After a long bout with pancreatic cancer, keyboard player and composer Jon Lord died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism yesterday. This marks the passing of yet another British rock legend. Although his early love was for classical music and his key influences included American blues and jazz artists like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Jack McDuff, he played a significant role in several quintessential British bands. These included the Artwoods, the Flower Pot Men, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Santa Barbara Machine Head (which featured Art Wood's younger brother, Ron Wood), and, eventually, the band for which he gained fame, Deep Purple. From 1968 until 1976, he and drummer Ian Paice served as the band's only consistent members, playing on every one of Purple's early classics through an ever-shifting roster.
Unlike other keyboard notables of that period -- Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman immediately come to mind -- Lord wasn't as interested in moogs, melotrons, or prog-rock invention as he was in carving an indelible sound that relied mostly on making his Hammond organ as strong a lead instrument as the traditional guitar.
This put him in direct competition with Purple's guitar ace, Ritchie Blackmore, a formidable musician in his own right and a demanding personality as well. Lord learned to crunch his chords and create dramatic flourishes that eventually helped define Deep Purple's signature style. This sound is prominent in such Deep Purple classics as "Hush," "Kentucky Woman," "Child in Time," and their biggest hits -- "Smoke on the Water," "Space Truckin'," and "Highway Star."
While it's easy to think of Deep Purple as a hard-rocking, semi-heavy-metal band, Lord always aspired to make them more versatile. As the band's unofficial musical director, he helped steer the group into classical realms, beginning with the song "April" from the band's self-titled third album. In 1969, he took total control, overseeing the groundbreaking album Concerto for Group and Orchestra, one of the first obvious attempts to give both rock and classical music equal footing. While albums like Deep Purple in Rock, Machine Head, Fireball, and Come Taste the Band sidelined the classical elements in favor of a harder edge and commercial success, Lord was never content to be known as simply a pop player. "We're as valid as anything by Beethoven," he once boasted.
Although that statement may ring with hyperbole and pretense, Lord never felt compelled to rest on his pop stardom. He was commissioned by the BBC to compose a classical score called Gemini Suite, and he followed that up with Sarabande, an entirely orchestral work performed with Germany's Philharmonia Hungarica orchestra.
Not surprisingly, Lord eventually tired of Deep Purple's strict regimen and went on to work with other rock players, including Paice, Ashton & Lord, and eventually Whitesnake, a band that took its cue from Deep Purple while amping up the pyrotechnics. Yet he continued to mine his own musical ambitions, releasing a solo album titled Before I Forget in 1982, composing the soundtrack for a British TV series, Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady in 1984, and later scoring a film titled White Fire. He also guested on a number of sessions, playing with neighbor George Harrison, David Gilmour, and members of Bad Company, assuring his standing among British rock royalty.
Lord reunited with Deep Purple in 1984, but he continued to pursue his own projects as well. He released a deeply personal solo album called Pictured Within following his mother's death in 1995 and an effort titled Beyond the Notes after his final split from Deep Purple in 2002. His later work was centered primarily in classical realms, but a 2003 collection of R&B covers, Live in the Basement, and a recent stint with the supergroup WhoCares -- featuring former Deep Purple vocalist and bandmate Ian Gillan, guitarist Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, and bassist Jason Newsted, a Metallica alum -- showed he was still willing to rock, and rock hard at that.
Lord's ability to forge creative compromise while still staying true to his muse made him a rarity in rock 'n' roll, not to mention his being an innovator willing to push the parameters. Although his riffs were many, his technique was uniquely his own.