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Jon Lord, Keyboardist and Founder of Deep Purple, Dies at 71

Jon Lord - P 2012
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The Hammond organ specialist co-wrote "Smoke on the Water," "Highway Star," "Woman From Tokyo" and many other rock classics.

Jon Lord, whose keyboard riffs and solos helped define the pioneering sound of Deep Purple, died Monday of a pulmonary embolism at the London Clinic. He was 71.

He had been battling pancreatic cancer.

Lord founded the British quintet Deep Purple with drummer Ian Paice in 1968 and co-wrote many of the band’s best-known songs, including “Smoke on the Water,” “Child in Time,” “Highway Star” and “Woman From Tokyo.” The group was among the first, along with such bands as Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer, to popularize the hard rock sound that would become known as heavy metal.

Born Jonathan Douglas Lord on June 9, 1941, in Leicester, England, he was a classically trained pianist from a young age. Specializing in the Hammond B3 organ, Lord’s keyboard playing was a unique blend of influences ranging from Bach and Elgar to jazz and blues, often creating the seat-rattling bottom as evidenced in the opening of “Space Truckin’ ” and “Perfect Strangers.”

He played in various London-area bands – mostly organ-based, with one featuring a young Ronnie Wood – and also claimed to have played piano on The Kinks’ classic debut single, “You Really Got Me.” (Lord told Modern Keyboard in 1988 that he earned £5 for the gig and also claimed that then-session man Jimmy Page played guitar on the song, which Page and The Kinks always have denied.) By 1968, he and Paice had hooked up with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore in the first edition of Deep Purple, which for a time was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's loudest band.

The group was an immediate hit in North America. Mere months after its original lineup came together, the group scored a Top 5 single in the U.S. and Canada with a cover of Joe South’s “Hush.” Its debut album, Shades of Deep Purple, reached No. 24 on the Billboard 200 but failed to gain traction in the U.K.

Deep Purple dented the U.S. top 40 again in 1968 with its cover of Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman” from its second LP, The Book of Taliesyn, but that album and a self-titled third failed to reach a wide audience on either side of the pond.

An unlikely live album followed: Concerto for Group and Orchestra, a Lord-composed concerto the band performed in September 1969 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. (Deep Purple re-created the concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the following summer at the Hollywood Bowl, but the score was lost soon after.) The album – the band’s first with singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover – also featured a live rendition of “Hush” and the first recorded version of the epic “Child in Time.”

The follow-up album, Deep Purple in Rock – whose jacket showed the band members as Mount Rushmore – wasn’t a hit in the U.S. but broke the group in Europe, with "Black Night" reaching No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart. The next record, 1971’s Fireball, was its first U.K. chart-topper and got Deep Purple back to the upper reaches of the Billboard 200, topping out at No. 32.

But everything was about to change.

The recording of what would be Deep Purple’s most popular album certainly got off to an ominous start. First, Gillan was stricken with hepatitis, derailing the recording plans and scrubbing a planned U.S. tour. The band decided to relocate to Montreux, Switzerland, to record what would become Machine Head, but the night before it was set to begin recording at the Montreux Casino, a fire during Frank Zappa’s show destroyed the venue and scuttled those plans as well.

But Deep Purple improvised. Working from a guitar riff Blackmore had come up with, he and Gillan wrote the lyrics to what would become “Smoke on the Water,” based on their experience watching the Montreux Casino go up in flames. Fueled by one of rock’s most recognizable riffs, the single became an international hit, and Machine Head topped album charts around the world, hitting No. 7 stateside and eventually going double platinum. It also featured such classic heavy-rock staples as “Highway Star,” “Lazy” and “Space Truckin’.”

Other hit albums followed, including Made in Japan, a double-disc set widely regarded as one of the premier live albums of the ’70s. But Gillan and Glover quit in 1973 and were replaced by David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes, respectively. Deep Purple would split up in 1976.

In 1978, Lord joined Coverdale’s new band, Whitesnake. The group enjoyed moderate success stateside, scoring an FM hit in 1980 with “Fool for Your Loving.” During his tenure with Whitesnake, Lord issued a pair of solo records as well: 1982’s Before I Forget and 1984’s Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, the latter the soundtrack to a U.K. TV series.

That Orwellian year of 1984 would be a memorable one for Lord.

In the spring, the band released Slide It In, which featured Lord and would go double platinum, scoring on U.S. rock radio with the title cut, “Love Ain’t No Stranger” and the bluesy “Slow an’ Easy.” But just before the stateside success – the album was a hit in the U.K., where it was released three months earlier – Lord left Whitesnake. Seemed his old band was getting back together.

Deep Purple roared back that fall with Perfect Strangers, which reunited the hitmaking lineup of Lord, Blackmore, Paice, Gillan and Glover and was an international hit. Fueled by the title single – which featured a killer Lord intro and a “Kashmir”-like riff and cadence – the album made the U.S. top 20 and the U.K. top 5. FM hits “Knockin’ at Your Back Door” and “Nobody Home” followed, and the group launched a successful international tour, headlining England’s Knebworth Festival in 1985.

The same lineup released The House of Blue Light to moderate success in 1987 and followed up with a live record. But Gillan left again in 1989, and Blackmore left for good in 1993. The band continued to record and tour with various lineups but would never again enjoy the success of its ’70s and mid-’80s iterations. Lord left the band for good in 2002.

In the new millennium, Lord would record solo albums as well as sets with The Hootchie Coochie Men and Jon Lord’s Blues Project. The latter group issued a live record last year. On Dec. 31, Lord posted a New Year’s message on his website that included: “I am doing well and I will be back with more news and updates in the next week or so. In the meantime, party hearty but look after yourselves.”

Lord is survived by his wife, Vickie, the twin sister of the Paice's wife; their daughter; and a second daughter from his first marriage. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

Watch a live version of "Highway Star" for German TV, preceded by a brief interview with Lord, below.