Sometimes it can be easy to overstate an individual’s legacy or importance.
Words like ‘legend’ and ‘icon’ are tossed around like a freshly-made salad to the point where they have become almost meaningless in today’s vernacular. Very occasionally however, someone comes along for whom such a word was truly reserved. Jon Lord, who died last week aged 71, was such a man. Lord’s innovative blend of classical sensibilities and blues rock attitude helped to lay the early groundwork for heavy metal and progressive rock through his work with Deep Purple from their foundation in 1967 until he finally retired from the band in 2002.
Jonathon Douglas Lord was born in Leicester, England on June 9, 1941 and began studying classical piano when he was five, developing a particular fondness for Johann Sebastian Bach’s music and compositional style. Later, he was attracted to blues players like Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff and the sounds they got through the now-classic combination of Hammond B3 and C3 organs and Leslie speaker cabinets. After moving to London in 1960, initially to pursue an acting career, he quickly fell in with the local music scene and joined The Bill Ashton Combo, a jazz ensemble led by Bill Ashton who would later established the National Youth Orchestra. He moved through various bands during the next few years, including The Artwoods and he was sequestered to play keys on The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, a track seen by many as one of the blueprints of the later heavy metal movement. Then in 1967 he formed Santa Barbara Machine Head with Twink Alder (later of The Pretty Things) and two former members of The Birds, Kim Gardner and Ronnie Wood, the latter of whom went on to immense fame with the Rolling Stones. After recording three songs, the group split and Lord filled in with The Flower Pot Men where he met original Deep Purple bass player Nick Simper.
With Simper, Ian Paice, Ritchie Blackmore and Rod Evans, Lord then formed Deep Purple, originally as Roundabout, during 1967 and led the group’s musical direction for the next few years. The band’s first three albums failed to make a dent in the UK but proved popular in the US although Purple’s increasing prevalence for heavy rock led to Simper and Evans being replaced in mid-1969 by Roger Glover and Ian Gillan. On September 24, 1969, the new-look band recorded with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall; the program included Lord’s 55-minute “Concerto for Group and Orchestra”. It was the first time a rock band had performed live with a full orchestra, and the resultant album, which also included versions of “Hush”, “Wring That Neck” and “Child in Time”, became Deep Purple’s first UK hit. The experiment was the full flowering of Lord’s experimentation with blues-based rock and classical music which had begun with “Anthem” from Book of Taliesyn. As Deep Purple’s star continued to ascend into the 70s, Lord and Blackmore played off each other in long, classical-inspired live improvs and in the studio in call and response-style trade-offs. Unlike other players of the time, Lord virtually shunned synths in favour of the big, heavy, pompous organ tones that gave his band their characteristic sound while at the same time being more open to experimenting with a wider variety of musical styles. During the Purple years he continued to moonlight as a composer and recorded a string of solo albums with classical themes.
Following Deep Purple’s split in 1976, Lord recorded an album with Ian Paice and Tony Ashton, then went on to feature in Whitesnake, where he was mainly relegated to the background although he remained with the band until early 1984 when the 1969 line-up of Deep Purple reformed. Lord stayed with them for the next eighteen years, until he was forced to leave in 2002 following a knee injury that stopped him from performing. For the last ten years of his life, Jon Lord devoted his time to classical music, but also found occasion to play the blues, recording a live album with Jimmy Barnes and the Hoochie Coochie Men in Sydney in 2003. He performed the “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” numerous times, the last in 2010 with the Liverpool Philharmonic. In August 2011, Jon Lord was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but he continued to work on several projects until early July 2012. On July 16, he succumbed to a pulmonary embolism.
Jon Lord played on over fifty recordings with artists as diverse as The Kinks, Tony Ashton, George Harrison, David Gilmour, Alvin Lee, Sam Brown and Ride alongside his solo work, Deep Purple (16 studio albums and uncountable live recordings) and six Whitesnake albums. He fused classical music with blues and rock and set the standard for heavy rock keyboard playing while continuing to indulge in other styles his entire life. The entire world of modern progressive rock in his debt.