May 7, 2018

The Sound and the Fury

Yvonne Elliman and Ted Neeley in the 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Unmasked: the Platinum Collection pulls together the best of Andrew Lloyd Weber; and new reissues for Sister Rosetta Tharpe fans

THERE IT WAS, WAITING FOR ME when I came home from camp in the summer of 1971: the original studio cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar, the breakthrough rock musical by Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music). Superstar was a sensation when it was released in the fall of 1970; a commercial success (certified gold, the album spent three weeks at #1 in the U.S.), but controversial as well. Mary Magdalene’s poignant love song to Jesus was seen as inappropriate; the story was said to be too sympathetic to Judas Iscariot; and surely the very notion of having a Biblical story set to heathen rock music was blasphemous to begin with.

But the dominant view was that Superstar was a terrific work, virtually a classic from the day of its release (and revisited just this past Easter with a live television broadcast starring John Legend in the title role). Andrew Lloyd Webber also turned 70 this year, and there are two new releases celebrating his reaching that landmark: Unmasked: A Memoir (HarperCollins), and Unmasked: The Platinum Collection (Polydor/UMC).


The Platinum Collection (available in 2 CD and 4 CD editions) functions as a greatest hits/best of set. It draws from 19 different musical works, one-off performances (Beyoncé’s rendition of “Learning to Be Lonely” that she performed at the Oscars; “Amigos Para Siempre,” performed by Sarah Brightman and José Carreras at the closing ceremony for the 1992 Olympics), and new numbers recorded especially for this collection (including Lana Del Ray’s “You Must Love Me” from Evita).

Even those who aren’t especially enamored of musicals might be surprised to discover how much of Lloyd Webber’s work has permeated the culture. The first three notes of “Superstar” make it one of the world’s most instantly recognizable songs. The same can be said of “Memory,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” all of them featuring beguiling, memorable melodies (and all of them hit singles in the U.S., U.K., or both).

Tellingly, those songs are from the earlier years in Lloyd Webber’s career. That’s where Lloyd Webber ends his memoir, at Phantom’s opening preview, commenting that the show was the most commercially successful work of his career. He writes that he intended to tell his whole life story in one book, “but my verbosity got in the way” (the memoir does run to 487 pages). Of course, it’s easy to write about success, but post-Sunset Boulevard (1993), the reception to Lloyd Webber’s works has been mixed; of the seven musicals he’s worked on since, only two have opened on Broadway. An afterword covers some of that work (he evidently wasn’t that pleased with Stephen Ward [2013], nor was he a fan of the London production of his Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies [2010], saying it wasn’t until the Australian production that “everything came together”), but only briefly; here’s hoping for a Volume 2.

On Platinum, the songs are drawn from a variety of recordings; original studio casts, London casts, Broadway casts, film soundtracks, even a song performed by the cast of Glee, which makes for a more varied listening experience (a quibble; there’s not enough specific release information about each song in the liner notes). It also allows for side-by-side comparisons with the different lyricists Lloyd Webber has worked with (another quibble; you need a magnifying glass to read the lyricists’ names). Lloyd Webber’s trademark is his unerring sense of melody, and it’s interesting to hear how that’s tempered by whoever he works with. Tim Rice’s lyrics were always the most bitter (Lloyd Webber once said of his partner, “Tim can never write ‘I love you.’ It’s always ‘I love you, but…’”), and Don Black gives sharpness to the portrait of a single English woman looking for romance in the U.S. in Tell Me on a Sunday. But neither would’ve worked for Phantom, Lloyd Webber’s most lush and romantic work.

There are some surprises. The version of “Music of Night” featured in the set is an earlier rendition, with different lyrics. And who remembers that one of the last songs Elvis recorded, at the October 29-30, 1976 session at Graceland’s Jungle Room was a Lloyd Webber/Rice song? (the gloomy “It’s Easy for You”). And there’s an unexpected choice for “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”; the original studio cast version, sung Julie Covington, which was a hit in a number of countries, but not the U.S. (that wouldn’t happen until Madonna recorded her version, for the Evita film). Covington’s simple and heartfelt rendition is remarkable, especially in contrast to some of the more grandiose versions that came later on.

To present a more comprehensive look at his work, it would’ve been interesting had Lloyd Webber included his earliest material. He writes about his first single, “Down Thru’ Summer,” by Ross Hannaman (lyrics by Rice, released in 1967) in his memoir, but you won’t find it on Platinum (you can check it out on YouTube). Nonetheless, both the box set and memoir offer an entertaining and insightful look at a
remarkable talent.


SO, SISTER ROSETTA THARPE was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and what can you say but it’s about time! Sister Rosetta was rocking and rolling before the genre was even sure what to call itself. She’s been name-checked as an influence by the likes of Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless others; it’s great to see her getting more recognition at last.


Sister Rosetta played guitar virtually all her life and released her first recordings in 1938. Now, a veritable bonanza of her recordings have been reissued, courtesy of Verve/UMe, from those very first 1938 sessions all the way to 1962. There are expanded editions of Blessed AssuranceGospel Train (both the 1956 and 1958 versions of the album), and The Gospel Truth, plus the albums sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sister On Tour, and The Gospel Truth: All New! Her Greatest Gospel Hits. But wait! The 130 singles she recorded for Decca have also been compiled in the five volume series The Complete Decca Singles.

That’s over 200 songs, the vast majority of which have never been previously digitally available. Aficionados will want them all, of course, but where you start if you’re just discovering this formidable talent?


Vol. 1 in the Complete Decca Singles series is an obvious place to begin, especially as it includes her first big hit, “Rock Me,” ostensibly a spiritual number, but with enough swing in its stride that Sister Rosetta quickly crossed over to pop success as well (for comparison, this volume also has a 1941 version of the song recorded with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra; better production values, but not the same swing).

And you can’t go wrong with any of her live work, so The Gospel Truth gets the nod here, featuring terrific performances of “Things That I Used to Do (And I Don’t Do No More),” and one of her signature songs, “Didn’t It Rain” (there’s two previously unreleased songs on this release as well). Take the Gospel Train next, then more live stuff on Sister
On Tour


Another nugget: Sister Rosetta trading licks with none other than Red Foley on “Have a Little Talk With Jesus,” tucked away on Vol. 5 of the Decca Singles set. But be forewarned; once Sister Rosetta’s high-spirited hooks get into you, you may find it too irresistible to stop.


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