In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Deep Purple” is one of those songs, like “Georgia On My Mind” or “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” that had been around forever before it became a #1 in the rock ‘n’ roll era. The pianist Peter DeRose wrote it as a sentimental instrumental ballad in 1933, and it became a massive 1939 hit for Larry Clinton And His Orchestra, with Bea Wain singing nicely poetic lyrics about an ex who only returns in dreams.
“Deep Purple” was the favorite song of both Babe Ruth and Ritchie Blackmore’s grandmother; the latter is the reason that Blackmore picked Deep Purple as the name of his great ’70s hard rock band. About a million jazz and standards types recorded the song, as did early rock-era performers like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the Dominoes.
Nino Tempo was a former child prodigy from Niagara Falls who’d performed in ’40s and ’50s movies and worked as a session musician. April Stevens was his sister. Together, they turned “Deep Purple” into a fleet-footed half-rockabilly ramble with harmonica honks and piano-clangs. In their hands, a sad and rapturous song becomes a jumpy, catchy little number, but it still keeps some of its dreaminess intact.
Tempo and Stevens’ vocals were the real selling point here. Tempo had a sort of high-lonesome warble, a bit like Hank Williams. But he’s handily upstaged by his sister, who, in the song’s best moment, speaks the lyrics in a sort of faraway throaty voice-over — a touch that the producers added after they heard her reminding her brother of what the lyrics were. Their version of the song isn’t some immortal pop-music groundbreaker, but it’s a smart and fresh take on a lovely old song.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the wild but gorgeous instrumental version of “Deep Purple” that Sun Ra recorded in 1953: