Jon Lord, key member of Deep Purple, dies

Was rock organist and classical composer

Jon Lord, the keyboardist, organist and composer best known as a key founding member of heavy metal forefathers Deep Purple, died on Monday in London after suffering from pancreatic cancer. He was 71.

A virtuoso musician who straddled different genres with little apparent strain, Lord was a veteran presence in the British rock scene even before Deep Purple’s ascent to arena king status in the 1970s, and composed a plethora of classical orchestral pieces as a solo artist. While Deep Purple’s lineup was notoriously volatile, Lord formed its bedrock for decades and later served a stint in Whitesnake as well.

Born Jonathan Lord in Leicester, England, Lord studied classical piano from an early age. Moving to London in the early 1960s, he played in a variety of bands throughout the decade and notched recording session gigs that included the Kinks’ 1964 single “You Really Got Me.”

In 1967, Lord met guitarist and fellow classically trained rocker Ritchie Blackmore. In fits and starts, the two recruited drummer Ian Paice, bassist Nick Simper and singer Rod Evans, dubbed themselves Deep Purple, and released debut album “Shades of Deep Purple” (1968).

Evans was replaced by Ian Gillan on vocals two albums later, forming the band’s most commercially successful lineup. In 1969, the group performed Lord’s first classical composition, “Concerto for Group and Orchestra,” at Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic. It is generally considered the first full collaboration between an orchestra and a rock band.

Meanwhile, the group’s more radio friendly studio albums began pushing them to the forefront of hard rock. The band notched consecutive No. 1 albums with 1971’s “Fireball’ and 1972’s “Machine Head” — the latter featuring AOR staples “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star” — and became one of the biggest touring draws of the period.

Though Blackmore was clearly the star of the band, in concert Lord exerted just as much influence, with his Marshall-amplified Hammond organ cutting above the din and his spotlight solos often stretching to epic lengths. Gillan was replaced by David Coverdale as singer in 1973, and Blackmore left in ’75 to form Rainbow, making Lord and Paice the only remaining original members. The band broke up in 1976.

Even during Deep Purple’s busiest years, Lord continued to pen classical compositions, most notably 1970’s “Gemini Suite” and 1976’s “Sarabande.” After Deep Purple’s breakup, Lord played in the short-lived combo Paice, Ashton & Lord, which released one album in 1977.

Now playing synthesizer, Lord joined up with former bandmate Coverdale in blues-rock group Whitesnake in 1978. Though he took a much lower-key role in the band than he had with Deep Purple — he was essentially a hired gun — Lord nonetheless enjoyed Whitesnake’s success with 1982 No. 1 single “Here I Go Again.”

In 1984 he left Whitesnake to reunite Deep Purple’s early-’70s lineup, touring to massive crowds and releasing one hit record, 1984’s “Perfect Strangers.” He recorded and toured with the band through 2002, writing solo material all the while, and recording with such varied acts as George Harrison, David Gilmour, former Abba singer Frida Lyngstad and 1990s shoegazers Ride. His 2007 composition “Durham Concerto” was well received in classical circles.

He is survived by his wife, Vicky, and two daughters.

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