Deep Purple organist Jon Lord died yesterday. He was one of the greatest rock organists, but, like many rock organists, his instrument was often overshadowed by the guitar. And not because his keys weren't loud - they were - but because, chances are, many listeners never knew that the infamous "Smoke on the Water" riff is played not by two guitars, but by a doubled guitar and organ.
The classically-trained Jon Lord, prior to joining Deep Purple, was as a session player in a London studio. He made his first appearance in the classic rock canon when he contributed the pounding piano to the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." He also had an impressive solo career as a classical composer (one that is taken more seriously than, say, Paul McCartney's). But the world's ears will always know him best for the sound of his Hammond organ played through a Marshall guitar amp on "Smoke on the Water."
But he was also capable of making a rough, fuzz-toned organ sound funky, as on "Hush," Deep Purple's first hit single...
...his formidable composing and arranging skills showed on the bands more low-key tracks...
...and he could even give a smooth, jazzy organ part a hint of danger and majesty, as on Deep Purple's cover of Donovan's "Lalena."
Rock organ-playing is, more-or-less, a lost art. Electronic organs, which are powered by transistors or by rotating wheels tuned to notes, are heavy, require a lot of maintenance, and don't last long if you take them on tour (one of Jon Lord's organs broke down on the road and he couldn't fix it soon enough so he had to buy another one from Christine McVie). They were wild animals, and it makes a lot of sense that they've been replaced by today's digital keyboards, which are essentially computers that activate recordings of instruments in response to how hard you hit them.
You could argue that they sound the same, but I don't think it's a coincidence that you hear a lot less organ in rock music these days. The pristine new organs just don't inspire rocking like the old ones did.
The organs of today are the smartphones of music, but the organs of the '70s were something else. They were temperamental beasts, and Jon Lord was one of their last great tamers.
(image from jonlord.org)
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