Ian Gillan faced an early decision between Deep Purple and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’: ‘The band I always dreamed of playing with’

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The core members of Deep Purple first saw Ian Gillan in 1969 as part of a precursor group called Episode Six with Roger Glover. Within a month or so, they had both joined Ritchie Blackmore and Co.

This, of course, led to some high-water marks for Deep Purple in the early 1970s — but also directly to a title role for Gillan in the original album recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, issued the following year. Seems lyricist Tim Rice was struck by one of the Gillan’s first major contributions to Deep Purple, the 10-plus minute anti-Vietnam song “Child in Time,” and sought him out.

At the top of his game, Ian Gillan nailed all of his vocals in a mere three hours. He was back on stage with Deep Purple later that very same night. Nothing to it, right?

But then Jesus Christ Superstar topped the Billboard charts in 1971, leading to another invite from Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber — this time, to participate in the stage and film versions of the rock opera. That would mean being gone for much more than three hours, of course, and it led to a protracted discussions about remuneration.

Gillan ultimately turned them down, but not before asking for £250,000 and demanding that all of Deep Purple be paid as well — since filming was going to keep the group off the road, according to Child in Time: The Life Story of the Singer from Deep Purple.

The producers, perhaps predictably, declined and the role of Jesus was re-cast. So much, as The Jerusalem Post memorably quipped, for trying to choose between “Smoke on the Water” and walking on water.

Ian Gillan simply returned to his band, just as he had after the initial sessions.

“I didn’t think about it for more than a half hour,” he told The Post. “Here I was, in Deep Purple, the band I always dreamed of playing with. I wasn’t going to jeopardize it for a run on the West End or 12 weeks on location filming the movie. I did go to meet [director] Norman Jewison, but it didn’t go farther than that. Asking the rest of the band to stop working for three months would have been a problem.”

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