An EXCLUSIVE interview with TED NEELEY
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Forty years ago, Ted Neeley was everywhere. While he may not have been ‘more popular than Jesus’ (as John Lennon once said about The Beatles), he was most certainly popular because of Jesus. Portraying the title character in the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar brought Neeley critical success and made him a sensation. Reprising that role in the 1973 movie of the same name turned him into an international… er… superstar! Since the film’s release, he began a long and varied career that included a hit solo album – 1974 AD – and, for the first few years, appearances in just about every gossip, music and teen magazine on the market. While he has continued to perform in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, he has also spent a good portion of his time behind the scenes writing, recording, producing and collaborating with an impressive list of musicians and film directors including Tom Scott, Robert Altman, Nigel Olsson, Tina Turner, Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Keith Carradine, and Meat Loaf. And then there were his guest appearances on television and in movies that included everything from Starsky & Hutch to Django Unchained. While he’s not as high-profile as he once was some four decades ago, Neeley has carved out an impressive career that he is extremely proud of.
2014 has turned out to be one of his busiest years yet. Not only is he currently performing in a production of Superstar in Italy, he has just released a brand new EP that brings different aspects of his world together in one place. Entitled Rock Opera, the EP features duets with former Superstar co-stars Yvonne Elliman and the late Carl Anderson, as well as track from The Who’s Tommy (“See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You”), a Bryan Adams song (“Do I Have To Say The Words?”) and a rockin’ version of a Christmas favorite (“O Holy Night”). Neeley’s voice can really pack a punch, as proven on all these tracks, but none more so than “Do I Have To Say The Words?” which is bound to please any fan of melodic Hard Rock and AOR. His performance of the track is so good, don’t be surprised if he records a solid AOR album in the near future. The fact that Ted can rock out shouldn’t surprise anyone – he was originally a drummer in a mid ‘60s Rock band who moved to L.A. to seek fame and fortune. Ted did eventually hit the big time, but it was a series of lucky incidents that led him to perform in musicals such as Superstar, Hair, Tommy, and Sgt. Pepper amongst others. Over the years he’s been able to work on music projects outside of his stage productions, but he is always honored and humbled to get back up on stage and play Jesus again. The role of a lifetime? Absolutely.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Ted Neeley before a Superstar performance in Rome, where he graciously gave up some pre-show time to talk about Rock Opera, his career and the amazing effect that Jesus Christ Superstar has had on his life…
SPAZ: Your new EP, Rock Opera, is now available and you’re in Italy performing Jesus Christ Superstar. How are you feeling about things now? Are you happy with the reaction to the EP?
TED: I’m ecstatic. You know, just the fact that people are interested at all is a miracle because you get involved with one thing and you stay with that one thing for so long, certain people may or may not appreciate what you do. So, I’m honored that anybody is even aware that it’s there.
SPAZ: How did you decide on these songs? There are a couple of songs that are from films and shows, but then you’ve got a couple non-Rock Opera pieces on there as well.
TED: I was at that place in my life where I wished to pay tribute to anyone and everyone who had anything to do with my being in this business as long as I have, and I thought the best way to start it off is to pay tribute to the Rock Opera form. I thought well, I don’t know if everybody will really appreciate each Rock Opera that I’ve been in because I was able to do more than one, so I thought, well, let me introduce at least something from two of them that I really feel that people would definitely be behind, which is Superstar and Tommy. Then I thought how about if I do duets with my two best friends in the whole wide world – one not being with us anymore, Carl obviously, and Yvonne, both of them in Superstar, so that paid more tribute to Superstar, which gave me the opportunity to be here to start with. Then I thought I’d like to do something that shows that I appreciate artists, as well, and that’s why I chose the Bryan Adams tune. Then, people are always saying, “You should do Christmas songs, you don’t have any Christmas songs.” So, I thought I would touch a little bit on each one of those elements by doing this EP, and I hope that the decision was correct. I hope that people will appreciate it. I love each of the songs that are on there. I had a great time recording them, and I can’t wait to go out and perform those live in concert.
SPAZ: Was the idea to just do the EP or were you thinking about an album?
TED: Actually, if you talk to anybody who knows me, I’ve got the material to pack up probably a dozen albums easily, but I didn’t want to get into a heavy ego thing. I wanted to see if maybe I could touch base with a record-buying interested public that might be interested in those particular songs. I felt that the Bryan Adams tune was a great song, and I felt that each one of the songs that are not from the Rock Operas have something to do with at least the philosophy of Jesus Christ Superstar. Even with the duet that Yvonne and I did, “Up Where We Belong,” the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes great hit record, that’s kind of the essence of the spirituality of Superstar. And I love singing with Yvonne. We both like that song so decided to do that one. As far as the Bryan Adams tune, I’ve loved that one since it first came out, and I wanted to pay tribute to Bryan because of all the great songs he’s done as well, and I figured that maybe some people would appreciate that we did that.
SPAZ: The thing that I love about this EP is the fact that I think it’s going to surprise people because there are some parts here that really ‘rock’!
TED: Absolutely. That’s where I came from. I was a drummer in a Rock and Roll band from Texas that got me out to California, which made everything else fall into place.
SPAZ: I think a lot of people think of you from musicals… they automatically say, “Oh yeah, Ted Neeley – Jesus Christ Superstar.” but there’s more to Ted Neeley than just that…
TED: You’re absolutely correct. It’s interesting because Superstar was the first successful Rock Opera to be performed live on various stages. Of course, Tommy was the first one that was written, but The Who was doing it themselves in concert. They didn’t need some other bunch of yokels to go out there and do it (laughing), but then when they decided that that was a possibility, I had the good fortune of being in that very first production of The Who’s Tommy in Los Angeles. So, the thing about it is that immediately I was classified as a theatrical performer because of the success of Superstar and Hair and Tommy and Sgt. Pepper, and I’m the farthest thing in the world from that. I’m not saying that to say I’m not appreciative because that gave me a career, but I had no theatrical training. I was a Rock and Roll drummer and the only reason I got into any of these shows was because I could scream high notes! Really, I had no training, and if it hadn’t been for the wonderful director, Tom O’Horgan, who cast me in Hair… I was in Hair for three years before we got into Superstar on Broadway and Mr. O’Horgan nurtured me like I was his son. So, had it not been for him, I wouldn’t have gotten into Hair to start with and then his generosity gave me a chance to learn what to do while I was up there screaming high notes (laughs). I’m so honored. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, having been in the right place at the right time and that I could scream those high notes so that they would give me an opportunity to be in the show. So, I couldn’t be more thankful, and that’s why this whole idea of the Rock Opera being the title of this EP.
SPAZ: A lot of people don’t realize that, between Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical, and then the movie, you were in Tommy. Was that the first production of Tommy?
TED: Yeah, the first one was actually done as a master’s thesis by a theater art student in Los Angeles, and they were able to get the rights from the student to do Tommy. It was done at the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles, the same place that we had done Hair for three years. So, I had the opportunity to do that, and I was in Tommy before Superstar (the movie). I was actually performing in Los Angeles at the time that Norman Jewison, who directed the film, was in LA auditioning for the movie. So, I had gone from Hair, Los Angeles, to Superstar in New York, and then they were holding auditions in New York for Tommy in LA. So I auditioned and got the job. So, I went back to LA, back to that same theater where I had basically lived for three years doing Hair, and during the process of rehearsal, I found out that Norman Jewison was in LA auditioning for the movie. I tracked him down like an old bear to find out if I could just be there and audition for his movie. It really is that old philosophy of being in the right place at the right time. Completely by accident.
SPAZ: You recorded tracks with Yvonne and Carl. How did you decide on those tracks to record with them? I think the song with Carl sounds great.
TED: Oh yeah. Well, the one with Carl we did that many years ago. We were both doing tours with Superstar and we had a down time for a couple of weeks, and he had made an arrangement with some friends of his to go in the studio and do some recording. So we went in together and recorded that one. So that one has been around for a long, long time. We did a bit of remix and re-mastered that one. It’s the only thing that wasn’t connected with Superstar that Carl and I ever actually sang together in the studio.
SPAZ: It seems as if you are permanently linked to Superstar!
TED: (Laughs) Do you know what they call me in Europe? Gesu. That’s the Italian word for Jesus. I’m Jesus. Everybody says, “You are like Jesus.” “You changed my life.” “You got me through my cancer treatment.” I’ve been told that all these years, but here (in Italy) it’s ten times more prevalent than it is anywhere else. I think it turned around the whole Catholic philosophy, literally. When we first finished the film, Norman Jewison was so concerned about the fact that the live show had been protested so vehemently in New York and in Los Angeles when we did it there that he was afraid that, once the film was officially released that maybe the Catholic Church would condemn it. So, he requested an audience with Pope Paul VI, and his request was fulfilled. They sat together and watched the movie and then he sad “I would like your opinion. Tell me honestly - if you think its bad, we’ll forget about it. If you think it has a shot, we’ll pursue.” The Pope literally said, after seeing the screening, “I love this movie because I believe, because it’s a movie, it will reach the entire world, but also because of the music - it has the opportunity (and I’m quoting Pope Paul VI) to bring more people to Christianity than anything ever has before.” So, the thing is, up until that point the Catholic Church everywhere was condemning it. People were saying you can’t go see that. You can’t. That’s blasphemy. Once he said that then suddenly they turned around and started using it as a teaching tool for the children because they realized that children could much more easily relate to the scriptures and to the story of Jesus to the music. It’s continued now for 40 years, and the fans are just unbelievable.
SPAZ: You’ve been doing screenings of the original movie as well, correct?
TED: Universal put together a magnificently beautiful digital print that looks like the movie was shot yesterday and we tour around and show the film to people and people come out of the woodwork to see the movie. I always go there and we show the film and then I stay until the cows come home talking to people in the lobby afterwards. Whenever I can, when they’re available, I have Barry Dennen or Yvonne Elliman or Josh Mostel or Kurt Yaghjian or Bob Bingham – you know, all the people who were the principles in the film with me, and the people are just flocking to see the movie, sit and talk to us. It’s amazing. It’s the most wonderful feeling anybody could possibly have. We did the first screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
SPAZ: Now, obviously you’ve been doing this for 40 years. But a lot of people aren’t familiar with the other stuff. You’ve done a lot of behind the scenes things as well …
TED: Whenever there’s downtime, I go do whatever is available to do and as I said before, it’s like being at the right place at the right time. I’ve done pretty much everything that an artist can do behind the scenes because people were kind enough to ask me, assuming I knew what I was doing. And then I would say, “Well, yeah, I’ll do that. Let me give it a shot.” Here’s the best example I can give you – Several years ago I was off of a tour in the ‘90s and there was a gentleman that I had met many years before when I was with my Rock and Roll band. He called me through an agency and said, “By the way, I’m doing a film about the music industry, it’s about Rock and Roll, I’d like you to come and be my musical supervisor.” And I said “Sure, when do I start?” He gave me the date. I hung up the phone, picked up the phone again and made a phone call to Tom Scott (Jazz musician) who, at the time, was a musical supervisor and I said, “Hey Tom, what is it that you do as a musical supervisor?” (laughs) He told me. A music supervisor’s job, I learned, was to coordinate the director’s wishes for the music he wishes to use in his film and to call the publishing houses and get the rights, put together the sessions and be the producer of the sessions… Well, I had no problem doing all of that. There was one scene that he really didn’t know which song he wanted so he said, “Can you just look at this one, make some notes, and tell me what you think I should do?” So I did that. On the way home from that particular rehearsal day, I was driving up over Laurel Canyon and I got an idea for a song. So I just pulled off the side of the road and wrote down the idea quickly on a piece of paper. I got home and I flipped on the old cassette and slapped my leg and sang the melody and the lyric and then the next day I took it back to the director and I said, “What do you think about an idea like this for this particular scene?” And I played it, and he said, “I love it. Where’d you get that?” I said, “I wrote it last night.” He said, “Ah come on, where’d you get it?” “I wrote it.” I ended up scoring the whole film with Tom Scott. It was called Blame It On The Night. It was filmed with a complete unknown cast except for a couple of wonderful singers that worked in the band. The story was originally written by Mick Jagger, and the director and Mick were gonna do it and then Mick decided not to do the film and said go do it with whoever you want. So he did it and hired a bunch of unknown people to do the film and I got a chance to get in the studio and pretend to be a record producer. It’s been that way all my life. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
SPAZ: And you worked on Perfect Couple with Robert Altman?
TED: Absolutely right. It was a situation where just about everybody in the film were people with whom I had worked in either Hair, Superstar, Tommy, or Sgt. Pepper and Altman, greatest guy in the world, the biggest collaborator, working with people – just an incredible human being. But again, it was an opportunity that just fell into place, and there was no way that I was gonna say no to that. We collaborated on all those songs, and I’m really proud of it. And it was released, it was in that period of time between when Altman was having a monster film and a few that people weren’t that interested in… Fox released it and they were going through some horrendous corporate changes at the time so it didn’t get promotion, but I’m really proud of that film. We had a great time, but it didn’t do that multi-billion box office like they hoped that it would.
SPAZ: What’s next for Ted Neeley?
TED: Well, it looks like I may be living in Rome. Massimo Piparo, who is the producer/director here is actually celebrating his 20th year of doing Superstar sequentially year-by-year and he had invited me to come many times over that 20 year period. Each time he was putting it on, I was doing another project in America that I couldn’t get away. The most difficult of all of those was in 2000, he asked both Carl and myself to come and do it together. Carl was available. Again, I was not. This time he put it together, and he let me know almost two years in advance so I made sure that I was available. So, he is celebrating his 20th year on the 40th anniversary of the Superstar movie release, and the audiences are just going crazy. He said they normally do three maybe four weeks. Well, we’ve already passed that so he planned on initially eight to ten weeks here and then take a break and then do an eight to ten week tour of Italy in various cities. So that’s a possibility. Now that we’re here, they’ve already got us booked in October at a 15,000 seat arena. I may be here for a while. If I get a break in the schedule I will come back to America and we will continue doing screenings. Those are just remarkable.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD, DVD or record player?
TED: Are you familiar with Italian bands? There’s a band in Italy called Negrita, and they have been together for 20 years. They’re tremendously famous and successful in all of Europe, but specifically in Italy because that’s where they’re from. They are actually the band that’s playing the show with us and the lead singer, whose name is Bau, is playing the role of Pontius Pilate. So, we have not only the fans that have been Superstar fans for all these years, but now we also have Negrita’s fans who are coming to see the show. I’ve done so many interviews and so many rehearsals I haven’t had time to do what I normally do which would be to kick back and listen to music. I went for two interviews two days ago at the Vatican. Can you believe that? Last week they canonized two Popes. There’s only been one other time in the history of the Catholic religion where two Popes were canonized and became saints. The streets of Rome, it’s like New York City, Times Square, on New Year’s Eve, you know? We come to the theater and we have a 9:00 p.m. show – the canonization happened around midday and then people came to see our show and they stayed afterwards to talk to me and it was the most magnificent day in our lives.
SPAZ: Your role in Jesus Christ Superstar is the gift that keeps on giving.
TED: It’s just absolutely incredible. So, I’m so honored to be able to say these things to you. It’s not me going, “Hey, look what I’ve done…” It’s always been a surprise from the first time the film came out. It’s just something about what Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote in those lyrics and those melodies that touches everybody’s heart. They feel that their spirituality is being lifted when they listen to the songs and watch the movie.
Thanks to Ted Neeley