Don Airey â€“ Master Rock Keyboardist
By Scott Essman
Don Airey has been playing keyboards in notable British-based rock bands for over 40 years. Once a member of Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore’s band after leaving Deep Purple in 1974, Airey either toured, recorded, or both with Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Blizzard of Ozz, and blues-oriented English guitar virtuoso Gary Moore among others. Since 2001, Airey has recorded and toured with Deep Purple, replacing original keyboardist Jon Lord who had retired (Lord unfortunately passed away in 2012). In this exclusive interview, Airey discusses his career and current tenure in Deep Purple, who are still going strong with key members Ian Gillan (vocals) and Roger Glover (bass) from their second early 1970s incarnation, and, arguably, the best version of the band, plus drummer Ian Paice, who has been in every version of the band, and guitarist Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs, Kansas, and Flying Colors, who has recorded and toured with Purple for the past 20 years. Notably, Purple is now in the midst of an extensive American summer tour.
Do you have to develop a different approach as a musician when you work with such varied guitar players as Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads, Gary Moore, and now Steve Morse?
Working with Ritchie Blackmore was very much in the mold of doing what Jon Lord did in Deep Purple. With Ritchie, I added more synthesizers than what Lord ever used. Working with Moore, he depended on you coming up with stuff to keep him busy and be a foil for him. With Randy, it was very difficult to know what to do. His playing was so complete, I had to think it out what I was going to do with the band. He was one of the nicest people I ever met. I never did find a word to sum it up [Rhoads died in an avoidable plane accident]. I think about him every day.
Morse is again very different, not only with his unique picking style but the types of layered warm sounds he generates.
Steve is a very individual guy and comes from a different place than Randy or Gary or Ritchie. Not strictly a rock guy and a virtuoso. You have to be on your toes with him. The amount of ideas we had â€” on the Now What? album we work very well together; Vincent Price is a favorite [song] of mine and Hell to Pay.
Most of the older Purple songs that you play on the current tour are from the 1970-73 heyday â€“ does that make your job challenging since Lord’s sound was so iconic on those albums?
They are such classics. You never really going to come up with something like that again. It’s a different industry nowâ€”it’s very much set it in its way. Deep Purple has got a different thing about it than any other band. We came up with something that people didn’t expect.
Did you have conversations with Lord when you replaced him in 2001 about how to integrate yourself with the band?
He got in touch with me when we were going to do Hard Lovin’ Man. He said,
â€œTurn the organ up as loud as it can be â€“ the tune that opens it.â€ When I first started â€“ I couldn’t be Jon, I’ve got to be myself. I take great care that Jon isn’t forgotten especially with the Hammond, what it was in the mid-70s: lots of distortion. The organ has come back into its own.
In your estimation, what made Lord’s sound so iconic since it’s critical to the Purple sound?
I think the crucial thing about it was his relationship with Ritchie Blackmore. Ritchie would talk about it to me. I had a similar temperament to Jon â€” I was always there when he came up with something. You’ve got to make the guitar player happy, comfortable. Jon used to do that for Ritchie: keep the boat on an even keel. I did the same thing with Ritchie when I was in Rainbow. Jon was the leader â€“ he brought keyboards out of the closet.
Did you learn any secrets to how Lord created his dynamic in-concert sound, especially considering Blackmore’s dominance as a guitar player?
I was talking to Paice [about] the gear he used on [the live album] Made in Japan. He had bass bins, Marshall amps, some very primitive sound equipmentâ€¦ a tape echo. They go straight to the monitors; there’s no need to put them through a stack. Direct into the PA and come back to me in the monitors. The Hammond has a 100-watt guitar amp and two suited-up Leslies. I’ve always been very keen on the spinning speakers. When I was with Rainbow, â€œDo you want to try the organ through the Marshall?â€ We changed them back to the stock units. It really started to sound good with Rainbow. There’s a certain art to getting that distorted sound that Jon had.
What do you feel is your strongest work in a song out of all of your recorded material?
I think it’s Still Got the Blues [with Gary Moore]. It’s a beautiful song; I was there when he started writing it. I put it down; then next day I’ve forgotten it. I did the string arrangement that we recorded at Abbey Road. When I listened to it, it wasn’t bad. Gary’s playing: at the height of his powers in 1989. The whole album, but that track â€“ a real high. Gary Moore, his success was in Europe. It didn’t quite happen for him in the U.S.
What can you tell longtime fans about seeing a Purple show in 2015?
They are going to get a good helping of the old stuff. It still sounds fresh. We really get into it. There will be some obscure tracks. We do the new material from the new albums with Steve Morse and myself. It’s a bit of a mixture. There’s a great history in the band of improvising. We’re pretty up to date. There’s something for everyone.
Lastly, I’ve wanted to know the answer to this question for 35 years. Even though it’s credited to the late, great guitarist Randy Rhoads and bassist Bob Daisley, did you write the keyboard intro to the song Mr. Crowley that you played on the first Ozzy Osbourne album, Blizzard of Ozz (1980)?
Mr. Crowley â€“ I wrote the opening keyboard bit. I was helping them out when the band first started. They had the song, and we needed something for the intro. I threw them out of the studio. Ozzy came back in half an hour. â€œThat’s it!â€ It’s an amazing song, and it’s got the most amazing guitar playing on it.