It's likely that some visitors to Disneyland have gotten religion while hurtling terror-stricken through the dark on Space Mountain.
The conversion that Carman Domenic Licciardello experienced in the Kingdom of the Mouse was gentler, and lasting.
Licciardello, now known simply as Carman to millions of Christian-pop fans, heard the call when acquaintances dragged him to a Christian music festival at Disneyland 20 years ago. A performance by gospel star Andrae Crouch changed him from a would-be Las Vegas lounge entertainer (and one with no religious background at that) to a single-mindedly evangelistic pop singer.
Having rung up seven gold albums in a recording career that stretches to 1982, Carman may be the biggest figure in contemporary Christian music to have virtually no recognition among the larger, mainstream-pop audience.
Speaking Tuesday from a hotel in Phoenix, the 40-year-old singer said his career focuses strictly on the cross, and not at all on crossing over. To spread the word as widely as possible, Carman since the late 1980s has adopted a policy of playing most of his shows free of charge, including his concert tonight at the Pond of Anaheim. When he does charge a $4 fee, it is because venues ask him to do it to prevent overflow crowds.
Since his Disneyland conversion--which led to a five-year stay in Orange County while developing his craft as a Christian pop singer-songwriter--Carman's message has been steadfastly religious, unlike some who have had mainstream hits--among them Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, D.C. Talk and Jars of Clay.
Typically, those artists have some songs that can be taken as personal reflections rather than overtly religious declarations, thereby providing a point of entry for fans who are looking for entertainment or spiritual content, but not necessarily a connection to Christianity.
It's a path Carman says he has no interest in exploring.
"I think the Bible says the trumpet should blow a clear message, so people know how to respond," he said. To Carman, if a Christian message is muted in a crossover bid, "it makes it confusing."
"It's almost like a guy who's married who doesn't want to wear his ring, but somehow convinces his wife it's cool, so he can flirt with all the single girls. He's really not gotten away with anything. He's lost part of himself in the process."
That hard-line stance makes Carman a polarizing figure on the Christian pop scene, says John Styll, publisher of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) magazine.
"What Carman does is a polemic," the Nashville-based journalist said. "Those who love him really love him; they'll think Carman is truly God's gift. But because he is so strong in what he says, there are people who are put off by his approach as being overly doctrinaire, rigid and uninteresting musically. I don't know of an artist in Christian music who is liked or disliked as intensely."
Styll said Carman doesn't get much airplay on Christian radio stations. His popularity is fueled by the charismatic showmanship at those free concerts and by a weekly television program, "Time 2," on the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Carman is faulted by his critics for lacking subtlety in his lyrics--Styll describes his approach as "Jesus cheerleading"--and for lacking a cohesive style in his music. His latest album, "R.I.O.T. (Righteous Invasion of Truth)," leapfrogs from rap and Janet Jackson-style polished funk to country music and big-band swing. But Carman says the point is to bring people the right message in clear terms, using any musical style that can serve the purpose.
'You're not so concerned about having your own style as reaching those kids," he said. "You'll conform to the sounds of the day."
Carman grew up in Trenton, N.J., the son of a meat-cutter father and an accordion-playing mother who was a professional entertainer. He dropped out of school at 17 to make his living playing in Top 40 cover bands; in 1976, he took a fling at auditioning for showroom gigs in Las Vegas.
Being out West gave him no further excuse to keep ducking his older sister, Nancy, a minister's wife living in Orange County. He says she had long been after him to take Christianity seriously.
"I avoided her all through my teens. You know older sisters. She would always try to get me to go to youth groups and retreats, and I'd never go."
Carman could not avoid a religious environment during his family visit to Orange in 1976: Nancy's husband, Joe Magliato, was the founding pastor of an independent church there, the Son Light Christian Center. Soon, Carman was trouping off to Disneyland, and the Andrae Crouch performance, with people he had met through his sister and brother-in-law.
"It wasn't that [Crouch] was doing anything musically that hadn't been done," Carman recalled of his epiphany. "But when he was singing you could feel the presence of God, and it was a whole new ballgame. It had purpose and meaning and [dealt with] absolute right and wrong."