When legends were still with us and rock ‘n’ roll was in its prime, a teenage Ian Gillan entered the spotlight with a strong voice and an unwavering desire to succeed. Deep Purple was on the verge of superstardom in 1969. An unforeseen rivalry started to develop as the stage lights went down and the first chords echoed through the room; this rivalry would ultimately lead the band to new heights.
When Deep Purple first started out, Gillan was surrounded by extraordinary talent. John Gustafson, a vocalist among these talented musicians, inspired Gillan to improve his own performance. However, Ritchie Blackmore was the one to give the challenge that would go down in history. Blackmore, a maestro of the guitar and stagecraft, worked to build a dynamic tension that would drive the band forward and ensure that they gave it their best each and every performance.
So what did Ritchie Blackmore say to Ian Gillan when he first joined Deep Purple as a friendly threat? According to Gillan, Blackmore made his challenge at one of their first meetings, as he described in an exclusive 1975 phone interview with Steven Rosen that was eventually printed in Rock Chronicles. He recalled the healthy rivalry that developed between him and his bandmates, particularly the mysterious Blackmore.
Ritchie jokingly exhorted Gillan to boost the ante as he stated his goal to take the spotlight each night with a gleam in his eye and a naughty grin. The scenario was thus set for a nightly struggle of musical expertise, with each performer pushing the other toward greatness and the band itself emerging as the final victor. Deep Purple found success thanks to Gillan’s strong sense of talent and unwavering commitment to surrounding himself with outstanding musicians.
According to Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore is:
“Oh, yeah, John Gustafson, he’s a fantastic singer. Really good. And I’m glad he’s there because as soon as he walked into the studio for the first time, I immediately felt myself sort of pulling another 10 points on what I was singing, sort of pushing me ahead. I like working with people who are going to push me because I get a lot of energy. An example is Ritchie.
When he played onstage, Ritchie tried to blast everyone off the stage. It’s a kind of competition. One of the things Ritchie said to me when I joined Deep Purple was, ‘You’ve got to bear this in mind. I don’t mean it badly, but I’m going to try and blow you off the stage every night.’ I said, ‘All right. Great.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I’m going to try and do the same to you.’ He said, ‘Yeah, great. That way, we’ll have a good band.'”
He added, “I’ve always picked very carefully the people I work with. I’d rather be unsuccessful and happy than successful and playing with a bunch of twerps. So this is how it is. Now when Johnny walks in, and I think, ‘Oh, he can sing really well,’ I’ve really got to sing extra well to satisfy my conscious. It’s just a funny little game I play.”
For Ian, success was secondary to pleasure and artistic fulfillment. When performers like Gustafson and Blackmore took the stage, Gillan felt pushed to perform at a higher level because of an inner drive that helped create one of rock’s most enduring bands. Deep Purple left an enduring imprint on rock history as the echoes of their passionate concerts resonated through time, serving as a monument to the strength of friendly competition. The band’s ferocious chemistry and commitment to their art produced timeless tunes that continue to enthrall admirers of all ages.
The success of the band was largely due to Ian Gillan’s concept of surrounding himself with top talent and encouraging each other to perform at their highest levels, and his “funny little game” turned out to be a key component in their success formula.