Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a groundbreaking rock double-album, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber – who, at the ages of 25 and 21 respectively, were just embarking on what would become extraordinarily long and successful entertainment careers
Andrew Lloyd Webber says: “Nobody was interested in doing Jesus Christ Superstar on stage when we started, so Tim Rice and I did it as a record.”
Based on the Gospels and telling the story of the last week of Jesus’s life up to his crucifixion, the double album was released on Decca Records in October 1970 – with rock legend Ian Gillan, Deep Purple’s lead singer, singing the part of Jesus (both on record and on stage, Jesus Christ Superstar is entirely sung-through with no spoken dialogue).
In 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar was named Billboard’s biggest-selling album of the year – against competition from such masterpieces as ‘Sticky Fingers’ by the Rolling Stones, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, ‘Santana III’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – and made number one on the Billboard album chart twice in that year in February and in May.
To date, the original double album has sold over seven million copies worldwide – excluding the sales of over 40 different cast recording albums in 19 different languages that have since been released as well.
Key performers on the original album were:
- Ian Gillan singing the part of Jesus
- Musician and actor Murray Head (whose later hits included ‘Say It Ain’t So Joe’ and ‘One Night in Bangkok’) in the role of Judas Iscariot
- Playing the role of Mary Magdalene, Yvonne Elliman, who was discovered by Lloyd Webber and Rice – she went on to have a hit single off the album with ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, to tour with Eric Clapton and sing backing vocals on his cover of ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, and to sing lead vocal on the global hit ‘If I Can’t Have You’ from the film Saturday Night Fever
- And Mike D’Abo, lead singer of Manfred Mann, in the role of Herod
The album, with its strong rock music themes, was recorded at the famous Olympic Studios in London – home to iconic recordings by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, The Who and Queen – and featured several celebrated rock and roll session musicians:
- Guitarist Neil Hubbard – who played with Bryan Ferry, BB King, Elton John and was a member of Joe Cocker’s the Grease Band
- Guitarist Chris Spedding – John Cale, Roxy Music, Brian Eno
- Bassist Alan Spenner – Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Peter Frampton, ABC
- Bruce Rowland drummer - also a member of The Grease Band as well as of Fairport Convention and Paul McCartney’s Wings and a prolific session player
Songs from the album have been covered by a wide variety of different performers. In 1971, a then unknown Helen Reddy released her version of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ which coincided on the Billboard charts with Yvonne Elliman’s original version – the two singles peaked at numbers 13 and 28 respectively. Cilla Black recorded the same song for her 1972 album ‘Day By Day’ and ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, who played Mary Magdalene in the first major Swedish production of Jesus Christ Superstar, released it as a single in March 1972, the same year that ABBA formed. Sinead O’Connor recorded ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ for her 2007 album ‘Theology’.
In 1996, a BBC Radio 2 production of Jesus Christ Superstar was broadcast featuring Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley singing the part of Jesus, Roger Daltrey of The Who in the role of Judas, and Frances Ruffelle playing Mary Magdalene.
Anastacia performed ‘Superstar’ at the Concert for Diana in Wembley Stadium backed by a gospel choir and watched by an estimated audience of 500 million on 1 July 2007. In the same year, American progressive heavy metal band Queensrÿche released their album ‘Take Cover’ featuring their version of ‘Heaven On Their Minds’. In the liner notes guitarist Mike Stone writes: “It’s getting hot in the kitchen, and Judas can’t take the heat. This is one of my favorite songs from J.C. Superstar. I have always wanted to hear a rocked-up version of this tune… and now I can!”