FRESNO, Calif. _ For decades, Ted Neeley's fans have begged him to release a Christmas album. He's never honored those requests.
Because Neeley, a very soft-spoken and humble man, has been so closely associated with the role of Jesus through the film and stage productions of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," he felt that a Christmas album "would be taking advantage of the circumstance of the birth of Jesus."
Now, in the middle of a global tour in association with the 40th anniversary of the movie, Neeley has decided to give the fans what they want, while maintaining his deep commitment not to do anything to hurt his connection to the production that has touched millions so deeply.
"I'm not Jesus. I'm a rock 'n' roll drummer from Texas. I don't want people to think that I'm trying to be some kind of false prophet or something. The fans have been so loyal that we really have become family. What I'm trying to do with this is a gift of some sort for Christmas."
He spent last week in Fresno, at Fast Traxx Digital Recording Studio, putting together the lion's share of a new album. It's a Christmas album in that it should be ready for digital downloading by the holiday, and it includes "O Holy Night."
But the album also features music that reflects Neeley's broad musical past, with selections from the rock opera "Tommy" and even a duet with his longtime friend, Carl Anderson, who died in 2004.
The reason the Ventura County, Calif., resident decided to record the album in Fresno is that the album producer and tour manager, Frank Munoz, has worked with the downtown recording studio and local musician before. It worked out they could schedule the studio time and musicians in connection with a screening of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Tower Theatre on Oct. 10.
More than 100 fans showed up to watch the film and hear Neeley talk.
Each tour stop includes the same reaction from fans. They want to tell Neeley how much the movie affected them and continues to affect generations of their family.
"They tell me that the movie helped them find their spiritual connection. I have had some people tell me that they have been going to church for years but sometimes have had a hard time understanding what the minister has to say. They say that they finally understand the message because the musical puts it in terms they can understand. It's the humanity of the story," Neeley says. "They can relate to it because it is the story of the last seven days in the life of Jesus as a man as told through his friends and peers."
Response to the 40th anniversary tour has been so big that tour dates continue to be added (a list can be found at neeleyontheroad.com). It's a repeat of what happened when a short tour of the stage production _ starring Neeley and Anderson _ was put together for the 20th anniversary. It was only scheduled to last a few months but ended up running five years.
One track on Neeley's new album will be recorded next month during an appearance in New Jersey that will include Yvonne Elliman, who portrayed Mary Magdalene in the film. Time was reserved at a local recording studio where Neeley and Elliman will sing the Joe Cocker / Jennifer Warnes tune "Up Where We Belong."
"Yvonne lives in Hawaii. We had originally planned to record the music tracks and my vocals and send them to her. But, I decided that I wanted to record with her," Neeley says.
Along with the tour, there's a possibility Neeley, 70, will return to the stage one more time to play the role that has defined his career. Some actors have become upset when associated with a role so closely. But Neeley continues to see his connection to "Superstar" as a blessing.
"I never thought about how long I would be connected to this role, I was just honored to be part of something that somebody wanted to see," Neeley says. "I didn't question of whether I would be stuck in a hole. It's not like I didn't want to do other things. But how many times do you get a chance in your lifetime to be a part of something and get rewarded spiritually so completely while you're doing it?"
(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)
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