Glenn Hughes’ rock and roll salvation

British rock veteran of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath survived years of personal demons to emerge as a pied piper.

Glenn Hughes 370 (photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Glenn Hughes 370
(photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
If Broadway was staging The Glenn Hughes Story, it would surely pull out all the rock & roll clichés. An immensely talented British vocalist and bass player would reach mid-1970s heights with rockers like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath before seeing his career and nearly his life slip away due to drug and alcohol addiction that lasted for two decades. Then, a religion-induced return to clarity and health would lead to a career resurgence including new-found acclaim and respect, as well as collaborations with a next-generation army of musical admirers ranging from members of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to Joe Bonamasso and Jason Bonham.
Too corny even for Broadway, you say? Nobody would buy the unlikely happy outcome? Then welcome to Glenn Hughes’s battered (but still-standing) life, where fairy tales do come true in the form of a second chance. After serving as bassist and vocalist in the third incarnation of Purple and as a temporary, post- Ozzy Osbourne fill-in for Sabbath, the 60-year-old native of northern England is enjoying newfound credibility as an elder rock statesman, both in a thriving solo career and as the engine behind the Black Country Communion, the all-star band featuring guitar virtuoso Bonamassa, rock pedigree drummer Bonham and ex- Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian.
“I’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years, and I’m still doing it,” said the amiable Hughes during a phone conversation from his home in West Hollywood.
“I’m lucky to be able to play and share my life with people who are my good friends. The music world here is a small clique of people that like to hang out together, have dinner parties and socialize with our wives – Joe [Bonamassa] will tell you the same – we only want to play with people we love.”
Like most people who have gone off the deep end and returned to proclaim themselves “born again,” Hughes exudes a zest and optimistic appreciation for life and a heightened sense of self-awareness when recalling his troubled past. But before the dark days set in, there was only potential and a golden road ahead for the gifted musician.
“I remember at around age 11 or 12 seeing The Beatles and The Stones for the first time on television, and later The Kinks and The Who,” he said. “I had never been caught up in the Elvis years, but even as a young lad, I knew that this new kind of rock & roll was something I was interested in.”
Hughes, who had played trombone in his school orchestra and later began to study piano and learn to read music says he found his calling when he picked up a guitar and began to teach himself Beatles songs. In tandem, he also became enamored with the soul and R&B music coming out of Detroit, Memphis, which greatly affected his burgeoning vocal ability and his bass-playing skills, the instrument he eventually settled on.
“When I was really getting into guitar playing, I was greatly influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, those two giants, but at some point, when my girlfriend’s brother began to run a discotheque in my hometown, he’d be playing songs by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Al Green, and I really started listening to the voice and the grooves. I never set out to become a lead singer, just like I was never a bass player at the start.”
THAT MIXTURE of rock and soul informed the music of his first successful band, the funk power trio Trapeze, whose early ‘70s albums included Medusa, and You Are The Music... We’re Just The Band. The band toured the US with The Moody Blues in 1970 and over the course of the next three years gained an underground following there.
“We were an album band, like Led Zeppelin, and we were able to fill up 4,000- to 5,000-seat halls a night without a hit single,” said Hughes, who sang lead and played bass with Trapeze. “We were starting to have a lot of success at universities across the US.”
Then a fateful curve ball was thrown when Hughes was asked to join Deep Purple, whose lead singer, Ian Gillan, and bass player, Roger Glover, had just quit.
“I was very apprehensive, because they wanted me to play bass, not to sing lead, and at this point, in 1973, I was really interested in focusing on my voice,” he said. But at his audition, the band also brought in a candidate for vocals, David Coverdale, and the two sat at a piano and on the spot wrote a song that highlighted them singing in tandem. The combination of their voices convinced Hughes to join Purple.
“It was a huge opportunity to share vocals with David, and quite unique in rock history. Not many bands, aside from The Beatles, had two lead vocalists,” he said.
The Coverdale/Hughes edition of Purple released Burn in 1974 that stood with their best work, and headlined the massive California Jam the same year. The party lasted until 1976 when the group broke up temporarily and Hughes simultaneously launched a solo career and began an ongoing hobby of collaborating with as many musicians as possible. He even joined Black Sabbath and his old friend guitarist Tony Iommi to record Seventh Star following the departure of Ozzy Osbourne.
But a major obstacle to Hughes attaining any enduring musical and commercial success stemmed from the fact that the party didn’t really end, it was just beginning. A health-conscious disciple early in his career, Hughes had developed a debilitating drug and alcohol problem during his days with Deep Purple that intensified in the ensuing years.
“In the 1970s hippie movement, people were sharing love, and sharing drugs,” he said. “For a long time I looked down on drugs and didn’t like alcohol because I didn’t want my perception of life to be impaired. But there became a point that people were handing me drugs, putting them in my pockets, in my hotel room, and I very accidentally became addicted to cocaine.”
“I became well-known in musical circles, along with people like Keith Richards, as a drug addict. It was so uncomfortable and shameful but I couldn’t stop. I kept telling myself, ‘Ok, when I’m 30... Ok, when I’m 35.’ Lo and behold, I was 40 when I did finally did stop – I became very ill and I knew I was going to die. I didn’t get sober for anyone but myself – I couldn’t do it for my family my band or my girlfriend. I couldn’t stand the life I was living and the darkness I was living in. But no human power could get me sober, only the higher power I call God – that’s how I got clean and sober, I couldn’t do it alone.”
SINCE HIS recovery 20 years ago, Hughes has released a slew of albums, some in collaboration with longtime friend Iommi and others, like 2005’s Soul Mover, the next year’s Music for the Divine, which featured Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante, and 2008’s First Underground Nuclear Kitchen.
But one of the high points of Hughes’ career was yet to come – the supergroup Black Country Communion, that grew out of mutual admiration between the singer and blues guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa.
“I met Joseph five years ago at a performance at an instrument trade show in LA, and we sort of became friends. We spoke about doing some music together, and started to get together once every three or four months in Burbank at his studio or at my home,” said Hughes.
“At first, we didn’t know what kind of music would emerge, whether it would be Americana, or Memphis or Muscle Shoals, but the more we played, the louder we got, and the amps got bigger, and we realized we were going to make rock music.”
Bonamassa invited Hughes to join him onstage during a show at the House of Blues in Hollywood in 2009, and the collaboration provided enough sparks to prompt Bonamassa’s producer Kevin Shirley to suggest they form a band.
“He said I was the first artist who took Joe out of his comfort zone and engaged him onstage as well,” said Hughes. “That evening, when we were putting the guitars back in the case, we realized we had something special. Six weeks later we were in the studio recording.”
Shirlely also suggested keyboardist Sherinian and drummer Bonham to fill out the quartet, an idea that delighted Hughes.
“Ive known Jason since he was two years old sitting on my lap in his father’s home. I was one of his father’s [Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham] best friends, and Jason has always been part of my family,” said Hughes, adding that he’s also been friends with Sherinian for 20 years.
Black Country Communion has released two wellreceived albums over the past two years, and are currently recording their third, all focusing on the early 1970s rowdy blues rock that is Hughes’ forte.
“I write with a specific sense of what is the proper passage of play for the band, which really sounds good focused in that early 1970s field. All of our influences come together – my black American soul, Joe’s black American blues, Jason’s Zeppelin groove and Derek’s progressive rock,” said Hughes.
In addition to the Communion, Hughes found the time to write an autobiography published last year, and to also join the Rock & Roll Allstars, a touring supergroup featuring, among others, Gene Simmons, ex- Guns & Roses members and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot. But his first love is The Glenn Hughes Band, which will be coming to Israel next month for a show at The Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on July 9.
Featuring Hughes and a trio of young, spunky Scandinavian musicians on guitar, drums and keyboards, the band delves into every aspect of Hughes’ back catalogue – from Trapeze to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, his solo work and Black Country Communion.
“I want to give my audience for my first time in Israel a real sense of the history of my music,” he said. “It’s important to paint a clear picture of my career.”
If this was a Broadway show, now would be the time break into a reprise of the overture, consisting of Hughes’ musical highlights. And even the cynics in the audience would probably be clapping along.