Before you joined Rainbow, what were some of your earlier groups?
I had a lot of high-school bands and stuff like that. But when I got to Berklee, I was in a band with Steve Vai called Morning Thunder. He and I met in the first few days at school. We did a lot of playing together and we still keep in touch to this day. I've played on a couple of his albums.
I'm sure his talent was apparent even then.
His guitar playing even then was off the charts. In fact, in all of my high-school bands, I played keyboard and guitar. I was always a much better keyboard player than guitar player, but I played both instruments in all my high-school bands. And then I got to Berklee and I saw Steve playing guitar and I just said, "I'm going to put this instrument down. [Laughs] I'm just going to stick to what I'm best at." I obviously just focused on the keyboards, which was more natural for me.
Tell me about those early gigs with Steve Vai. What were they like?
Well, he used to write stuff that was impossible to play, but we'd try to find a way to play it anyway. I'd write stuff. He'd write stuff. And we'd cover some Zappa tunes and we covered Happy the Man. We covered some of the most difficult music you could possibly imagine. It was just a lot of fun. It was challenging. We pushed each other and grew a lot through the whole thing. And then he eventually left to join Frank Zappa's band.
It's pretty incredible you happened to befriend one of the great guitarists of that era at that age.
He really is one of the greatest guitarists. He's my personal friend. And to me, he's Steve. But he really is just an amazing guitar player and continues to innovate to this day.
Tell me how you wound up joining Rainbow.
A friend of a friend told me that Ritchie Blackmore was looking for a new keyboard player, so I sent him a cassette. It was my cover band playing a bunch of different rock tunes on one side. And on the other side was my senior classical piano recital where I played all this crazy stuff. I knew he was into classical as well.
He heard that and invited me to audition out on Long Island. It was a cattle call. I went there and they narrowed it down to me and one other guy, and then I got the gig.
Do you recall what you played at the audition?
I don't remember the exact songs, but it was a lot of jamming. A lot of what Ritchie was looking for was, "Can I connect with him musically? How quick does he learn?" And so there was a lot of jamming. I might have played "Man on the Silver Mountain" and a couple of the other classics. But I honestly don't remember the specific songs.
It must have been intimidating to be onstage with someone like Ritchie.
Well, to me, it's not intimidating. I just did what I did. My philosophy has always been to go in there after doings tons and tons of homework where you prepare and prepare. I then go in and do my best. If my best isn't what they're looking for, then that's OK. At least I know I did my best. In this case, it turned out to click.
One moment of the audition I remember very specifically is that [bassist] Roger Glover was running the auditions. He came over to me and said, "Let's say that we're onstage now in front of 20,000 people and Ritchie just broke a string and nothing is happening on the stage. You need to fill space. Go."
I just played. I just starting playing something on the [Hammond] B3 and then I played some riffs on the Minimoog and jumped over to the clavinet. They were Ritchie's keyboards that they had there. I had brought my stuff with me. I only had a Fender Rhodes, a Farfisa organ, and a synth. I was a student. I didn't have any money. So they said, "Play our keyboards. Play this setup."
I had learned about a lot of these keyboards in Theory, but I'd never actually played them. But in any event, I just played a little bit here, and a little bit there. I just played. I didn't think anything of it.
About a year later, Roger Glover told me that out of all the people they asked that of, I was the only guy that just started playing. He said everyone else had an excuse like, "Oh, don't worry; I'll be prepared," or "I'll work something up." Everybody had a story, but I was the only guy that just started playing.
You're filling the shoes of Don Airey, who's a pretty incredible player.
Don is a great player. But I had the benefit when I was preparing for the audition of four keyboardists in Rainbow before me. I knew whatever those four players had in common stylistically was what Ritchie liked. I sort of tailored my playing accordingly, knowing what he was looking for, but it was a very natural fit. He and I clicked musically right away. And I was only 20 years old.
It's an interesting time for Rainbow. They were this big Seventies group, but it's suddenly the MTV era and they were really adapting to it.
Right. The band had a very different sound with Ronnie James Dio. I think Joe Lynn Turner brought more of an American style. Ronnie was American too, but this was more of that Eighties melodic pop that became very popular when we released the singles "Stone Cold" and "Street of Dreams." It was quite a different sound than the earlier Rainbow.
Do you recall much about making "Stone Cold"?
I do. I recall that whole record. It was such a great experience for me. Here I am, 20 years old, and I'm up in the studio. We recorded at Le Studio in Morin-Heights [Quebec]. It was really exciting. I had never made an album before. I knew what a lot of the equipment in the studio did since I studied it, but I never really had a chance to be there throughout the whole process.
Ritchie saw that I was fascinated by it and that I loved to learn. He let me sit in the control room most of the time, which he never did with anyone else, and let me watch. I kept my mouth shut while they did a lot of things that didn't involve me, but I made friends with the engineer, Nick Blagona, and he gave me all the manuals to all the gear in the studio.
Every night, I'd go back and read and learn from them. Then I'd go back to the house where we were staying and stay up late reading manuals. The next day, I'd watch more. Aside from just my keyboard duties, it was an incredible learning experience.
You have a songwriting credit on the song "Miss Mistreated." Can you talk about making that song?
Sure. Most of the songs came out of jams. Ritchie would come up with riffs and we'd just jam on stuff. Sometimes stuff would survive and other stuff would just be a jam and never get used again. And then, little by little, things would develop into songs, and Joe Lynn Turner would come up with melodies. The ones that Ritchie liked, Joe would go off and write lyrics to.
We all contributed pretty heavily to the arranging. But my contribution was maybe more substantial there, so Ritchie gave me a credit.
How did you grow as a keyboardist on the tour?
It was my first tour. At this point, I'm 21. The record had come out and it was the beginning of MTV. The "Stone Cold" video was getting played constantly. It was crazy. I was so young. I was probably 10 to 15 years younger than everyone else in the band. Honestly, I just didn't think about it much. I just kind of rolled with everything. "OK, now we gotta do this. We have rehearsals for the tour." I learned the songs, came up with the parts, and we figured it out.
We went out and did some warm-up gigs for some smaller crowds and then we went right into playing arenas. I had never played gigs of that size before, but I'd just go up there and do what I do and I was comfortable. I'm even more comfortable playing keyboards than I am speaking sometimes. It's just very natural and easy for me. And so I was never intimidated by large crowds. In fact, the energy of the crowd and the adrenaline that it creates is an amazing thing if you use it to your benefit.
You played Madison Square Garden. That must have been huge for you.
It was huge. My parents came to see the band, and all my friends. There was this prestige of playing the Garden. The Scorpions opened up for us, and of course they went on to become much bigger than we were in Rainbow. But it was a really, really big deal.
To this day, I count my blessings at how many times I've been able to play the Garden. Most people are lucky to ever get to play there once.
When "Stone Cold" became a hit, Rainbow could have become a Foreigner-type band that kept pounding out Top 40 hits. Do you think that's what Ritchie wanted?
It really was Ritchie's band. It always was and always would be. He kind of just directed it to go where he felt he wanted it to go and where he was at musically at the time. And, of course, Joe Lynn Turner's writing was a big part in crafting the songs in the direction that they went in on the albums I was involved on.
How was the experience of recording Bent Out of Shape?
That was also good. At that time, I'd already done a world tour and I had an album under my belt. And I wasn't the new guy anymore. The whole thing wasn't new to me anymore and now I understood a lot more about who Ritchie was and what he was looking to accomplish musically. I understood what the fans were like all over the world and the differences in the audiences. I went into it having a deeper understanding of what the band was about.
Of course, that's when [future Billy Joel drummer] Chuck Burgi came around. He wound up playing on that record. That's the first time we worked together, in 1983.
This is a weird moment where Black Sabbath is being fronted by Ian Gillan. Did you have any sense that Rainbow was going to break up, Ian was going to leave Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple would re-form?
No. We had no idea that was going to happen. I don't even think Ritchie knew that was going to happen at that time. And so we did the album and "Street of Dreams" was a pretty big hit. We toured the world. The last stop on that tour was in Tokyo and we played Budokan for two nights with an orchestra. I did all the orchestrations for that. And we all kind of knew it was the end of the tour, but we had no idea that there was this Deep Purple reunion brewing in the background.
We knew there was going to be a break, but a month or two after, I got a call from a manager saying that Deep Purple was going to re-form and Rainbow was over.
How did you feel?
Had it continued, I would have done another album and another tour. But by the same token, I wanted to see what was going to come next in my career. And I certainly couldn't blame Ritchie for wanting to have Deep Purple back together. It's one of the most legendary rock groups ever. The reunion was huge. I certainly couldn't fault him for wanting to do that, so I was OK with that and I figured it was time to move on to what was next.
© Andy Greene, Rolling Stone - April 21, 2021