By: Ellis Nassour
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber worked in earnest on the Jesus Christ project. From the very beginning Lloyd Webber knew what he wanted. It would be a mash-up: a fusion of symphony orchestra, rock, and soul. But first they needed capital and a label.
Lloyd Webber figured a scheme to get backing. He sent the Joseph … album to real estate mogul Sefton Myers. At their meeting, which also included prominent attorney/manager David Land, he discussed backing to create a pop music museum. Myers inquired about the lyricist. Lloyd Webber was quick to point out Rice was “a cutting edge record executive” and they had many projects in mind. The museum was of no interest to Myers, but another meeting was set up. They were offered a three-year management contract, which provided £2,000 annually with further increases upon contract renewal. Myers and Land became not just managers but father figures with Myers providing most of the cash and Land the legal ins and out. [After Myers’ death, Land continued to guide Rice and Lloyd Webber through later successes.]
Their musical would cover Christ’s last week on Earth as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene and apostle Judas Iscariot. In his autobiography, Rice wrote: “As the apostle who betrayed Jesus is given extraordinarily scant attention in the Gospels … we would be able to put words in Judas’ mouth without fear of being scripturally inaccurate. In other respects, I was determined to be as faithful as possible to the story as per Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Land, Jewish, was less than enthused about the Jesus Christ project, but he was respectful of Rice and Webber’s artistic freedom. He and Myers shopped the project to British Decca, a very conservative organization [and no relation to MCA’s U.S. Decca]. The label passed stating they’d their share of the contemporary sound with such artists as the Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, and Englebert Humperdinck – adding they had no desire to get embroiled in controversy. The composers felt that the success of their rock opera depended on its reception in the U.S. RCA was a company with deep roots in America as well as Europe, but there was an emphatic “Not interested.”
MCA-UK, a much smaller operation, had huge ties in the U.S. with the parent companies’ three main labels. Luck was in the duo’s corner. Their writer/producer colleague Mike Leander was now head of A&R. When informed of the project, he became quite enthused – as did U.K. label president Brian Brolly. Though Rice and Lloyd Webber were thinking full throttle ahead, instead of commissioning the whole composition and giving the duo a large advance, Leander decided to send up a flag to gauge public acceptance.
“They bit big time,” enthused Lloyd Webber. Coming up the ranks, he had thoroughly educated himself in the ins and outs of music rights and was savvy enough never to sign his and Rice’s grand rights in case the envisioned stage musical came to be.
There was only a vague outline of what Rice and Lloyd Webber envisioned as their musical. Rice was busy crafting lyrics for their first composition – for which his partner created a three-cord structure that grew in power with a fanfare written for their doomed King David project.
Rice often mused over a Bob Dylan lyric from “With God on His Side,” a song about the morality of wars on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin. The lyric in the last stanza reads: “ … I been thinkin’ about this, that Jesus was betrayed by a kiss; but I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” The finished tune was a blistering tirade by Judas, whom Rice felt got the “short shrift” in the Gospel recounting of Jesus’ passion. It was christened “Superstar.” Using slang and allusions to modern life, the song depicts Judas as a tragic figure dissatisfied with and questioning the direction Jesus steers His apostles and disciples. Rice stated he wanted the apostle to ask Jesus the type of questions he’d like to ask.
The team had been working on musical motifs everywhere even, as MCA international vice president Richard Broderick reported, in a “joint” specializing in American-style burgers which Rice and Lloyd claimed wasn’t the case. [In his memoir Unmasked, the composer mentions writing on paper napkins [however, maybe it wasn’t in a burger joint]. The ever-open, ever-direct Rice recounts he wrote some lyrics while waiting for his mother to prepare lunch one Sunday.
In an amazing act of trust, Brolly and Leander not only granted Lloyd Webber his every whim, but also gave the duo full control. The budget of slightly under £10,000. The composer became the natural choice to do the orchestrations. He informed that he wanted “nothing fancy,” just a symphony orchestra, rock band, and gospel singers “with a bluesy lead vocal.”
MCA delivered. There were 56 musicians, who became the Andrew Lloyd Webber Orchestra, a rock band with acoustic and electric guitars and drums, an organ, and two choirs – one of pop singers, the other with gospel singers. In addition, the Trinidad Singers were brought in for backing vocals. The rock ensemble consisted of musicians from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band.
September 1969: “Superstar” recording session begins
They hit the studio in earnest in September. The composers chose Murray Head to do the vocal. His recording career hadn’t taken off, but he was appearing on the West End in Hair and being considered by director John Schlesinger for a lead in the film Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, a romantic triangle involving him, Peter Finch, and Glenda Jackson [he got the role]. According to Rice, Head was dubious the recording would take place yet “he still agreed to come aboard.” That gesture was more evidence to him that he and Lloyd Webber were creating something – whether loved or loathed – appreciated or misunderstood – that would be hard to ignore.
The sessions, which ran into October, were recorded on eight-track tape at Olympic Studios, constructed in 1906 as a repertory theatre, on Church Road in the suburb of Barnes, with organ tracks done in a nearby church. Lloyd Webber’s bent for perfection caused the budget to skyrocket to the point it rose to the level labels allot for most albums. Brolly began to worry. A few executives referred to the undertaking as “Brian’s Folly.” Though he continued to support the sessions, he assigned an executive from the Classical Division to keep a close eye and lid on expenses.
MCA sought secrecy, however, with Olympic being the studio where such legendary groups as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin recorded, word spread under and over ground that MCA was recording a megaproject.
Soon, Rice added Superstar to the project title. “If we called it Jesus Christ we’d have had it, despite the fact that Cliff Richard had recorded a song titled “Jesus” and got away with it.” He admitted what Richard, with his immense popularity, got away with might spell disaster for the neophytes they were.
Rice described the October 5 and 6 sessions with a tinge of poignancy: “Murray sang beautifully, with great strength and passion … [with the pop vocalists] echoing his anguished cries of ‘Don’t you get me wrong’ and ‘I only want to know,’ the classical orchestral lineup adding all kinds of color and mystery … The power of the music now easily matched that of the lyric, and all concerned knew we had created something out of the ordinary.”
October 20th the writers took the finished tape to Brolly, who played it twice. He was so enthused he called it one of the best he’d ever heard. When Broderick arrived from New York, heard the tape, met Rice, and became so enthusiastic he wired New York of his discovery, Brolly advised he wanted a U.S. release very close to what he was planning. Now, all Broderick had to do was sell the project to New York and Universal City.
“Superstar” would be the beginning of a turning point for MCA and the Decca label.
Before Jack Loetz in New York gave the go-ahead for the U.S. release, L.A. music head Berle Adams reported a labels uprising. Why is Decca getting “Superstar” when Uni, the L.A.-based house label, was hot with Neil Diamond and top-selling, charted pop singles – including several Number Ones – and had been picked by U.K.-based Dick James Music as the label for the U.S. debut of Elton John? Kapp Records also raised a ruckus, noting its established pop stars.
Broderick put forward the idea that if all three labels wanted the single, why not release on all three simultaneously. Loetz, still skeptical of its reception, leaned toward Decca since that was where his allegiance lay. Tony Martel, the VP of sales and marketing, made the argument that Decca was geared to sell albums, and a Jesus Christ LP was Rice and Webber’s goal. The decision was left to Adams.
Martell had a favorite saying: A good record – a hit – could sell itself, say at least a half-million to a million copies; but to get to the magic Gold status, you need merchandising know-how to sell a million dollars worth of product [today’s Platinum standard]. He’d proven at Columbia he could deliver and was making big headway at Decca with The Who.
Loetz convinced Adams Decca was the way to go. However, in the end, Adams decided with a coin toss. Decca won the prize.
Marketing with good taste and clergy backing
The special handling promise was kept. Creative director Bill Levy designed a simple white sleeve. On front was a sketch of a God-like figure, which looked more like Methuselah, the Biblical son of Enoch, father of Lamech, and grandfather of Noah, who lived 969 years, than the traditional depiction of Jesus. Above the drawing was the single-word title. There was no mention of Jesus Christ, but information on the back cover carried the prophetic words “from the rock opera Jesus Christ now in preparation.”
Nowhere was it indicated the song was sung by Judas. On the back, below the names of Rice, Lloyd Webber, Head, and the Trinidad Singers, the lyrics – some difficult to understand on first listening with the composer’s incredible, but way over-the-top orchestrations – were printed.
To lessen chances of cries that the record was sacrilege, and to give it an official imprimatur, a quote from Dean Sullivan of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who had warned Lloyd Webber that might be controversy, was printed across the back.
His message read: “There are some people who may be shocked by this record. I ask them to listen and think again. It is a desperate cry. Who are you Jesus Christ? Is the urgent enquiry, and a very proper one at that. The record probes some answers and makes some comparisons. The anus is on the listening to come up with replies. If he is a Christian, let him answer for Christ. The singer says he only wants to know. He’s entitled to some response.”
Before MCA-U.K. could worry about outraging Christian society, they had to worry about securing airplay. That couldn’t be done without a flip side, but nothing further had been composed. Lloyd Webber at the piano and created a stunning instrumental piece, which Rice titled “John 19:41.” [The first half was later incorporated into the rock opera as “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”] The title referred not to the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor, as Rice took pains to explain, but the chapter and verse in the fourth Gospel describing Jesus’ burial place. Lloyd Webber wrote an arrangement that showcased the pop and rock aspects of his music. In the U.K., “John 19:41” was used in its entirety; but in the States, Decca decided to cut it in half because the latter portion amounted to little more than a jazz improvisation.]
“Superstar” hit stores November 21, 1969, rolling out with a larger than usual promotion. Very little was heard of it after that.
Rice noted that pop was infiltrating Christianity in a big way – in the U.S. There was “Oh, Happy Day” from Stephen Schwartz’s hit Off Broadway musical he and Lloyd Webber were soon to see, Godspell, an energetic, bouncy tale of Christ with its share of vaudeville moments, loosely based on the Gospel according to Matthew; and Lawrence Reynolds and Jack Cardwell’s “Jesus Is a Soul Man,” Reynolds recorded to hit status: Number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Ironically, Decca artist Conway Twitty had a hit with it in the country arena.
Controversy reigned; success did not
That didn’t help “Superstar” across the pond. There was no religious outrage or protests – yet. There were all of two reviews in the music trades – both favorable. One of radio’s most popular radio shows, Pick of the Pops, programmed the song several times. On another station, a DJ labeled it “possibly the most controversial record ever released” and went as far as to call it “a direct attack on the teachings and beliefs of Jesus Christ.” Rice laughed, “That was about the sum total of the excitement the record stirred in England.”
Lloyd Webber had a good friend in TV host David Frost. An appearance on his hugely popular show could mean big things for the record. Frost, never one to shy away from the controversial, eagerly had them on. He introduced Head, stating that he would do a song from a forthcoming rock opera called Jesus Christ. No sooner than he finished, the network switchboard became jammed with protest calls for over an hour.
The label and Dean Sullivan got response – just not what they had hoped for. The two BBC radio networks banned the record. South Africa also prohibited airplay [and later the album] on the state-owned radio network.
At home, “Superstar” was shipped to Decca distributors and radio stations with much fanfare the first Monday in December. The single arrived at major stations hand-delivered by promotion staff with a press kit. A series of ads and features heralded the single in music trades Billboard and Cash Box. One release explained how Decca was treating “Superstar” with taste to avoid any branding of the record as sacrilege. An ad quoted Dean Sullivan’s message above that God-like sketch. But the ad Decca ran in the trades of December 22nd raised eyebrows with copy that read: “We wish to inform you that all MCA offices will be closed on December 25 in observance of Superstar’s birthday.” Each letter of the song title was capped with snow. Later ads were steeped in good taste.
There was hope this new release would be what the industry calls a sleeper, that steady sales and increased airplay would net a smash. But there was little interest in “Superstar.” Decca was at the point where the executives felt they had an expensive fiasco. All of Martel’s savvy marketing couldn’t hide a blunder. As the record dropped, the airwaves were flooded with holiday cheer and traditional tunes of the season. Especially at Christmas, controversy was to be avoided. Probably even a month earlier wouldn’t have made much difference because the holidays began with Thanksgiving.
Broderick, thankfully, had the foresight to personally slip a copy to popular WNEW-FM night DJ Scott Muni, who had helped launch numerous hits. After each play, Muni’s call-in line was tied up with listener questions about the singe – and occasional protest.
FM began to pave the way for a hit, but AM play was needed to score on the trade charts. At the end of December, Martel released a statement to the trades: “While many stations have adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude, those who have been playing ‘Superstar’ have received nearly a 75% positive response from their listening audiences. For the most part, stations playing the single are giving it ‘special handling.’” The latter referred to markets such as New York, Miami, and Cleveland where following a play, DJs held discussions with clergy.
An item in Time gave a boost to sales and airplay: “Considerable air time in the U.S. and England has been devoted to ‘Superstar,’ a soaring, foot-tapping single from a rock opera about Jesus Christ now being written in London.”
Way ahead of the U.K. and U.S. was the popularity the single was reaping on the international scene, particularly in countries which were predominantly Catholic – France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. That cause for celebration was partly due to programming of the single on the Armed Forces radio network and Radio Luxembourg.
The high hopes were that the single would lead to a rock opera album, which would lead to concerts and a stage production with handsome royalties which MCA would participate in. However, the record never soared above the high 80s on the Billboard and Cash Box charts. By May 1970, sales had only slightly exceeded 100,000 copies. For most 45 R.P.M. releases that would be quite healthy; but with all that was riding on the single’s success in the U.S. the future of a Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera appeared dubious.
In the scheme of everyday business affairs, when costs aren’t recouped you throw in the towel. That wasn’t the case with “Superstar.” Great faith persisted. Rice and Webber put their noses to the grindstone, writing another 20 songs. The result was a sung-through concept album with elements of classical oratorio and raw emotions set to an intense rock beat. The two-disc album went on to worldwide blockbuster sales status.
That wasn’t the end of the story. So much more was to happen. Entertainment history was to be made.