Deep Purple: “Hush” (Shades of Deep Purple, 1968)

It’s looking like this will be a full week of obituary posts. Yesterday, we lost Turkish experimental composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (a tribute to him will come tomorrow), and keyboardist Jon Lord, who was the heart of Deep Purple and also played in Whitesnake and bunch of other bands. 

For me, it’s his work in Deep Purple that stands out. Lord had studied classical piano since he was five, and when he formed Deep Purple in 1967 with Nick Simper, Rod Evans, Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice, he was already nearly a decade into a professional music career. He played in several blues bands, including the Artwoods, and made money as a session player while he tried to get an acting career off the ground. He was present at the arguable birth of hard rock, playing the piano part on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

In 1966, Lord briefly helmed an outfit of his own called Santa Barbara Machine Head, where he first experimented with the heavy organ sound he perfected in Deep Purple—the other members were future Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, future Pretty Things and Pink Fairies drummer “Twink” Alder, and Birds/Creation/future Badger bassist Kim Gardner, and it’s interesting to imagine what might have been if that band had persisted. 

As it was, Lord met Simper while playing with the Flower Pot Men , and by the end of the year, Deep Purple was a going concern. It’s fascinating to pay particular attention to Lord as he finds his unique style over the course of the band’s first few albums. His playing still had a strong classical influence—and it was Lord who led the charge on the band’s experimentations with a full orchestra on its two 1969 LPs, Deep Purple and Concerto for Group and Orchestra

Where Keith Emerson went full-on into classical rock, though, Lord embraced the blues playing of the bands he’d established himself with, and wound up with an interesting hybrid style that he made his own with his signature distorted Hammond organ tone. He was able to work as part of the rhythm section or as a soloist with that sound, and when he and Blackmore combined on a riff, they could just about take your head off.  

In 1970, the band replaced Simper and Evans with Roger Glover and Ian Gillan and instantly got a lot heavier, becoming one of the first true hard rock bands—Lord’s classical background gave the band a progressive edge that grew stronger as he slowly embraced early synthesizers. He also kept a sporadic solo career going on the side that indulged his most openly classical ambitions. 

When Deep Purple broke up in 1976, Lord and Paice formed Paice Ashton Lord with keyboardist/vocalist Tony Ashton, which was actually a quintet (Bernie Marsden and Paul Martinez didn’t get their names on the marquee), but the project only lasted long enough to produce a single album, 1977’s Malice in Wonderland, and Lord found himself back in the studio session world, a world he frequented even after joining Whitesnake in 1978 (he was pretty underutilized in Whitesnake anyway).

Deep Purple reunited several times, often in its full Mk. II configuration, and Lord finally quit the band in 2002 to focus on other projects, including a revival of his classical work. He’d been fighting pancreatic cancer and died of a pulmonary embolism yesterday. He was 71.

I struggled a little with which song to feature here, whether to go for a deep cut like “Shield” or “Speed King” or maybe a solo track from Sarabande or settle for something a little more obvious, and, well, the obvious songs are often obvious for a reason, so I wound up going with Deep Purple’s funk, catchy cover of Joe South’s “Hush,” which features a phenomenal organ solo from Lord that occupies almost the full last minute and a half of the song.

Before the solo, though, you can hear Lord trucking away as part of the rhythm section, using his organ to push the song along in a little game of push-and-pull with Nick Simper. This is the track that put Deep Purple on the popular map and helped make all of Lord’s orchestral experimentation possible—if they hadn’t sold records, their record company likely wouldn’t have indulged them. Lord was still figuring out his sound here, but his playing already had all of the dynamism and life that made him such an interesting keyboardist.