Excerpt from Superstar ~ Jesus Christ Superstar:Landmark Rock Opera to Worldwide Phenomenon
By: Ellis Nassour
Part Three ~ What’s the Buzz
November 6, 2020: Way ahead of the U.K. and U.S. was the popularity the single was reaping on the international scene, and from being programmed on the Armed Forces radio network and Radio Luxembourg. The FM stations were the first to jump on the bandwagon, but pop stations still held out.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hope was that a hit single would lead to a rock opera album, which would lead to concerts, which would to a stage production. However, the record never soared above the high 80s on the Billboard and Cash Box charts.
By May 1969 sales had only slightly exceeded 100,000 copies. For most 45 R.P.M. releases that would be healthy; but the future of a Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera appeared dubious. MCA promotion went into hard drive. Mainly thanks to FM stations, the record was achieving a cult following. Finally, pop stations in major cities relaxed the taboo. An item in Time also helped sales. It also gave the first hint more was on the way: “A rock opera about Jesus Christ is now being written in London.”
MCA brass figured an album was the right way to go, even if it meant more spending. But they were impatient and wanted it for Fall 1970 release. A strict deadline was established – and ignored. Used to Lloyd Webber’s spending habits, brass knew a budget would useless and created one anyway.
A sea change in leadership was about to happen. A no nonsense power executive who believed strictly in the bottom line was about to take over operations.
In mid-March, orchestrations, arrangements, and songs were done. Development of art work and such legalities as copyrights were underway. Casting for lead singers and rock groups soon would be completed. Even though he foresaw delays, Brolly all but promised a master tape by May.
Lloyd Webber and Rice knew who they wanted – top drawer musicians and top drawer talent.
The composer had his mind set on working with Cream guitarist Eric Clapton. He arranged a meeting with high-living entrepreneur Robert Stigwood, who had worked with Beatles manager Brian Epstein and now was having a huge success managing the Herd [Peter Frampton], Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, and especially the Bee Gees.
“The audience,” recalled the composer, “ended with Tim and me graciously being show the door of his grand Mayfair offices.”
Stigwood’s version differs. He stated that in addition to seeking Clapton, the duo wanted him to present the rock opera onstage. “I was far from certain it was a sure-fire thing,” he stated, “and suggested they come back and see me later.” The snub really bummed Lloyd Webber…
As Lloyd Webber and Rice rushed to complete their score, they felt a need a love ballad, but who would be in love with whom? That’s how “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” focusing on Mary’s devotion, even affection, for Jesus. It’s one of the rock opera’s most famous/most cherished songs, but Rice described his lyrics as “abysmal songwriting.” Lloyd Webber’s intro pays tribute to Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E Minor.” As it kicks into pop gear, he quotes from “Kansas Morning,” a tune written for the duo’s 1969 publishing contract with Southern Music, but which was never recorded. Co-manager David Land bought back the rights, a steal at £100…
Rice, trying to be cost-conscious since he and Lloyd Webber were £1,500 in the red, hoped to hire artists who’d take royalty points. Head and Gillan agreed. Others, keeping in mind U.K. sales for “Superstar” were poor, preferred cash. The Grease Band, with no Joe Cocker gigs on the horizon and who’d be playing literally on every track, wanted session fees. Rice wasn’t pleased but since they proved to be the ultimate pros, often the glue holding everything together, he found money to pay them.
Next came the all-important matter of casting. There were intense negotiations over salary to keep Head onboard. They succeeded. But who’d play Jesus? The duo wanted a name…
Lloyd Webber attended a Deep Purple concert which featured the London Symphony, which confirmed his and Rice’s notion that rock and classical could work. The band was relaunching with Ian Gillan as lead vocalist and Lloyd Webber asked to hear his demos. When he delivered a blood curdling blast of heavy metal shouting on “Child in Time,” Lloyd Webber turned to Rice. Words weren’t necessary. They’d found their Jesus. So excited was Lloyd Webber, he rewrote arrangements to suit his range.
A fruitless search for Mary Magdalene was underway. Lloyd Webber happened into a hip Chelsea club in the hope of finding a jazz vocalist for Pontius Pilate. Sitting there, he was bowled over by the opening act, “soft-voiced, angelic” 17-year-old American/Hawaiian-Japanese, Yvonne Elliman… He thought, “Everything I had wanted for Mary Magdalene was there in front of me.”
“This young guy approached me and said softly, ‘I’ve found my Mary.'” Elliman recalled. “I didn’t know who he was or what he was talking about. I thought him a bit wacky, but I said, ‘Okay.’ He told me about the rock opera.” She laughed, thinking he was a “Jesus-freak” and maybe wanted her for “a hot-gospel album,” which didn’t turn her on. The next night the duo heard her. Lloyd Webber gave Elliman the just-completed “Everything’s Alright.” She worked on it a week, wowed him and Rice again and again. The role was hers…
For the highly-charged role of Pilate, Head mentioned Chicago native Barry Dennen, who left Greenwich Village’s swinging 60s for London. Lloyd Webber recognized him as the flamboyant M.C. he’d seen on the West End in Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, where he had etched a lasting presence in his psyche… The duo soon learned his back story. He came from wealth, had a UCLA theater arts degree, and had been devastated by his breakup with young Barbra Streisand, whom he mentored to her first successes…
“Heaven on Their Minds,” the first song following the overture, and Act One’s “Everything’s Alright” were written in December. By end of February, there were 24 songs.
Jesus Christ’s motley crew was made up of 10 singers and a roster of 26 apostles, priests, Roman soldiers, lepers, and temple vendors — an ensemble worthy of a West End or Broadway musical.
Lloyd Webber’s arrangement and orchestration for the overture, one second short of four minutes, was highly regarded by the pros. It’s a mix of synthesizer, strings, fierce guitar work, chamber music, symphony orchestra, electronic piano, soul singers, and choir — all strongly complimented by driving, repetitive percussion spiked with tidbits of mini-drum fanfare and flute-influenced crescendos. Amazingly, it all blended into an eerie and powerful whole… Everyone marveled at how Rice managed to crowd in lyrics five beats to the bar…
Mike Maitland, a label president at Atlantic Records, which encompassed Warner Records, became embroiled in a power struggle with corporate president, the powerful Ahmet Ertegün, who to secure his own position fired Maitland. MCA, badly in need of reorganization, saw a golden opportunity. Not surprisingly, after his success with Warner’s, Maitland drove a hard bargain, with the added cache of demanding full creative control. Negotiations were long and hard. Ultimately, he became labels president. Immediately, his eye was on the bottom line. He made drastic changes.
One of the first things addressed was the rock opera’s session overtime. There were clashes. Much pressure was put on Brolly, who put it on session engineer Alan O’Duffy, who put it on Lloyd Webber and Rice – or attempted to. While creating their masterpiece, the composer felt slighted by such demands, and simply ignored them — losing more good will, not that it concerned him. What could they do? It wasn’t as if they didn’t need him.
Sadly, that was the case. Only the duo knew what was going on and it was all in their heads.
Sessions were so loosely organized that when the boys arrived at the studio, they took roll. “What we did each day depended on who was around and what kind of mood they were in,” explained O’Duffy. “Andrew was always touching up the arrangements, and Tim roaming the halls trying to gather a quorum so we could record. When we came up short, he and Andrew joined in on background parts.”
To avoid huge fees for the orchestra sitting idly about, O’Duffy recorded music tracks first. The glue that helped hold the recording enterprise together was the Grease Band, supplemented by well-known rockers…
Head and Gillan were in intense competition, giving their all over long hours. For the best segues from soft notes to falsetto screams, they tied. Each delivers one dazzling moment after another.
In fact, there is no shortage of superb performances. Elliman effortlessly contributed poignant moments with her ballads. Dennen’s ability to change keys within songs to go from falsetto to tenor without a breath created addictive, often harrowing listening. His “Pilate’s Dream” showcased his His ability to run keys and sing in anguished measures, makes it one of the rock opera’s most shattering moments…
Several worried about the length of some tunes as far as radio airplay was concerned. “Everything’s Alright” ran in excess of five minutes. It’s also where you first hear Lloyd Webber’s innovations shine in syncopated beats and his out-of-the-ordinary arrangements – especially where percussion kicked. “The Last Supper,” which begins the second half, ran over seven minutes, the longest and one of the most poignant sequences.
“King Herod’s Song,” the most audacious tune of the rock opera, memorably performed by Manfred Mann’s Mike d’Abo, came about because Lloyd Webber had a hunch that with the harrowing drama of Judas’ “Damned for All Time”/“Blood Money” and “Pilate and Christ,” things needed to lighten up a bit. It’s rooted in “Try It and See,” written months earlier for the Eurovision competition and which was intended for Jesus. However, it was felt to be much too lightweight. Rice did a total lyric overhaul and it was retitled. The song, raucous, black comic, British music hall vaudeville with more than a dash of soul, stands out — more often than not, controversially.
Head has an originally unplanned moment late in the score. He’d told Lloyd Webber he liked “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and wanted to sing it. Lloyd Webber slyly introduced six lines for Head to croon. Accompanied only by acoustic guitar, he effortlessly changes keys and creates magic…
The last tunes to be recorded were “Gethsemane,” with Gillan reaching every power note he possessed; and “Judas’ Death,” with Head exploding such rawness on the last chords that he blacked out.
The rock opera wrapped in July. Halleluiah and amen, it was done – all 87 stirring minutes and 16 seconds. And, to many, overdone. There were 60 sessions, 400 hours of recording. It took up four master reels. Brolly and Leander thought the piece too long. Set for a two-disc release, a third would make the album price-prohibitive. Cuts were made…
After months of rehearsals, sessions, and retakes, instead of celebrating, Rice was fighting bouts of paranoia. All he could think of was how much he and Lloyd Webber owed MCA and how long it would take to recoup session expenses and see real money or if they’d achieve fame and fortune…
On August 27, MCA New York received the final mix on test pressings. “This is a truly phenomenal work,” wrote Brolly… “I have no doubts of its outstanding aesthetic values and absolutely no doubt that creative and aggressive selling and promotion will make this set one of the biggest selling albums in our history.”
New York also learned of a title change. Brolly added Superstar to the working title Jesus Christ. The cost was an astronomical $65,000, but that far from exact. Sky high as the final cost was, had Jesus Christ Superstar been produced in the U.S., its cost would have at least doubled…
Lloyd Webber had taken free rein; and, though costly, it was worth it. There’s genius in his meticulous, lavish arrangements. Rice with his non-traditional lyrics, came up with something unique, innovative. The result was something that would have a huge impact on how rock would be recorded.
Rice was always on the hot seat where the lyrics were concerned. There were more than a few claims he was anti-religion, which he strongly refuted. The more and closer you listen to the lyrics, it’s difficult not to be struck by the depth of thought Rice put into each phrase – and how he delved beyond scripture to tackle contemporary issues. This wasn’t so obvious to him until later. At the time, he was self critical, terming some lyrics “ridiculous.” He received high praise for his audacious cleverness – such as using hip phrases and his tongue-twisting “Heysanna Sanna Sanna Ho” on “Hosanna.”
It didn’t long for a foreboding of gloom set in. Even though Jesus Christ Superstar was a huge achievement, there was no interest in the U.K. It would be in the U.S. where the album would find its place in the history books as one of the best-selling albums in recording history.
Almost a year after the release of the single, the day of the album unveiling in the U.S. arrived — Tuesday, October 27, 1970, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church [now demolished]. It was quickly dubbed “The Last Supper”… Four hundred engraved invitations had been mailed to media and clergy.
Monday, just before 7 P.M., with things finally quiet at MCA’s offices at Park Avenue and 57th Street, the director of artist relations was about to head home. The phone rang, and rang. Someone yelled: “It’s for you!?” He picked up the blinking line. The caller identified himself as Robert Stigwood, a name he didn’t recognize, and informed he needed to be in touch with the duo. The director took his information and said he’d pass it on. At their hotel, the boys were out. He left the message, marked urgent.
Lloyd Webber, remembering Stigwood’s slight, ignored it. Stigwood’s assistants kept calling; then began showering the duo with wine and Champagne. Still, the composer continued to ignore him. Stigwood persisted. Co-manager David Land advised Lloyd Webber it wasn’t wise to ignore Stigwood. “Robert’s calls were incessant,” recalled Lloyd Webber. “The longer I waited to return the calls, the longer were the limos that were sent to pick us up.”
It may have slipped Lloyd Webber’s mind, but Stigwood, now a theater producer, had a huge hit on the West End with Tom O’Horgan’s production of Hair.
Finally, the boys to accept Stigwood’s invite and were whisked away in a well-appointed and stocked stretch limo to his Upper East Side townhouse, where they were wined and dined in unimaginable opulence…
While enjoying caviar, gourmet dining, and an endless array of no-expense-spared wines, Lloyd Webber thought now that he and Rice had their album, with the boss’ operations, there could be concert tours. Realizing Stigwood was producing for the stage, maybe he’d also get the stage production he dreamed of since childhood.
However, amid mishap after mishap, it would take a while before manna rained down again on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.