A Quiet Explosion: Deep Purple’s ‘Hush’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #105)

More than 50 years after its creation, ‘Hush’ is a staple of bar-band playlists, ‘best of’ anthologies, and movie and TV soundtracks – and it damn well should be, because it’s so catchy. Who among us has not banged their head to its driving percussive beat, or joyously shouted along to a chorus of “na na-na na”? But as the past five decades have shown, ‘Hush’ is also a song that can flourish in many different types of interpretations and musical styles.

Joe South wrote ‘Hush’ in the mid-‘60s, but its origins may go as far back as a spiritual titled ‘Hush (Somebody’s Calling My Name)’, a version of which was recorded as early as 1923 and was widely performed and recorded. The lyrics of that ‘Hush’ include a refrain of “hush…hush…somebody’s calling my name”, resembling the structure of South’s song. In 1958 Bobby Darin recorded a song with the same title as the spiritual, and with a similar melody – but Darin’s version was definitely secular, with the calling coming from “the girl I’ve been searching for”.

Multiple influences ran throughout South’s music; one reviewer called him “the most important bridge between white country music and black blues and pop that we have”. He spent nearly ten years in Atlanta as a session musician, songwriter and producer before recording anything under his own name. He told an interviewer, “I could only make people listen by becoming a performer. I really couldn’t stand just cutting records and writing songs for other people. No one listened to what I wanted to say, and so I had to go out and do my own thing.”

The first artist to record ‘Hush’, in 1967, was South’s friend Billy Joe Royal, who had already had three US Top 40 hits produced and written by South. Royal attributed his and South’s shared success to their being based in Atlanta, where they could develop a contemporary sound that had “a touch of Nashville but not so much country and western”. ‘Hush’ fell just short of reaching the US Top 50, but the song got enough attention to be immediately covered by Somebody’s Image in Australia (a Top 15 hit there), by Kris Ife in the UK, and in French (as ‘Mal’) by Johnny Hallyday.

Around the same time, the British musicians who were to become Deep Purple were, in Mat Snow’s words, “serving apprenticeships aboard just about every passing pop bandwagon of the 1960s”. But along the way, each of them encountered ‘Hush’ in different settings. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore heard a version on German radio while he was playing clubs in Hamburg. Bassist Nick Simper recalled in 2019 that he, vocalist Rod Evans, organist Jon Lord, and drummer Ian Paice had “only heard [Ife’s and Royal’s versions] in backgrounds, like in a nightclub or a disco, but you’d hear it and think, oh, that’s a good tune.”

When Deep Purple was given a mere three days to record its debut album, ‘Hush’ was on the list of tracks the band laid out before entering the studio. But then a problem arose: none of them knew the entire song. Simper explained, “A friend of mine, Roddy Freeman, was the singer with Ronnie Smith’s band, and they did it on stage. He said, I can come around and teach you the song. So he brought his guitar around and wrote out the lyrics and chords, and said, this is how it goes. So we learnt the song off Rod Freeman without actually hearing the record.”

Another past musical experience inspired a key element of Deep Purple’s arrangement of ‘Hush’. When Simper and Lord were in the live band backing The Flowerpot Men, they were both awestruck by the performances of opening act Vanilla Fudge. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Simper marvelled. “It was like they were from another planet, the way they attacked [everything].” Lord was particularly taken with Mark Stein’s melodramatic organ playing. After ‘Hush’ was embellished with Lord’s extravagant Stein-inspired organ flourishes, said Simper, “we all felt that there was something a bit special about it.”

The members of Deep Purple wanted their melancholy version of the Beatles’ ‘Help!’ to be the first single from 1968’s Shades of Deep Purple. But the suits at their record label chose ‘Hush’ instead, which in some ways turned out rather well – ‘Hush’ became a Top 5 hit in the US and dominated the airwaves of America’s free-form FM radio stations, despite Royal’s version having been released barely a year earlier. Biographer Dave Thompson observed, “While Royal’s record twittered, Deep Purple emoted; while Royal whispered, Deep Purple roared.”

However, while ‘Hush’ and Shades of Deep Purple received some positive reviews in the UK  – in the International Times, Miles rhapsodized that “the bass and guitar lines on ‘Hush’ pulsate like the Jewel clusters of Tutankhamen” – neither the single nor the album made much of an impact. Simper writes on his blog, “We discovered that no shops carried our disc, and worse, they hadn’t even heard of it! EMI Records proved to be absolutely useless at promotion, and rumour had it that this was because their whole operation was concentrated on the new single from The Beatles.”

This created a very odd situation for Deep Purple, in which they were hugely popular around the world while being dismissed in their own country as arrogant, overblown and unoriginal. The demands of making two more albums in the same year, and pressure from their management to have a UK hit – even as another single, Neil Diamond’s ‘Kentucky Woman’, was a hit in the US – caused tensions within the band that have been well-documented elsewhere. Eventually, Simper and Evans were ousted, and Deep Purple went on to become, in Lester Bangs’ acerbic opinion, “opportunistic musical journeymen grinding out a product which was essentially the same for several albums”. (They did, however, re-record ‘Hush’ for its twentieth anniversary in ’88.)

A slew of cover versions of ‘Hush’ tumbled out in subsequent decades. Interestingly, and not unlike Deep Purple, ‘for many bands ‘Hush’ seemed to be a stepping stone on a musical path that eventually went in a very different direction. There were versions by The Senate (future members of The Average White Band), Quelli (future members of PFM), Love Affair (future solo artists Steve Ellis and Morgan Fisher), and Funky Junction (Thin Lizzy and friends, hired by a German producer for an entire “tribute to Deep Purple” album).  There were instrumental versions (Santo and Johnny, Woody Herman), disco/dance versions (Santa Esmerelda, Charles Cannon, Milli Vanilli), and versions in Dutch, Italian, and Slovak. Even novelty-masters Blue Swede got on board with a mashup that blended ‘Hush’ and Tommy James and the Shondells’ ‘I’m Alive’; at recent concerts, Deep Purple themselves have combined ‘Hush’ with the theme from ‘Peter Gunn’.

While the best-known later version of ‘Hush’ is likely Kula Shaker’s energetic ’97 rendition, another largely overlooked version deserves much more attention – Jimmy Somerville’s cover on his 2009 album Suddenly Last Summer. ‘Hush’ is usually performed with bombast and swagger that buries its lyrical theme: lamenting a lost lover and wanting them back. Somerville brings out that hidden dimension with his yearning, fragile vocal, supported by delicate piano and mandolin. That ‘Hush’ can work in such a radically different reinterpretation shows what a solid song it is.

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