Rock Flashback: “Jesus Christ Superstar”

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yvonne elliman Rock Flashback: Jesus Christ Superstar

Yvonne Elliman at a benefit performance of "Superstar," 2006 (Getty Images/Michael Buckner

Forty years ago this week, the #1 album in America was Jesus Christ Superstar. Originally conceived as a stage production, its young creators, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Andrew Lloyd Webber[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Tim Rice[/lastfm], couldn’t get the funding, so they released it as a two-disc album instead—a viable commercial concept in an era when the “rock opera,” epitomized by Tommy, was a legitimate musical form.

Superstar tells the story of the last week of Jesus Christ on Earth, narrating familiar events such as the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, his trial before Pilate, and the crucifixion through rock and pop songs, featuring lead vocals by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Ian Gillan[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Yvonne Elliman[/lastfm], and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Murray Head[/lastfm].

Find out what made the early ’70s the right time for rock to meet religion.

The album did three weeks at #1 and produced two hit singles, “Superstar” by Head and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” by Elliman, which would eventually be covered with greater success by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Helen Reddy[/lastfm]. Webber and Rice achieved their goal of mounting the show as a Broadway production late in 1971. A movie version hit theaters and became one of the top-grossing films of the year.

In the early 1970s, America was seeing an awakening of religious interest among young people, many of them hippies who had tried everything else in the 1960s. Mixing rock with Christianity, as Jesus Christ Superstar did, courted controversy among adults, but the controversy that followed was relatively small compared to what had followed [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]John Lennon[/lastfm]‘s 1966 remark about [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Beatles[/lastfm] being more popular than Jesus. Some criticized the show for its sympathetic portrayal of Judas (who’s arguably the lead character) and its not-always-flattering portrayal of Jesus. In 1971, churches across the country organized listening sessions for adults, so they could hear the record and decide whether it was blasphemous, or whether the kids had something important to say. (I can remember my parents attending such a session at our church.) More often than not, adult churchgoers felt that if Superstar got kids thinking about the Easter story and its meaning, it was a positive thing.

“Superstar” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” are relatively familiar; worthwhile tracks less familiar from the original 1970 album include Gillan on “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” and Head with “Heaven on Their Minds.”

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