In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1971: Jesus Christ Superstar
At the beginning of the ‘70s, musicals for the most part had gotten wiped out of the pop charts. It was a much different story a decade earlier. As we’ve seen through the course of this column, cast recordings of popular musicals used to be reliable album sellers selling millions of copies, topping the charts, and becoming some of the best-selling albums of their respective years. Musicals were pop music for the most part. That is until the late ‘60s when a new generation of record buyers began shifting away from musicals in favor of rock. Musicals were increasingly being seen as a relic of the older generation.
It was during this transition when a musical came along and broke through these growing perceptions. Premiering on Broadway in April 1968, Hair was a musical about the ‘60s counterculture depicting a group of young bohemians living in New York City who protest against the Vietnam draft and a conservative society while experimenting with drugs and sex. For the time, Hair broke a lot of perceptions regarding musicals especially in its music eschewing traditional orchestrated musical numbers for rock-based instrumentation.
Through all this, Hair was a bonafide pop culture phenomenon in the late ‘60s becoming the Hamilton of its day. Its cast soundtrack charted 13 weeks at #1, becoming the last Broadway cast album as of now to top Billboard’s album charts, becoming 1969’s #2 best-selling album behind In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Its musical impact spread outside of the musical as many of its songs became major hits for contemporary artists. A medley of “Aquarius” and “The Flesh Failures” titled “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” was a massive #1 hit for the group The Fifth Dimension. The Cowsills peaked behind The Fifth Dimension with their cover of “Hair” at #2. Oliver peaked at #3 with “Good Morning Starshine” and Three Dog Night peaked at #4 with “Easy To Be Hard.”
With the massive success of Hair, you would think the musical would regain its dominance as it adapted to the shifting tastes in popular music. That didn’t happen. While future musicals would utilize more contemporary sounds they wouldn’t enjoy the same type of pop crossover success in the same way Hair and many other musicals did. But right as the musical was losing ground in pop culture, rock acts began incorporating musical ideas into their work thanks to the rise of the rock opera concept album.
At first, albums were largely considered an afterthought consisting mainly of an artist’s hit singles along with covers, deep cuts, and b-sides. But as rock music started to grow and change in the late ‘60s, bands and artists began to view their albums as more than just a collection of songs but as an artistic medium to tell stories. The Who’s Tommy album in 1968 helped to push this idea to the forefront. With these albums pulling songs together to tell a cohesive narrative in a story-like format, it should be no surprise that eventually someone would try to make a full-on rock opera musical.
That’s the environment Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were in when making Jesus Christ Superstar, the now-classic rock opera which initially began life as just an album before being brought to stage and screen. Webber and Rice were already making their name in the London musical circuit when they came up with an idea to adapt one of the religion’s most famous stories into a rock opera. It was so daring for the time that no one would touch it at first but its initial concept double album became a phenomenon nonetheless outselling everyone in 1971 even Carole King’s Tapestry.
Webber and Rice were college students with dreams in music when they joined forces in 1965. With Webber’s music and Rice’s lyrics, they quickly came up with their first musical The Likes of Us based on the life of Irish philanthropist Thomas John Bernardo. The show failed to get picked up and wouldn’t get onto the stage until 2005. Their next musical idea, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which told the story of Joseph from the Old Testament and incorporated rock elements did better as their performances in various English churches helped to garner praise. The success of their religious-based musical encouraged the duo to create another one.
For their next project, Webber and Rice decided to adapt the story of Jesus Christ and the last week of his life into a rock opera told largely from the viewpoint of Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, who is given a more sympathetic portrayal than most are willing to give. It was because of this premise that Jesus Christ Superstar failed to attract support from theater producers with one telling the duo it was “the worst idea in history.” With no one wanting to put on the musical, Webber and Rice decided to release Jesus Christ Superstar as a concept album first before going to stage. For the main characters, Webber and Rice got several musicians and actors from the London scene. For the title character, they got Ian Gillan who had just become the lead singer for the rock group Deep Purple. For Judas, they got a rising singer and actor Murray Head. And for Mary, they got up and coming singer Yvonne Elliman who Webber discovered singing at a London club.
In trying to get a label to release their album, Webber and Rice put out the Murray Head sung single “Superstar” in late 1969. While “Superstar” wasn’t a major hit, it caught the attention of Decca Records who agreed to release Jesus Christ Superstar hoping to continue the concept album success they had had with The Who’s Tommy. The album was recorded in London with various session players performing the music including members of The Grease Band, the backing band for Joe Cocker which included future Wings guitarist Henry McCullough.
Released in September 1970, Jesus Christ Superstar was a flop in Webber and Rice’s home country with the BBC even banning the album for being “sacrilegious.” On the UK Albums Chart, Jesus Christ Superstar peaked at a dismal #23. But across the Atlantic, the album was a smash beyond all expectations. Jesus Christ Superstar hit #1 on Billboard’s album charts in February 1971 spending three non-consecutive weeks on top. The album even spawned a few hit singles in more ways than one. “Superstar” re-entered the Hot 100 in the wake of Jesus Christ Superstar’s success and became its biggest hit peaking at #14. The other single from the album was the tender ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” sung by Elliman and while it peaked at #28 a cover of the song by up and coming pop star Helen Reddy was charting at the exact same time outdoing Elliman’s version peaking at #13.
Jesus Christ Superstar depicts the events of Jesus’ last week which is now celebrated in the Christian world as its holiest week every spring. The musical touches on Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest by the Romans on Holy Thursday, and Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death on Good Friday. Through telling this story, Jesus Christ Superstar portrays it in a more human light than what we are often shown. That was the intention of Rice who noted that it was telling the story of Jesus Christ not as a God but as a human being like the rest of us, “He had to be human, he had to be a man with human failings or else the story doesn’t mean anything. If he was just a god, or if he knew he was God, then what’s the suffering? What’s the agony? Where’s the dilemma? Where’s the sacrifice?” Rice had also expressed his fascination for Judas feeling that biblical depictions didn’t go far enough in portraying him as anything more than a carbon cut out of an evil man.
Rice’s explanation shows a lot in the musical where the characters through their songs are portrayed in a much more nuanced and sympathetic light that many religious adaptations to that point hadn’t explored. With Mary in “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” she sings about the conflicted feelings on loving a man who’s also viewed as a God and how she should approach it. This insinuates Mary as more of a romantic lover of Jesus which is another aspect that separates Jesus Christ Superstar from most religious interpretations. Judas is a man who while Jesus’ friend doesn’t like the adoration he is getting and worries about it getting out of control becoming a threat to the Roman Empire. On “Damned For All Time/Blood Money,” Judas plans on having Jesus arrested thinking he’s doing the right thing but realizes that it could make him be seen as a traitor forever. On “Superstar,” a resurrected Judas approaches Jesus as he’s about to be crucified asking him why he came at the time he came summarizing a lot of the main points of the musical.
Writing about this album, it’s weird for me trying to imagine what made people connect to Jesus Christ Superstar that made it such a big seller in 1971. The successes of Hair and the rock opera concept album certainly helped to make a success like this possible but looking at the Top 10 albums of that year it doesn’t sound like any of the other big albums. You have Carole King’s massive selling Tapestry and more of her brand of Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter music form the works of James Taylor and Cat Stevens. There’s also the sleepy studio-pop of the Carpenters, the cheesy variety show phenomenon of The Partridge Family, and Woodstock acts from Janis Joplin, Santana, and Sly & The Family Stone.
One blog post I found attributed Jesus Christ Superstar’s success largely to its youth appeal in being a rock opera that discussed Jesus and its characters in a way that most wouldn’t dare go into and that the religious backlash only increased its appeal. All of that is good enough to help my understanding. Also in the early ‘70s there was the musical Godspell which like Jesus Christ Superstar tells the story of Jesus Christ’s final week but in a more contemporary setting with different characters acting out the parts. The show also had chart success in 1972 with the cast recording of “Day By Day” peaking on the Hot 100 at #13. Apparently, people in the early ‘70s liked rock musicals about Jesus.
What also helps is that Jesus Christ Superstar is a pretty solid album with its rock leanings making religion more accessible to lots of people who wouldn’t have been interested otherwise. That’s not to say everything about it is perfect. One of the major criticisms of Andrew Lloyd Webber is his attempts at rock as Todd in the Shadows has pointed out and yeah it definitely comes across as rock music made by a non-rock person. It’s not bad, the players do their thing, but it feels off to someone who actually knows rock music.
But on the whole, Jesus Christ Superstar works as a piece of musical theater and the main performances are also good. The singers bring personality and emotion that’s necessary to convey the human feelings of their characters. You easily get swept into the performances by their voices alone. I was raised a Catholic but I’m not exactly the most religious person so I can’t judge the musical on how it tells the story of Jesus and his people but I think it’s a fine execution. YouTube music essayist Polyphonic made a good point on how Jesus Christ Superstar remains popular because it’s a familiar story being told through a new lens with catchy rock-infused music that makes us think about religion and how it compares to our modern world and the superstars we have today.
The unexpected success of the Jesus Christ Superstar album helped to push the show onto a theater stage. In October 1971, the show made its Broadway debut with Elliman and Barry Dennen reprising their roles from the album. This didn’t stop the religious protests with Christians taking issue over its sympathetic portrayal of Judas and omitting Jesus’ resurrection as well as from Jews for being anti-Semitic. Despite the hype, critical reception to the Broadway version was mixed at best including from Webber and Rice themselves who’ve expressed their dislike of the adaptation. The show only lasted on Broadway for almost two years closing in June 1973 and winning none of the Tonys it was nominated for.
Right at the time Jesus Christ Superstar closed on Broadway, a film adaptation from Universal Studios was released with Elliman and Dennen once again reprising their respective roles. While the film made money at the box office like the Broadway version, critics were mixed on the film though it gained a big fan in Pope Paul VI who got a private screening of the film at the Vatican. Since then, Jesus Christ Superstar has stuck around outliving its backlash to become an all-around beloved classic. Like most musicals, it’s been revived on Broadway a few times while living on in worldwide performances. A new movie adaptation was released in 2000. More recently, NBC aired a live adaptation starring John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper that aired on Easter Sunday 2018.
Webber and Rice teamed up again for their next musical, Evita, based on the life of Argentinian First Lady Eva Perón. Inspired by the success of Jesus Christ Superstar, the two released Evita as a concept album first before bringing it to stage which worked out yet again becoming another hit running on Broadway for four years. The duo split after Evita but both men have gone on to greater success. In the ‘80s, Webber brought the world Cats and Phantom of the Opera which were even bigger hits on Broadway with Cats running for 18 years and Phantom still running to this day, the second longest-running Broadway musical ever. His most recent musical, an adaptation of the 2003 film School of Rock, premiered on Broadway in 2015 and lasted four years. Rice has also continued his musical career confusing to write for musicals while also for various TV and films. In that capacity, Rice will appear in this column again for his work on The Lion King soundtrack.
All three stars of Jesus Christ Superstar have also gone on to further success. Gillan continued singing in Deep Purple and sang on their most famous song, the immortal 1973 #4 peaking classic “Smoke On The Water.” Despite that success, Gillan disliked the direction of the band officially leaving the same year “Smoke On The Water” was big. Gillan formed a couple of unsuccessful bands before joining Black Sabbath as its lead singer in the ‘80s releasing an album that didn’t do much before rejoining Deep Purple where he still sings in today among other solo projects.
Murray Head continued with singing and acting but wouldn’t make much of an impact for a long while until 1984 when he appeared on the concept album for the musical Chess netting him his biggest hit ever with “One Night In Bangkok,” written by Rice and ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus, peaking at #3 on the Hot 100. Head’s continued releasing music and acting in various capacities but hasn’t had the major success he had in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
For Yvonne Elliman, she worked her way through the music industry marrying the president of her label RSO Records, singing backup for Eric Clapton including on his 1974 #1 cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” and releasing some hits of her own. It is in that capacity that Elliman will be back in this column as a part of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Jesus Christ Superstar didn’t exactly revive musicals on the pop charts for long but it captured people’s imagination with its unique storytelling on a story we’ve known for thousands of years. It still manages to capture our minds nearly 50 years later.
Honorable mention: 1971’s #9 best-selling album, Sly & The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits, showcases a lot of what made the group great with their blending of rock, R&B, funk, and soul into a sound that can be enjoyed by all filled with many of their era-defining classics
Next time: Neil Young records his biggest album ever in Harvest, an album that was largely recorded on the spot thanks to a chance appearance on The Johnny Cash Show
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