By: Ellis Nassour
With the 1968 release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, not only a mega sales blockbuster but also the album that changed the course of rock music, every record label was looking for another Beatles.
MCA Records, a division of Music Corporation of America/Universal Studios, like Columbia and RCA Records, was once an industry leader. Now, its major imprint Decca was considered a stable, old-line company not identified with contemporary sounds. Not exactly true: through a licensing agreement, they were at the vanguard of the “British invasion,” doing a laudable job of launching The Who. There were respectable sales from three LPs, but nothing blockbuster.
That was soon to change.
For their fourth LP, The Who went into the studio with a theme leads Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry christened a “rock opera.” Townshend came up with the concept after meeting Indian spiritual master and “avatar” Meher Baba. He musicalized the story of “a psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a master pinball player and object of a religious cult.” Tommy was acclaimed by critics, rejuvenating the band’s reputation. Copies were flying off record store shelves and there was a sell-out U.K. tour.
The logical next stop was the U.S. The band was booked for a 5 A.M. concert at 1969’s Woodstock Music Festival, which turned into a riotous event of screaming fans. Decca awoke to unprecedented requests for product. It finally had its first mega smash in almost two decades – and first top-charted LP. [Tommy became one of the most influential albums in rock annals, eventually racking up sales in excess of 25 million, with later successful film and stage adaptations, and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame].
TV had hurt movie house box offices to the point that MCA transformed its lot into a TV movie and series assembly line. Tommy’s immense popularity suggested another way to pump up the bottom line. The company was in a unique position with film, TV, and music, to use their record artists to crossover to TV for guest-starring roles. However, the company didn’t have The Who under contract, only their records.
The Nashville division, with the rising popularity of country rocker Conway Twitty and coal miner’s daughter Loretta Lynn, was thriving, but these and other country artists didn’t yet have wide appeal or simply weren’t quite ready for prime time. Decca had a rich legacy of albums from long-ago show business giants and a catalog of Broadway original cast albums [including Oklahoma!], but that wasn’t what TV audiences were demanding.
The old guard was sent into exile. New, savvier executives were brought in to lead an international search for the next big thing: another power band that could keep the adrenalin flowing. Berle Adams, a former agent and music publisher who also dabbled as a film producer, the music division’s L.A.-based top executive, instituted a worldwide search. Anything and everything was tried, with dismal results.
Anything and everything was tried, with dismal results. Berle Adams, a former agent and music publisher who also dabbled as a film producer, the music division’s L.A.-based top executive, instituted a search for new leaders.
New York’s old guard was sent into exile. New, savvier executives were brought in to find the next big power band that could keep the adrenalin flowing. The New York office’s chief Jack Loetz had been a top lieutenant to Columbia’s Clive Davis. As vice president, he brought with him one of the industry’s top marketing and sales experts, Tony Martel. Richard Broderick, a tall, large, robust, balding white-hired man, who’d worked with Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis at RCA, was onboard as international VP.
November 4, 1969
Each Tuesday at 11 A.M. Decca’s department heads converged one floor up from their offices at Park Avenue and 57th Street to the MCA board room where they sipped coffee, reviewed sales reports, and sampled upcoming product. Artists & Repertory [A&R] manager John Walsh, a tall blond with matinee idol looks and long shaggy hair who was dubbed the “house hippie,” played demos over what he called “one of the world’s worst stereo systems.”
Loetz arrived and seated himself next to Martell. Both had been given a sneak preview. Loetz had concerns; Martel was gung-ho. The helping of tunes did nothing to satisfy the staff. The always-direct James Slaughter, who worked with A&R and Sales, stated, “It’s the same ole same ole.”
When it came to product from Nashville by Queen of Country Music Kitty Wells and legendary Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb, the 16 staffers squirmed in their chairs. The release from Jay Lee Webb, brother of Loretta Lynn, “Your Cow’s Gonna Get Out,” brought snide remarks. As staffers derided it, Loetz reprimanded his team: “Gentlemen, The Who and Nashville are what’s keeping our doors open!”
Martel motioned to Broderick. He came forward with a 45 R.P.M. vinyl, and solemnly intoned, “There’s one more, gentlemen – something quite unusual. Our other labels don’t know about it. It will be a Decca scoop. It’s a record from England called ‘Superstar’ by a young composing team, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Quite a fortune was spent on the session and it’s going to blow your minds.”
The record was to be released toward the end of the month in the U.K. and Decca planned an early December launch. He explained, “This won’t just be a single. ‘Superstar’ is from Jesus Christ, a still unfinished concept album about Christ’s last days. There’s going to be a rock band with the best Britian has to offer plus, get this, a full symphony orchestra. It will be the most expensive in-house project in Decca’s history.” Hopefully, you’ll listen with an open mind. The young Brits are calling it a rock opera. We know something about rock operas.”
The tune blasted a pulsating blues rock rhythm as Head sang:
“Every time I look at you, I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?
Jesus Christ, Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?”
Martel was tapping his hand against the side of the table. The room fell silent, only suddenly to become engrossed in alternating veins of confused conversation, surprise that segued to shock, and, for a few, excitement. Finally, someone blurted, “Dick, what the hell kinda record is this?” Broderick replied, “Something that can be a monster.”
“Who’s this guy?” asked one. “Judas,” Broderick replied. “Judas? He betrayed Jesus! Dick, if we put this out, every churchman in the country will stone us. And not just with rocks, but with boulders!”
More feedback followed: “A record like that won’t get airplay,” “No one will touch it,” “All listeners are going to hear is ‘Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?’”, “If you want publicity, this’ll give it to you! The negative kind!”, and “If the record’s causing this kinda stir here, you know it’s gonna create a firestorm out there.”
The majority, in quite vivid terms, stated the public – Christian and Jewish – “would rain the wrath of God” on the company. Loetz, Martel, and Broderick hadn’t expected mutiny. Then, Slaughter jumped up. “Guys, it’s fantastic. Best thing we’ve had. It’s time we had something controversial.”
“Okay, you answer the letters!” jibed an associate. “Hey, I’m from Georgia,” Slaughter snapped back. “Jesus is big news!”
“Southerners’ll think this is sacrilege?” a staffer opined. “This’ll offend everyone. We’re crazy if we put it out! Decca is a prestige label.”
“Yeah,” Slaughter chimed in. “A prestige label that needs a blockbuster hit. We can’t live on Tommy forever!”
Martell chimed in, “There’ll be controversy, but young people will go for it. They’re the ones buying records. It could be a smash.”
The radio promotion manager weighed in. “It clocked at over four minutes! That’s a lifetime on pop stations – if they’ll even program it. Some are gonna be scared, but if we finesse this the right way FM stations’ll jump on it. Underground’s the way to go. Listeners are more hip, but we’re not gonna get big numbers.”
After the meeting, the executives remained. “Jack, I want it,” said Martell. “It wasn’t all positive, but you can’t say they weren’t fired up.” “London’s ready to roll, enthused Broderick.” Lutz advised, “It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have a fight on our hands. Dick, get them to listen again. Let everyone absorb it. Can you get us a couple of days?” Broderick replied, “I know Brian will.”
After he departed, Loetz informed Martel that Adams was high on the prospects of the record; however, he confessed he wasn’t so sure. “We’ll be accused of being blasphemers and anti-Semitic. Are we prepared for that? The whole thing must be handled with extreme good taste. If the record bombs, I’m out the door.” Broderick also knew that because of his enthusiasm for the record and expected album he’d be next in line.
For the next few days, office doors were closed as the tune was played. Walsh and Slaughter made the rounds promoting their enthusiasm and playing it for anyone who’d listen.
The most astute executives know who help keep a company sailing smooth: the secretaries. Curiosity was rampant, and a row of them ran to listen whenever they could. The younger set were enthused; the older, not so much. Loetz’s secretary moaned that she could see hellfire blazing. Another had tears in her eyes when she heard the demo. “It’s sad when a company like Decca has to make money by making fun of Jesus,” she grieved.
By Monday, after consultations with Adams on the West Coast, Loetz gave the word, “Run with it!” None on staff were surprised when suddenly rumors floated that staid old Decca was putting out a sacrilegious record.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, just turning 17 and soon to be on his way to a term at Oxford, met Tim Rice in 1965. Rice, 22, was writing pop lyrics and was told by Lloyd Webber’s agent he was in the market for a “with it” lyricist. On meeting Rice, whom he describes in his memoir Unmasked as “a six-foot-something, thin as a rake, blond bombshell of an adonis,” he imagined his goal was to be “a heartthrob rock star.”
Lloyd Webber was dabbling in composing [an early effort later became the music for Jesus Christ Superstar’s poignant “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”]. He was working on the score of a musical, but the author of the source material was slow coming up with a plotline. He and Rice, very impressed with Rice’s “rhyming dexterity,” eagerly joined forces. While Lloyd Webber was educating himself about the music business, Rice was hired by EMI Records, then a music industry giant, getting his foot in the door of their A&R department, where he first met singer/songwriter Murray Head.
Lloyd Webber was working on the score of a musical, but the author of the source material was slow coming up with a plotline. He became impressed with Rice’s “rhyming dexterity” and they eagerly joined forces. While Lloyd Webber was educating himself about the music business, Rice jumped at the opportunity of a position at EMI Records, then a music industry giant, getting his foot in the door of their A&R department, where he first met singer/songwriter Murray Head
What to do next?
With The Likes of Us, as Lloyd Webber noted, “in the deep freeze,” the duo wrote pop songs, one of which was recorded. Other ideas for musicals floated and one, with a Biblical theme, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, had a promising start in a 20-minute “cantata” [that gradually grew and grew – presented in schools across the country, a performance at St. Paul’s Cathedral, an album, and, eventually, a hit on the legit stage and a cast recording].
Rice and Lloyd Webber considered a musical about President John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, which never went beyond discussions. Lloyd Webber recalled that in a conversation with a minister while at the Royal College a suggestion was floated that he write a musical on Christ’s life. “Not the standard fare,” relayed Lloyd Webber, “but a composition that modern youth could identify with.” He reacted was laughter, stating, “What a terrible idea! It’ll never sell.” When the topic was broached with Rice, he wasn’t enthusiastic.
They musicalized the Richard the Lion-Hearted legend under the title Come Back, Richard, Your Country Needs You. It had one performance, but the only thing to come of it was the title song for a single on the RCA label.
In a meeting Rice had with Mike Leander, a record producer with the likes of the Beatles, Tom Jones, Marianne Faithful, and Donavan and now A&R head of MCA-UK. Leander, in an ironic happenstance if there ever was one, inquired whatever happened to the musical he and Lloyd Webber were working on, “the one that presented Jesus as a flesh-and- blood man.” Rice was flummoxed, as he had no recollection of mentioning it.
He raised the subject with Lloyd Webber, who thought with the passage of time and their lack of successful projects, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.” What might have been too controversial a couple of years ago, felt Rice, “might be more palatable now since people had become more liberal and more intelligent.” It also dawned on both a Biblical story had been their biggest success.
Rice admitted they were entering uncharted, sensitive territory, and though they had no wish to offend any religion, controversial territory. The motivation for wanting to do a musical on Jesus’s life, Lloyd Webber explained in an interview, “was that if one had had religion sort of rammed down one’s throat when one was in school, it was inevitable that Jesus would be one of the first subjects one would choose for a project of this nature.”
They felt out others. Most thought it was a foolish idea. Undaunted, he said, “We didn’t give up. It was a chance we decided to take.”
“We knew we had to be different to be interesting and exciting,” explained Rice. The duo decided to set their story in the final days leading up to Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. “With my background, we considered rock; and, with Andrew’s knowledge of the classics, opera. Then we had this idea, ‘Why not combine the two?’ The Who had caused quite a stir by calling their Tommy a rock opera. That’s how it all came about.”
“We had been well-coached in the mechanics of Christianity,” reported Rice. “It had been drummed into us at school. They treated Christ the legend, so we decided to treat the bloke as a man.”
“Superstar,” the duo’s first tune from their rock opera, was intended as a tirade for Judas. It was originally called “Judas’ Song.” Lloyd Webber came up with a simple three-chord structure, embellishing it with a chorus from a short-lived musical idea on King David.
Lloyd Webber discussed the project with Dean Martin Sullivan of St. Paul‘s Cathedral, who stated their approach “would be acceptable to any Christian who welcomed an honest challenge.” However, his support came with a warning: “It might ruffle some feathers and rekindle anti-Semitic feelings.”
It was as if he had ESP.
End of Part One. The team is assembled to record Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera.