Lanny Wolfe Biography

How did a business major with an MBA become one of the country's leading Gospel songwriters? Lanny explains in his own words.....

I was born and raised in a middle class family in Columbus, Ohio. My father, Pearl, a railroad engineer, was not a churchgoer. My mother, Precious, was the daughter of a Methodist preacher. Any music that was in my genes came through her. She sang and played guitar in revival services while still a teenager, traveling all across the Midwest and the East. Along with my mother, brother Larry, and sister Sharon, I faithfully rode the city bus to church every week during my growing up years.

Because churches in my denomination didn't have paid ministers of music, I never even considered a career in music when I was growing up. At age 9, I began taking piano lessons from Frank Meier. One of the rudest awakenings of my life was the day I graduated to John Thompson's Book Two and realized that I hadn't learned how to read notes when I was in Book One! When I was 11, two significant things happened that dramatically affected the rest of my life: 1) Mr. Meier moved, my lessons stopped and I started improvising and teaching myself by ear; and 2) I gave my heart to the Lord, was baptized and received His Spirit. I never actually had any formal piano lessons again after that until I started studying at San Jose State University many years later.

Two people helped nurture my love for music in general, and gospel music in particular: Ruth Morgan, my junior high school music teacher, and Lois Newstrand, a pastor's wife who played piano and organ, sang, directed choirs and allowed me, as a teenager, to play piano for the camp choir.

In high school, I was the top-ranking male in my class and was the class speaker in my graduating class. I also received a scholarship to Ohio State. I was just good enough at art and math to make it very difficult to decide where to devote my vocational energies. Although my love for music was paramount in my heart and mind, I felt that I didn't have enough classical training to enter the School of Music at OSU, so I actually threw music out as a possible career, and decided to study architectural engineering, since it seemed to be a logical combination of my other main aptitudes.

After one quarter in architectural studies, I concluded that being an architect would consume my life and, all factors considered would not be in my best interest.. So I switched to business education, figuring that I would enjoy teaching, and if the economics of being a teacher didn't work out well enough for me to support a family, I would use the business training to work in the business arena.

In 1963, three major things happened: 1) I got married, 2) graduated from OSU later that year with my degree in Business Education, and 3) I got my first real job, teaching math and business at Crestview Junior High School in the Columbus Public School System. A year later I was transferred to Whetstone High School, where I taught business law, typing and bookkeeping. My junior high music teacher, Ruth Morgan, had also been transferred to Whetstone, and I'll never forget walking by the choir room on my way to teach a business law class and my heart was pounding with envy because that was the room where I wished I could have been teaching. During that time, I started a master's degree program in night school in Business Administration, with a minor in Educational Administration and Finance.

In the spring of '65, a friend told me about an opening for a director of music at a Bible College in California. Something in my heart leaped at the thought of teaching music full-time and then doing it for the Lord -- never mind the fact that I'd had no formal training in music beyond my two years of piano lessons starting at age 9!

Taking that job in California was the most important decision I would make that would affect the direction of the rest of my life, but arriving at that decision was no easy matter. My wife and I wanted to do God's will, so in an attempt to determine what that was, I did something that some people will not believe, but I assure you it's true! I decided that if putting out a fleece was good enough for Gideon, it was good enough for me, so one night I put a washrag on the asphalt outside our apartment and told the Lord that if He wanted us to go to this Bible School, to make the washrag wet and the ground dry the next morning. The next morning I dashed out the door and picked a dry washrag up off the dry asphalt. What had gone wrong? I decided to give God another chance. The next evening I put another washrag out and this time I told the Lord to make the ground wet and the washrag dry. The next morning I discovered, to my surprise, the washrag was still dry, and so was the asphalt. So much for the fleece test. Somehow we would have to determine God's will another way -- by faith.

Without any formal training in music, I felt very inadequate about teaching at the Bible College level, so I signed up for music theory at San Joaquin Junior College Stockton CA,. After one year teaching at the Bible College, I felt that I should resign my position, but I learned a very important lesson during that year: that God sometimes allows negative situations to come into our lives to get us to do His will. Had I been totally satisfied with the Bible College situation at the end of my first year, I probably would never have gone back to school to study music full-time.

After leaving Stockton CA, there, we went back to Columbus where I finished the MBA degree that I'd started in night school. I had been accepted into the music program for the fall semester of 1966 at San Jose State University, so we went back to California where I studied piano under a Japanese concert pianist, Aiko Onishi. This was my first formal keyboard study since I was 11 years old. Even then, I really had no idea what I would do with a music degree or what God really had in mind for my life.

During the fall of 1967, I applied for a job with the San Jose public schools -- just in case God didn't have anything else in mind! I was offered a job as a junior high music teacher for the spring semester of 1968. I was scheduled to graduate in August with my bachelor's degree in music education. Then my wife and I found out that our first child was also due in August.

Everything seemed to be coming together, until I received a notice to take my physical for the Army in January, just one month before reaching my 26th birthday, when I would have been beyond the draft age. The Vietnam War was going on, and they wanted me to enlist before I passed the age limitation. I thought this was the end of the world for me! If I had to go to Vietnam, I might not come home alive, and if I did return, the baby would have been born and I wouldn't be able to return to school to finish my music degree because I'd have to work full time. I couldn't bear to think about the lack of any desirable options if this happened.

I'd said it before: "all things work together for good...." And so, as divine providence would have it, my flat feet got me into a special draft exemption category, and because my wife was expecting, I was placed in an even more favorable category. Thank God for flat feet and for the beautiful baby girl born on August 21, 1968 whom we named Lanna-Marie.

In January, just after I found out that I would not have to go into the army, I was offered a job as Dean of the School of Music at a new Bible School--Gateway College of Evangelism in St. Louis. So from June '59 to August '68, I'd been all over the country while completing three degrees. During that time, I learned that walking with the Lord is a one-step-at-a-time process. I couldn't have gone directly from Columbus to St. Louis. I had to go first to Stockton and then to San Jose before it was God's time for me to go to St. Louis.

I was at Gateway College of Evangelism from 1968 to 1974. In 1970, our second daughter, Lanita, was born, and it was at that time that Dave Peterson came to be a student at Gateway and the Lanny Wolfe Trio was born. During the entire time I was at Gateway, the Trio traveled all over the U.S. singing in churches on weekends, while during the week I taught at the Bible college and worked on a master's degree in music in night school at Southern Illinois University.

In 1974, just when we felt sure that God was going to allow us to settle down, He once again moved us on -- this time to Jackson, Mississippi, where I became Dean of the School of Music at Jackson College of Ministries. During that summer, I finished my Master's Degree in Music Education before starting at JCM.

During the '70's, in addition to the songs I wrote for the many albums recorded by the Trio, I also wrote my first two musicals, Greater Is He and Noel, Jesus Is Born. Because of the great impact that Noel, Jesus Is Born had in the marketplace, my publisher at the time, the Benson Company, wanted me to do another musical. And although I had in mind a musical about the second coming of Christ, the decision-makers of the company felt that the marketplace wasn't ready for such a theme -- they wanted me to write another Christmas musical. In the process of our meetings, the president of the company suggested I write a song about Isaiah 9:6. I responded to the assignment and the song came easily. Our trio started singing it with great response from our audiences.

But I was very frustrated, not only because the president of the company felt that we should not even put this new song in the Christmas musical, but also because he felt that I "could write a better song." After much persuasion on my part, I was allowed to put the assignment song in the Christmas musical. I now find it "more than amusing" that this song, "More Than Wonderful," won a Grammy for Sandi Patty and Larnelle Harris for their duet performance of it. The song itself was voted Song of The Year in 1984 by the Gospel Music Association, and I was honored as GMA's Gospel Songwriter of the Year, after being nominated seven previous times. It was the first time ever that a song from a musical, rather than from an artist project, had ever been chosen for the honor of Song of The Year.

I learned so much about God from this chapter in my life. First, if God gives you "a child," then nurture and protect it, and don't let any Herods abort or kill it. Second, when God wants to do something, He will do it, in spite of everything and everybody that might stand in the way. Third, God sometimes uses people to disappoint us in order to accomplish what He wants to do in our lives. God used the same person who put a thumbs down on the second coming musical to ask me to write a song about Isaiah 9:6 and then turned right around and tried to abort it by not even allowing it in the musical. During that whole time, God was nurturing the conditions for me to write a song that He wanted to bless in His own way. Had we proceeded with my idea for a musical about the second coming, it's very possible that "More Than Wonderful" would never have been written. This experience indelibly impressed upon me that sometimes what we call "bad times" are really blessings in disguise, and that God is always working for our good, even when we don't have a clue as to what He's doing!

I now reside in Houston and am writing more than ever before, as well as conducting choir clinics all over the country, I've learned not to say that "surely this is the last place. God has wonderfully provided the vision and resources for a new company - Paradigm Music Productions - which provides the machinery to publish, market, and promote Lanny Wolfe songs in the church marketplace." Someone once asked me if I would ever write another "More Than Wonderful." I told them, "I don't know." In my own ability I might not ever be able to outdo this song, but the One who wrote "More Than Wonderful" through my pen can outdo Himself any time He chooses.

What does God have in store for Lanny Wolfe? I don't really know, but I've learned that whatever God wants to do, He will do it in spite of any thing or anybody -- and that includes Lanny Wolfe. As for now ... I'm gonna trust Him, I'm gonna trust Him, I'm gonna trust Him all my life.

Awards & Honors

SESAC'S Gospel Composer of The Year, 1975 and 1976

Nominated eight times by the Gospel Music Association for Gospel Songwriter of the Year

Dove Award, Gospel Music Association, Gospel Songwriter of the Year, 1984

Dove Award, Gospel Music Association, "More Than Wonderful" voted Song of the Year(1984)

Grammy Award to Sandi Patty and Larnelle Harris for their performance of "More Than Wonderful" (1984)

Lanny Wolfe Trio

Billboard Magazine Award of the Year for Top Contemporary Trio (1977)

Gospel Music Association

Voted in Top Five Inspirational Albums of the Year (various years):

  • Rejoicing Live
  • Have A Nice Day
  • Can't Stop The Music

Voted in the Top Ten Songs for various years:

  • Greater Is He
  • God's Wonderful People
  • Surely The Presence of the Lord Is In This Place
  • More Than Wonderful

Nominated for NARAS Grammy Awards:

  • Make A Joyful Noise
  • Can't Stop the Music

Listed in Who's Who in Mississippi

Honorary Doctorate from Pacific Coast Bible College (1983)

Elected member of the Gospel Music Association Board of Directors

Credentials

Composer and Artist with the Benson Company for 16 years
Dean of the School of Music, Christian Life College, Stockton, CA (1965-66)
Dean of the School of Music, Gateway College of Evangelism, St. Louis, MO (1968-74)
Dean of the School of Music, Jackson College of Ministries, Jackson, MS (1974-93)
Founder, National Music Ministry Conference, Jackson, MS

Lanny has recorded on the Impact Label for the Benson Company, Nashville, Tennessee; the Spirit Song label, Cleveland, Tennessee; and is now on the Paradigm Music Productions label.

 


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