Cover Story

Singing a new song

Guitarist James Vincent's up-and-down-and-up-again career has been similar to his spiritual life

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

When James Vincent released his Waiting for the Rain album in 1978, he'd been a Christian for little more than a year and was at the top of a music career that had been on the rise for over a decade. Born James Vincent Dondelinger, he'd worked as a session guitarist at Chicago's Chess Records, toured with Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales, recorded as a member of the groups Lovecraft, Aorta, and Azteca, turned down offers to join Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire, and released the critically and commercially well-received Space Traveler on CBS's Caribou Records.

With Waiting for the Rain, however, everything ground to a halt. "I told [Caribou] that I wanted to do an album expressing my newfound belief as a Christian," Mr. Vincent, 59, told WORLD. "They said, 'Oh, no problem.' They didn't quite know what that meant until it actually came out."

What that meant was that in addition to a buoyant blend of R&B, jazz, and soul, the album would feature lyrics like these from "What Does It Profit a Man?": "If we follow in the way / Of the One who said, / 'No man comes to the Father but by Me,' / We won't be part / Of that last destruction." With Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming a year away and the hysteria over Anita Bryant's faith-based opposition to homosexuality still fresh, Mr. Vincent's mixture of Christianity and music was greeted with bewilderment. "I was so on fire," he recalls of interviews he did at the time, "just praising the Lord on secular radio stations. And because of Space Traveler's success, Waiting for the Rain got immediate airplay. Then-overnight-it was gone."

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Convinced that his musical career had ended, he retired to the wilds of northern California, traded in his musical ax for an actual one, and became a lumberjack.

Then he began receiving letters-first from Christians who'd been encouraged by his music, then from Christian record companies wanting to record his next album. In 1980 he signed with Sparrow Records and released the sophisticated and polished Enter In. He soon found himself performing regularly at churches, conferences, and festivals.

He also found himself tempted to serve two masters. "I was making more money than I'd ever made before, sometimes as much as $5,000 to go out and sing for an hour," he admits. "Churches would send you out, pay your plane fare, guarantee you so much, take an offering, and then you'd come back, sell a bunch of albums, and get a pocketful of cash. It was cool, but it didn't feel right. The money was too easy, and there was too much of it."

Shortly thereafter, he lost a fingertip in an accident and withdrew from music altogether, not touching a guitar again until 1986, when, for the second time, the group Chicago offered him the chance to become its guitarist. (He lost out to a member of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band.) Meanwhile, he'd become wealthy in a "marketing career," "taken [his] eyes off the Lord," and begun a series of extramarital affairs that cost him his marriage in 1988 and lasted until 1995.

In 1997, shortly after recording his first album in 17 years, Second Wind, and marrying his second wife, Mr. Vincent made a new "commitment to walk with the Lord, completely and fully." "By His grace," he says, "and by putting on the full armor each day and praying for victory, I've been getting victory in my life."

His spiritual renewal has also sparked a musical one. Shortly after completing the gospel-oriented Pure Satisfaction last fall, he launched jamesvincent.net, from which to sell CD versions of his entire catalog. And he's just completed The Mystery of Love, a half-instrumental, half-vocal CD "kind of inspired by the Song of Solomon." "The songs with lyrics are love songs that could be representative of a husband and wife or of a person's relationship with the Creator."

He does not, however, plan to re-enter the world of CCM. "Part of the criteria," he says, "seems to be how good you look in a pair of tight jeans."

"I know that sounds cynical," he adds, "but I think that the moneychangers are even more prevalent now than they were before. I could be wrong, of course, but I don't think so."

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