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
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
dispair. 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
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
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
"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
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
"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