Friends and acquaintances of contemporary Christian music pioneer Billy Ray Hearn, a former Word Music executive during his years in Waco, remembered him Thursday as a down-to-earth visionary with a remarkable ear for talent, who shaped much of today’s Christian music industry.
Hearn, a 1954 Baylor University graduate and the first to earn a Baylor degree in church music, died Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee, from complications from heart disease. He was 85.
In a career in Christian music that spanned about a half-century, Hearn went from more than a decade as a Southern Baptist music minister to the CEO of the world’s largest Christian music company, EMI Christian Music Group, which he founded.
Hearn joined then-Waco-based Christian media company Word Inc. in 1968 as director of music promotion. He worked with Word executives and composers Kurt Kaiser and Ralph Carmichael in creating youth musicals like “Tell It Like It Is,” which brought contemporary pop into churches.
“He was a go-getter, much more so than me or Ralph. He was a trendsetter,” said Kaiser, who continued in Waco as a composer and pianist in the years after leaving Word. “We were very, very good friends.”
Even though Kaiser had been aware of Hearn’s failing health, news of his death still had an impact.
“It hurts more now than I thought it was going to hurt,” he said.
Hearn started the contemporary Christian label Myrrh Records in 1972 while at Word, then left to form Sparrow Records in 1976. Across the decades, Hearn would show an uncanny ear for talent, signing such contemporary Christian artists as Steven Curtis Chapman, Bebe and CeCe Winans, Keith Green, Steve Taylor, the Newsboys, Barry McGuire, Second Chapter of Acts, John Michael Talbot and Phil Keaggy.
“Billy Ray was the one with the great ears. He signed more and bigger artists than anyone,” said Bob Darden, Baylor University journalism professor and a gospel music scholar who covered gospel and contemporary Christian music for Billboard magazine. “He was sweet and funny and blunt and outspoken, but in a kind way.”
That knack, business acumen and kind spirit put Hearn near the top of contemporary Christian music as it mushroomed into today’s more than half-billion-dollar industry.
In 1992, he became CEO of the world’s largest Christian music corporation, EMICMG, then stepped aside for his son, Bill, in 1996 and served as chairman until 2001.
A Baylor alumnus, Hearn served as a regent at the school for nine years, leaving the board in 2002, and was generous in his financial support of the university, underwriting a biannual Hearn Symposium on Christian Music among other things.
Hearn’s leadership in Christian music won him a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gospel Music Association, best known for its Dove Awards, and induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
He also was a notable wine enthusiast and connoisseur, starting the Nashville Best Cellars fundraiser for the T.J. Martell Foundation supporting cancer research, one of his philanthropic causes.