A Heavy Legacy: Keyboard God Jon Lord Passes Away At Age 71

The inimitable Jon Lord.
(Photo courtesy of his Facebook page.)

I’m usually not great at turning around insightful obituaries that fast, so it takes someone with great stature in my life to get me on my butt and writing about them. Keyboard god Jon Lord is/was one of those people. Known for his pioneering keyboard work with hard rock icons Deep Purple, the famed group he founded in 1968, he became known to me originally for the great playing he brought to pre-superstardom Whitesnake. The man combined classical flair and bluesy soul with hard rock grit — and pushed his Hammond C3 organ through Marshall amps, normally associated with guitars — elevating the albums he played on by showing you could rock out and be a damn good musician too. His background in baroque, classical, jazz and blues music was an incredible asset throughout his distinguished career and influenced many artists to follow.

I first heard Lord’s playing in 1984, when Whitesnake released the classic Slide It In album, and later that year when the classic Deep Purple line-up reunited for Perfect Strangers. Unlike some of his late Sixties contemporaries like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, the British musician embraced blues/jazz organ sounds and integrated them and those styles into his work. Early on the bold keyboard player found a kindred spirit in the Baroque-influenced guitar playing of Purple’s Richie Blackmore, resulting in some great interplay on songs like “Child In Time”, “Lazy” and “Burn” and on rock music’s first earliest classical crossover release, 1970’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. He also added great color to Whitesnake’s edgy hard blues-rock sound; he and singer David Coverdale first worked together when the frontman and Glenn Hughes both replaced Purple vocalist Ian Gillan in 1974. Although Lord will forever be known for his association with Purple, and with good reason, Whitesnake’s Slide It In in particular showcased a more ethereal, atmospheric side to him on songs like “Slow An’ Easy” and “Gambler”. (I used the intro to the latter song for a movie I made in high school.) Fittingly, DP bassist Roger Glover once called Lord a true “Zen-archer soloist”.

On top of his work with different groups, Lord released solo orchestral, rock and soundtrack albums as well, including 1976’s Sarabande, 1998’s Picture This and 2010’s To Notice Such Things. The keyboardist stretched himself musically as he stretched the music of his compatriots, and he kept playing until the end. His career with Deep Purple spanned 1968-1976 and 1984-2002 and his time with Whitesnake from 1978-1984. He also guested on numerous albums by the likes of Cozy Powell, Graham Bonnet and George Harrison, while Paice, Ashton and Lord played together for the year of 1977. During the last decade, Lord soldiered on with his solo works.

The official release on his website reads: “It is with deep sadness we announce the passing of Jon Lord, who suffered a fatal pulmonary embolism today, Monday 16th July at the London Clinic, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Jon was surrounded by his loving family.” And further down: “Jon passes from Darkness to Light. Jon Lord 9 June 1941 – 16 July 2012.”

Thanks for the wild and satisfying ride, Mr. Lord.

I think I need to go spend some more time with you through your music now.

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