Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey predicted the band would end with a “whimper” after at least one more “lap of honor.” The former Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake and Judas Priest collaborator also recalled how he wound up with 15 minutes of rehearsal time before taking over from outgoing Purple keyboardist Jon Lord in 2001.
The group started what was billed as a farewell tour in 2017, although members later expressed doubts that the road was coming to an end. They used their pandemic downtime to record the covers album Turning to Crime, which was released In November. “When you’re a musician in a band, you think you’re in control of it, but you’re not,” Airey told Rolling Stone in a new interview. “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.”
Asked about the moment of “walking offstage and it being over” he replied: “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. … 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.”
Lord’s 2001 departure was originally understood to be short-term while he dealt with a health issue, but he never returned. Airey was hired at short notice and then confirmed as a permanent replacement the following year, finally becoming a full member in 2006. He remembered being asked by bassist Roger Glover to cover Lord’s position for three shows in Europe. “I go, ‘OK, what’s in the set list?’ Roger goes, ‘What do you fancy?’ We worked out a set list. …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. … I got to the rehearsal, which was booked for six until nine at night, at a quarter to nine. They just made a mistake with the plane they put me on.”
As a result, he had only 15 minutes of rehearsal. “Roger said, ‘Shall we do “Woman From Tokyo?”’ he recalled. “I said, ‘OK.’ At the end of it, Roger came up and said, ‘Welcome to the band.’ It had gone very well. And then 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. It was a bit of a shock.”
Airey said he couldn’t understand why Lord – who died in 2012 – wanted to leave. “It was beyond me,” he said. “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 think Jon had grown very introspective. He started soul-searching about maybe he’d made the wrong choice to be a rock ’n’ roll musician, and he should have been a classical musician. I think that’s why he left. … 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. But sometimes the tours were losing money, and I wasn’t!”
Deep Purple Albums Ranked
Their storied career spans over half a century, with more than 20 studio albums – in addition to many live and best-of sets.