Jon Lord, the keyboardist whose heavy, distorted Hammond organ playing was a crucial element in the success of British hard rock pioneers Deep Purple, died in London on July 16, 2012 after suffering a pulmonary embolism. He had been fighting pancreatic cancer in recent years. Born in 1941, Lord was 71.
Along with drummer Ian Paice, classically trained Lord was the only member who served in every version of Deep Purple, prior to his retirement from the band in 2002. The band was formed in 1968, with the Mark I lineup of Lord, Paice, Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Rod Evans (vocals) and Nick Semper (bass).
This early version of the band had a hit with the Joe South cover “Hush” in 1968, but its psychedelic original songs didn’t really click with the public. By the time of the third-self titled album in 1969, Evans and Semper had left the band.
Deep Purple would carry on, forming the lineup that would achieve its greatest success with Ian Gillan on vocals and Roger Glover on bass. Later in 1969, this version, known as Mark II, would release a live album entitled Concerto for Group and Orchestra, a three-movement classical/rock hybrid composed by Lord now recognized as one of the first full-scale collaborations between a live band and an orchestra.
But it was the 1970 LP In Rock that saw Deep Purple finding its classic sound, a heavier rock style based around Blackmore’s guitar leads and Lord’s Hammond organ. Lord’s distorted sound was often mistaken for a second guitar, but it was integral to the band, and he played a prominent role in the writing of the band’s music.
Classic albums such as Fireball (1971) Machine Head (1972) and Who Do We Think We Are (1973) followed, yielding radio hits including “Smoke on the Water”, “Highway Star”, “Strange Kind of Woman” and “Woman from Tokyo.” Along with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Deep Purple was a pioneer of the burgeoning hard rock sound that eventually became known as heavy metal.
Deep Purple Mark II’s reign as hard rock chart-toppers was relatively short, as Gillan and Glover left the band in 1973, to be replaced by singer David Coverdale and bassist/singer Glenn Hughes.
This lineup, Mark III, made Burn and Stormbringer (both 1974)—albums that found the band veering towards a more R&B-tinged sound—before Blackmore left to form Rainbow with vocalist Ronnie James Dio.
With Tommy Bolin replacing Blackmore on guitar, Mark IV cranked out one soul-infused album, Come Taste the Band (1975), prior to what seemed to be a permanent disbanding.
After Purple’s breakup in 1976, Lord stayed together with Paice, and, joined by ex-Family vocalist/keyboardist Tony Ashton, formed Paice Ashton Lord (PAL), which put out one mostly ignored album, Malice in Wonderland, in 1977.
After PAL fell apart, Lord and subsequently Paice rejoined Coverdale, this time in one of the early lineups of his band Whitesnake.
Lord stuck with Whitesnake until the classic Deep Purple lineup, Mark II, regrouped in 1984 for a hit album, Perfect Strangers and successful reunion tour.
Deep Purple stayed active (with, of course, some lineup changes along the way, including Blackmore’s exit and replacement by Steve Morse in 1993) throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, and always with the two men who had always been there—Paice and Lord—at their stations. During this period, Lord expanded his musical palette, working in more modern synthesizer sounds, but never abandoned his classic Hammond organ style.
By 2002, however, Lord had decided to retire—amicably—from the band. In a gesture indicative of what kind of person he was (by all accounts, a warm and generous man), he gave his classic Hammond organ to his successor, former Ozzy Osbourne keyboardist Don Airey.
Throughout his career, Lord had played on records from a wide variety of artists (including George Harrison, David Gilmour and The Kinks), and his he stayed active after his retirement from Purple, including a collaboration with Purple singer Ian Gillan for the WhoCares charity project in 2011. He also kept busy composing classical pieces, and recording and performing with his Jon Lord Blues Project.
A prolific composer, he also had many solo albums to his credit, including Gemini Suite (1971), Windows (1974) and Sarabande (1976). Even after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he continued to work on projects. At the time of his death, he was planning to record a new album with his close friend and fellow keyboardist, former Yes member Rick Wakeman.
Jon Lord redefined the role of keyboards in a rock band, providing a vital—and powerful—instrumental voice as pivotal to the music as guitar, rather than taking a background role as keyboards often did in prior to the 1970s. His influence and impact as a hard rock keyboardist cannot be underestimated.