IF fate hadn’t intervened, ‘Who Cares’ would have been one of the biggest rock supergroups ever. Imagine a line-up consisting of Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan, Black Sabbath guitarist Toni Iommi, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain and Deep Purple/ Whitesnake keyboardist Jon Lord.
‘Who Cares’ had just begin working on an album, when Lord passed away on July 16, leaving behind a void, a legacy, a wealth of memories and thousands of mourning fans the world over. Not many knew he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the end came as a total shock. An era had ended.
Lord was unique, after all.
In a rock music universe ruled by high-pitched vocalists and riff-spitting guitarists, he was somebody who stood out as a keyboardist/ organist, whether he was playing his Hammond C3 organ or an RMI 368 Electra piano/ harpsichord. And that too in a band like Deep Purple, where everyone was an equal contributor — besides him, the Mark II line-up featured icons like vocalist Gillan, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice.
Lord’s signature sound played an important part in most Deep Purple classics from early songs like ‘Hush’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘April’ to the extra-popular ‘Child in time’, ‘Smoke on the water’, ‘Highway star’, ‘Black night’, ‘Space truckin’ and ‘Lazy’, to later songs like ‘Knocking on your back door’ and ‘Perfect strangers’. With Whitesnake, his talent was evident on songs like ‘She’s a woman’, ‘Wine woman and song’, ‘Till the day I die’ and ‘Here I go again’. His earlier effort in fusing the diverse idioms of rock and clasdical music in the 1969 Deep Purple venture ‘Concerto for Group and Orchestra’, and his later focus towards classical and orchestral music (for instance, the album ‘Beyond the Notes’), were proof of his versatility and willingness to experiment.
What made Lord so special? Before analysing that, let’s take a look at the keyboard in rock history. Though the piano was used prominently in rock and roll music, and Ian Stewart played keyboards for the Rolling Stones, the first keyboardist to perform a lead role in a rock band was Billy Ritchie, who played in the mid-60s with the Satellites, the Premiers, 1-2-3 and Clouds.
The period from the late 60s to the late 70s saw a huge amount of talent in this field. Besides Lord, the four best-known names were Steve Winwood (the Spencer Davis group, Traffic, Blind Faith, solo career), Ray Manzarek (the Doors), Gregg Allman (Allman Brothers Band) and Richard Wright (Pink Floyd).
There were also others with a huge fan following — Keith Emerson (Emerson Lake & Palmer), Rick Wakeman (Yes), Ken Hensley (Uriah Heep), Brian Eno (Roxy Music, solo), Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson (both Supertramp), Tony Banks (Genesis), Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), Doug Ingle (Iron Butterfly), Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac) and Garth Hudson (The Band). There were supremely talented keyboardists who were somehow always overshadowed by their bands’ frontmen, like Tom Constanten and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernann (both Grateful Dead), Gregg Rollie (Santana, later Journey) and John Evan (Jethro Tull). And there were freelance keyboardists like John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, who played with The Who and Free.
Initially, many groups used the Hammond organ, the Mellotron or the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Ray Manzarek of the Doors took to the Moog synthesiser, an instrument which was also used by the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, Emerson Lake & Palmer and later-day Beatles.
Despite the increasing use of the keyboards in rock music, the instrument was never able to replace the guitar in terms of mass popularity, and guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana were always higher on the star stakes.
For its part, Deep Purple too had a guitar god in Ritchie Blackmore, but what actually made the group sound distinct was the Jon Lord sound. To begin with, he rejected the popular Moog, and adapted the equally-popular Hammond organ to give it a raw, bluesy sound, using distortion too to create that extra effect. He would switch to the RMI 368 — and later a Yamaha Electric grand piano — if the song desired. Since he was playing with a lightning-fast player like Blackmore, he came up with equally speedy solos.
Lord’s sound was unique too, as used his childhood influences and amalgamated them with contemporary rock flavours. He blended the energy of hard rock and ambience of psychedelic rock with the melody of classical music and raw sounds of the blues.
What Lord played was technically very sound, advanced and innovative — he was a musician’s musician, and a source of inspiration to numerous young keyboardists. And yet, his music was exciting enough to enchant even the lay listener who had no or little knowledge of technique or theory. He played for what was once described as the world’s loudest band, but in his musicianship, there was a melody to the loudness, a method to the madness. That truly was the beauty of Jon Lord, the ultimate rock star among rock keyboardists.