Don Airey

by Jeff Muendel
December 2008

Don Airey - keybordist for Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Ozzy, Whitesnake and more!

Don Airey - keybordist for Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Ozzy, Whitesnake and more!

Don Airey isn’t a name that many people know well, but his keyboards have been heard by most anyone listening to American radio in the last twenty-some years. The pipe organ intro to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley?” That’s him. The slick strings in Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” or the glassy electric piano on “Here I Go Again?” That’s him, too. How about the freaky synthesizers on Black Sabbaths’ Never Say Die album? Yeah, that’s Don Airey again.

The list if bands that Airey has either recorded with or been a member of is long, but includes (besides those already mentioned) Jethro Tull, Judas Priest, Gary Moore, The Michael Schenker Group, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, and UFO.  He has come to be the most prolific keyboardist in hard rock. He is also the current organist in Deep Purple, perhaps one of the most keyboard-intensive bands in the history of rock.

Maximum Ink got a chance to speak to Don Airey about his new solo album, A Light In The Sky, as well as some of his rock ‘n’roll adventures.

MAX INK: You must be very busy with Deep Purple, especially considering I’m calling you in Berlin, Germany on a rare day off from touring. How and when did you do the writing for A Light In The Sky?

DON AIREY: Well, A Light In The Sky was recorded in 2007 between Deep Purple touring. It was recorded in Chapel Studios in England, and I’d describe it as old-fashioned recording. What I mean is, there’s lots of live stuff and one-take recordings.

MI: The album is sometimes reminiscent of ELP, Coliseum II and maybe even Deep Purple here and there. Can you comment on the disc’s overall style?

DA:  I was influenced by the Mascot record label, actually, which is primarily an instrumental label. The label approached me about doing an album, and they pretty much gave me carte blanche. I wanted to pay tribute to some of my past bands, including Coliseum II and even Rainbow. The song “Sombrero” pay homage to ELP.  There are also sections that a reminiscent of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom I played. I’m not ashamed to make those references. I’m proud of my work with those bands.

MI:  Do you see the organ – Hammond organ – as your main instrument?

DA: No, I don’t. I’m primarily a piano player and very much into synthesizers as well. I’ve made big strides with the organ since being a part of Deep Purple.

MI: Were you influenced by the jazz keyboardists?

DA: I think all of us English keyboardist that came up in the sixties and seventies were influenced by Jimmy Smith (the jazz organist – Ed.), but you can’t do it; no one can play like Jimmy Smith. The man was amazing, and there is no one that can pull him off. So, many of us decided to go our own way. Brian Auger was a big organ influence on me. He changed up the Hammond’s sound, didn’t use the spinning Leslie speaker. Jon Lord started playing through distorted Marshall stacks. Keith Emerson incorporated classical music. You have to make it your own.

MI:  So now you’ve taken the place of Jon Lord (who retired from touring) in Deep Purple. What has that been like?

DA: It’s just a fantastic gig to have gotten, but it’s musically and physically tough. Most gigs, the keyboardist lays back, is in the background on keys, but in Deep Purple you are straight out front all of the time. It became too taxing for Jon. Deep Purple tours 7 weeks on, 10 days off, so it’s quite a grind. My son is now my keyboard tech, which is just great, but at 28 years old, even he is amazed by the physical toll.

MI:  How did your joining Deep Purple come about?

DA: I sat in for some gigs on short notice when Jon Lord was ill – no rehearsal at all. But we pulled it off. I never thought Jon would leave the group, but he did. The Deep Purple management came to me and said, “We have four names on our list, and all them are yours.” I thought that was great! How could I say no?

MI: Do you still use the big Hammond C3 that Jon Lord used with the band for so many years?

DA: Yes, the one that came from Christy McVie and Fleetwood Mack way back. It’s been through hell - I thought it was broken when I first started playing it! But we restored it and it sounded much better. Now I use a Hammond A100.

MI:  Many of our readers may not be aware of your rather prolific career and the bands you’ve played with. Ozzy Osbourne is one of the most famous groups. How long were you with his band?

DA: Oh, four or five years. I came into them in 1982 and left in 1985.

MI:  You were there the day Randy Rhodes died tragically in the airplane accident…

DA: I don’t talk about that day. Period.

MI: I’m sorry, I know that’s a sensitive topic.

DA: Yes, it is. Nothing personal. I just don’t talk about that day.

MI: You were also in Rainbow for several years. Ritchie Blackmore has a reputation for being a tough cookie to work with. How did you find it?

DA:  I liked it, thought he was great, honestly. With Ritchie, you had to work hard, had to be bringing things to the table. If you were lazy, you were gone. He wanted contribution, and you had to be on your toes. But it was fantastic playing with him. You could level a small town with his riffs.

MI:  Compare that experience to playing with the current version of Deep Purple, Blackmore’s old band. It’s fairly well known that Roger Glover and Ian Gillan don’t have good words for Blackmore and claim they will never play with him again. Do you share a bond there?

DA: Well look, Ritchie left the band, he wasn’t thrown out. The guys don’t talk about it. Things are very even-keeled in the band now. Bu t that probably wasn’t the case at the end with Ritchie Blackmore. I’ll say this, though: Ritchie is one of the greatest rock writers and guitarists ever. I saw him last year with Blackmore’s Night, his current group. We talked backstage. He was very warm, very friendly. It was great to chat about the old days.

MI:  You recently played keyboards on the new Judas Priest album, Nostradamus. How did that come about?

DA:  I’ve known them for years and years. I first met them when I played the Donington Festival in 1980. I also played on Painkiller and Demolition albums. I just took a pile of keyboards into the studio and, you know, played away. Keyboards are not a Judas Priest focus, so I play until they like it, and that’s what sticks.

MI:  There are so many other groups you’ve experienced as well – Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy, The Michael Schenker Group, and more. Do you think you’ll ever write a book about your experiences?

DA: Interesting you ask. Yes, I’ve got plans for that and have started in, about 5 chapters. But my career keeps extending, and now I’ve got Deep Purple, so it’s on the back burner for the moment. You asked me earlier about the loss of Randy Rhodes. This is where I’ll speak about it – in my book.

MI: I guess it gives you more control over the statements made about it?

DA:  Yes, absolutely. Look, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Randy. He was my friend, yes, but he was also Randy Rhodes the guitarist! Such an amazing musician. That’s all I say now. I know people want to hear about it, and I understand. We all miss Randy Rhodes, don’t we?

MI: Very much so. Any last comments to the Maximum Ink readers about your new album or rock‘n’roll in general?

DA:  I’ve been all over the world, but I remember Madison, Wisconsin and that flying saucer-like stadium you have there. Played in it at least once! And, I remember Summerfest – just fantastic. Played there with Purple. I hope you’ll all take a chance on the new album, A Light In The Sky. My website,, is quite cool and has more information about it. I look forward to playing in Wisconsin again!

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Don Airey
CD: A Light In The Sky Record Label: Mascot Records
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