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.”
Airey phoned up Rolling Stone from his home in Sunderland, England, to look back at his amazing life journey through the world of metal, explain why he didn’t mind being excluded from Deep Purple’s induction into the Hall of Fame, and look ahead to the future of the band.
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.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. What’s your first memory of being a kid and being really aware of music?
I remember it very clearly. I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen. I was only three, and there was a piano player on the radio playing a lullaby I knew. I thought, “That’s amazing.” And I realized we had one of those in the front room of the house. I remember running into the front room and sitting down by the piano and trying to play it, to my mother and father’s amazement.
When did you first become aware of pop music?
I think it was when Bill Haley came to Sunderland in 1957, and it caused an absolute riot. He played at a cinema in Sunderland. The people just destroyed it. They ripped up the seats and went mad. That’s the first time I knew something was going on. And the next big thing I remember is Elvis. Everybody on the playground was talking about Elvis. Maybe I was seven years old or something. I kept hearing the words “Elvis Presley,” and everyone was so excited.
Who were some of your early musical heroes?
I was a great jazz fan. I wasn’t so keen on pop music as such. My father had a very large collection of 78s that he collected when he was a young man, and we had a record player. I used to listen to people like Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, and lots of British big bands. Of course, he started collecting LPs as well. That was a big inspiration to me, people like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Bill Evans. That was what was really turning me on when I was 11 or 12. I looked down on pop music a bit.
Were you thinking about becoming a jazz piano player?
Yeah. I had great ambitions. I was taking classical lessons on the piano. Of course, when you do that, everyone wants to be a concert pianist. But there wasn’t much hope of that. I wasn’t good enough, really. And it’s a very hard life. But I used to play jazz at school. We had a little jazz band. One of the teachers ran it, and we used to give little concerts. Someone played the bass. There was a saxophone player, a trumpet player, me on the piano, and the occasional drummer.
One day, life changed when the Beatles single “Please Please Me” came out. Life became very exciting. I found all sorts of people that wanted me to join their groups, which I did. And that was the start for me of working with rock & roll.
Did you see any rock concerts as a teenager that really blew your mind?
Oh, yeah. I went to a lot of jazz concerts. I remember seeing Ornette Coleman. But in terms of rock, I saw Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. They were an amazing band. They had a guitarist named Mick Green, and up in Sunderland, really far north, nobody had ever heard a guitar player like that.
I saw the Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood. I remember thinking, “God, he’s not much older than me.” Well, he wasn’t. He was a month older than me. But I’ll never forget his singing or his organ playing. It was just fantastic.
I didn’t see the Beatles. My sister did, and still talks about it. But as I said, I saw a lot of jazz concerts. And I saw Yes in their early days. Jeff Beck, too.
You studied at the Royal Northern College of Music. How did you grow as a musician during your time there?
What happened was, I was at Nottingham University first for three years. I did a degree in English Literature and Music. I kept my playing going while I was there. I thought I should do something with my piano playing, so they accepted me for a year at Royal Northern for a post-grad piano course. I had the great fortune to have a teacher called Ryszard Bakst, who had just come over from Poland to settle in England. He was the most amazing musician I’ve ever known. He kind of deconstructed me and then put me back together again. By the end of the year, I could play classical piano. He knocked in me what music was all about. It was tremendously beneficial to me.
What were your goals after you finished school?
I didn’t really have any. I had a basic feeling that I wanted to be in the music business, but how do you get into it? It was very closed. You had to be in London. It was a very hard business to be in. You had to just hope something would turn up.
When I was in music college in Manchester, I sort of supported myself by playing in the nightclubs. I’d do three or four nights every week. I’d back the singers. I’d back comedians. I’d write parts for the horn players. It was a great experience.
One day, the phone rang. It was an agent that saw me play in the club. He offered me a gig on a cruise liner. I said, “When does this leave?” He said, “Tomorrow. Can you be in Southhampton at 6 a.m.?” [Laughs] I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Can your bass player come?” He lived upstairs. I said, “I’ll just go and ask him.” His name was Adrian Evans. He lived in the flat above me. I said, “Do you fancy going on a six-week cruise of the Mediterranean?” He said, “Yes.” He had an old Austin car and we packed all our gear in there and set off for Southampton almost immediately. That’s how my professional career started.
I ended up being the bandleader on the cruise liner. I think I was the first person they ever had that could actually do the job.
What sorts of songs were you playing?
It was everything. We played a lot of jazz numbers. We played a lot of standards. I had a very good sax player called Martin Dobson. They had some terrific acts come on. We had a singer called Lita Roza. She was the English version of Sarah Vaughan. She was a marvelous musician. You were working seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. It was a great experience. But you kind of knew there was no future in it besides to put a bit of money in the bank, which I did.
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.
There was so much talent in that band. They could have been huge. Why do you think you guys didn’t make it?
It was kind of overwhelming sometimes. We never really got it down on record, but the live shows … I still have people coming to see me at Purple gigs telling me they were at a Colosseum II gig somewhere and they still hadn’t gotten over it. We used to just get onstage and explode, especially Gary. He was unbelievably talented. He had this wild side to him, and he just used to let go on these musical adventures. It was very thrilling, if you could keep up with him. And Jon, of course, was one of the greatest drummers that ever lived, in my humble opinion.
So Strange New Flesh and the other albums just didn’t capture the magic of the live show?
No. On the records, you always had that thing in your mind to be a bit more commercial and do things that might appeal to the public. But really what they wanted to see was the raw excitement of the live show. You tend to go into the studio and try and be a bit more disciplined than you were onstage. You have to keep songs down to five minutes, but sometimes we’d go onstage and they’d go on for 15 minutes.
Sometimes Jon and Gary would have a pre-arranged signal and they’d just leave me, mid-solo, to hold the crowd while they had a beer. They’d never tell me when they were going to do it. It was exciting. And of course, we were traveling in a van, staying in small hotels. We went from clubs to playing in places around Europe that held 1,500 people. We were starting to really get somewhere, then Gary left. He left to join Thin Lizzy.
Tell me about your experience on the Andrew Lloyd Webber album Variations.
That was rather wonderful. Andrew wanted to use us. I think he’d seen a concert and he was on MCA as well, so he’d heard the albums. He heard War Dance and wanted to use us. He used Rod Argent as well, and Barbara Thompson, Jon [Hiseman]’s wife. And his brother, [cellist] Julian Lloyd Webber. It was the most unpromising scenario, but it just seemed to click from the first moment.
Andrew was very charming. He also knew what he wanted. He formed a great bond with Gary Moore. Gary really took to him, and gave Andrew a lot of ideas. It was a joyous session. We did it all in four or five days, and thought nothing of it. Next thing we knew, we were Number Two in the album charts, just behind Abba. [Laughs.]
It was the suddenly theme song of the new BBC art show. We filmed a documentary and played at the Royal Festival Hall. And then we took the show to Los Angeles and New York. It was very exciting.
Tell me about getting the job to record with Black Sabbath.
That was actually through Jon Hiseman. As well as running a band, he also ran a PA company called Colosseum Acoustics. And Sabbath used to use his gear. I think Tony Iommi phoned Jon up and said, “We’re looking for a keyboard player. Do you know anybody?” And Jon recommended me. He phoned me up and said, “You gotta be at Morgan Studios tomorrow for Black Sabbath. Don’t worry. They’re very nice people.” But they had a fearsome reputation. Tony had punched a couple of journalists and Ozzy had a reputation for being quite wild.
I turned up with three or four keyboards. I’d met Ozzy before. When I showed up, he said, “Would you fancy a cup of tea?” I said, “Oh, yes, please.” We sat around having a cup of tea and listening to the tracks. And then off we went. We had a great sessions. I couldn’t believe how good Tony was. What a competent musician he was as a guitarist. He was very versatile.
It was a weird time for the band. They were about to part ways with Ozzy. Did you sense any of that tension?
They were kind of falling apart. I remember Bill Ward saying to me, “I don’t know what to do with your man Osbourne. He’s driving us all mad.” Bill was really worried about Oz. It was a bit of a strange time for the band. I think they could feel they were splitting up, but I’m very proud to be on that record. It was a great session.
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.”
Tell me about first meeting Randy Rhoads.
I first met him at the studio, Ridge Farm. He was very quiet. He gave off this lovely vibe. He was a sweet guy, a good-looking guy. You saw him and went, “He has a real rock god kind of thing.” But he was very quiet. He had a very gentle sense of humor, and he wanted to know all about Gary Moore from me. It was a very good session, the first Blizzard of Ozz album. This was 1980 when I was still in Rainbow.
What stage was the album at when you came on board?
I just came in to do keyboard overdubs. They’d finished the album, more or less. They had all the tracks and rough vocals on everything. I think the first track they played me was “Crazy Train.” They wanted me to put something on it. I went, “I’ve got nothing to add to that! I’d just spoil it.” The guitar playing was just immense. I’d never heard anyone play quite like Randy.
Tell me about making “Mr. Crowley.”
They played me the song and went, “We need some kind of intro.” The thing that was funny was that I had all the keyboards in the control room. And there was Max Norman, the engineer, there. And the band were sitting behind the desk like a judge and jury. I threw them all out and said, “Come back in half an hour and see what I come up with.”
Out they went and Ozzy came back after half an hour. We played him what we’d done and he was like, “It was like you plugged into my head.” That was that. I then added a few bits and pieces to the actual track. But there wasn’t a lot you could do with that track. The guitar just said everything. I didn’t want to spoil it.
How many Blizzard of Ozz songs do you think you play on?
I only played on four or five tracks. I played on “Goodbye to Romance.” I put that trumpet thing on at the end. I also played on “Revelation (Mother Earth)” and “Suicide Solution.” The guitar wasn’t finished on “Suicide Solution.” I think the last thing I did on that was with Randy. He played me the part and there was a Hammond organ. When you hear the guitar, it’s an amazing sound, but there’s a Hammond organ in there with him. It’s very tied to him. He really listened and he really made you listen to what he was doing. You hear the Hammond at the end where it goes into a bit of a freak out. It’s quite a disturbing track at the end.
How was the tour?
It was amazing because they’d gone from playing clubs and then small arenas to suddenly it was a big tour with 5,000 or 10,000 people every night. It was a bit of a shock to the system. We also had a huge set which took some putting up and getting down. It was a big road crew. It was a big deal. There were a lot of problems with the gear and getting the PA working properly, getting the keyboards hooked up to the system. But it worked out. It started to go very well. And then, of course, the most dreadful thing happened.
Why weren’t you on Diary of a Madman?
Ozzy phoned me up about doing it, but I couldn’t since I was still on tour with Rainbow. I didn’t make any contribution to it.
But you went on the tour.
Yeah. And I have many fond memories of Randy from it. It was in the days before mobile phones or internet. We’d find ourselves in a hotel in Rhode Island, just the four of us. Ozzy and Sharon weren’t there. The tour manager wasn’t there. We didn’t know how we were going to get to the next gig.
We didn’t know who to phone. We tried to management in Los Angeles, but there was no answer. And so Randy goes, “I know what to do.” He went off and came back with this big tray with eight Long Island iced teas. He put them down and said, “This will sort the problem out.”
We started drinking these iced teas. And sure enough, by the time we finished them, the tour bus had turned up. And off we went.
He had some lovely quirks about him. He used to carry a little portable television with him. If there was a lapse in the conversation, he’d just take it out and plug it in and start watching cartoons or something.
After the tragedy, you kept playing shows. It must have been really hard emotionally.
We couldn’t believe what had happened. We were like, “What have we done to deserve that?” It wasn’t like the band was a mad bunch of party animals. Sharon kept a tight rein on everything, which I loved. It was a great band to be in. There were no drinks backstage and hardly any drinks on the bus. It was great.
We were all in terrible shock, but we eventually started to try and find a replacement guitarist. What do you do? You have to carry on. We ended up in L.A. and we auditioned various people, none of which were very suitable. Bernie Tormé came in for a few gigs, but he just got overwhelmed by everyone being so upset. It just affected him. He said he couldn’t work like that.
Eventually Brad Gillis turned up. I went in a room with Brad and we started going through the set. After two songs, I was like, “You know this. God bless you, man.” He just knew everything, so we didn’t have the agony of teaching someone Randy’s guitar parts.
Brad just slotted right in. It was his first real gig. He turned up somewhere like Baltimore. He paid his own fare and had $10 left in his pocket. He did such a great job, and he put everybody at rest. We were able to do the shows and carry on, but the sadness was just enormous.
The trauma must still affect you today.
I think about Randy every day. I can still hear him. I remember the last time I spoke to Ozzy, I said, “I can still hear his guitar in my head.” I can still hear his laugh. He had a very infectious giggle if he liked something. He’d have this laugh.
When I first joined the band, we’d go in the back of the gig and there would always be a live tape of the show. I very much sensed that the British way of playing keyboards wasn’t going to fit with that band. I had to find something different. I was looking for a lot more sound effects from the synthesizers, voices. We had a vocoder onstage and I was doing a lot of effects. I was putting more of a halo around the sound than actually being part of the sound.
If Randy liked something when I played it on the tape, he’d let out this laugh. I knew I was doing alright. He was a lovely guy to work with, but he was also a very imposing figure. He knew what he wanted, and he was a force to be reckoned with.
I don’t think he was a very happy guy towards the end. He wasn’t happy with the way things were going. I used to say to him, “Don’t worry about it, man. In 10 years’ time, you won’t think anything of this. You’re young. You get ups and downs and disappointments. You’ve just go to ride it.” It was hard work being on the road with the Ozzy Osbourne band. It was five or six gigs a week.
Tell me about the Bark at the Moon sessions.
I left the band at the end of the 1982 tour in August for various reasons. One of which was that Gary Moore called me up and said he had a lot of work for me if I wanted. But it didn’t quite work out with Gary. It was a good band, but he had all these singers that were great singers, but they weren’t as great as he was. It was a bit of a hodgepodge. And then Ozzy called me up and said he had a new guitar player and wanted me on an American tour.
And so we were writing material in hotel rooms, humble motels I’d say, during the American tour of 1983. We got quite a lot of stuff together. We rehearsed in New York, and then at the end of the tour, we went right to Ridge Farm Studios, which is where they recorded the first two Blizzard of Ozz albums. We set up shop there and did Bark at the Moon.
Obviously, I don’t think going back to Ridge Farm was the greatest thing because there were too many memories of Randy. And Jake E. Lee was a little bit over-awed by the weight on his shoulders, but he came through nevertheless. He was a fine guitar player, and a very amusing young guy too.
I don’t remember much about the making of the album. I know that Ozzy got very upset about the way things were going halfway through.
What was he upset about?
I can’t remember, but I think I came in the line of fire for some reason. With bands, there’s a lot of things going on on the financial side that cause a lot of trouble. The tours were very expensive, and I think Sharon was having to deal with a lot of financial troubles to keep it going. I think that kind of wore through a bit. Eventually the album was quite successful. It was definitely a successful tour, and Jake E. really came into his own. He took the bull by the horns and played his ass off every night.
What’s your best memory of playing the US Festival?
[Laughs] Oh, heavens. My main memory is that our road crew berated us for not taking it seriously. It wasn’t that we weren’t taking it seriously, but they told us we should change the stage and upgrade things since it was going to be a big deal. And so we rehearsed for three days because Bob Daisley had just come back into the band, so we rehearsed a new set. We were all primed and ready to go.
We get there and it was like a scene from the Bible. I think there were 400,000 people there, maybe more, and it was very dry. There was this red dust in the air from where people were walking. It looked like something from a biblical epic. It was very hot and they had hoses at the front of the stage that they sprayed over the audience all the time to cool everyone down.
We went onstage and Ozzy just slipped into the old set. We didn’t do the new set. He just started and we did the normal set. It was pretty successful, but nerve-racking, I have to say. I remember that.
There are so many legends about the Ozzy tour with Mötley Crüe in 1983 and how debauched and insane it was. Tell me about it.
[Laughs] I’d met Mötley Crüe before. The first gig they ever played out of L.A. was at a club in Calgary. We were there with Ozzy. Rudy Sarzo knew them, so we went to see them. They were different. They were pretty good. We went to say hello to them in the dressing room, and there was a fight going on. They were all fighting each other, punching each other up with bodies flying everywhere. We kind of left. That was my first experience with Mötley Crüe.
But they were putting up a storm every night. They were a damn good band. The guitar player, Mick Mars, was the kind of brains behind it all, I think. And Nikki Sixx wrote most of the songs. Vince [Neil] was the first person I ever heard calling people “dude.” He was brought up in Redondo Beach, and so he was a surfer. He had all this surfer lingo. I used to love talking to him, but I couldn’t understand a word he said, really.
But it was all going on with them, I have to say. They kidnapped me and took me on their tour bus one night. I went overnight on it. [Laughs] It was like the end of the Roman Empire or something.
I don’t know how they did it. It just seemed to give them more energy the more they did. Of course, their record was flying up the charts. It was exciting being around them.
What was Ozzy like in this time period? You always hear that his drinking had gotten completely out of hand.
This is when things really started getting to him. Post-traumatic shock had gotten to him, really hit him about Randy. He became a bit withdrawn, I have to say. I think there was a lot of drug-taking going on. He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t sleeping. Eventually something happened. We were in Chicago and he had some sort of mild heart attack, I think.
He was in the hospital, and I went to see him. He was hooked up to all these machines. He said, “We gotta get these for onstage. Look at all these flashing lights.” It taught him a lesson, though. He came out and we all said, “Ozzy, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep doing this.” And he somehow got through the rest of the tour. Things got very much better. He really got ahold of himself.
I remember we went to Japan. We did this amazing gig with Jake. It was just a fantastic occasion. The fans were glad to see us, and we were glad to see them, and Ozzy was in top form. That night I got the most dreadful phone call that my mother had died. I went down and told Ozzy. He was at breakfast. He said, “We better have a drink for the old girl.” He ordered a couple brandies and calmed me down. Then he said, “You’re going home. That’s what you’re doing. You’re not staying.” I was so confused. I said, “I can do the rest of the tour.”
But God bless them. I did one more gig and they put me on a first class flight back to England. That really was the end of my time with the band. I knew it was coming to an end, and that was it. I did do two more gigs with them. I did Rock in Rio. That was my swan song.
How did you wind up on the 1987 Whitesnake album?
I knew those guys very well. Neil [Murray] is a very close friend. He still is, really. David had tried to get me in the band a couple of times. I knew [guitarist] John Sykes. I’d been following him for quite a long time. I think they phoned me up just to do the sessions. They flew me out to Vancouver, but the original plane I took caught fire halfway across the Atlantic. We had to turn back. [Laughs] It was quite frightening. I landed back in London and phoned up their office. I said, “The flight has gone back.”
When I finally got to [Little Mountain Sound Studios], Bon Jovi was in the other studio doing Slippery When Wet. I remember that.
It was pretty downbeat for a Whitesnake session. Something happened to Coverdale and he wasn’t singing. Something was wrong with his throat. He didn’t want to sing. They were pretty depressed about the tracks. They didn’t know what to do. But when I heard them, I went, “Wow! The guitar playing, the bass playing, the drumming …” I thought it was amazing.
I did a couple of things the first night, and then I went out to dinner with David. He was kind of moaning on a bit. I went, “Man, you have something here we’re all striving for. Keep it going. Get it done.” It seemed to cheer him a bit.
I was only there for five days. The best track was “Still of the Night.” He played it to me and it had this big hole in the middle. I said, “What happens there?” And John Sykes said, “You do.” We did it very quickly. John Sykes was very, very easy to work with. He had a lot of ideas. We got things done very quickly.
You’re on “Here I Go Again,” too.
There are two versions. I did the slow version, like the one that was done when Jon Lord was on keyboards, and then we did a souped-up version. I think the main keyboards were done by another keyboard player [Bill Cuomo], but he did copy some of the lines I put in.
You both play on it?
I think so. There might be another keyboard player as well. They really appreciated what a great song it was. [A&R executive] John Kalodner was hovering about, I believe. He was always very good at encouraging people and seeing what was working and what wasn’t. But David went from the pit of despair about the way things were working to the top of the world very, very quickly. He deserved it. He’s a wonderful singer and wonderful songwriter.
How did you wind up on the Jethro Tull tour?
[Laughs] Quite by accident. They just phoned me up and said, “Do you want to come to an audition?” I learned a few songs. I learned “Songs From the Wood” and packed up a few keyboards in the car and went to this audition. It went very well. I remember Ian Anderson going, “Well, Don Airey. You’re very good at playing our music. Let’s see if we can play some of yours.” And so I had to make something up and we jammed to that. At the end of the day, Ian just said, “If you’d like to be in the band, we’d like to welcome you in.” I agreed and joined for a year. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea.
There was something very restrained about them. It was a very quiet dressing room. There were never many guests or anything, or very much excitement. But musically it was very satisfying, but it just wasn’t heavy rock. It wasn’t English classic rock. It was kind of folk-rock. But I appreciated it even so. Ian is a true genius. You know that when you’re around him. He has so many ideas all the time. He’s a little bit on the difficult side, I must say. He’d probably say the same thing about me.
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.
It was a funny old job. They keyboard was pretty limited to two or three tracks. I had to put a bit of a Moog bass on a few tracks because Ian Hill was quite ill. I think he wasn’t available. I did a little bit of bass playing on it, which I think made the album. I’m not so sure. I was never supposed to reveal it, I don’t think.
That was their last record before Rob Halford left. Did you sense at the time that they weren’t getting along?
They are such lovely people, in the same way that Sabbath were. People that come from Birmingham are very mellow and friendly. They were all like that. [Guitarists] Glenn [Tipton] and Kenny [K.K. Downing] were just two guys acting as one. When they played together, it was phenomenal. I can’t remember whether [drummer] Scott [Travis] was there. I think he was just there for a couple of days, and I really was just dealing with the two of them. Rob was there, but Rob seemed to be keeping himself really separate and I didn’t really get to know him.
What split them up was that court case. It was hanging over. They’d all been talking about it. It was about two kids that committed suicide listening to a Judas Priest track. It was turning into quite a big deal. I know Rob was very upset about the fact that his lyrics had driven kids to shoot themselves, but also how ridiculous could a court case be that they were being sued for the death of two disturbed children? I remember him saying to me, “This could really bring us down and be the end of everything.” He was really worried about it.
Did they ask you to tour with them?
I think they did. I can’t remember. There was always that with them, that they wanted me to be part of the band. I was very flattered. They were one of the best live bands I’d ever seen. When they played at Donington, they were just astonishing. I think my favorite video is “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” That’s just a great work of art to me. [Laughs] Any time I’m feeling low, I’ll play that.
You took some time off in the mid-Nineties.
Yeah. I flew in from Nice after the Judas Priest thing and had a meeting with Gary Moore at a rehearsal studio in London. He was talking about a blues project he was doing and he wanted me to be a part of it. I was very glad to be asked. I did that. That was very successful. It lasted about a year. At the end of it, I was pretty well done for being on the road. I had three children I hadn’t really seen. I didn’t really know any of them. And so I came off the road. The family was struck by a tragedy. My oldest son became extremely ill. He was in and out of hospital for about three years. That took up a lot of my time and energy.
A miracle happened and he got cured. My son Michael is now my keyboard tech in Purple. They just promoted him to production manager. Let’s hope he doesn’t want to fire the keyboard player as his first act. [Laughs] My son, the big boss.
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.”
I love “Watching the River Flow” by Bob Dylan.
I was only familiar with the Leon Russell version. I was very surprised when Roger’s version came through, which is more like the original. I sort of jollied it up with a jolly piano part.
Tell me about the big medley at the end where you smash together “Green Onions,” “Dazed and Confused,” and a bunch of other classics.
I put that together. Usually in the encore of our show, we come out and do “Hush.” We always play something into it. We sometimes do “Green Onions,” or “Peter Gunn,” or “Caught in the Act (Going Down).” I just stuck all those intro tunes together.
Do you think you’ll play some of these songs on the tour?
God, I hope so. I think so. It all depends. If people get the album … I think it’s a really joyous celebration of being a musician. We’ve made it under very strange circumstances. You heard about musicians going out of business, having to sell their homes. It was a very bad time for the music business. It was a ray of hope, and it gave us all something to do. It was worthwhile, I think.
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.