Sir Tim Rice is one of our best-known lyricists and next week he joins Clare Teal on stage in Harrogate. He talks to Chris Bond about his life in music.
WHEN we think of the great songwriting partnerships of the 20th-century names like
Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David and Jagger and Richards readily trip off the tongue.
But any serious study of the alchemy of songwriting would be incomplete without examining the work of Sir Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, there’s no denying that songs like Any Dream Will Do, Superstar, and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, have become ingrained in our popular culture.
While Lloyd Webber was the virtuoso composer, Rice was the man whose lyrics made the songs sing and together they produced a string of hits including Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita that made them the biggest names in musical theatre.
During the past 40 years Rice has won just about every musical award going and next Friday he’s joining Yorkshire-born jazz singer Clare Teal and the BBC Radio Leeds Big Band for a showbiz evening at Harrogate’s Royal Hall. “I’m an enormous fan of Clare’s and she’s also a good friend and she invited me to join her on stage. I’ll say a few words and I’ll do one number. I’m not a great singer but I might do an Elvis song, or something like that,” Rice says, speaking from his London office.
Although he’s become synonymous with musicals, it was pop music that inspired him as a youngster. “I was part of that generation that grew up before The Beatles came along and as a kid I was into Cliff Richard, The Shadows and Elvis. I was in a pop group at school and I remember the first record I bought was Tommy Steele’s Singing the Blues.”
Back in the early 1960s the pop industry was still in its infancy and although he harboured aspirations of a career in music he started his working life in the legal profession. “I dabbled with being a solicitor but I didn’t find it interesting, what I really wanted to do was to write pop songs,” he says.
He left to become a management trainee working for the A&R department at EMI records and spent all his spare time writing songs on the side. Then in 1965, after numerous knockbacks, one of his efforts, That’s My Story, became his first record. “These days anyone can make a CD, but back then it was a big deal because it meant I now at least had my foot on the bottom of the ladder.”
This boosted his chances of getting noticed by music agents and publishers and so it proved. Desmond Elliott, head of Arlington Books at the time, knew a young musician called Andrew Lloyd Webber who was looking for a lyricist to work with and he suggested that Rice get in touch with him. The only problem was one of them was interested in pop music and the other in musicals.
“I wasn’t in his league, although I wasn’t trying to be,” says Rice. “He wrote music for the theatre and had ambitions to be the next Richard Rodgers whereas I was interested in pop songs and didn’t have any theatrical knowledge, apart from my parents’ collection of LPs.”
Despite their differing influences they were young, eager to succeed and talented and spurred each other on. Their first collaboration was a musical about the life of Victorian philanthropist Dr Barnardo, called The Likes Of Us. “It had some nice tunes and it was quite entertaining but it wasn’t a great show and it never really got off the ground,” says Rice.
Undeterred they started work on a new musical called Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Although it later became very popular he says it wasn’t initially a big success. “It became a hit in schools, but the big thing for us was it got us noticed by more high-powered agents and publishers.”
Among those who saw potential in this young songwriting team was entrepreneur Sefton Myers and his business partner David Land who handed them a three-year songwriting contract. “We weren’t making much money at the time but this allowed me to give up my job and we were being paid just to exist.”
Free from the shackles of a nine-to-five job they were able to concentrate on their songwriting and their next creation, Jesus Christ Superstar, secured their place in musical theatre history.
By now they had a record deal and Jesus Christ Superstar first started out as a concept album before making its Broadway debut in 1971.
“It was billed as a rock opera and it wouldn’t have been half as bold and daring if it had been done as a show, in fact I think it would have been pretty naff. So I’m grateful to all the producers who turned us down,” he says.
“It was quite extraordinary, it became a hit in the United States but it didn’t do really well in England straight away. But we knew we were up and running.”
In 1976, they followed up this success with another smash hit, Evita, inspired by the life of Eva Peron. “With any musical you need a good story and I think this was his [Lloyd Webber’s] best work in terms of sheer melody and contrast.”
But did their growing success create more pressure to keep coming up with the goods? “I wouldn’t say we felt any particular pressure. I think the pressure would have been if we’d had a flop and then it would have been, ‘oh my God, now what?’”
It was in the early 80s that he and Lloyd Webber went their separate ways, though they have worked together subsequently. Rice says their creative partnership had run its course. “Andrew wanted to do Cats which didn’t need any lyrics and I didn’t have another idea. The first three shows we’d done were my ideas and by the time I came up with a project he was preoccupied with Cats. But this was fine because it meant I got to work with the Abba boys and later Alan Menken, who’s one of my favourite composers,” he says.
“I think with any great creative partnership you have about 10 years together. We had 10 great years and then Andrew had 10 more great years with Cameron Mackintosh and I had great success with Disney. But if you take Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Lennon and McCartney and The Everly Brothers, or Abba, they all had around 10 years together. There are some exceptions like the Bee Gees, but they were family.”
As well as writing with Lloyd Webber, Rice has worked with some of the biggest names in music including Elton John, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus from Abba, and Ennio Morricone. This has meant working in different ways.
“Most of the time the tune is already written, but with Elton he likes to have the lyrics first so I would write with no idea what the tune sounded like,” he says. But there are pros and cons to this.
“If you already have the tune then you’ve got to stick to it, you can’t just change the pattern if you can’t find the right rhyme.”
People can be a bit sniffy about musicals but Rice believes some of the most memorable songs from the shows would probably not have been as popular if they’d just been stand alone records. “The Lion King has some good songs but what propelled them was being part of a fantastic film. Jesus Christ Superstar had good songs but it wouldn’t have been a hit on its own, it needed to be part of a good show. It’s the same with Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, I don’t think that would have been quite the same without being part of a show.”
Rice has been writing lyrics for almost half century and his latest project is a musical version of From Here To Eternity which makes its West End premiere in the autumn. So does it get more difficult to keep coming up with fresh ideas?
“I don’t think it gets harder, you worry about repeating yourself and you think ‘have I done this before?’ But if it’s a good project then that inspires me. With From Here to Eternity I wrote four lyrics in a week and I’ve not done that for a long time.”
Although he’s proud of his work he says he tends not to listen to his own songs. “If I hear something on the radio I’ll listen to it and think ‘a lot of people are hearing this’, or I might play a new song to some friends, but I don’t sit down and play all my songs for fun.”
Rice could, by rights, simply sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, but at the age of 68 he still enjoys the collaborative process. “I’ve been very lucky and I’ve worked with some great people.”
So is there anyone else he still has a yearning to work with?
“I’m a huge fan of the Bee Gees so to write something with Barry Gibb would be fantastic. The problem is he writes such great lyrics and great tunes he probably doesn’t need me,” he says, laughing.
Clare Teal: An Evening with Sir Tim Rice and the BBC Radio Leeds Big Band, Royal Hall, Harrogate, July 12. For tickets call the box office on 01423 562303.