Obituary: Jon Lord, composer and Deep Purple founder

Charlotte Smith19th Jul 2012
Composer and Deep Purple founder Jon Lord has died (photo: Lebrecht Music and ArComposer and Deep Purple founder Jon Lord has died (photo: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy)

Jon Lord, composer of both classical and rock music, keyboard player and founder of Deep Purple, has died aged 71 in London on July 16 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was noted for the hit records Black Night and Smoke on the Water, the path-breaking Concerto for Group and Orchestra which he premiered in 1969 at the Royal Albert Hall with Deep Purple, the RPO and Malcolm Arnold, and a succession of more recent classical works including Durham Concerto, Boom of the Tingling Strings and To Notice Such Things. At his death Lord was working on a concerto for Hammond organ, a definitive studio version of the Concerto for Group and Orchestra and material for a projected new band, Who Cares, to include former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan. 

Lord was born in Leicester on June 9, 1941 and studied classical piano from the age of five. Educated at Wyggeston Grammar School, he subsequently became a solicitor’s clerk but moved to London in the early 1960s to study acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He spent most of his evenings playing keyboards with various groups in pubs, showing a penchant for the Hammond organ sounds that he heard on American R&B records. Their combination of Hammond B3 and C3 organs with Leslie speakers became the setup for his own signature keyboard style.

Lord worked for numerous London groups including Santa Barbara Machine Head with future Face and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, and played keyboards on the 1964 Kinks hit You Really Got Me. He was a member of The Flower Pot Men when they had their 1967 hit Let’s Go To San Francisco.

Lord then formed his own band with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and drummer Ian Paice, at first called Roundabout, then Deep Purple. Their heavy sound was built around Blackmore’s bluesy guitar and Lord’s organ which featured as the lead instrument on their first hit, a cover of Joe South’s Hush. Deep Purple also took on Lord’s ideas for fusing classical and rock, with classical references on their first albums ‘The Book Of Taliesyn’ (1968) and ‘Deep Purple’ (1969). This synthesis reached a climax with the 1969 Concerto for Group and Orchestra. More conventional hard rock records followed, including Smoke On The Water, co-written by Lord and featuring a distorted organ/ guitar trade-off. The riff became so popular as a try-out piece that some guitar-shop owners banned Smoke On The Water from being played on the premises.

Deep Purple spent the following eight years playing, like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones, the world's largest stadiums and issuing a series of classic hard rock LPs, including ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (1970) and ‘Machine Head’ (1972). They also took regular time out to indulge in classical projects initiated and directed by Lord. They split up for the first time in 1976. Lord then made an album as Paice, Ashton and Lord and joined Whitesnake, the band formed by Deep Purple's last lead singer, David Coverdale. He continued to pursue his classical fusions, notably with ‘Sarabande’ (1976), on which he worked with the Philharmonia Hungarica and conductor Eberhard Schoener (it received a stage premiere in 2010), ‘Before I Forget’ (1982), which featured classical piano music and the soundtrack of Central Television's 1984 series The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. He also made guest appearances on albums by Graham Bonnet and Cozy Powell.

In 1984 Lord rejoined a reformed lineup of Deep Purple (alongside Blackmore, Paice, Ian Gillan and the bassist Roger Glover) for a world tour, six more studio albums and sales that topped 150 million records. Solo projects included the 1988 album ‘Pictured Within’, written partly in response to the death of his mother and featuring singer Sam Brown.

Lord finally left Deep Purple in 2002. A range of new projects included playing on albums by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and George Harrison (‘Brainwashed’, posthumously released in 2002); a 2004 charity collaboration with Abba’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad on his song The Sun Will Shine Again; his Durham Concerto commission from Durham University (2007), with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell; and his 2010 album ‘To Notice Such Things’, a suite for his friend the late writer Sir John Mortimer, whom Lord had accompanied in stage shows. He also formed a blues band, Hoochie Coochie Men. In 2010, he was made an honorary fellow of Stevenson College, Edinburgh, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by the University of Leicester.

He is survived by his wife, Vicky, and their daughter, Amy; and a daughter, Sara, by his first wife, Judith.

Mike Ashman

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