The Life and Times of John Schlitt

Normal - Sue D.

BOLD - John Schlitt

On this interview we’re going to focus on you and your life. Now you have an incredible testimony to share which truly shows the length the that Lord will go through to save His own, and then use His own to save others.

So when would you say your musical career started; your professional career?

Well, I think it was when I was 13 and I got paid about $25 to play in front of a woman’s club with my new band, and I think we played about five songs, and I think each one of us got paid $25, and that was the beginning of my professional career.

That’s a pretty good wage for a kid, isn’t it? (laughter)

Oh, it was – man, I was in shock!

Now you were later, in the ‘70s, in a band called Head East.


For those people that don’t know, describe what Head East was.

Head East was a Midwest rock band that basically grew up in the bar circuit, became one of the hottest college bar bands in the Midwest, along with… I mean, we were playing in the same circuit, at the same time with Rush, KISS, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, oh – ah, Cheap Trick – all these were bands that came out of this same circuit; alot of them right out of Champaign, Ill., where I went to college and developed the band that later on became Head East.

We started out just wanting to play good music and entertain our audience. We did our own record; our first record we did ourselves, and ended up getting picked up by A&M Records. It’s a classic now.

I did six records with Head East over about, oh, about a six year period; toured every major festival and tour that was happening in those five years. And in that, went from just a kid who wanted to play good music into, basically, a cocaine addict, an alcoholic that went along with the coke…. and you know, it just about ruined my life because I was in a system that had nothing to do with Jesus. At the time I was a good Midwest kid who had great upbringing as far as his parents, but didn’t know anything about Jesus; really didn’t have that depth of spiritual teaching. So I was fair game, and it just about destroyed my life.

I left the band in March of 1980 and went on a six-month binge, that seriously, I came very close to suicide in August of 1980. But during that same six-month period of the final straw for me, my wife gets saved. And isn’t that a coincidence? And of course, you and I both know there is no such thing as coincidence and God saw what was gonna happen. He used my wife as His spokesman towards..… I mean, Satan had plenty of spokesmen on his side, but God used my wife as His spokesman and a battle went on for me for six months.

Finally my wife goes “John, you promised me you’d talk to my pastor.” And this is actually right after I decided that I was gonna commit suicide.

How did she come to be a Christian?

From a neighbor that lived in the townhouse next to us in St. Louis where Head East was based out of. Just before I left Head East, this neighbor goes walking out with an acoustic guitar…. later on, found out he was a Christian and sang… used an acoustic guitar to sing, and it really struck Dorla’s interest. About that we wanted to get my son John baptized, and so we started going to church a little more. And all of a sudden there was just more of an interest in God than we’ve ever had before. Then Dorla read a book by Billy Graham, and basically got saved through a friend in our hometown where we moved back to after St. Louis. While I was going on this binge, my wife gets saved and is just becoming a….. is a heavy-duty Christian; tried to tell me about the Lord but I wouldn’t listen, because I’m too cool.

But that one night she says, “You promised you’d come and talk” and I says “Fine, I’ll go talk – I’ve got nothin’ else to lose. I’ll let her know I tried.”

I went there and got hit with a boldness about Jesus that I’ve never known before. 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, step by step – God’s way.

So she just kind of kept coming at you with the Gospel message?

My wife? Oh, every once in a while she’d come in and tried to tell me about it, and I’d go “Get outta my face. I don’t wanna hear about it; I don’t wanna hear about Jesus. I’ll tell ya what – I’ll go - I’ll be a Christian when I’m too old to do anything else, can’t have any more fun and I’ll be a Christian just in case.” Which is so….. which is the attitude of SO many people. And the problem is you don’t know when it’s gonna be your time. You could’ve been struck by lightening, get hit by a car – I’m telling you, you’re playing Russian Roulette when you know the truth, and you’ve decided you’re gonna have fun instead.

The worst part about it - that’s the Enemy lying anyway, ‘cause you’re gonna have an unbelievable time as a Christian. You don’t need to get plowed, you don’t need to get high on drugs, you don’t need to have pre-marital sex to have a fantastic life, because you’re living God’s way.

So how did she react when you told her……”get outta here?”

Oh, she’d back off; she knew what kind of guy I was at the time, and she’d back off and wait for another time. She was just real smart!

Didn’t that drive you crazy?

Oh yeah! Another thing, man – she was so happy all the time; I was like totally miserable. One day I go…. I said, “What makes you so happy?” And she goes, “I’m glad you asked.” And I just go, “Oh, man – here it comes.”

Actually, what I said was, "What world are you living in?” And she says “I’ll tell ya.” So then I opened myself up to more preaching. And again, like I said: didn’t want to hear it, but the seed was being planted. Took six months, but I’ll tell ya what, it took me six months to get so low that I finally gave God a chance to.

Amazing. So at that point in your life, were you working then?

Actually no, I was trying to start a band called the Johnny Band, and really, all that was, was an excuse to stay high and drunk. We went out and it was the low ebb in my life musically. It was the worst situation I think I’ve ever seen. I was in a bread truck, driving around, playing in low rent bars – worse bars than I was in when I was in a college band. It was just a very – it was like the Enemy was just taking me and throwing me in the pit and saying "It's not worth living." And that’s what I felt like. I was so disappointed and so discouraged. I had a management that was just absolutely all talk, no do. It was a very disheartening time for me.

Did your kids see any of that?

I tried to keep that away from them, but what happened was, the day that I woke up on the couch from a gigantic hangover, my one-year-old son was looking at me going “why are you here?” You could just see it in his eyes. I says, “That’s it. The slob that’s on the stage is starting to come home, and that’s not gonna happen. It is time to end it before they remember me as a drunken slob.” I was gonna do it. I think that was the final straw, once my kids saw me. My wife tried to hide it from them; I’d stay up half the night and fall into bed and sleep until 10, and wake up and be the…. be Mr. Dad and Mr. Husband and carry on this.… it wasn’t an act, but it was an act, you know? You can’t live that way – you can’t live two lives and have it dominated by the Enemy more than…. it just doesn’t work.

So after then, that was on the night in which you became saved, what did you… what was your life like right after that?

It was still testing – I mean, it was unbelievable for a while, but then the temptations come. I guarantee ya, anyone that has been saved from drugs and booze and that kind of thing – the more temptation happens right after you get saved than anything.

I was still in my secular band for a little bit longer after I was saved, and tried to go out and play in bars as a Christian, and that was absolutely suicidal – that was the dumbest thing I could do. There were more temptations right at that time, than I think, the whole six months before that, in some of the Head East days.

Finally my wife goes, “OK, John, here’s how it is: either music or me.”

I said, “OK – cool. Cool, all right, it’s done – we’re done. I’m outta music.”

So I just… I left that. I tried to find a job, a real job – that was tough. That was actually scary. And again, I finally got a job sweeping the floor at a tool & 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 construction company, a mining construction company; ended up being their cost and scheduling engineer.

That was about a five year period, and about that time after discovering Petra three years before that, being a big fan of theirs, Bob Hartman calls me up and asks “would you consider singing for Petra?”

I says, “You gotta be kidding me! I haven’t sang for five years.”

He goes, “all I wanna know is if you’re still a Christian.”

I says, “I’m a heavy-duty Christian.”

He goes, “Good. Let’s talk.”

How did he come to think of you?

Well, ah…

Years ago on a plane?

Mutual friend. Well, we supposedly sat next to each other on a plane when I was in Head East and he was in Petra, but I was too drunk to remember. He keeps saying that we did, so I’m going to say that apparently we did, but I don’t remember that. But what’s funny, is we 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?”

“Well, find me a singer.”

“What about John Schlitt?”

He goes, “Aaaahhhhh. Well, that’s not bad, except he disappeared – nobody knows where he’s at.”

And he goes, “Well, I’ve got a tape here that has a number on it, where he’s singing on it.”

He goes, “Really?”

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 on the back – who was mentioned on the first Head East album, and went searching through the listings, the telephone listings in Illinois and found him… called him up and asked if he’d have me call him. I did and that’s how he found me!

(laughter) Isn’t that amazing?

It was a long route, but it was completed.

So did you have to go through a sort of interview process?

Basically, all I did was I flew down one weekend; we talked for a little bit and then I sang a demo that turned into one of the songs off of Back to the Street. There was one high part in it that I hit, and he goes, “Where did that come from?”

I said, “Oh, it’s no big deal.”

Now what song was that?

Oh, “Alter Ego.”


Yeah, that was the first song I ever sang in Petra. I remember finishing that song as that demo, and him walking out going… I could just 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 out well.

And then I didn’t hear from them for two months – found out they were on tour, the Beat the System tour. I finally called up his wife, and said, “Kim – would you have him call me?” And he finally called, and I said, “Bob – if there are other artists, if there are other singers you’re trying out for, that’s cool. I just need to know… I mean, is there something else I need to do?”

He says, “No, no; we haven’t tried out anybody else…. John, no, we’re actually not interested in anybody else.”

I said, “Oh, OK. Is there something else I can do? I mean, is there… is there something I haven’t done? Would you like me to try?”

He goes, “No…. actually, actually, we’d like to come up and talk with your family.”

I says, “Fine. No problem. When?”

Then he says, “how about… daddadada…”

So they did. Basically what happened later on - they said it was just too good to be true. It was too easy. And they were worried that there was something… maybe my homefront was not content and I beat my wife or something. And so they came up and checked it out and said “Man, this is just… this is God! It’s too easy, but it’s God.” And then about, I guess, Feb. 3rd of 1986 I was singing in Australia – first show.

So you kinda had an inking this was coming.

I was warned by God that the life that some would say was the “American Dream” was not what was ..… that I shouldn’t be content with that… that something else would be happening and I would be…. There’s something else gonna happen. And when Bob called me, I had already been prepared. And it was so cool.

One day, on a Sunday afternoon, I had just finished my home – I’m a do-it-yourselfer. I buy homes and I have to rebuild ‘em or I just don’t feel comfortable in ‘em. And I just finished really doing a lot of major work with this one home; I actually could sit in the afternoon ‘cause I was finished with everything, and I’m thinking, “OK, well, my kids are going to a Christian school, I’ve got a good church, I’ve got a great job, a beautiful wife, my home’s finished – I guess this is the “American Dream”, I guess this is it.”

And all of a sudden God goes, “This is not it, John. Don’t even think about being content here. Other things are going to happen.” I go, “Whoa!” It was like God just spoke to me.

I tell that to my wife, and she goes, “What do you think it is?”

I said, “I don’t have any idea.” And I didn’t – I had no idea.

And I think, about two weeks later, that’s when Bob called. I says, “SO COOL!”


Yeah, well, God is amazing!

When you got back in with Petra, then, was it difficult getting back into the swing of things?

It took me about six months to get back my chops. And that was hard. Also, we had a couple of sound men that were absolutely terrible. You gotta understand, for a singer, if you’re not hearing what you’re supposed to hear, you can blow your throat out in an instant. And I was blowing my throat out after two songs in every show, which makes for a pretty crummy show. And they’re going – I think they’re scratching their heads, going, “Man, did we blow it?”

And the truth was, I wasn’t hearing right and I had forgotten – you know, after five years you forget what you need. A couple things happened – we finally dumped the sound man because he was so bad and we got a different sound man, and all of a sudden I was hearing what I was supposed to hear. I had a voice that could last forever, and it was like, “Oh my gosh!” and I realized then that I had been over-singing, big time, because I wasn’t hearing what I’d needed to hear. That lasted for about six months; it was a very frustrating time.

But once we got that organized and I got my chops back, then that was just a matter of…. even with that, I knew I was supposed to be there. These “Doubting Thomas’” were coming, going, “Oh, there’s no way you can fill the shoes of Greg Volz.” And I says, “No, I don’t need to fill his shoes – I got shoes to wear myself, and this is my time.” I wasn’t haughty about it, it wasn’t a pride thing, it was just a matter of fact – “God has me here and I’m supposed to be here, so forget Greg – it’s my time.” And Greg’s a fantastic singer, but I’m not bad either.

(laughter) I would say not!

And that was my attitude. Someone said, “You feel like it’s gonna be tough filling his shoes?” I said (chuckle), “I’m not gonna try and fill his shoes – I got big enough shoes as they are!” And they looked at me like, “Wow. Cool.”

So you had some people who really kind of doubted you.

Oh, why, my gosh, I mean, you got a lot of…. Greg and that Petra had some unbelievable records, and I don’t blame ‘em at all! I mean, every show we did for at least a year – I’d look down at the crowd and I always saw those questioning eyes… “Can he pull it off?” And that was cool for me, ‘cause I knew I could; even when I was blowin’ my throat out, I still could cover with an exciting show, which bugged me, ‘cause that to me was very unprofessional. That was bothering me, that I wasn’t doing my job there. But still, it wasn’t… I never had any doubts. Again, like I said, I knew God had put me there – I was supposed to be there - so it was just a matter of doin’ it.

You’ve been with Petra since 1986 then?


That's what...

14 years.

How many years? 14 years?

14 years.

Wow. And you’ve seen everything!

You know what? Come to think of it, it’s going on 15 years! My gosh, my gosh…

And you’ve seen it all.

I’ve seen a lot!

Ups and downs, and everything...


Where's your focus been through all this?

Well, my gosh, exactly where it’s always supposed to be in a Christian band. I think two-fold: that’s to let Christian kids know that even though they’re going through the battle, the battle’s worth it, and we’ve got a God who’s not dead, contrary to what the world’s trying to tell them…..He’s there….. encourage them, let ‘em know the battle will be won, because our God is that winning team and we need to encourage. We need to encourage through music and through what you say on stage and how we present ourselves and how we do interviews and this kind of thing.

And then there’s also those “Doubting Thomas’” that still have…. are searching for truth but don’t know where it’s at. Because we are an exciting event, they’ll come – but again, we’re not trying to sneak in the Gospel. They know we’re a Christian band, they know that yeah, we’re a rock band and we’re exciting, but they’d better count on hearing a message. And it’s amazing how even the hardest of hearts can be softened and watch God work.

And we’ve seen that too.

Absolutely! So, if you have that focus – that’s the focus, that’s what keeps… that’s why Petra has been Petra for so long, because that is our focus. It’s not “we want to be the best… we want to be the best band in the whole world” – yes, I do want to be the best band, but I want to be the best Christian band.

Well, your life is really just one amazing testimony; from being the strung-out guy on the couch in Head East to being the lead singer of a Grammy-winning, Hall of Fame band called Petra. But the most amazing thing that I can see is that even way back when, the Lord’s hand was on you the entire time.


He never gave up on you!


Even when you were giving up on yourself.

That’s exactly right; and that’s a message that all of us need to hear. Our God designed each one of us to be winners. We are special – every one of us – every human being that’s made in the image of God – all of us – have a special plan that God has for us, that if we chose to follow it, we would win. We were built with that.

I wrote a song off my first solo record called “Inside of You.” It basically says that we have everything we need already inside of us to be winners. And that is exactly right. And you know, hindsight’s 20/20 – now watch how God took the circumstances that the Enemy wanted to use to destroy me, and took those same circumstances and threw it right back into his face and used it! He just let the Enemy do his thing, because see, God knew – you know what? “I’m gonna use everything that he’s trying to use to destroy my son. I’m gonna take it and use it against the Enemy.” It was so cool.

Well, John, if there ever was an example how the love of Jesus can change lives, your life is a prime illustration.

And you know what? He’s still not done.


And He never will be, because I’m always learning, I’m always blowing it and I’m always realizing that my God still loves me. I tell ya what, that’s exciting. The world needs to know that – the world needs to know that there is a God out there who never gives up, because right now there’s a lot of attacks going on in the world, in the Christian world, in the secular world, and the only hope we have is Jesus Christ. The only hope this world has, the only hope this country has, the only hope every city has, is that Jesus Christ – to give Him a chance to start guiding through all this garbage.

That’s for sure. Well, John, on behalf of all the Petra fans everywhere, we just want to thank you so much for sharing you heart, your life with us. We really appreciate it.

Well, Sue, thank you for your interest, and again, thank you for everyone that is interested in just one guy that gets a second chance. It’s amazing – every testimony in the world that’s been affected by Jesus Christ is a testimony that needs to be heard.

We're glad you're out there telling it!

(laughter) Well, thank you, ma’am!

Thank you very much!