Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Jesus Christ Superstar hit parade

The Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera was a Tommy-esque concept album first, with the Broadway stage production (October 1971) and movie (August 1973) to follow after. Composed by two fledglings named Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the double LP focused on the last week of Jesus's life and presented a reimagination of the interpersonal relationships between Jesus, Judas Iscariot, and Mary Magdalene. It appeared in September 1970, buoyed up by considerable hype and a brisk-selling 1969 leadoff single by Murray Head and the Trinidad Singers.

Among the album's participants were Deep Purple's Ian Gillian, members of Joe Cocker's Grease Band, the Hair alumnus Head, and an unknown Yvonne Elliman. The project at once fed off of and stoked the Jesus revival you could hear burgeoning in numerous early seventies radio hits, all of which jibed nicely with the era's soul-searching and its eye for long hair and beards.

1971 Billboard story by Elliott Tiegel on the trend ("Jesus Christ, Are You Here Again? Or, Rock Meets the Guy from Above") mentioned that Los Angeles MOR mothership KMPC played the entire album on Thanksgiving 1970 and on Easter 1971. And although the occasional story would surface that a given outlet had banned the album for being too sacrilegious, the consensus would echo Tiegel's assertion that Jesus Christ Superstar was the "granddaddy" of all the era's "Jesus stories."

Here's a chronology of all the JCS-related singles to appear in Billboard with one bonus entry at the end:

"Superstar" (1969)  - Murray Head with the Trinidad Singers

Written and produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice * 45: "Superstar" / "John Nineteen Forty-One" (1969) * LP: Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) * Label: Decca * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#14) * Entered: 1970-01-31

The 1969 leadoff single for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's ambitious rock opera starring the Son of God did its part in generating anticipation for an album that wouldn't hit shelves until late 1970. "There are some people who may be shocked by this record," says Martin Sullivan, Dean of St Paul's London, whose quote graces the top of the 45's back sleeve. "I ask them to listen to it and think again. It is a desperate cry. Who are you Jesus Christ?" The single sleeve also attributes the track as coming "from the Rock Opera 'Jesus Christ' now in preparation."

A promo clip featuring vocalist Murray Head, who'd recently starred in a London run of Hair, shows him, who is the voice of Judas (also made clear by the single sleeve), climbing around cathedral ruins and singing alongside a chorus of six women called the "Trinidad Singers," the exact identities of whom seem to be lost. The track's familial resemblance to Aretha Franklin's "Respect" or the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day" ought not to be discounted as an early appeal factor. "Superstar" would enter the singles chart three separate times between 1970 and 1971, with its third entry being most successful (peaking on May 29, 1971).

Side A: "Superstar"

Side B: "John Nineteen Forty-One"

"Medley from 'Superstar' (A Rock Opera)" (1971) - The Assembled Multitude

Written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice * Produced by Bill Buster and Tom Sellers * 45: "Medley from 'Superstar' (A Rock Opera)" / "Where the Woodbine Twineth" * Label: Atlantic * Billboard charts: Easy listening (#17) / Hot 100 (#95) * Entered: 1971-01-09 (easy); 1971-02-06 (Hot 100)

The studio orchestra led by Tom Sellers (who at the time also participated in the band Gulliver with Darryl Hall and Tim Moore) made its final fleeting chart entry with this medley of four tunes from the hit Jesus Christ Superstar album: "Superstar," "Simon Zealotes," "The Temple," and "Everything's Alright." The first concert performance (July 1971) of the rock opera was still a few months away as was its Broadway debut (October 1971) when this single appeared on the Billboard easy listening chart in early January. The choice of title for the single, which misnames the rock opera, perhaps had to do with label space. Sellers's Assembled Multitude would release a few more non-charting singles after this, including renditions of the theme from The Godfather and the one for the Carl Sagan TV series Cosmos (Vangelis's "Heaven and Hell"). A Sellers original from the Assembled Multitude's lone album appears on the flipside.

Side A: "Medley from 'Superstar' (A Rock Opera)"

Side B: "Where the Woodbine Twineth"

"Everything's Alright" (1971) - Percy Faith

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice * Arranged by Percy Faith * 45: "Everything's Alright" / "I Don't Know How to Love Him" * LP: I Think I Love You * Label: Columbia * Billboard charts: Easy listening (#31) * Entered: 1971-02-06

Flowing sheets of high silken strings became arranger Percy Faith's trademark on earlier hit records like "The Song from Moulin Rouge" (1953) and "Theme from a Summer Place" (1960), but you won't hear many of those on his version of "Everything's Alright" (just a little bit at the beginning). Appearing on his 1971 I Think I Love You album, the track relies on the measured muzak-oriented voices of a studio chorus. This would be the first Percy Faith single to chart in the seventies, and although his days in Billboard's Hot 100 were numbered by the late sixties, he'd continue sending a number of tracks to the easy listening chart until 1976. Side B contains another Jesus Christ Superstar number rendered in disembodied vocal fashion. 

Side A: "Everything's Alright"

Side B: "I Don't Know How to Love Him"

"I Don't Know How to Love Him" (1971) - Helen Reddy

Written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice * Producer: Larry Marks * 45: "I Don't Know How to Love Him"/"I Believe in Music" * LP: I Don't Know How to Love Him * Label: Capitol * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#13) * Entered: 1971-02-20

Australian vocalist Helen Reddy launched a successful 1970s career with her version of this Jesus Christ Superstar torch ballad. In her 2006 memoir The Woman I Am, Reddy credits WDRC-AM in Hartford, Connecticut for breaking the single, whose B-side was an early version of Mac Davis's "I Believe in Music," later a hit for Gallery (1972) and a future variety show staple. Her I Don't Know How to Love Him album also included an early draft of "I Am Woman," which she'd later re-record and turn into a feminist anthem. 

Side A: "I Don't Know How to Love Him"

Side B: "I Believe in Music"

"I Don't Know How to Love Him/ Everything's Alright" (1971) - The Kimberlys

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice * Produced by Ray Pohlman * 45: "I Don't Know How to Love Him/Everything's Alright" / "Hello and Happy Birthday" * Label: Happy Tiger * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#99) * Entered: 1971-03-20

The Kimberlys' short but auspicious appearance on the music biz radar started when they teamed up with Waylon Jennings, who'd discovered them in Las Vegas, for a 1969 album called Country-Folk. They were two twin sisters, Verna and Vera Gay, joined by their two husbands, the brothers Harold and Carl Kimberly.

Things got messy in the relationship department after Jennings came along. Here's how he put it in his 1996 Waylon autobiography: "I liked Verna Gay Kimberly. We had a thing going; she was unhappy and so was I... Her and her husband were splitting up, and she and her twin sister didn't get along." Hoping to save the group, who reminded him of his family band in Littlefield, Texas, Jennings got them signed to RCA.

Then things then got messy in the music department. Waylon agreed to record "MacArthur Park," the famously overwrought Jimmy Webb song, as part of the sessions. It had been part of the Kimberlys' repertoire, and it led off the Country-Folk album released in August 1969 under the billing "Waylon Jennings and the Kimberlys." Although the sessions spawned uncharacteristic arrangements and song choices for Jennings (even then, in his pre-outlaw years) and plenty of head-butting with co-producer Danny Davis, "MacArthur Park" ended up wangling a Country Vocal Group Grammy out of the Recording Academy. (The song reached #93 on Billboard's Hot 100.)

A 1970 Billboard reference to the "Kimberly Sisters" leads one to assume that the group had lost the brother component by then, but all three of their post-Waylon albums show the full lineup. Male voices, too, appear on their shrewd medley of Jesus Christ Superstar's "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's Alright." The non-album 45 popped in for a short stay at #99, after which the group faded out like the record's echo-drenched choruses.  (A Kimberlys offspring project called Kimberly Springs, though, took a Jerry Fuller song called "Slow Dancin'" to #49 on the country singles chart in 1984.)

The B-side contained a version of "Hello and Happy Birthday," a tune from the lone RCA Victor album by Connecticut singer-songwriter Jill Williams. The producer of Williams's album had Jesus-on-Broadway credentials of his own—he was Stephen Schwartz, who would compose and produce the original cast album for Godspell (1971)a retelling of the New Testament's parables.

Side A: "I Don't Know Hot to Love Him/Everything's Alright"

Side B: "Hello and Happy Birthday"

"I Only Want to Say (Gethsemane)" (1971) - José Feliciano

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice * Produced by Rick Jarrard * 45: "I Only Want to Say (Gethsemane)" / "Watch It With My Heart" * Label: RCA * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#122) * Entered: 1971-05-29

After a string of steady chart appearances throughout the late sixties, the Puerto Rican singer-guitarist Jose Feliciano reached a lull in the early seventies. Perhaps the choice to release a nearly five-minute fuzz guitar-heavy rendition of the anguished, minor-key "I Only Want to Say (Gethesemane)" from Jesus Christ Superstar didn't help matters for an artist best known for romantic moods and exotic grooves. In the US, the track only appeared as a single (although it saw inclusion on a European release called Ché Sara')After this, Feliciano's only Hot 100 entries would be "Chico and the Man" (1975) and re-entries of "Feliz Navidad" (1970), although he would visit the Latin charts with some regularity until 2004. Another non-LP track—a Santana-style Feliciano original—accompanies "Gethsamane" as the B-side.

Side A: "I Only Wanted to Say (Gethsemane)"

Side B: "Watch It With My Heart"

"King Herod's Song (Try It and See)" (1970) - Mike D'Abo

Written and produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice * LP: Jesus Christ Superstar * Label: Decca * Billboard charts: — (entered Boston's WMEX airplay chart 1970-06-03)

Mike D'Abo, who up until 1969 had been the lead singer for the British group Manfred Mann, sang the role of King Herod on the Jesus Christ Superstar album but didn't appear in the Broadway musical when it debuted in October 1971. His ragpop mockery of the title character neither charted nor saw release as a single, but it did rack up heavy airplay as an album track over the summer of '71 on Boston AM powerhouse WMEX. (Wikipedia tidbit: In his younger days, D'Abo had been a theology student at Cambridge, but became disillusioned.)

"King Herod's Song (Try It and See)"

"I Don't Know How to Love Him" (1970) - Yvonne Elliman 

Written and produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice * 45: "Overture: Jesus Christ Superstar" / "I Don't Know How to Love Him" (1971) * LPs: Jesus Christ Superstar (1970); Yvonne Elliman (1972) * Label (all releases): Decca * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#28) * Entered: 1971-06-12

Multiple song renditions still went to battle on the pop charts in the early seventies, a decades-long tradition that finally fizzled out (with few resurgences) after Lost Horizon circa 1973. In the case of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," Hawaiian singer Yvonne Elliman's original 1970 romantic paean for Jesus charted two months after Helen Reddy's cover version did, and one month after the low chart entry by the Kimberlys. Reddy took it to #13, while Elliman, whose version featured a memorable Moog simulation of a wooden flute, saw hers underperform at #28. (In early 1972, she would compete with a version by Petula Clark on the UK singles chart.) She'd later perform the song in the 1973 film as the beshawled Mary Magdalene. The successful Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera LP launched a respectable seventies chart run for Elliman, crescendoing with "If I Can't Have You," her #1 hit from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. By 1980, she'd turn her back on the music biz to raise her two kids.

Side A: "I Don't Know How to Love Him"

Side B: "Overture: Jesus Christ Superstar"

"Everything's Alright" (1971) - Yvonne Elliman

Written and produced by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice * 45: "Everything's Alright" / "Heaven on Their Minds" * LP: Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) * Label: Decca * Billboard chart: Hot 100 (#92) * Entered: 1971-10-16

As with Murray Head's original version of "Superstar," Yvonne Elliman's "Everything's Alright" (with its distinctive organ/moog intro) has all the ambience and churning grandeur you would expect to hear in a rock opera. That's especially true with the compressed, three-minute 45, which fades out as the orchestra swells. The song is a cheerful, 5/4 reassurance from Mary Magdalene to Jesus, while the flipside (credited to "Various Artists" even though it's Murray Head who sings lead) is the counterbalancing, skeptical voice of Judas. It's a song that begs for a metal version.

Side A: "Everything's Alright"

Side B: "Heaven on Their Minds"

"I Don't Know How to Love Him/ Superstar" (1971) - Petula Clark

Written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice * Produced by Johnny Harris and Claude Wolff * Arranged by Johnny Harris * 45: "I Don't Know How to Love Him/Superstar" / "Maybe" * Label: Warner Bros. * Billboard charts: —; UK: #47 * Entered: 1972-01-15

Petula Clark, the British invader-ette who scored her first US Billboard hit with the #1 "Downtown," charted 21 additional times between 1964 and 1981. Her medley from Jesus Christ Superstar did not rank among these, although it did reach #47 in the United Kingdom in early 1972. The trademark strings missing in Percy Faith's entry (above) turned up in this Johnny Harris arrangement (listen at 2:42), which uses the "Superstar" chorus as bookends. With numerological quirkiness, Murray Head's original 1969 version of "Superstar" also peaked in the UK at #47 in early 1972. Co-producer Claude Wolff was Clark's longtime time publicist and husband. The B-side is a song by John Bromley and arranger Harris—not a version of the Chantels classic.

Side A: "I Don't Know How to Love Him/Superstar"

Side B: "Maybe"

"Jesus Christ S.R.O. (Standing Room Only)" (1972) - Tom Paxton

Written by Tom Paxton * Produced by Tony Visconti * 45: "Peace Will Come" / "Jesus Christ S.R.O. (Standing Room Only)" * LP: Peace Will Come * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: — * (entered Boston's WMEX airplay chart on 1972-08-24)

Tom Paxton established himself in the sixties as a folk singer worth paying attention to with songs like "The Last Thing on My Mind," "What Did You Learn in School Today," "Bottle of Wine," and "The Marvelous Toy." His 1972 barb at Jesus Christ Superstar's box office success (with allusions to the nostalgia-boom Broadway production Grease) adopted the jocular gait of the musical's "Herod's Song" and flirted with success of its own after getting added to the playlist of trendsetting Top 40 station WMEX in Boston. His Peace Will Come album made a general bid for pop radio acceptance by getting T. Rex/David Bowie producer Tony Visconti on board. (Session player Gordon Huntley handled the steel guitar riff.)

"Jesus Christ S.R.O. (Standing Room Only)"

1 comment:

  1. This era was very impressionable on the Woodstock generation. Baby boomers forged their lives and identities around the era.