John began singing when he was just five years old, performing the leads in recitals and plays in his school.
By the time he was 13 he was in the unforgettably titled band “Vinegar Hills Hometown Band Something Different” – being paid $25 bucks as lead singer. It soon became clear that a career in music was in John’s future. He finished college with a degree in civil engineering and promptly set about making a name for himself in the world of rock ‘n roll. His unique, fiery tenor and unbridled passion for singing landed him a gig fronting the secular rock outfit Head East.
John’s eight-year stint with Head East put him on the map in terms of his career – the band was celebrated for its raw energy and swagger. Described by one newspaper as a “brash…cocky, (and) hard-fisted rock band” the five-piece enjoyed a loyal following and a string of hits throughout the ‘70s that helped solidify their fanbase. John’s career seemed set but it all came to a distressing end in 1980 when he was let go by the band. The reason: John had an out-of-control drug and alcohol addiction.
His departure from Head East should have served as a wake-up call but John immediately decided to start another band in an attempt to feed his drug and alcohol addiction. His lack of musical focus and hunger for a constant “fix” led to the band’s quick demise. John, who seemed poised for a long and fruitful career in music, was suddenly an abject failure. He became another casualty of rock ‘n roll decadence, rejected by his peers and left to his own drug-influenced devices.
Little did he realize that God was already hard at work in changing his life. As John battled his inner demons, God began working on his wife Dorla, who met the Lord as John continued his descent into despair. John’s initial reaction was one of distaste.
“Get outta my face! I don’t need this Jesus stuff; I’m too cool for Jesus. I’ll tell ya, I’ll become a Christian when I’m rich, famous, done everything, too old to have any fun, and then I’ll do it just… hmmm….. to be safe.”
Dorla’s new found faith upset John but it did impress him. “She was so happy all the time; I was like totally miserable. One day I said ‘What makes you so happy?’ And she goes, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ And I just go ‘Oh, man – here it comes.'”
John fought the Holy Spirit’s beckoning every step of the way. In his mind, suicide was the only way out of the downward spiral that had so engulfed his life. A quick and easy overdose of pills was the method of choice.
But Dorla’s persistent prayer and love led to John’s spiritual awakening.
One evening, just prior to his planned demise, John agreed to accompany Dorla to see their pastor. “I only went along so my wife would be able to say ‘he tried’ after I was gone,” said John.
But God wasn’t about to let John end things. That evening, “I… got hit with a boldness about Jesus that I’ve never known before,” he recalls in awe. “I got saved that night, and it was a new beginning for me. I didn’t feel that burden of guilt anymore, and I had a new chance. Although I still had all my debts from all my drug stupidity, I knew that God and I were gonna be able – you know, we’d take care of it. And sure enough, it was (taken care of), step by step – God’s way.”
John resolved to live for God and even forsake music, if that was what God ordered. He ended up looking for practical work to support his family, starting from scratch. “That was actually scary,” he admits, realizing how hard it was to fit into a regular day job after so many years of being on the road doing his own thing. “I finally got a job sweeping the floor at a tool and die factory and was very happy about it. Then in God’s plan, step by step, I got increased – I finally worked as a mining engineer for a mining construction company and ended up being their cost and scheduling engineer.”
If you asked John back then if he’d have anything to do with music again, he would have given you a firm “no”. His priorities had shifted – God and his family came first. And of course, he wanted nothing to do with the drug scene ever again.
But God wasn’t done with him musically. In fact, it turned out that John’s days in Head East were a precursor to something greater. Five years after firmly putting music behind him, God called John back to fronting the Christian rock band Petra.
John recalls those exciting days. “We (John and Bob Hartman) have a mutual friend who is a music critic for Christian music, and someone had sent a tape that I had sang on for a bunch of kids in Illinois; it was just a real dinky tape, but the manager was very, very aggressive and he sent copies of this tape all over the industry. This man got one, and Bob was talking to him and he says, “Is there anything I can do to help you, Bob?”
In turn Bob asked his friend to find a singer for Petra. His pal mentioned Schlitt and produced the demo tape that had John wailing on it.
“So he gave the number, and once he started investigating it, the number by that time had been changed, it no longer worked… but he got interested and started investigating, trying to find me. He finally found my brother…who was mentioned on the first Head East album, and went searching through the listings, the telephone listings in Illinois and found him. He called him up and asked if he’d have me call him. I did and that’s how he found me!”
It all seemed too easy. “Bob Hartman calls me up and asks, ‘Would you consider singing for Petra?’ I say, ‘You gotta be kidding me! I haven’t sung for five years.'”
“All I wanna know is if you’re still a Christian.”
“‘I’m a heavy-duty Christian.”
“Good. Let’s talk.”
John auditioned for the part and sang “Altar Ego,” a song that eventually appeared on Petra’s 1986’s album Back to the Street. “There was one high part in it that I hit, and he (Bob) goes ‘Where did that come from?!’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal.’ I could see his eyes just clicking, going ‘Yeah – got the range, got the….. this is good, this is good!’ And it was funny! I felt like it had worked out well.”
John Schlitt officially joined Petra in 1986, bringing with him his amazing vocal range and abilities that made him a legend with Head East. Except this time, his mind was no longer blown on drugs and alcohol – he was clean, focused, and armed with a powerful message: God made us to be winners – Jesus Christ is alive and through Him we are to be victorious in His perfect plan for us.
And that’s how it’s been with John ever since. Twenty years later and four Grammy awards on his shelf, sixteen Petra albums, one II Guys from Petra album, and four solo albums recorded – millions of which have sold all over the world – John is a man who lives for Jesus and makes no bones about his faith.
“The only thing I can do is be the best Christian artist I can be, to be the boldest Christian artist I can be,” he says. “I will always be able to look anyone in the face who wants to sit and say ‘So you’re a Christian?’ and I’ll say ‘You darn right I am; just listen to my music, listen to what I have to say, listen to the interviews.’ There’s no doubt about where I stand.”
While John is arguably one of the most powerful vocalists around, his mightiest cry is the cry of his heart. Whether onstage or up close and personal, John’s voice is one of a truly changed soul. And his music is and always will be a reflection of God’s love and redeeming power.