By Ken Zurski
As rock n roll trivia goes this one is divine…
It begins when a rock singer named Ian Gillan joined an emerging progressive music group called Deep Purple. Gillan, who to this point was a journeyman vocalist for other bands, had no idea where his rock swagger might take him.
To the very top it would seem.
It was the summer of 1969 and Deep Purple had a hit with the trippy “Hush.” While the single’s success was welcoming, the band members were looking to add a harder edge to their sound and in turn find a more permanent lead singer. Gillan’s vocal range fit right in. The English-born Gillan had fronted a few groups, wrote some songs, but none failed to ignite. The Deep Purple gig was a godsend…literally. That’s because also paying attention to the band’s progress were a gaggle of theater producers who were looking to put on a musical based on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They were searching for a singer with a strong vocal range who could handle the demands of the rock tinged, almost heavy metal like passages, in the score. If all went as planned, an album would likely be followed by a theatrical version, and possibly a movie.
The musical’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously attended a Deep Purple concert (without Gillan) and was unimpressed. Once Gillan was on board, however, Webber gave the band’s manager another call. “The moment I heard Ian’s primal scream was the moment I found my Jesus,” Webber would later remark in his 2018 memoir, Unmasked.
Gillan recorded the album under the watchful ear of Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. His version of “Gethsemane” was a highlight for Webber who called it “extraordinary.”
As a concept album and rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a big hit. Gillan was slated for an arena tour and ultimately considered to reprise his studio role on Broadway, but rock n roll intervened. His commitment to Deep Purple came first and in 1973 in casting for the movie version, Gillan who was top on the director’s list, refused the role due to salary demands and conflicts with the band’s touring schedule. Jeff Fenholt eventually took on the role of Jesus for the arena tour and Ted Neeley in the movie. Unlike some of the other singers on the original album, including stage and movie star Yvonne Elliman as “Mary Magdalene,” Gillan would never reprise the role of “Jesus.”
Gillan likely had no regrets. After a successful stint with the band including several radio singles like “Smoke on the Water” and “Woman from Tokyo,” Gillan left Deep Purple in 1973, later fronted Black Sabbath for spell and eventually returned to Deep Purple in the 90’s.