Don Airey

Rolling Stone - Unknown Legends

Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music's A list. This edition features keyboardist Don Airey.

During the past 50 years, whenever a major British hard-rock or heavy-metal band needed a genius-level keyboardist, they knew they could call Don Airey. He's the guy that Rainbow and Black Sabbath hired in the Seventies to help them with albums like Never Say Die! and Down to Earth. In the Eighties, Ozzy Osbourne brought him in to finish off Blizzard of Ozz and bring it out on the road. In the years that followed, he worked with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, Whitesnake, Jethro Tull, Brian May, UFO, Gary Moore, and many, many others.

Airey's life changed forever in 2001 when Deep Purple asked him to sub for Jon Lord for a handful of European gigs. That stint led to a permanent position in the band that has included six studio albums and countless journeys around the globe. Their newest album is the covers collection Turning to Crime, where they put a Deep Purple spin on songs like Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow" and Bob Seger's "Lucifer."

How has your life been during the pandemic?

Very different from what my normal life was. A complete change. My wife said it's the longest time I've ever been off, and we've been married 43 years. I think the longest I'd ever been home was three weeks before going off on the road somewhere. It has been very nice for me, but rather a test for her.

Do you miss the road?

I'm not sure. I thought I would miss it terribly, but it's been nice to have a change and nice to look back, something you don't have much chance to do when you're in the music business if you're working all the time. That's been a good part of it.

Are you looking forward to the Deep Purple tour that starts in February?

Yes, but I have a degree of trepidation about it. I'm hearing stories from bands that went on the road and they're having to stop because of Covid. Rival Sons had to stop their tour. There was a big tour by the band Caravan and they had to abort it with four gigs to go. People are taking as many precautions as they can, living in bubbles, but this thing isn't over yet. Let's hope we get through it safely.

How did you meet Cozy Powell?

I came to the end of a contract with Norwegian Cruise Line, and I decided I had to get into a proper band. I flew to Buffalo, New York, and went to the Moog factory and bought a Minimoog. I then flew back to England, and I had a Fender Rhodes [electric piano], a Clavinet, and a Minimoog. I started playing in clubs in London.

One day, Cozy's bass player Clive Chaman came into the club. He asked me if I wanted to audition for Cozy. I said, "Yes." I'd seen him play and he had a big hit single called "Dance With the Devil." That was the start of it. And it was a long friendship, musical and otherwise.

What made him such a distinct drummer?

The volume he played at, for start. I'd never heard anyone sound like that on drums before. It was very much an English thing to play drums like that. They were trying to get above the guitars. That's because when Marshall amps started coming out in the second half of the Sixties, you couldn't be heard unless you really played loud. You couldn't be heard, and he was the first person I really heard play like that.

He was a fantastic musician, much better than anybody really credited him for. He caught onto things very quick. He had great ideas about everything, and he was a lovely bloke. That year I spent with him on the road playing British dancehalls on the back of the pop hits, it was just a wonderful experience. We were a really good band. I'm still in touch with [guitarist] Bernie Marsden and [bassist] Neil Murray and Frank Aiello, the singer.

How did Cozy Powell's Hammer lead to the formation of Colosseum II?

Well, when Cozy phoned and said he was knocking it on the head with the band, I was terribly upset about it. I went from being in a band one minute to suddenly not being in a band. I said to my girlfriend Doris, before she became my wife, "Let's go on a holiday." We went off to Wales for a week. I hired my gear out to a tour manager I knew. He said, "The group I'm working for is hiring a keyboardist. Can we borrow your keyboards for a week?" I said, "Yeah, yeah. Great."

I came back from holiday and there was a message that said, "Your keyboards are ready to pick up." And so I went down to this seedy rehearsal room in Chelsea and went in and suddenly realized it was [guitarist] Gary Moore and [drummer] Jon Hiseman. I knew of Gary and was already a big fan of his. Jon saw me and said, "Can we help you?" I said, "Yeah, I've come to pick up my keyboards." He goes, "Can you play those things?" I said, "Yeah, a bit."

We sat down and jammed. Gary gave me a piece of music called "Wings," or something, and we just jammed for three hours. At the end of it, they offered me the job. I was apparently the 53rd keyboard player that tried out.

(After playing on Black Sabbath's "Never Say Die") Did they talk about bringing you on the tour?

They asked me, yeah. They were going to America and wanted me to come. But I kind of got wind of the fact that Rainbow were about to come in for me. I didn't turn them down. I said, "Are you sure? You sound very hesitant about whether you actually want a keyboard player or not." I just kind of left it and didn't follow it up with their manager. So how did the Rainbow period start?

I got a phone call from Cozy Powell. They'd phoned me twice before and I was always leaving on a tour or something. I could never go and audition. But Cozy said, "Airey, get your ass over to New York tomorrow." And when the boss speaks, you do what you're told. He met me when I got off the plane at JFK and took me to a hotel in Connecticut. Next day, they took me to meet Ritchie [Blackmore].

He said to me, "Do you like Bach?" I said, "Yeah." He gave me a piece of Bach to read, which I kind of knew, but I pretended I'd never seen it before, so he thought I was sight-reading it. We played it together. I forget what piece of Bach it was, but we kind of rocked it up together. And then he said to me, "Do you know Beethoven's Ninth?" I said I did. We worked on the song that became "Difficult to Cure." That was kind of my audition with the band. And then I went into rehearsals with them. It was just me and Cozy and Ritchie, just the three of us, in the middle of winter.

This is the first album with Graham Bonnet on lead vocals after Dio left. How was that transition?

It was funny. The first day I walked into the rehearsal studio, there was a bit of a revolving door, and I saw Ronnie going out the other side. I thought, "Oh?" I didn't know Ronnie was going to be there. We started and after a couple of hours, I said to Ritchie, "Is Ronnie coming back?" He said, "No, no. Ronnie's gone." That's all he said. [Laughs.]

We didn't have a singer. We tried a couple of people, but it didn't really work out. When we went in to record, we had our bass player, Jack Green, who really wasn't up to the job, though a very nice guy. And we had a singer called Pete Goalby, who did great things with Uriah Heep, but he didn't quite get what Ritchie was going on about.

We made Down to Earth without a singer until about the last week when Graham Bonnet turned up. He turned up quite by chance. Cozy used to play a game where he had all these cassettes with hits on them. He'd play them for three seconds. It was called "Guess the Single." He played the Marbles' "Only One Woman." Everybody went, "What happened to that guy?" We traced him to Australia and flew him to France were we were recording in the Château [Pelly de Cornfeld].

Graham was very bewildered. He'd never heard of Ritchie. He'd never heard of Deep Purple. I said, "Why don't we do ‘Mistreated'?" I gave him the track and kind of went through it with him. He came down into the room where all the gear was and he was white as a sheet. He started to sing and after three syllables, he had the gig. It was an extraordinary sound. I remember Ritchie looking up and Cozy just grinning. He was something else, Graham Bonnet.

This is the punk era where a lot of bands were modernizing their sounds to survive. Do you think that's what Ritchie was trying to do? I think he did. He wanted to go trans-Atlantic. He was very impressed by Lou Gramm and Foreigner and Journey. He loved all those things. The management was very keen on that. They'd play us Journey tunes and be like, "Why can't you do something more like that?"

But Cozy didn't want to go that way. We had this triumph at [the Donington Monsters of Rock festival]. It was an absolute stupendous occasion. It was the first real big festival on British soil. As we walked off, the band broke up. Cozy left. He said he didn't like the new direction. He hadn't liked "Since You Been Gone" very much, even though his playing is absolutely essential to that being a hit. And then Graham left because Cozy left. I think Joe Lynn Turner was a very fine singer. He had that trans-Atlantic sound. I was in it for another year, but at the end of it I was so exhausted that I just handed [Ritchie] my notice and left.

How did you feel about the decision to make Rainbow more commercial?

I thought it was ill-conceived. It thought when we played Donington we were arguably the best rock band in the world apart from Queen. It was a devastating sound. I remember my father came to a gig at Newcastle City Hall. When he came back, I could tell he was impressed. I went, "What did you think, Dad?" He said, "It's the loudest, most impressive thing I've ever experienced since [I fought in World War II]." It had just a tremendous impact, but we kind of lost that when Cozy and Graham left.

I know what Ritchie was trying to do. He was trying to be more commercial, but I think he eventually come a cropper with it. Rainbow petered out eventually. He had to then do the obvious thing, which was re-form Deep Purple.

How was the making of Difficult to Cure?

Difficult would be the best word to say. [Laughs] We were in a lovely studio in Copenhagen. Don't get me wrong. It was a nice hotel and nice studio with good working conditions. We had loads of material, but we were breaking in a drummer, Bob Rondinelli, who was a bit of a novice at that time. He didn't quite get it. With Cozy, we'd do two or three takes and that would be it. I remember doing 30 takes of one tune with Bobby since he kept on getting it wrong. It was just difficult.

Great drummers don't grow on trees. They are a very rare breed. Great musicians are a very rare bread. It's not easy to replace someone. He probably wound up doing a great job for Rainbow towards the end. And then, of course, when he joined Sabbath, he really learned how to play. He was quite a force to be reckoned with.

How was Joe Lynn Turner as a singer?

Just great. He's a bundle of fun, effervescent, and he's a great singer. He's never at a loss for a tune, never at a loss for a lyric even though Roger Glover was writing most of the lyrics. Joe just had this boundless enthusiasm that he still has despite all the setbacks you get in the rock & roll lifestyle. He just keeps bouncing back. I got on very well with him. I liked him tremendously.

During your last Rainbow tour, did you start feeling like you wanted to leave?

Yeah. When I quit, I just said I was leaving. There were many reasons for leaving, one of which was, I had been the road for eight years almost continuously. I had my son Michael by this time and I really didn't know him. I just thought it was time to take stock and take a bit of time off, which I did. Of course, I was doing sessions in London all the time. Eventually, Sharon Osbourne called me up and asked if I was available for an American tour. I said, "Yes."

How did you wind up on Painkiller by Judas Priest?

Same thing, again. Somebody called my manager. And I'd met them all when we did Donington. They were second on the bill to Rainbow. They turned up at soundcheck and they were just amazing. I remember Ritchie standing there and going, "Wow. This is something else." We chatted to them there. And [years later] they invited me down to France. It was Jacques Loussier's studio in Provence. It was a very exotic old castle with a recording studio in it.

Tell me how you joined Deep Purple.

I was working on some orchestral things for a festival. I had four arrangements to do with a very tight deadline, and Roger Glover phoned me up. He said, "What are you doing this weekend?" I said, "I'm just home." He said, "Jon [Lord] has had to go into hospital. Can you come and cover for him for three gigs?" I said, "This weekend?" I go, "OK, what's in the set list?" Roger goes, "What do you fancy?" [Laughs.]

We worked out a set list. And after I worked out the arrangements, I worked on the Purple songs. I was very familiar with them, of course, but I still had to stay up for two nights straight. I then packed my bag, and set off for Heathrow. They put me on the wrong flight, so there wasn't a ticket for me. I got to the rehearsal, which was booked for six until nine at night, at a quarter to nine. [Laughs] They just made a mistake with the plane they put me on.

We had a quarter of an hour to rehearse. Roger said, "Shall we do ‘Woman From Tokyo'?" I said, "OK." At the end of it, Roger came up and said, "Welcome to the band." It had gone very well. And then [guitarist] Steve [Morse] said, "We've got this song called ‘Fools.' Do you know it?" I go, "Yeah, a little bit." He said, "I've rewritten the middle of it." He taught me the middle, and that was the end of it.

Next day, Steve came to my room for about an hour and taught me one of his instrumentals called "The Well-Dressed Guitar." Next thing I know, I'm onstage with Deep Purple at the Skanderborg Festival in front of 30,000 people. [Laughs] It was a bit of a shock.

What did you learn about Jon Lord's parts once you started playing them?

As soon as I got on, I was very conscious that if I tried to be Jon Lord, it was never going to work. I just had to be myself. It was pretty hairy. It's one thing going through the music on your own. But when the band starts playing, it's a different dimension. It's a very exciting one. I remember that I came off [after the first show] and I didn't know whether I had done a good job or a bad job, but everyone seemed quite happy about it.

The next morning at breakfast, Ian Gillan came up to me and said, "You know the intro to ‘Lazy?" I had done a couple-minutes intro to it. And when you're a keyboard player, and a member of the band comes up to you and asks about something you're playing, it's usually, "Can you just cut it down a bit? It's too long." That's what I was expecting Ian to say. But he said, "You know that bit you do at the start of ‘Lazy'? Make it longer. We want more of that."

They were very encouraging. It was one of the greatest tours I've ever done in my life, standing in for Jon Lord. It went from three gigs to 24 gigs. Jon never came back to the band.

They eventually made you a full-time member?

Yeah. I finished the tour. It was two days before 9/11. It was Sept. 9. I enjoyed the tour, but never for a minute did I think that Jon would leave. I don't know how anybody could leave a band like that. It was beyond me. That's as good as things get. It's great music, great players. The management was very together. It was just a wonderful scenario.

I didn't hear anything until about Christmas. I had come home from doing a solo gig in London for a big corporate Christmas gig. I had a 10-piece soul band I used to do the arrangements for and MD. I came back thinking it was time to do something else. And there was a message on my answering machine. It was [Deep Purple manager] Bruce Payne saying, "Would you join the band?" I said, "Yes."

It was a funny feeling going from, "It's about time I found something else to do with my life" to "joining Deep Purple."

Were you thinking for a while that Jon was going to come back and you were going to lose the gig?

I didn't understand why he'd left. I really didn't. I know the band seemed very pleased to have me on board since things had brightened up. I think Jon had grown very introspective. He started soul-searching about maybe he'd made the wrong choice to be a rock & roll musician, and he should have been a classical musician. I think that's why he left. He was going to be a composer. I think at one stage he said he did want to come back, but the general consensus was, it wasn't going to happen.

The first one or two years with the band were a little strange. I never knew whether I was really part of it or not, so you just keep your head down and do what you do and try and do it to the best of your ability. It pays off in the end. The band changed and became really conscious of who they were. We really started working really hard. That was a total delight.

When they made Bananas in 2003, you were fully part of the writing process, and seemingly a real member of the band.

Yeah. I joined in 2002. They didn't make me a full member until 2006. The thing is, I think I was making too much money. I feel like I was making more than some of them. I was doing it for a fixed fee, which I was very happy about it. But sometimes the tours were losing money, and I wasn't. [Laughs] I love hearing [drummer] Ian Paice tell me the story.

But in 2006, I had a couple of other offers. Judas Priest wanted me to go on the Nostradamus tour since I'd done the album with them. Gary Moore was making overtures to me. He wanted me back in his band. Things came to a head and I said to Purple, "You need to let me know where I stand." There was no hanging about. They just made me a member of the band, and I've been there ever since.

Deep Purple has such huge following overseas, but I feel like many American rock fans just know "Smoke on the Water," "Highway Star," and the cover of "Hush."

It's funny because when we play in the States, I go, "Why aren't we playing ‘Black Night'?" They go, "Well, it wasn't a hit here. Nobody knows it." I go, "What? Everybody knows ‘Black Night.' " But they're quite right. They aren't really familiar with a lot of the Purple canon.

I think the secret for the band in America, because they have been quite successful over the past few years, is the fact that we don't pull any punches. We aren't playing to tapes. There's no ProTools going through the PA, which most bands use these days. What you see is what you get. I think most people really appreciate that.

This is the most stable lineup the band has ever had by a very wide margin.

Yeah. Paice says it's the most successful the band has ever been, and the most stable. It's a very nice thing to be part of. It's very civilized, but there's no slacking when we go onstage. It's 120 percent. When they kick off … I don't know what it is, but there's something very strange about Purple. When those guys start playing together, something unforeseen happens. I often say I feel like someone has come up behind me with a plank of wood and banged me on the back of the head. It's a big wake-up call.

How was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame experience?

When we heard about it, they tried to break it to me and Steve. "Well, they're not going to induct you two." They thought we'd be upset. We just said, "Why would they? We weren't in the classic edition of the band." It was a great occasion. It was a great night for the band, and a great night for Vickie Lord, Jon Lord's widow, to be up there. She received the honor onstage.

Lars Ulrich couldn't have been nicer to us. He gave us a nice intro. We went on and played "Hush." When I came off, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers came up to me, picked me up, whirled me around, and called me a "bad mofo." That really made my night.

Was there actual talk of Ritchie Blackmore playing with you guys that night?

There was no controversy about it. Ritchie just didn't want to be there. I think an overture was made to him, but I don't think he likes a lot of hoo-ha. He doesn't like formal occasions like that. He often thinks, "I could be home writing a song." He doesn't like to waste time. I think he would have viewed that as a waste of time, but it would have been nice had he been there. I found it very nice to see David Coverdale there, and Glenn [Hughes], of course. As you get older, you realize a few things. When you see old friends, it's a good bonus.

The fans keep dreaming about seeing Ritchie Blackmore back onstage with you guys for at least one more song. I imagine that's unlikely at this point.

Umm … I just can't see it happening. A lot of fans talk about it, and record companies talk about it, but just organizing something like that … It sounds very simple, but the logistics of it … When bands are on the road, you have a flow going. Things work. To do something like that might … If Ritchie turned up, I'm sure the band would say, "Do you want to come out?" And he'd say, "Yes." But if it was planned, like, "Ritchie is coming back for one gig," it just wouldn't really work out. How could you justify it? How could you make it pay? It's just kind of impractical. There's nothing personal about it. And Ritchie wouldn't do it. I'm sure of that.

Some fans were upset the Hall of Fame didn't bring you in. There are other bands with members who joined very, very recently, and they got in. I'm thinking of Josh Klinghoffer with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Reeves Gabrels with the Cure, but there are many others. You've been there 20 years.

Yeah. Steve has been there 26 years. We are the newcomers. But what can you say? I was just pleased to be there. It was a rather wondrous night. To see people who have become such good friends and colleagues get the recognition for what they deserve and what they've done in their lives was satisfaction enough for me. That's because they don't get a lot of plaudits. When you're in a working band, real life passes you by. You're in this bubble. That's where you live. It's not very often that people pat you on the back and go, "Well done." It was nice to see. I was very charmed about it.

Tell me about making Turning to Crime and why you guys decided to do a covers record.

It was done during lockdown. We had to cancel everything. All the touring was canceled. "What are we doing to do?" The last album, Whoosh!, had come out, but we weren't able to promote it because of the pandemic. Initially I thought it was the end of everything, and life was we knew it was going to change. It was a very frightening time.

Bob Ezrin called a phone conference and got us all together. It was his suggestion. He said, "You guys make music by all being in a room together. Why don't we try and do it remotely, but we do a covers album?"

The idea took hold, and he was very enthusiastic about it. We had a coupe of phone conference and all the suggestions came up. The only rule was, "No Beatles, no Stones, no Who." We wanted a bit more obscure. There are at least three songs on the album I'd never heard before, but they meant a lot to people, like "Lucifer" [by Bob Seger].

The first concert Steve Morse ever saw was Bob Seger. He played "Lucifer" and it knocked him for six. It changed his life, so we did that.

"Oh Well" [by Fleetwood Mac] was everybody's favorite. I picked the Ray Charles number ["Let the Good Times Roll"] and the Mitch Ryder thing ["Jenny Take a Ride"] and "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu."

I did four or five demos. Steve did four demos, with drum machines. Roger did four. We just circulated them, and things were gradually added. I think when Ian Paice put his drums on, suddenly it became very real: "This is going to work."

Do you think Purple are ever going to finish that farewell tour?

We started the farewell tour in 2017. It was due to end in 2019. But the thing is, when you're a musician in a band, you think you're in control of it, but you're not. The business is running you. Of course, there was so much demand for the band to continue from the promoters and agents, that we said, "OK, we'll do one more year."

I can't say for certain, but hopefully if things get better this year, we'll be able to do a lap of honor. It'll last longer than a year, is my guess.

Are you able to visualize the last concert ever with Purple, and walking offstage and it being over?

The words of T.S. Eliot come to mind: "This is the way the band ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper." I think we won't know it's the last gig. We won't have a clue that this one is going to be the last one. That's how it's going to end. It's going to be no big scenario.

Do you ever think about retirement?

I like what Buddy Guy said. He said, "Musicians don't retire. They drop." You do have thoughts about being in the garden and bouncing the grandchildren on your knee, but it's part of your blood system, playing and touring. It's an addiction. I hope I keep playing for a while yet.

That's great. And Deep Purple are actually booked on a cruise ship next month.

Yeah. In my case, the circle is complete since I used to work on cruise ships. Some of them used to go to Miami. I resided in Florida for a year of my life. I'm going back to Florida and going to play a cruise. It's rather wonderful.

© Andy Greene, Rolling Stone - January 25, 1997