David Coverdale is best known as the frontman of Whitesnake. Chris Bond talks to the veteran rock star on the eve of a new UK tour.
SOME rock stars flicker brightly, but briefly, while others fade away. But there are some, too, who stay the course and keep on making music, like the evergreen David Coverdale.
The singer rose to fame in the 1970s taking over as frontman of Deep Purple from Ian Gillan, since when he’s enjoyed global success with his rock band Whitesnake and collaborated with the great Jimmy Page.
Now in his 60s, Coverdale is back on the road with Whitesnake who are touring with fellow rockers Journey and Thunder – the first time all three have played together in the UK – bringing their brand of big hair and big rock to Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena a week on Monday.
“We did a tour with Def Leppard a few years ago and I’ve been wanting to do something similar. So to get to play with two great bands like this is fantastic and if we have half as much fun as we did with Def Leppard, then it will be a night to remember,” says Coverdale, speaking from his home in Nevada overlooking Lake Tahoe.
This latest tour coincides with a couple of milestones for the singer. For as well as being 35 years since Whitesnake’s first UK gig, it’s also 40 years since he joined Deep Purple, changing his life forever. “This is my 40th year as a professional musician and I’m still here so I must be doing something right,” he says.
Coverdale may look every inch the tousle-haired international rock star, but it’s a far cry from his humble beginnings playing working men’s clubs in the north of England. He grew up in a working class family in Saltburn by the Sea, in North Yorkshire, during the 1950s.
“We lived in a two-up two-down with an outside toilet and life was a struggle. The country was still recovering from the Second World War, when the introduction of bananas was a cause for celebration,” he says.
He got into music through his older sister. “She was 14 and I was about six, or seven, and we spent our pocket money on music. I was listening to Elvis Presley and Little Richard, who was a huge vocal influence on me, although I didn’t realise at the time.”
His interest in singing grew and by the time he was a teenager he was already in a band. “I had a strong voice from early on and I used to get called ‘the northern bellow,’” he says, laughing.
He played in a series of local bands including The Government, performing at local dinner dances as well as enjoying a stint as the resident band at the Redcar Jazz Club. “Two of the guys in the band had record stores so we got to hear all the hip new music from America, bands like Moby Grape,” he says. “I spent my apprenticeship playing in clubs in the north of England and I wouldn’t have gone on to do what I did if I hadn’t had those experiences.”
When his big break finally came it was huge. “A guy came into the shop where I worked in Redcar and he recognised me from singing in local bands. I had a copy of Melody Maker open on a page with a picture of Jon Lord and an article saying they still hadn’t found a new singer and were now considering unknowns, and this guy said dismissively that I should apply for the job.”
Undeterred he contacted the band and set up an audition on the back of which he was offered the job. He was now, at the tender age of just 22, the lead singer of one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Almost overnight he had gone from obscurity to being part of rock music aristocracy. “Along with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple ruled. You had customized aircraft and suddenly I went from playing to 150 people in Stillington Working Men’s Club to packed crowds at places like Madison Square Gardens. But believe me that was a walk in the park compared to playing to a room full of hardcore miners in Northumberland.”
He was a member of Deep Purple during a prolific period for the band when they produced some of their best known work including Burn and Stormbringer, both released in 1974. But within a couple of years the cracks were beginning to appear.
“I was in one of the biggest bands in the world and I will always be grateful for the guys giving me that opportunity. But it was like being stuck on an express train and it reached the point where I wanted to get off,” he says.
He left the band in 1976 and embarked on a solo career before forming Whitesnake who went on to become an integral part of the rock scene during the 80s, reaching a peak with their eponymous 1987 album, featuring Here I Go Again and Is This Love.
The band’s fame even reached the unlikeliest of places. “A friend of mine was back-packing in the jungle in Borneo and he was staying with a tribe and was invited into the chief’s hut.
“He called me from a satellite phone saying ‘you won’t believe this, but there’s a poster of you on the wall behind me.’”
Despite such global fame Coverdale insists he isn’t interested in celebrity culture. “I found the whole celebrity thing uncomfortable shoes to wear.
“I tried to embrace it when I was living in LA, but charging down Sunset [Boulevard] being chased like The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night is all right once, but it gets tiresome.”
These days he combines music with a stable family life. “I’m a lucky man, I have a beautiful wife and son and I get to live by a mountain overlooking Lake Tahoe and at 61 I still get to be the frontman of one of the world’s biggest rock bands. That’s not too shabby.”
Whitesnake, Journey, plus special guests Thunder, play Sheffield Motorpoint Arena on May 20.
The life of a rock n roll star
David Coverdale was born in Saltburn by the Sea in September, 1951.
He learnt his trade playing with local bands in northern pubs and clubs during the 60s.
His big break came when he replaced outgoing band member Ian Gillan as frontman of Deep Purple in 1973.
After quitting the band in 1976 he embarked on a solo career before setting up Whitesnake a short time later.
The band’s biggest album to date was their 1987 self-titled record which spawned two of their biggest hits, Here I Go Again and Is This Love.