Monday, July 16, 2012

The Late Great Jon Lord

Jon Lord, legendary rock keyboardist and founder of Deep Purple, died today at the age of 71. The cause was pulmonary embolism. He had been fighting pancreatic cancer since last yer.

Jon Lord was born 9 June 1941 in Leicester, Leicestershire. Starting at age five he studied classical music. As he grew older he began to be influenced by such legendary blues organists as Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, as well as such rock 'n' roll acts as Jerry Lee Lewis. Around 1960 Mr. Lord moved to London to attend drama school, but it would not be long before he would find himself in the world of music again. He joined the rhythm and blues band Red Bludd's Bluesicians (also known as The Don Wilson's Quartet) in the early Sixties. The Red Bludd's Bluesicians would break up in 1963, at which point former Bluesicians Jon Lord and guitarist Derek Griffiths would join The Artwoods, led by former Blues Incorporated vocalist Art Wood.

The Artwoods would be among the most respected English R&B bands to emerge in the Sixties, producing music to rival The Yardbirds, The Spencer Davis Group, and The Birds (Art Wood's younger brother Ron's band, not to be confused with American folk rock group The Byrds). Unfortunately, they would see little in the way of commercial success. Their first single, a cover of the Leadbelly song "Sweet Mary," did not chart. The Artwoods would release five more singles on Decca, none of which charted either. Sadly, their lone album, Art Gallery, and three EPs, saw little success as well. At the end of 1966 Decca dropped the band. The Artwoods signed a single record deal with Parlophone, which led to the single "What Shall I Do"/"In The Deep End," which did not go anywhere either. Finally, billing themselves as "St. Valentine's Day Massacre," they released the single "Brother Can You Spare A Dime"/"Al's Party" on the Fontana label. Despite producing some very fine records, The Artwoods saw little success and disbanded.

In the Sixties Jon Lord would also do a good deal of session work and fill in for musicians when needed. He apparently played piano and organ on some of The Kinks' early work (not all of which may have been released). In 1968 he toured with The Flower Pot Men, replacing their keyboardist (who was sick). He also did session work with the band Boz.

It was in 1967, in the wake of the break up of The Artwoods, that Jon Lord formed The Santa Barbara Machine Head. The band included Ron Wood, Art Wood's younger brother and former member of The Birds. The Santa Barbara Machine Head recorded only three songs ("Porcupine Juice", "Albert", "Rubber Monkey"), which were later released on Immediate Records on the compilation album Blues Anytime Vol. 3 in 1968.  It was in 1967 that Chris Curtis of The Searchers contacted London businessman Tony Edwards in hopes that he would manage a supergroup that Mr. Curtis had envisioned in which musicians would get on and off like a roundabout (that is, a merry-go-round). Edwards agreed to manage the band, along with partners John Coletta and Ron Hire. Jon Lord was the first musician recruited and then guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Chris Curtis would not remain with Roundabout, as the band was called, for long. It was Messrs. Lord and Blackmore who decided not to abandon the project, but to continue without Chris Curtis. It was Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore would recruit the remaining members of what would soon be called Deep Purple (named for Ritchie Blackmore's grandmother's favourite song).

It was in July 1968 in the United States and in September 1968 in the United Kingdom that Deep Purple's debut album, Shades of Deep Purple, was released. While the album did not perform well in the United Kingdom, it sold very well in the United States, where it peaked at #24 on the Billboard albums chart. The band's first single, a cover of Billy Joe Royal's "Hush," went to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the Canadian singles chart. Their second album, The Book of Taliesyn, also did well in the United States. Sadly, the band's cover of Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman" would only reach #38 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band's eponymous third album was released in the United States in June 1969 and in the United Kingdom in September 1969. Unfortunately, a delay in its release in the United States and a nearly total lack of promotion on the part of the label Tetragrammaton resulted in Deep Purple bombing on the charts--it did not even reach the top 100 of the Billboard albums chart. Internal tensions also began to build in Deep Purple at this time, to the point that Rod Evans (vocals) and Nick Simper (bass) were fired from the band. They were replaced by voaclist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover.

Deep Purple's fortunes improved considerably with their fourth album Deep Purple in Rock. The album marked a move from Deep Purple's progressive rock and psychedlia sound of earlier albums to more of a hard rock sound. It also proved to be their first hit album in the United Kingdom, making it all the way to #4 on the British albums chart. A single independent of the album in the United Kingdom, "Black Night" would go to #2  on the British singles chart. Deep Purple would see continued success with their next album, Fireball, which hit #1 on the British albums chart. It would be their next album, Machine Head, however, that would see Deep Purple not only have great success in the United Kingdom, but would see them return to having big success in the United States. Machine Head would be a pivotal album in that Deep Purple embraced the genre of heavy metal then becoming popular. With influences ranging from classical to blues, Machine Head was harder than anything the band had recorded. The album went to #1 on the British albums chart and #7 on the Billboard albums chart. The single, "Smoke on the Water," went to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #21 on the British singles chart.

Machine Head would be the last Deep Purple song to hit #1 on the British albums chart. Regardless, Deep Purple's remaining albums did very well both in the U.S. and the UK. Who Do We Think We Are, Burn, Stormbringer, and Come Taste the Band all went hit the top fifty of the Billboard albums chart and the top twenty of the British albums chart. Unfortunately, the band was probably living on borrowed time when original member and founder Ritchie Blackmore left in June of 1975. The band continued until 1976, when Jon Lord and fellow remaining original member drummer Ian Paice decided it was time for them to disband.

While Jon Lord was with Deep Purple, he also continued to compose orchestral pieces. His compositions for orchestras included Gemini Suite in 1972 and Sarabande in 1976. His first project after the break up of Deep Purple would be Paice, Ashton & Lord, a rhythm and blues, funk-soul, rock band featuring former Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and singer and keyboardist Tony Ashton. The band released one album, Malice in Wonderland. Unfortunately it would not be successful. The group broke up after Tony Ashton fell off a stage and broke his leg.

It was in 1978 that Jon Lord joined former Deep Purple vocalist David Coverdale's newly formed band Whitesnake. Whitesnake would have some early success in the United Kingdom, but very little in the United States until the release of the album Slide It In in 1984. During this period Jon Lord released two solo projects, Before I Forget in 1982 and the soundtrack to the television series Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady in 1984. He also guested on albums by George Harrison, David Gilmour, and Cozy Powell.  According to Jon Lord, his job in Whitesnake was to add little more than a "halo" to the band.

It was in 1984 that Jon Lord, Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, and Ian Paice reunited as Deep Purple. The band released a new album, Perfect Strangers which went to #17 in the U.S. and #5 in the UK. Between 1987 and 1998 the band would release five more albums, each of which would do fairly well. Unfortunately, the revival of Deep Purple would not be without its difficulties. Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Gillan would disagree on the direction of the band, resulting in Mr. Blackmore leaving in 1993. Guitarist Steve Morse was chosen as his replacement. In 2002 Jon Lord amicably left the band, announcing his retirement.

Jon Lord's retirement would be more active than that of most people. In 2002 he released the solo album Pictured Within. In 2002 he also composed Boom of the Tingling Strings, a piano concerto in four movements. He also performed with Australian blues group The Hoochie Coochie Men, recording two albums with them. In 2004 he released another solo album Beyond the Notes. In 2008 he composed the classical work Durham Concerto. In 2010 he released his final, original solo album To Notice Such Things.

It is difficult to access the importance of Jon Lord in the history of rock music. As the keyboardist of Deep Purple he was fundamental in the development of both progressive rock and heavy metal. He combined his classical training with influences from blues and early rock 'n' roll in a way that would prove important to both genres. Indeed, Jon Lord was among the greatest rock keyboardists of all time, quite possibly the greatest. While many of his contemporaries (Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) among them would turn to the Moog synthesiser, Jon Lord continued to rely primarily on the Hammond organ. Of course, it must be pointed out that Jon Lord could make a Hammond organ do things that other keyboardists could only dream about.

Of course, Jon Lord was also a composer as well as a keyboardist. With various other members of Deep Purple he composed some of the group's best songs: "April," "Fireball," "Smoke on the Water," "Space Truckin'," and others. He also composed several classical works that met with a good deal of popular success and critical acclaim. As both a keyboardist and a composer he made contributions to music that few others have. It must be pointed out that along with drummer Ian Paice, Jon Lord was a constant in Deep Purple. Other members might come and go, but until his retirement in 2002, Jon Lord was always a part of his band. Indeed, it seems quite possible that had it not been for Jon Lord's talent as a keyboardist, his skill as a composer, and his willingness to experiment, Deep Purple might not be the legendary band they are today.

I must confess that I always was a huge fan of Jon Lord. I do not even remember the first time I ever heard Deep Purple; they have simply always been a part of my life. A large part of the lure of Deep Purple for me was Jon Lord's keyboard work. The band had rose in an era known for an emphasis on the Hammond organ (just look at Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly), but Jon Lord's playing not only stood out from the pack, it also held up over time. As a youth in the Eighties I could listen to old Deep Purple songs and they would not sound dated at all. It is an incredible achievement for any artist to create works that are essentially timeless, and that is precisely what Jon Lord did. I very seriously doubt there will be a keyboardist like him ever again.

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