John William Schlitt was born on February 3, 1950 in Lincoln, Illinois. He is known for his time as vocalist for the mainstream rock group Head East and then as lead vocalist for Christian rock group Petra. His first solo album SHAKE came out in 1995. THE CHRISTMAS PROJECT is his fifth solo CD. It was released in 2013 on 4K Records. The album is produced by John’s son-in-law Dan Needham who is also responsible for drums and percussion on the album. He has worked with the likes of Michael McDonald, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Kenny Loggins. Mark Hill plays bass, Jerry McPherson, Tom Bukovac, and George Cocchini play guitars, and Jason Webb and Jeff Roach are on keys. Schlitt reflects: “The manger was only the beginning, because looming ahead was the cross. Christ was born to die. We don’t like to think about that at Christmastime, but His whole purpose in coming into this world was to bear our sins on the cross. But it didn’t end there. Our Lord conquered death and the cross by rising on the third day. Without the resurrection, the cross means nothing, just as the manger means nothing without the cross”.
The album opens with ‘Hallelujah Chorus (Handel’s Messiah)’ which was composed in 1741. Here Schlitt delivers a tremendous rock version with blistering electric guitar work and drums. His voice has never sounded better! The words celebrate Christ: “And He shall reign forever and ever/King of Kings/Forever and ever/Hallelujah, Hallelujah/And Lord of Lords/Forever and ever/Hallelujah, Hallelujah”. ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ begins with the sound of sheep bleating. This is followed by a Scripture reading by John’s grandson Logan that recalls when an angel of the Lord told the shepherds that a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord, had been born. The song here is given the rock treatment with a funkified groove. It tells the story of the wisemen: “The star is showing where to go/Let us bring silver and gold/He has won this very night/Bringing us a blessed light/Goodness and light/The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light (2X)”.
Next up is ‘Little Drummer Boy’. The Trapp Family Singers recorded it in 1955. In 1958 a Harry Simeone Chorale recording of it hit No 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Bing Crosby covered it in 1962. Schlitt’s version is a captivating rock ballad. It is a song of humility: “Little baby, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum/I am a poor boy too, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum/I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum/That’s fit to give the King, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum/Shall I play for you, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum/On my drum? (2X)” This is followed by a reverent, traditional version of ‘O Holy Night’. John Elefante of Kansas fame is on backing vocals. It speaks of the wonderful difference Christ makes on this earth and glorifies Him for it: “Truly He taught us to love one another/His law is love and His gospel is peace/Chains He shall break for the slave is our brother/And in His Name all oppression shall cease/Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we/With all our hearts we praise His holy Name/Christ is the Lord/Him ever, ever praise we/His power and glory evermore proclaim”.
‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is a happy sounding rocker that is all about the Good News: “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing you dismay/Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day/To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray/O tidings of comfort and joy/From God our Heavenly Father, a blessed angel came/And unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same/How that in Bethlehem was born/The Son of God by Name/O tidings of comfort and joy”. ‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’ is credited to J.M. Neal (1853). Schlitt’s take on it uses sleigh bells and is decidedly bouncy pop in Newsboys territory. It is a jubilant call to revel in Christ: “Good Christian men rejoice/With heart and soul and voice/Now ye hear of endless bliss/Jesus Christ was born for this/He has opened heaven’s door and man is blessed forevermore/Christ was born for this (3X)/News, news, Jesus Christ was born today/Joy, joy, Jesus Christ was born to save.../Now ye need not fear the grave/Jesus Christ was born to save”.
‘That Spirit of Christmas’ is a quiet, crooner like, adult contemporary number in the vein of some of Rod Stewart’s later material. Schlitt’s vocals are awesome on this sentimental song: “I was sittin’ by the fireside/Taking a walk through the snow/Listening to a children’s choir/Singing songs about Jesus/The blessed way that He came to us/Why can’t it remain all through the years/Each day the same?/That’s what I wanna hear/It’s truly amazin’/That spirit of Christmas”. ‘We Three Kings’ was written by John Henry Hopkins in 1857. He was the rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, PA. He wrote the song for a Christmas pageant in New York City. Schlitt’s cover is slow and fairly traditional. The song makes it clear that Christ is true Royalty and should be treated as such: “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain/Gold I bring to crown Him again/King forever, ceasing never/Over us all to reign.../Frankincense to offer have I/Incense owns a deity nigh/Prayer and praising/All men raising/Worship Him God on high.../Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and sacrifice/Alleluia, Alleluia/Sounds to the earth and sky (2X)”.
‘What Christmas Needs to Be’ is the only original track on the album. It was penned by Schlitt, Dan Needham, and George Cocchini. Musically it is an upbeat adult contemporary song. It is pretty decent and reflects on Christ’s greatness and power: “It’s Christmas now/The Gift of Heaven given/Love can be found/In every heart that hears it/A Baby crowned/The hope of our salvation/He is what Christmas needs to be.../With just one life all things were changed/A Child is born to light the way”. The highlight of this song is really the spot on backing vocals by Scott Faircloff. Last up is a beautiful rendition of ‘What Child Is This?’ which is essentially a song of praise: “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap lay sleeping/Whom angels greet with anthems sweet/While shepherds watch are keeping?/This, this, is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing/Haste, haste to bring Him laud/The babe, the son of Mary”.
Christmas albums come a dime a dozen these days. THE CHRISTMAS PROJECT has far more value than that! At 63 years of age, John Schlitt’s voice sounds seasoned, mature, and strong. The musical arrangements here are contemporary and don’t sound dated. As is almost always the case when it comes to John Schlitt, these songs point directly to Jesus Christ as our Hope and Salvation. My only beef is that half of the album rocks and the other is more adult contemporary. I would have liked an all out rocker with a ballad or two thrown in. That being said, this really is a terrific holiday project. I’m rating it 87%. For more info visit: www.johnwschlitt.com, www.schlittshop.com, and www.thepetrazone.net.