The Tragic History of Mike Warnke
By Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
Copyright 1992 by Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
Downhill into the Bigtime
In his books and on his records, Mike Warnke goes from Satan to Christ. In Nashville, the path led from rags to riches. Warnke had no money or credit when he came to town, says Carolyn. The bang-up combination of a hit record and The Dharma Agency soon changed that. And the money started rolling in. "Lots of money," says Carolyn. "Not all of a sudden. But it wasn't uncommon for us to make five thousand dollars on the road, spend two to three thousand a day, buy whatever we wanted, go where we wanted, do whatever we wanted."
The Dharma Agency prospered. During this period, they moved their offices from Randy Matthews' garage to Music Row, and later to a penthouse suite in the United Artists Towers. They hired additional booking agents. Dharma's star rose with the fortunes of something now called contemporary Christian music.
Writes Christian media observer William D. Romanowski, "The industry scaffolding began to go up as concert halls replaced coffeehouses and church fellowship halls, as record labels replaced custom recordings, and as contemporary music radio formats replaced tapes of preachers....
Christian entrepreneurs were building a Christian entertainment industry that paralleled its secular counterpart not just in musical styles and trends, but in marketing techniques, management, concert production, publicity, and glamorization."
The whole atmosphere surrounding the music changed. "We took our eyes off what had been very precious and innocent," says industry veteran, Dan Hickling, "the joy of being a Christian and going around and singing music for people that would bring them closer to God."
Buddy Huey, Word Records' artists and repertoire man, who had signed Warnke, was part of the big change. "What we were trying to do was have better distribution to get the Word out. We ended up compromising lots. When I was with Word, the intent of the company was nothing more than trying to find those people who had a voice or a platform. And then all we could go on was what they had told us." Including Warnke's satanic story? "It was just accepted," says Huey. "That's one of the things you'll find in the industry. You see something that might be salable, marketable--that's what you look at. It saddens me that I was part of setting up things in the industry that I wish I had a chance to undo."
Romanowski writes, "Evangelism was the rhetoric, business became reality." The manipulation of language, he says, transformed "money-making into ministry, easing the consciences of those few who earn healthy incomes off the music."
"You could see a kind of downhill slide," says Larry Black, a one-time Christian deejay who is now an actor. "To see the marriages dissolve, to see them slowly begin to justify various vices." Was this behavior common knowledge in the industry? "Yeah. I think there was general knowledge. But you're caught in that old trap of not wanting to criticize a brother."
We asked Buddy Huey if there was any company policy regarding Christian artists who were exhibiting non-Christian behavior. "No, there really wasn't," says Buddy Huey. "I didn't personally do cocaine, for instance, but I was present when others did cocaine. Looking back at that, I think my silence was worse than them doing the drugs."
Scott Ross, who now works for CBN Television and back then was the country's foremost Christian disk jockey, recalls how kinky things had gotten. "There was a lot of immorality, drugs, and booze."
Says Karen Johnson, "Mike [Johnson] tried to stay so straight, for eight years. Then everything fell apart after we'd been in Nashville for awhile. Mike looked around and realized that Warnke and his friends were making lots of money and fooling around on their wives. My husband thought, 'What difference does it make?' He started drinking, smoking grass. He started hanging around with these Christian music people that didn't care if you were moral or not."
Says Mike Johnson, "I was one big mess." Adds Karen, "When my Mike came home from being on the road with Warnke, he'd confess--all in the name of repentance--to all this drinking and going to discos."
In the fall of 1978, the future seemed bright for Mike Warnke. His albums were "the most popular Christian comedy records ever produced anywhere, with sales reaching to nearly 200,000." Doubleday Publishing was assembling a book of material from the first three albums. With dates around the world, 1979 was slated to be his biggest tour ever. Mike asked Bill Fisher to travel with him.
At home, Carolyn says she and Mike had been fighting, and that several times he had hit her. Because of this, Carolyn's mother, Peggy Alberty, had moved to Nashville to be near her daughter.Enter Rose, Exit Nashville