Back To The Street With Rockman John Schlitt...By Philip Mayabb
If you are a Petra fanatic, I'm sure you will never forget 1986. The year started without long time lead vocalist Greg X. Volz, who shocked the Christian Rock world by leaving the band following the completion of the U.S. leg of the Beat The System tour. From there, everyone knows that former Head East lead vocalist John Schlitt was hired to replace Volz. Schlitt was no lightweight, he had plenty of experience as a rock frontman, and a voice to carry Petra with, but the split had the Christian music equivalent of say, David Lee Roth exiting Van Halen. Some fans were concerned that Petra would not be as successful without the voice that had guided them for the previous 7 years.
The band still had some foreign dates left on the Beat The System tour, and so they left America, with new lead singer in tow. Upon completion of those dates, they returned home, to play the final show of the long tour, which just happened to be in my (then) hometown of St. Louis. In April of 1986, John Schlitt took center stage for his first American performance as the lead singer of Petra, and established very quickly that he would enjoy a long career with the band. Petra performed songs from the Volz catalog, and gave the fans a small taste of what was to come. They had found an established, veteran rock vocalist, and they were determined to return to the rock roots of the band, that had been largely left behind on the keyboard driven Beat The System.
Bob Hartman announced to the crowd, much to our delight, that following the show that day, Petra would be leaving for California to record their next album, and two days later, the guys found themselves in Dino and John Elefante's Pakaderm Studios to record our fifth, and final album of the Rock Into Summer month of May. The album was released late summer, and was titled Back To The Street, celebrating the band's return to the sound that had made them famous.
For John Schlitt, this would be quite the experience. For starters, he had not been in a recording studio in 6 years, since his departure from Head East. He had spent months recapturing his vocal chops on the road, but now, he had to learn the fine points of studio work all over again. After his conversion, John says that he stopped listening to music all together, mostly because he wanted to get rooted in the Word of God, and put down a solid spiritual foundation. Afterwards, he said he felt frustrated when he would listen to music of any kind, because he felt God wanted him to be out there again, singing for His glory. Upon arriving at the studio, John says he had no idea who John Elefante was, because during his tenure in Head East, they had opened for Kansas, but Steve Walsh was the lead vocalist then. John was pleased (and probably surprised) to learn that both the former Kansas vocalist and his brother were huge Head East fans, and he quickly developed a great relationship with the Elefante brothers. Schlitt says They treated me like a rock star, but being a former rock vocalist himself, John Elefante was a taskmaster, and would NOT let up on me in the studio.
The rest of the band however, were enjoying the experience of recording a more organic studio album. Bassist Mark Kelly would later reveal in an interview in Contemporary Christian magazine that he had not played a lick on the last one (Beat The System), and Louie (Weaver) didn't play a lick of drums.+ So not only were the guys pleased and excited to be playing real instruments on a Petra album again, they were also happy to return to a purebred rock sound, which their new lead singer's voice accentuated. Schlitt, however, continued to adjust to life with a new band. He said that in Head East, he had always handled everything about his vocals by himself, but with Petra, both guitarist Bob Hartman, and produced John Elefante were constantly panning his vocals. He said I would lay down a vocal, and afterwards there would be at least three guys on the other side of the glass talking about what I had just sang. Although he was happy that the guys in the studio were taking such great interest in his work, it took some getting used to. Thankful Heart, the album's first single took over two days to record, as the band worked to perfect the vision for the song that the producers had, but that is how committed everyone was to making sure that the album was worthy of the Petra brand.
But the sessions were finally finished, and when it was released, Back To The Street took its place among Petra's other classic albums. A new singer and new producers had re-energized the band, and the classic rock sound that fans associated with the name Petra had returned. Instead of the keyboards that had driven Beat The System, Hartman's guitar returned to the forefront of the band's sound, and they laid perfectly behind John Schlitt's brand of rock vocals. John says that while the album may not have been representative of what he was fully capable of, it was an essential stepping stone to 1987s This Means War, which he says is one of his favorite Petra recordings. The album offered up some vintage Petra sounds...the aforementioned Thankful Heart was the album's first single, and became a hit on CCM radio, and the album itself was nominated for a Grammy award as well. The band expanded on their Power Through Praise M.O. with songs like You Are I Am, and rockers such as the title track, Another Crossroad, and Shakin' The House proved that Petra was back on track, and ready to rock. For radio, ballads like Fool's Gold and King's Ransom were tailor made to garner plenty of airplay.
Most importantly, Back To The Street began a pattern...each Petra album began to get progressively heavier, allowing the band to fulfill its original purpose, which was to play Christian music that could hold its own with any mainstream rock band out there. As we know, John Schlitt has enjoyed a long and storied relationship with Petra, one that kept him leading the band right up through its farewell tour in 2005. Fans may have had some doubts about the new lead singer when Back To The Street was released, but make no mistake...John Schlitt IS part of Petra, and Petra will ALWAYS be part of him!
1. Back To The Street
2. You Are I Am
3. Shakin' The House
4. King's Ransom
5. Whole World
6. Another Crossroad
7. Run For Cover
8. Fool's Gold
9. Altar Ego
10. Thankful Heart
Thank you to John for giving me the lowdown on the album...I hope I have told your story well.
+ Petra Back To The Rock - Contemporary Christian Magazine, October, 1986
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