A pioneer of both progressive rock and heavy metal, keyboardist Jon Lord—best known for his work with Deep Purple—died Monday in London of complications resulting from pancreatic cancer. He was 71.
Like many British keyboardists who came into prominence in the late ’60s, Lord cut his teeth on classical music before starting his career in various jazz and blues bands. He moved on to rock ’n’ roll session work—including a credit on The Kinks’ 1964 classic, “You Really Got Me”—and played in various short-lived groups like Santa Barbara Machine Head, which featured The Creation’s Kim Gardner and future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood.
Lord recycled part of that band’s name in 1972, when Machine Head became the biggest album by his most famous group, Deep Purple. The disc’s enduring anthem, “Smoke On The Water,” was co-written by Lord, and his buzz-saw organ is just as integral to the song’s power as Ritchie Blackmore's signature guitar riff.
“Smoke on The Water" is rightly cited as a building block of heavy metal, but Lord had been a groundbreaker for years. Deep Purple’s 1968 hit “Hush” revolves around Lord’s chunky, psychedelic hook. And 1969’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra—composed by Lord and credited jointly to Deep Purple and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—is one of rock’s first crossovers with classical, a confluence that would help launch the progressive-rock movement.
After stripping down to a more primal sound, Deep Purple laid the foundation for Machine Head with the lesser known—yet far superior—In Rock. The 1970 album is a masterpiece of heaviness, menace, and mystique anchored by the 10-minute epic “Child In Time.” In many ways, Lord was Deep Purple’s John Paul Jones, bringing impeccable chops, an operatic atmosphere, and a compositional ear to the band’s raw, bombastic rock.
Lord devoted himself to assorted classical projects and releases during his time in Deep Purple. When he left the band in 1976, though, he fell back into the hard-rock fold—this time with Whitesnake. Formed with his former Deep Purple bandmate David Coverdale, Whitesnake saw its greatest popularity with 1987’s “Here I Go Again.” Lord had already been out of Whitesnake for three years at that point, but the hit version of “Here I Go Again” is a re-recording of the original from 1982, which Lord played on.
Immediately following his departure from Whitesnake in 1984, Lord joined the reformed Deep Purple and collaborated on record and onstage with artists as varied as Robert Plant and ABBA’s Frida Lyngstad. Recently he was a member of WhoCares, an embryonic supergroup that included Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Mikko Lindström of HIM, Jason Newsted of Metallica, and Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden. Perhaps his most notable late-career work, though, is his delicate yet spirited piano on the title track of Brainwashed—the posthumous album by Lord’s contemporary, neighbor, and friend, George Harrison.