February 20 – Webber & Rice Aimed High For Debut

An album that would appeal equally to hippies and clergymen? An expensive record used as a way to push an unproduced play? Ambitious concepts to say the least, but ones Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were up for attempting, and it paid off for them 50 years back. The soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1971, and would eventually go on to be that year’s biggest-seller, surpassing even Carole King’s mega-popular Tapestry.

Webber at the time was just 21, Rice a couple of years older. The pair had an idea of putting together a musical for the stage about the last days of Jesus, although Rice was drawn to telling it more from the viewpoint of Judas than Jesus himself. A tall order in itself, but they wanted the music to be rock…not exactly what you’d expect for an outwardly-at-least religious spectacle. There was no Chuck Berry on the Ten Commandments soundtrack, after all.

Although Webber now is perhaps the best-known person on Broadway, being responsible for smashes like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, back then he was an unknown kid. Getting monied people to bankroll and expensive production like that was a bit of a challenge. So he and Tim decided to go about it unconventionally. They’d record the music for it first and use that as the vehicle to get their play. This in itself must have been a bit daunting as they rented studio space in London and assembled something in the range of 39 different musicians to play plus a host of singers. Among the band used were guitarists Neil Hubbard and Henry McCullough, and bassist Allan Spenner from Joe Cocker’s band (Hubbard would later go on to be a regular with Roxy Music, McCullough joined Wings) and young up-and-coming keyboardist Peter Robinson, who’d later do prolific studio work for artists like Bryan Ferry, David Bowie and Phil Collins. Webber himself played the synthesizer on some tracks. For vocals, he recruited Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan to sing Jesus, Murray Head to be Judas, Yvonne Elliman to be Mary Magdalene who played a bigger role than Biblical purists might’ve expected, and Manfred Mann’s Mike D’abo to be King Herod.

The first song they did was the pseudo-title track “Superstar”, which ruffled a few feathers with Judas singing lines like “why did you let the things you did get so out of hand?” and asking if Buddha “is where you are.” Murray Head recorded a simplified version of it which became a top 10 hit in North America; they added more dubs and a choir to it and used it in the 87” double album. Besides that one the spotlight shone brightest on Elliman, who had two hits off it, the soothing “Everything’s Alright” sung to Jesus and “I Don’t Know how to Love Him” sung about him. Other song titles leave little guessing about the content – “The Temple,” “The Last Supper”, “Pilate and Christ” and so on.

Many were appalled when Decca released the record. The BBC banned it initially as “sacreligious.” Some carped it should have been called “Judas, Superstar.” But as allmusic pointed out, “teenagers who didn’t know from Jesus…liked the beat, the hard rock sounds” while “more forward-thinking clergy…saw (an) opportunity to spread the word about Jesus.” The same website note that while it came out at roughly the same time as Hair, this one won out because the “radical rock/theater hybrid” had a “far sharper, bolder musical edge” than the other and “sounded like the real article as far as its rock music credibility.”

Indeed. Although only certified “gold”, its sales actually would have qualified it for triple platinum status in both the U.S. and Canada, and gold in the UK, and worldwide its sold past seven million copies. And needless to say, once the monied theater people saw the smash popularity of the music, they couldn’t wait to line up to fund Webber and Rice for what would become one of the ’70s biggest stage hits in both New York and London and later a hit movie adaptation.

11 thoughts on “February 20 – Webber & Rice Aimed High For Debut

  1. I got this one and the Sesame Street album at Meijers at the same time with my babysitting money. Strange combination but I think they were the first 2 albums I bought on my own and I listened the grooves off of those things (except for side 4.) They pulled quite a crew together for this thing! I do remember it was considered “dangerous” to have Jesus be ordinary with hopes and fears like anyone else and especially in the “devil’s music” rock and roll!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep, an odd pairing to start your collection, but nothing wrong with that. I think my mom had the soundtrack…remember the singles well & think I vaguely remember hearing the whole album as a kid. It was indeed an audacious concept, especially for a 21 year old newbie.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. badfinger20 (Max)

    I remember the songs well…I had no idea it was that popular though. I have talked to people that went to the revival of it…they said it was really powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I forgot what a good song ‘Everything’s Alright’ is. I think I’ll go searching for a stripped back spare bare bones version of it now!
    And Chuck Berry did ‘The Promised Land?’ Close, but no cigar, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: June 24 – Off Broadway Onto The Radio – A Sound Day

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