Sunday, December 20, 1987
'Dear Mr. Jesus' Rocks The Recording World
By Paul Weingarten
Chicago Tribune - December 20, 1987
All bangs and brown eyes, the little girl is perched in front of the microphone at KHYI-FM. It is just past 7 a.m. and Sharon Batts, a guest on the local rock radio station, seems somewhat bewildered about her unexpected rise to stardom.
"I didn't know it would ever come to anything this big," she says breathlessly.
It does seem unlikely. Sharon Batts, 9, has a huge hit record on a subject that is not normally associated with the music charts.
"Dear Mr. Jesus,
I just had to write to you
Something really scared me
When I saw it on the news
A story about a little girl
Beaten black and blue
Jesus, thought I'd take this right to you."
The song, "Dear Mr. Jesus," a child's lament about child abuse, has touched an emotional chord across the nation this holiday season, stirring an unprecedented torrent of requests on radio stations and a spurt of calls to many child abuse hot lines.
In the process it has become the rarest of record-industry species: a Christian ballad on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100.
"It's a miracle," says Jan Batts, Sharon's mother and the director of PowerVision, the tiny Christian record-label that produced the song.
"God orchestrated this whole thing obviously. Why would this happen to some group in Dallas-Ft. Worth, with no working capital, no hotshot producer, no influence, no power, nothing that makes a hit record? How else on Earth can it be?"
"I've been in the business over 10 years, and I don't think I've ever seen a record affect people like this," says Chuck Beck, assistant program director at KHYI, which logged 6,329 play requests in nine days.
"We had the era of Michael Jackson, and the disco phase, and all of that, but as far as just one song, coming out of left field, this is bigger than anything I've ever witnessed."
The left field in this case is Grapevine, a Dallas suburb and headquarters for the nonprofit Gospel Workshop for Children Inc., a nondenominational evangelical Christian ministry founded by Jan Batts in 1982 "to reach the unchurched child," she says.
The only prerequisite for joining, she says, is that "you must believe the Bible is the word of God."
The workshop sponsors a 21-member children's choir, PowerSource, which included Sharon singing "Dear Mr. Jesus" as part of an album, "Shelter from the Storm," recorded in 1985. The album flopped until a disk jockey at WRBQ- FM in Tampa, Fla., discovered it just before Thanksgiving this year.
"Dear Mr. Jesus" suddenly became a crossover hit. The station was fielding 1,000 requests a day, the typical combined total for all record requests, recalls program director Randy Kabrich.
Within days the song captured New York, where it was aired as a tribute to 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg, whose adoptive father, a lawyer, has been accused of beating her to death.
The song first played on the day she was buried.
"All hell broke loose when we played it," says Steve Kingston, operations manager for WHTZ in New York, where the song continues to generate 3,000 requests a day. "People were pulling their cars over and crying."
Hundreds of other radio stations across the spectrum-Top 40 to country- and-western to religious, even heavy metal-have hopped on the bandwagon within the past two weeks.
"People call and say thank you for playing the record," marvels Chicago's WBBM-FM program director Buddy Scott. "And that's never happened here before."
"It gets more requests in 90 minutes than most hits bring in a week," says Kim Freeman, radio editor of Billboard magazine, where the song debuted on the Hot 100 Singles Chart at No. 82 last week.
The song hit the charts on air-play alone, not sales, since PowerVision's entire inventory of the album-a relatively paltry 35,000 copies-was exhausted weeks ago. The company, which never issued a single of the song, currently is deluged with 5,000 orders a day.
Several major record labels have approached Batts-at least one offering to sign Sharon to an exclusive singing contract. But so far Jan is undecided, preferring to consult a higher authority for guidance.
"I'm praying," she says. "If God made this happen, then He will also take care of how many sales we will have. We're not listening to people in the industry. They told me I was out of my mind to ever think anyone in the secular market would play 'Dear Mr. Jesus.' But we don't play by their rules.
"God is not into numbers like people are. If He stops orders tomorrow, that's fine. The people in the the industry have a real hard time relating to that, as you might expect."
Sharon, a third-grader in suburban Bedford, now has a full schedule of personal appearances.
She recently sang at a child-abuse benefit in Houston, and has appeared on several network television talk shows.
Much of the money Sharon earns from guest shots goes to child-abuse charities. Several national record chains also are planning promotions of the record, including the donation of some of the proceeds.
Of her new celebrity, she says, "It's getting kind of old sometimes." Her classmates teasingly call her a "media darling," and they warble the song mockingly.
At KCSC-FM, a country-western station in Ft. Worth, the receptionists are swamped with calls, many inquiring not only where they can buy the song but also about counseling for abusers or past victims. Many stations regularly run child abuse hotline numbers after the song.
Childhelp's National Child Abuse Hotline in Los Angeles experienced a 30 percent increase in calls in the past two weeks, says director Dan Sexton.
"The song has triggered sadness and frustration and repressed feelings, particularly for adult survivors," Sexton said.
Many radio stations have refused to play the song because they say it is too depressing.
"You can't listen to that without getting a tear in your eye," says Tom Watson, program director of KVIL-FM in Dallas. "But it is really a downer, and I'm not sure that this song is the right vehicle to address child abuse."
There is no doubt at KSCS-FM, which recently received a letter from a Dallas woman.
"The day I raised my 4-year-old daughter a foot off the floor taking off her new shirt covered in paint, I realized that the cycle of abuse was continuing for another generation," she wrote.
"I will never be the same after hearing 'Dear Mr. Jesus.' The cycle stops with this letter. There will be no fear in my daughter's eyes when she looks at me. I can't begin to tell you how much this miracle from God means to me. Surely I have been blessed."
PHOTO: Photo for The Tribune by Rob Schumacher/AP. Sharon Batts, whose recording 'Dear Mr. Jesus' has become a popular hit, signs autographs last week in Mesa, Ariz. The 9-year-old's mother calls her success a "miracle."
PHOTO: Photo for The Tribune by Rob Schumacher/AP. Child singer Sharon Batts is helping raise the consciousness of a nation with her song about child abuse.