Most fans know that Whitesnake’s David Coverdale also fronted Deep Purple (“Smoke on the Water,” “Highway Star,” “Child in Time”) beginning in 1973, after their singer Ian Gillan left the band. Few, however, know about the first time Coverdale and Purple crossed paths, when he was singing in a band called The Government.
“I’d opened for Deep Purple at Bradford University [in 1969] just literally after Ian Gillan and Roger Glover had joined,” Coverdale said on the Rock & Roll High School with Pete Ganbarg podcast. “And Jon Lord, bless his heart … said, ‘I enjoyed your set immensely … Have you got a phone number?’”
Coverdale, to his embarrassment, admitted he did not. “My mom and dad never had a phone,” he said. “It was ‘pigeon post,’ you know, ‘Meet me at so and so.’
“I gave him my address and every day I woke up and ran downstairs, even before my cup of tea, to see if there was any mail from Jon Lord. His expression was, ‘In case this other guy [Gillan] doesn’t work out.’ Which, of course, sadly, he did.”
Fast-forward to 1973, when Gillan quit Purple and the band put an ad for a new singer in the British music paper Melody Maker. Coverdale, then 20 years old and working at a boutique in Redcar, on the northeast coast of England, saw the ad on his lunch break.
“And there was a picture of Jon Lord with a [caption] saying, ‘Deep Purple are still looking for a singer and are considering unknowns,’” Coverdale recalled.
The band required applicants to send a photo of themselves and a recording of them singing. Coverdale had the recording – a tape of him drunkenly singing Bill Withers and Joe Cocker tunes – but not the photo. He turned to the only person he knew who could help.
“I got a picture from my mother of me saluting as a boy scout,” he told Pete Garnbarg. “And she said, ‘You better make sure I get this back.’ And I wrote, ‘Dear Deep Purple, as you can see I am always prepared.’”
In spite of the photo (or perhaps because of it), Coverdale got an audition and was selected to be the new singer in Deep Purple on his 21st birthday, joining the group along with ex-Trapeze bassist and singer Glenn Hughes. Even after scoring his dream gig, though, the young man from Redcar still had some work to do.
“So David was overweight, he had a rather strange haircut, very weird clothes and a mustache that did him no justice whatsoever,” drummer Ian Paice told Classic Rock magazine.
“"Because Ian Gillan was regarded as such a beautiful man,” Coverdale said in Classic Rock, “they just wanted to make sure that I got this caterpillar shaved off my top lip … they needed to get me groomed up a little bit.”
“What we were looking for was the voice,” Paice noted. “Everything else we knew would sort of fix itself.”
You could say it “sort of” did. Coverdale and Hughes recorded three albums with Deep Purple, containing some of the group’s hardest-hitting and funkiest tracks. Here are a half-dozen of the best:
“Burn”: The title track from the new line-up’s 1974 debut was an instant classic, and a song both men play live to this day.
“Might Just Take Your Life”: The sinister swagger here is a thing to behold; “Might Just Take Your Life” was the first single from the Burn album.
“Mistreated”: This slow-rolling blues provides Coverdale with ample opportunity to wring out his heartache for the world to hear. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore wrote most of the music for “Mistreated” several years earlier, but the song only came alive with Coverdale’s lyrics and voice.
“Stormbringer”: The pulverizing groove of the leadoff track of the band’s second album of 1974 really does sound like a massive storm rolling in, from a high mountain to an unsuspecting valley below.
“Lady Luck”: Deep Purple started coming apart at the seams in 1975; Blackmore left the band, replaced by brilliant but troubled guitarist Tommy Bolin. The line-up’s only record, Come Taste the Band, had up-front elements of funk in addition to Purple’s patented hard rock. “Lady Luck” is a terrific distillation of this approach.
“Dealer”: Drugs would take down Deep Purple shortly after the tour for Come Taste the Band, and this track – a cautionary tale if ever there were one – seemed prescient in retrospect.