Although rock and roll music has a fair smattering of high profile keyboard pummellers – Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis spring to mind – when you talk about legendary rock keyboardists, aside from Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, the field is not exactly overflowing (to murder a metaphor), and yet when he passed away in July of this year both Wakeman and Emerson were amongst the very first to pay tribute to possibly the most versatile man to get stuck behind a walloping great instrument – no whirling around the stage with the singer or guitarist for the keyboard player. Composer, pianist and the man responsible for reminding the world just what a fantastic instrument the Hammond Organ (with Leslie speaker) really is, Jonathan Douglas Lord was one of those very few legendary players.
Born in Leicester on 9 June 1941 Jon Lord studied classical piano from the age of five before tuning in to American blues organists like Jimmy Smith. His initial desire was to be an actor but he continued playing in nightclubs and as a session musician - credits included playing the keyboards on The Kinks ‘You Really Got Me’ - to earn a living before linking up with The Bill Ashton Combo, then Red Bludd's Bluesicians and The Artwoods appearing on the BBC's Saturday Club radio show and Ready Steady Go! The exotically monikered Santa Barbara Machine Head followed (featuring one Ronnie Wood on guitar) before a short stint in The Flower Pot Men where he met original Deep Purple bass guitarist Nick Simper.
Then in early 1967 Lord met session guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and, with Simper, singer, Rod Evans and drummer Ian Paice the band Roundabout were born although by 1968 this had become the first incarnation of Deep Purple and it was with this line-up that Lord's, often distorted, pioneering heavy Hammond C3 sound emerged. It’s generally held that Deep Purple didn’t fully hit their stride until Evans and Simper were replaced by Ian Gillan and Roger Glover but there is much to be said for all three early studio albums with debut Shades Of Deep Purple, put together in just three days, delivering hit single ‘Hush’, some fine Lord-ly flourishes on ‘I’m So Glad’ and some proto Purple MkII metal on ‘Mandrake Root’. Follow up The Book Of Taliesyn pushed even further into Vanilla Fudge territory with a spirited covers of Neil Diamond’s ‘Kentucky Woman’ and the Fabs ‘We Can Work It Out’. Their eponymously titled third studio outing in a year found the band melding early metal and proto prog on tracks like ‘The Painter’ and ‘Why Didn't Rosemary?’ Whilst ‘April’ a three-part suite with orchestral accompaniment showed exactly where Lord’s leanings lay, leanings that found even more expression on the live Concerto for Group and Orchestra (the first recording to feature Glover and Gillan) where his love of Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Mahler can be heard, and whilst the experiment is not wholly successful it is an admirable early attempt to fuse classical and rock music.
Deep Purple Mk II kicked off 1970 with one of the holy trinity of UK rock albums Deep Purple In Rock (the other two being Led Zeppelin II and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid) which, from its iconographic cover and the seven classic rockers contained therein propelled Deep Purple into the rock stratosphere with all time classic 'Child In Time' showcasing Lord and Blackmore’s skills to maximum effect (in fact Lord's solo on ‘Hard Lovin' Man’ remained his personal favourite among his Deep Purple studio performances). The equally fine Fireball and Machine Head would follow (plus terrific live album Made In Japan, which once again found Lord and Blackmore in fine fettle, just listen to the seismic racket and jazzy vamping Lord conjures up to kick off ‘Lazy’) as well as Lord’s second rock/classic crossover attempt Gemini Suite Live, before inter-band feuding more or less derailed Who Do We Think We Are and led to the departure of Gillan and Glover in 1973. 1974’s Burn (with David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes) would be the bands final hurrah before a long and convoluted string of leavings and re-joinings ensured things all went a bit Spinal Tap and the band split in 1976 leading to a low period in Lord’s career first forming the ill-fated Paice Ashton and Lord with Tony Ashton to record Malice in Wonderland before joining David Coverdale’s Whitesnake. However this period also allowed Lord time to release solo albums Before I Forget, film soundtrack Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady and the far more assured classical effort Sarabande with the Philharmonia Hungarica.
Deep Purple would reform in 1984, but never really reached the giddy musical heights of their early years and Lord retired from the band in 2002 and, aside from guesting on albums by George Harrison, David Gilmour and Cozy Powell and a short stint with Jimmy Barnes in the Hoochie Coochie Men releasing Live In The Basement, it would be for his work as a composer that Lord would be best remembered in his later years releasing several fine albums including Pictured Within, Beyond the Notes, Boom of the Tingling Strings, Disguises (Suite for String Orchestra), Durham Concerto and To Notice Such Things dedicated to the memory of his friend the writer John Mortimer. Found to be suffering from pancreatic cancer Jon Lord soldiered on with the studio version of his very first classic/rock crossover Concerto For Group And Orchestra okaying the final mixes before he died on 16 July 2012 at the London Clinic after suffering from a pulmonary embolism. The positive avalanche of tributes which poured in after his death all attested to both his remarkable musicianship and, unlike many in his particular field of endeavour, his being a thoroughly nice bloke.
The first studio recording of Jon Lord's groundbreaking meeting of rock and classical music, and the last thing Jon worked on, Concerto For Group And Orchestra (featuring Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson plus Joe Bonamassa and Steve Morse on guitars) is available now on Ear Music. More info on Jon and planned future memorial events go to jonlord.org