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Tim Rice: a hard graft to success

When one thinks of Tim Rice, one doesn’t exactly picture a man who has had a tremendous struggle to make it to the top.

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

When one thinks of Tim Rice, one doesn’t exactly picture a man who has had a tremendous struggle to make it to the top.

When one thinks of Tim Rice, one doesn’t exactly picture a man who has had a tremendous struggle to make it to the top. He met Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1965, wrote several world-conquering hit musicals with him, and later moved on to Disney where he got a slice of the action on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, among others. Unlike his former colleague, who has so often appeared driven and troubled, Rice has always given every impression of enjoying life greatly.

But it wasn’t always plain sailing as a fascinating CD makes clear. That’s My Story: Words and Music by Tim Rice and Friends chronicles his early years as a young lyricist and record producer before the hits happened, when almost everything he had a hand in turned out to be a flop. Rice describes the period with wry good humour in his engaging sleeve notes. ‘For more than four years, from 1965 to 1969, my musical efforts whether as songwriter, record producer or even performer, were markedly unsuccessful — even after the first public performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in March 1968.’

His songwriting career began in earnest when he met Andrew Lloyd Webber in March 1965 and they embarked on their first stage musical together based on the life of the Victorian philanthropist Dr Thomas Barnardo, called The Likes of Us, and written in the style of Lionel Bart’s big hit, Oliver!

‘In our first three years together it was our principal concern,’ says Rice, but the score never saw the light of day until 2005, when he and Lloyd Webber marked the 40th anniversary of their first collaboration with a one-off performance of it at Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, narrated by Stephen Fry. ‘Our first recording of Joseph was not issued until early in 1969 and we made no significant commercial impact with it until after the release of Jesus Christ Superstar as an album in 1970.’

After that, of course, the hits just kept on coming, but it is fascinating to listen to these early works aimed at the pop charts in which Rice often served as both producer and lyricist, and sometimes worked alongside Lloyd Webber as composer. Lloyd Webber, Rice admits, cheerfully plundered such classical sources as Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ and Dvorak’s New World Symphony for his tunes.

Though none of the singles made the charts, many deserved to. There’s nothing here to match the Beatles, the Stones or the Kinks in their prime but many of the songs strike me as being just as good as records that did make a dent in the hit parade.

Indeed, listening to That’s My Story is like listening to an alternative history of pop. Many of the familiar styles of the Swinging Sixties are here, from sentimental ballads to daffy psychedelia, and from girl ballads to folk-pop, novelty numbers and even a song for which Rice wrote the lyrics in French. But you probably won’t have heard any of them before. I know I hadn’t.

Perhaps in some parallel universe the delightful folky vocalist Ross Hannaman (the Evening Standard’s ‘Face of the Year’ in 1968) is as famous as Dusty Springfield, and the Nightshift were as successful as the Hollies. Here on earth, however, they stiffed.

There are a few familiar names. Rice and Lloyd Webber wrote a number for Sacha Distel’s first English album, Believe Me I Will, that’s included in this collection, while Murray Head, featured here on a spiky, misogynistic number called ‘You Bore Me’, later scored hits with Rice with both ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘One Night in Bangkok’ from Chess.

On the title number of this collection, ‘That’s My Story’, Rice proves that as well as writing lyrics, he was also capable of composing a cracking pop single and he is also the composer of a rather good instrumental on the album, performed by a soul-funk orchestra called the Power Pack.

It has to be said that there are also some stinkers here. Tales of Justine are the worst offenders with a terrible piece of hippie dippy silliness from 1967 in which the lead singer celebrates his pet sunflower called Albert in terms that contrive to be both mawkish and moronic. To be fair to Rice he only produced this one (he had stints working for both EMI and the producer and musician Norrie Paramor) and cannot be held responsible for the dire lyrics. And Tales of Justine came good on the single’s flipside, ‘Monday Morning’, which approaches the status of a forgotten psychedelic classic.

This fascinating compilation is available from Amazon. It’s a wonderfully intriguing piece of pop history, and one that shows that Tim Rice’s success had its roots in hard graft and the ability to keep going through years of often undeserved failure. It may all look terribly easy to the outsider, but there were heartaches along the way.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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