My Tribute to Dana Key
Why I am Writing this Six Years After Dana’s Death
Dana Key was one half of the two men bearing the names of the Christian rock/pop group, The DeGarmo and Key Band (later known as simply, DeGarmo and Key, and then “D&K’). Dana passed away in 2010 after a long and fruitful career and ministry.
It may seem like a strange thing to write a tribute to someone six years after the person’s death. So let me provide some background how this came about.
I have a 9-year-old son named Drew who loves music. So when he discovered my stash of old LPs in the attic he was mesmerized by them. I couldn’t find my old turntable so I had to go buy a cheap one so my son could begin listening to my old records, which I was happy to let him do since it is exposing him to some great Christian music, which was instrumental (pun intended) in my Christian development as a teenager.
My collection of records began in the early 1980’s when I was teenager, and I haven’t touched them since probably 1987. But in the few years I was compiling my record collection, the stack grew pretty large, and in that stack was a half dozen Degarmo and Key albums. They were, after all, my favorite Christian band. And my son Drew has followed suit. Right now he has taken a huge liking to This Ain’t Hollywood and Mission of Mercy.
I don’t know why I lost touch with Christian music when I got married. Life just got busy, I guess. I didn’t like a lot of what I heard on our local Christian radio stations for the most part, and back then I didn’t have access to satellite radio. I was a praise and worship leader at the time, so most of my listening transitioned to that genre. All that to say that I lost touch with Degarmo and Key, almost totally. The last album I bought was Commander Sozo. So when my son started listening to all this great old music, I got re-interested, and started looking around on the internet for all things Degarmo and Key.
It didn’t take too long to discover that Dana Key had passed away back in 2010. I couldn’t believe it. That was six years ago, and I’m just now finding out! And then to find out that his wife, Anita, followed close behind 18 months later was almost too much to believe.
Well, after getting reacquainted with the Degarmo and Key brand and discovering all the later music I had not yet heard, I was seeing a side of their writing that I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to before. I was, after all, a teenager when I was a D&K groupie (I saw them in concert 6 times in five years, I think), and I just loved the fact that I could go see some great concerts and hear some great music that had a positive spiritual spin on them. In all honesty, although I was a Christian I wasn’t terribly deep in my understanding of spiritual matters. Now, at age 50, I am recognizing the deep spiritual content of many of the D&K songs that I did not fully appreciate before. And reading about Dana Key’s post-D&K life as a pastor has inspired me even more, since I, too, am a pastor and share that connection with Dana and his passion to build up the Body of Christ.
These last few weeks have been a time of re-discovering Degarmo and Key, 22 years after they called it quits! And while I am disappointed that I have only now discovered some of their superb late 1980’s and 1990’s music, I am glad that I at least have had this opportunity to be inspired all over again during a time in my life when I really did need a spiritual shot in the arm. Ministry can be exhausting and frustrating, and sometimes “attaboys” and “amens” just can’t fill the sails like they used to. I am pleasantly surprised that it took re-discovering Degarmo and Key’s music to gave me a second wind as of late.
So then, I felt very inspired to write my own tribute to D&K, and particularly to Dana Key, since there is hardly anything out there on the internet that really does his life and ministry justice, in my opinion. Maybe this tribute will serve to change that. I believe he deserves a better write-up than what he has been given so far.
My Introduction to Degarmo and Key
I was 15 in 1981 when I first saw DeGarmo and Key live. It was an accident, though. I was actually in attendance at an Amy Grant concert, and D&K were serving back then as her back-up band. In that concert, Amy Grant took an intermission and turned D&K loose for a few songs. And I went, “WOW! WHO ARE THESE GUYS?!” I remember so vividly how Dana Key seemed to glide sideways across the stage as he soloed on his Stratocaster. I remember that they played the song, Competition, long before it was ever recorded and appeared on their 1985 album, Commander Sozo. The Commander Sozo version was a bit toned down compared to their live version. Man, I was hooked! I had to know more about these guys.
The first album I bought was Straight On, and to this day it is still one of my favorite albums of all time. The song, Long Distance Runner, was my all-time favorite song, and is still a song that does it for me every time I hear it. The entire album was a truly an innovative effort, and I still consider it to be one of their top albums, although I have to say that, for me, their later albums, D&K, Heat it Up, and To Extremes may have surpassed it. It seems their writing just got better as they got older. Some artists and bands seem like they run out of ideas as they progress into their careers, but not Eddie DeGarmo and Dana Key. I find it fascinating that they decided to retire as a band when it seemed like they were still peaking. They really did go out on top, as sharp and innovative as ever.
Dana Key and Eddie DeGarmo’s Early Years
Eddie DeGarmo and Dana Key grew up in Memphis, Tennesse. They recall officially meeting in the 1st grade, and grew up together in the same neighborhood.
Throughout their childhood they pursued an interest in music, and the two boys formed their first band, “The Sound Corporation,” in sixth grade. During high school, Eddie and Dana formed a band called “Globe” and were officially signed to a major label recording deal. Not too long after being signed, however, Eddie was led to Christ while listening to Pastor David Wilkerson preach. After getting saved, Eddie led his friend Dana to Christ as well.
After getting saved, Eddie and Dana quit their secular band, Globe, even though it had previously been their dreams to be rock stars.
By this time Dana’s talent as a guitarist was already turning heads. Even as a 17-year-old high school junior, Dana was invited to join the secular rock group, Black Oak Arkansas, as the lead guitarist, but he and DeGarmo were already involved in music ministry for Youth for Christ, and he turned down the offer.
After putting music aside for a while and working in business (as Dana recalls on the album, No Turning Back, Live) he was challenged by a godly friend to use his musical talent for Christ. Dana recalls how he went home from that conversation and wept, and then got his guitar out of the closet, wiped off the dust, and committed himself to use his talent for God’s glory.
Dana Key and the DeGarmo and Key Years: 1978 – 1994
The DeGarmo and Key Band sprang onto the music scene with their first album in 1978, This Time Thru. But it was not an easy transition into full-time music ministry. Their brand of Christian music was not widely accepted in the late 1970’s by the church culture. At first their concert appearances were restricted to Southern California and a few regions of Florida because those were the only two states who had enough people who were accepting of their music. Eddie and Dana have both told of times in interviews of things being thrown at them during concerts, and even once someone tried to run them down with a car. As it was in Jesus’ ministry, the “religious” community can be very rigid and even violently oppose new methodologies.
But Eddie and Dana hung in there and persevered through trial. The rest is a lesson in what God can do through submitted vessels who know what God has said and are willing to endure the hardships of laying down their lives to follow His call.
DeGarmo and Key would prove to be very adaptable and diverse over the years with their musical styles, ranging from straightforward rock-n-roll in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, to a very keyboard-driven radio-friendly pop sound in the mid-1980’s. The late 1980’s saw another transition in their music to a slightly heavier guitar-driven sound which was reminiscent of their roots. Their last two projects, Heat it Up in 1993, and To Extremes in 1994, were the heaviest sound of their career (some would say it was hard rock) and would attract a rougher crowd than what the band attracted in earlier years. In the words of Dana, this harder sound afforded the band the opportunity to preach the cross of Christ to people with all kinds of “tattoos and piercings,” and many of those were led to Christ during their concerts. Dana always used the concert platform to preach the gospel to the audiences, and D&K concerts always ended with an altar call.
DeGarmo and Key were instrumental in building and defining the Christian genre of pop and rock music during the 1980’s. During their career, DeGarmo and Key not only earned 7 Grammy Awards and 17 Dove Awards nominations, but they mentored and helped launch younger bands such as DC Talk, Big Tent Revival, and Todd Agnew. DeGarmo and Key was also the first Christian group to have a music video aired on MTV. That video of the song, “Six, Six, Six,” gained even more attention when it was yanked from MTV shortly after its airing for what the network claimed was “violent content” due to a short scene of a man who represented the Antichrist being engulfed in flames. (It appeared as though MTV had second thoughts about airing a Christian video on their network.)
By 1994 DeGarmo and Key had 14 albums to their credit, with other “Best Of” albums that brought the total to 17. The band retired that year when Eddie and Dana had both turned 40, stating that they felt they had done all they could do musically. They left behind a legacy that will last for generations, spanning 27 years of music and ministry which effected tens of thousands, and perhaps millions, of souls.
Dana Key on DeGarmo & Key’s Mission
Dana once stated, “We have two goals; One is to win kids to Christ and the other is to encourage Christian kids to walk closer to Christ.” He continued, “We’ve always become a tool in people’s hands. We become a tract for people – a musical tract.”
“We’ve always said, ‘If you’ll come to a concert and stay for the whole concert, not just the first two songs, or if you’ll get the record and look at the Bible study that goes with the record, you’ll see we’re trying to communicate something with some strength and some depth.’”
Dana has also stated that he and Eddie hoped that every album, video and concert they did would be “a tool for evangelism.” As a singer, industry leader and pastor, Dana Key certainly lived that out that mission.
In 1989, Key co-authored the book Don’t Stop the Music, described in the cover notes as “a defense of contemporary Christian music written by one of its premier performers.”
The Spirit Behind the Music
What attracted me first to D&K was that they had a sound that I loved. In a musical era where it seemed like all the male vocalists wanted to sound like Geddy Lee of Rush or Steve Perry of Journey – you know, men with super high voices who sounded like women sometimes (sorry Petra; love you guys, too!) – Dana Key had a thick Michael McDonald sound, but edgier. He had a solid and masculine voice, and I liked that. And the fact that he could burn up a Stratocaster, which was also my guitar of choice, made his musical magic even more appealing.
But then I discovered something deeper than the masculine voice and the tasty guitar licks. This guy was a rocker with a genuine and deep love for Jesus! And he could inspire people to love Jesus, too!
The lyrics of Dana Key’s songs, although sometimes upstaged by the driving musical compositions, reflected not only a love for Jesus, but a passion to serve Him wholeheartedly. Songs like Casual Christian, Apathy Alert, and Temporary Things, and countless others would become songs that spoke to me about what is most important in life, and are speaking to me again today.
In re-discovering some of the older D&K stuff that I cut my teeth on, one album in particular stands out a bit in terms of the spirit behind it. Mission of Mercy, although a departure from the earliest D&K sound as the synthesizer seemed to dominate the productions, was a lyrical masterpiece. I didn’t fully appreciate it as 17-year-old in 1983 when their fifth album was first released like I do now. Let the Whole World Sing is just a wonderful worship anthem, while Fill Me Lord is a passionate and heartfelt prayer that expresses a desire to experience God on a deeper level. Other ballads and anthems of spiritual hunger extolling the grace and love of God on Mission of Mercy seem odd at first in comparison to D&K’s heavier rock feel of the album’s predecessors. Even so, it was and remains to this day a refreshing exploration into the softer side of D&K as they sought to worship God and extol His goodness. I love that album more now than ever before, especially since it is now speaking to my 9-year-old as well.
As I have discovered the later D&K albums that remained hidden from my notice for some 20 years, I see the same passion for God in the lyrics even as their music evolved into flat-out guitar-blasting in-your-face rock-n-roll, even heavier than their earliest sound. But it was with this sound, which I appreciate as well, that afforded Degarmo and Key to also blast away in their lyrics at the worldliness and compromise that today’s Christians so often suffer from.
Even on the business end of things, Dana Key appeared to keep a level head and stay true to what was important. In an undated interview I found archived online, Dana mentioned that while many Christian record labels being bought out and controlled by secular companies was good in affording larger distribution, it was bad in the sense that people without a sensitivity to the priorities of God’s Kingdom were now in control of the music that today’s Christian listen to and how it is marketed, and that is potentially very bad in his view (and mine). In everything that Dana Key did, the Kingdom of God was foremost on his mind.
Standing out in the Crowd
In researching Eddie DeGarmo and Dana Key, I was curious about one thing in particular. I was curious about their married lives, since how a man conducts his family is the bigger indicator of where he is spiritually compared to the public image. Several big name Christian artists who I will leave nameless have been married two and three times due, in some cases, to adultery. Adultery has, unfortunately, found its way into the lives of some of the most renowned contemporary Christian artists. So I was eager to know if Eddie DeGarmo and Dana Key would fall into that same ditch.
In researching this question I came across one online article bashing contemporary Christian music, which listed Eddie DeGarmo and Dana Key among many other Christian artists who had either committed adultery or who have been divorced. The adultery and divorces of some of the other artists this author named were common knowledge, but I had never heard of anything along these lines with DeGarmo and Key. So I contacted the author of that article and asked him to name his source, and it was no surprise to me that the author could not confirm his accusations against Eddie and Dana and was unable to name his source.
So while it is difficult to know all the private details of a person’s life outside of the stage and ministry setting, it appears to me from what I can tell that Eddie and Dana have stayed true to their family units. Both men have been married only once, and in Dana and Anita Key’s case, were parted only by death. As stated earlier, Dana’s marriage ended only by his untimely death due to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 56 after 28 years of marriage and three children: Joanna Scott (who they called, “Scottie”), Andrew, and Eli. His wife, Anita, joined him in heaven due to complications associated with pneumonia only 18 months after Dana went to be with Jesus. It seems she could not bear to be parted from him, although still so young. Anita Key was only 52.
Eddie DeGarmo, by the way, at the time of this writing is still married to his wife, Susan, who have been together since 1973.
The commitment to their marriages impresses me since in the world of contemporary Christian music numerous artists have fallen by the wayside due to infidelity and even drug addiction, and in some cases artists have fallen away from the faith altogether. Of course, this is true of some Christians in every stream of life, unfortunately, but it seems to be just a little more common perhaps among music artists. And this is especially unfortunate since Christian music artists often have “star” status and are admired by so many people and have such strong influence, especially among young people.
Dana Key was a direct descendant of Francis Scott Key, who penned The Star-Spangled Banner. He once commented, “As you might imagine, as an American, a musician, and a relative, I cringe when I hear ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ poorly performed. I take great pride in this song as I am sure we all do. For me it is not only the song that is important, it is knowing that Key was risking his life for a friend when he wrote it. This for me is a picture of Christ’s love and what I hope is the true spirit of most Americans.” (Christian Activities)
In addition to his career with DeGarmo and Key, Dana released two solo albums in 1991 and 1995.
After his retirement from music, Key served as the head of Ardent Records, hosted a TV show featuring new Christian bands, and launched a small church in 2001 where he served as the pastor until his death. The church, The Love of Christ Church, in Cordova, Tennessee is still in full operation today. Dana’s legacy lives on not only in music, but also with his many other important ministry endeavors.
As a pastor myself, I know the difficulties and heartbreaks of pastoring. I know how frustrating it can be at times, and how often pastors are tempted to quit. In fact, many of them do quit, every day. I admire Dana Key not only because of his love for Jesus Christ and commitment to his family throughout a music career that must have been difficult for his family since he traveled so much, but I admire him more for what he did after music. Having been a nationally-known name among Christian circles for nearly three decades, it would be tempting for many other people in a similar situation to not be willing to settle for anything but a large and grandiose church ministry. I imagine it would be difficult to go small after having been big. Yet that is exactly what Dana Key did. He and his wife, Anita, launched The Love of Christ Church from the ground up, and continued to minister to that small congregation faithfully until the time of Dana’s death.
In Dana’s honor, attached below is the tribute video created by Bart Lewis, who served under Pastor Dana at his church. The video was shown during his memorial service.
I rejoice with Dana and Anita that they are enjoying their heavenly reward together, as we who wait for our own heavenly rewards enjoy the legacy that Dana and Anita Key have left for us: a legacy of loving Jesus and proclaiming His Name to the world with whatever God has placed in our hands with which to declare His Gospel, whether it is with a tract, a conversation, financial aid, or a guitar.
Rest in peace, Dana. I look forward to meeting you in heaven!