Canoga Park, California, with a small roster of artists. Those artists – 2nd Chapter of Acts, Barry McGuire, Keith Green and John Michael Talbot – and their music inspired a genre, and they were followed in the 1980s by Margaret Becker, Steve Taylor and Steve Green.

In addition to finding and signing great artists, Hearn had a love for producing. Among his best was his Dove Award-winning recording of Handel’s Messiah with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. He also produced the highly acclaimed hymns albums “Hymns Triumphant” and its sequel “Hymns Triumphant, Volume II” and executive produced the two-million selling and Grammy Award-winning “I Love To Tell The Story” by Andy Griffith.

In 1992, Hearn sold Sparrow to EMI Music, and the label continued to thrive, with the growth and success of such landmark artists as Steven Curtis Chapman and BeBe and CeCe Winans.

“Billy Ray Hearn was instrumental in cultivating and promoting the Youth Musical Movement of the late 60’s and the 1970’s, but his influence didn’t stop there. As an entrepreneurial record producer and talent developer, he played a major role in bringing about the Modern Worship style of Christian Music on the stage and in the Church,” said Terry W. York, D.M.A., professor of Christian Ministry and Church Music and associate dean for academic affairs at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

Though he semi-retired in 1996, Hearn continued to play a pivotal role in the industry he helped create. Recognized as one of the foremost visionaries and innovators of Christian music, Hearn was a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and in 1999 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gospel Music Association. He continued to produce recordings of orchestral and choral works of the church and was active in many charitable endeavors, including work with the Nashville Symphony, at Baylor where served on the university’s Board of Regents for nine years and was honored as a distinguished alumnus in 1995, the American Cancer Society, Nurses for Newborns, Easter Seals, T.J. Martell Foundation and his own Sparrow Foundation.

In 2008, Hearn was honored with the Award for Exemplary Leadership in Church Music, given by Baylor’s Center for Christian Music Studies. The award recognizes a Baylor graduate who has contributed uniquely and significantly to some aspect of the broad scope of church music ministry. He was a charter member of the Endowed Scholarship Society and recognized within The Medallion Fellowship Society for his gifts to Baylor. He supported the Billy Ray and Joan Hearn Music Scholarship and the Greater Nashville Endowed Scholarship Fund, and in 2001, established the Hearn Symposium on Christian Music.

Just this past March, Hearn and his son, Bill, were presented with the Frances Preston Lifetime Music Industry Achievement Award from the T.J. Martell Foundation.

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