DON AIREY (DEEP PURPLE): “It’s All A Bit Risky Covering Such Great Songs But I Think We Got Away With It”

Don Airey of DEEP PURPLE (Live at the Keller Auditorium, Portland, OR, USA, September 10, 2019)
Photo: Bryce Van Patten

Being prevented from getting together in a room wasn’t going to stop Deep Purple from making another record so soon after the release of Whoosh! last year and with no touring on the horizon for the foreseeable future it was time for something completely different. The result is Turning To Crime, their first album of covers. Mick Burgess called up keyboardist Don Airey to talk about why they decided on making a covers album and how they chose the songs to record.

How have things been for you since you released your last album Whoosh! in August last year ?

I’ve been living a very quiet life, staying in and limiting where I go. Not going to the pub, not going to restaurants, not going to gigs or the football. It’s been very strange.

Has it opened up any opportunities for you to do other things while you’ve been off the road?

We spent some time recording our new album, Turning To Crime and I’ve done quite a few sessions too for other people. People send me tracks and ask me to add some keyboards. One of the best things I’ve worked on is Kee Marcello’s album, From Another World. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of work. He was the guitarist in Europe for a while.

Your UK tour with Blue Öyster Cult has been postponed twice now because of Covid. That must be so frustrating for you.

It is yes. We’ve now released two albums since we last toured so it’s really frustrating that we haven’t been able to go out and play any of the new songs live.

You’ve just released your new album Turning To Crime. How do you feel now it’s out?

Very hopeful. When we started doing this, it didn’t sound such a great idea. We didn’t know if we could make it work as we couldn’t all get together but once the tracks started appearing with the drums on them it all started to make sense. Ian Paice really got himself together on that, he had a great time as there was nobody telling him what to do. We usually write in the same room together but for this record, everyone was in their own studio so it was a very different process for us but we always start with Paicey going “PLOP” on his drums and then we have to try to keep up with him.

How’s the reaction been so far?

It’s been great. I’ve received some wonderful emails about it from all over. I actually had one journalist say to me “I had no idea you played the piano!!”

Turning To Crime is your first ever covers album. Who first suggested doing that?

It was our producer Bob Ezrin who first had the idea and he mentioned it to us. He said that as we couldn’t get together to write then we should do some covers but nothing obvious. No Beatles, no Stones, No Who just stuff that meant a lot to us personally.

Were you all up for it or did someone take a little persuasion?

I think Ian Gillan was a bit unwilling at first and I think that was because all of his suggestions came to nothing. We out voted him but he took it very well and sings quite brilliantly on the album.

There’s 12 songs including a medley at the end. How did you choose the songs to record? 

We had phone conferences and we all made suggestions. I know Roger and Ian were very influenced by early British Rock ‘n’ Roll from Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele. We wanted people to be aware of how British Rock came about so there was an element of that in the songs that we picked. We all chose “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac, that was unanimous. I picked “Jenny Take A Ride” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and “Let The Good Times Roll” by Ray Charles and Quincy Jones and I arranged the medley that we called “Caught In The Act” which included “Green Onions” and “Gimme Some Lovin’”. Steve chose four and Roger chose four and we just sent the backing tracks around with drum machines on at first. It was pretty simple stuff but just enough on it to give Ian Paice the idea of what was needed.

How big was that initial list?

We were all asked to suggest ten so the initial list contained 50 songs and Bob Ezrin whittled it down to 12.

It must be quite difficult for Bob to produce an album when he wasn’t sitting in the control room directing things?

I didn’t hear much from him. He’d send us stuff backwards and forwards and if you didn’t hear anything back from him it meant that it was OK and you could move on to the next part. Bob is very good at oblique strategies and he’d be talking about something then he’d suddenly change and mention about a piano part or something that I was working on. He’s very old school. My son, Michael, who works for me, has never encountered anyone like Bob before. He was a bit gobsmacked by him at first but they’ve become great friends now.

What do you look for in a song that you are considering covering? Is it the feel of the song or maybe a lyric or a special meaning to the song?

The ones we chose are the ones that meant a lot to us from our younger days. They bring back so many memories. Of course, you always try to add something of your own to it. It’s all a bit risky covering such great songs but I think we got away with it.

Do you hope that maybe people listening to your album may go and discover some of the original artists for themselves?

Absolutely yes. That’d be a great result for us, if people discovered some of those artists that meant so much to us back in our younger days. It’s amazing that some people have never heard of Peter Green or knew that he was in Fleetwood Mac. BB King once said that the only guitarist that brought him out in a sweat was Peter Green so if we can turn some people onto his music then we’ve done a good job. Mitch Ryder, too. He was a Detroit musician and when I first played there with Rainbow, I said to Ritchie, that Mitch Ryder was from there. Ritchie was a fan too and he said he nicked the start of “Jenny Take A Ride” and used it on Deep Purple’s “Kentucky Woman”. Every time I’m in Detroit I try to get a message to Mitch to invite him to our show but he’s never come. He’s wonderful though and he’s still going strong.

Was recording an album of covers a more relaxing experience for you than writing and recording your own material?

The good thing is that you didn’t have to write the material as it was all there waiting for us, so that was easy. What was hard was being in a room on my own and doing the engineering myself which I’d never done before. That was quite challenging especially when there was a technical fault.

“Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” in particular sounds a real blast to play. Did that allow you to play in a style that you don’t normally play in Purple?

The original version by Huey “Piano” Smith is very slow. When we first decided to do it I thought that I couldn’t play that slow. I listened to Professor Longhair’s version and that was more upbeat and I thought that was a better tempo to do it. I loved playing that Boogie Woogie style.

“Caught In The Act” that closes the album is a great medley featuring snippets of “Green Onions”, Dazed and Confused” and “Going Down”. Was this a way of cramming in a few more from your short list on to the album?

They are songs that we have played live. Before the encore when we do “Hush” we start with a little bit of “Green Onions” and might go into “Gimme Some Lovin’” or “Peter Gunn” or “Dazed and Confused” and then go into “Hush” so I just joined those tracks together to make one song. The one I’m really proud of is “Hot ‘Lanta” by The Allman Brothers as I think we sound just like them, it’s wonderful.

Was that quite a challenge to arrange that to make it flow from one song to another?

It was quite a challenge to do that but I was quite pleased with the way that the riff from “Dazed and Confused” goes into “Gimme Some Lovin’” which is quite a novelty. Of course, I finally get to play “Gimme Some Lovin’” on a record which was another ambition of mine. I’ve now ticked that one off my bucket list.

How long did it take to record?

I started on 10th January and on 1st April I sent off my last bit to Bob. There were 12 tracks that kept coming around. It was quite an involved process and you had to keep your wits about you.

While you were in the studio recording were you discussing ideas for new songs for your next studio album?

Yes, there’s something on the back burner. We have a pile of material leftover from the last three albums and we have quite a lot of new stuff written too. Things have really clicked. I think when I first joined the band it was running out of steam a bit but over the years, we’ve gradually found our niche and it’s just been wonderful.

You played with Ozzy for a few years. How did a lad from Sunderland cope with being around Ozzy for so long?

It’s funny because Ozzy was from Birmingham, Rudy was from Cuba, Randy from Burbank and Tommy Aldridge was from Texas and then there was me from Sunderland so it was quite a mix but it really worked. I’d actually met Ozzy in a car park in Birmingham when I was with Cozy Powell. I was going into a hotel where Sabbath were and that’s where I bumped into Ozzy and we ended up having a cup of coffee together. He was such a nice guy. I ended up working on Never Say Die and that’s when I go really friendly with Ozzy. Of course, I then played on his early solo albums. It was like going into another world really. The legendary world of Heavy Rock before it came respectable. We were kind of like outlaws. There were some wonderful times.

Randy Rhodes was taken tragically from us far too soon. How was it for you playing with Randy and do you feel that he was just scratching the surface of his talent before he died?

He was an amazing guy and just one of the nicest people I’d known and certainly one of the most talented, such an amazing player. The only trouble I had with Randy was that I didn’t know what to do as he did it all on his guitar so I had to invent different ways of playing. I’d often go into the back lounge and listen to a tape of the show so I could hear what I’d been doing and if Randy went “Wow!!” then I kept it in.

You have also been a Eurovision winner with Katrina and the Waves in 1997 with “Love Shine A Light”. How did you get involved in that?

That was the last time the United Kingdom won. Katrina and the Waves lived quite near me and I used to do session work for them on their albums and occasionally do a gig with them. They did a song “Love Shine A Light” for The Samaritans but they sent it back as they didn’t like it. They asked me what they should do with it and I suggested Rocking it up and I ended up playing Hammond on it and that seemed to lift the whole track up. Next thing I knew, they’d put it in for Eurovision. I thought it was great. I loved Eurovision and I’d often watch it with my wife and have a party. It was always a great event.

How did it feel sitting there during the scoring process?

We were sitting in the green room and we were getting all of these 12’s, 12’s and 12’s and it looked obvious that we were going to win and suddenly the press started surrounding us and I said to Vince that it was all in the bag but he looked alarmed and said that it could all go pear shaped but it didn’t and we did end up winning it.

Where does that rank alongside all of your achievements in the Hard Rock world?

It was such a good night but the greatest bit was afterwards when we went with all the BBC types to the hotel bar and Terry Wogan came over patted me on the shoulder and said “Don Airey, conductor extraordinaire, can I buy you a drink?” He bought me a pint of Guinness and said cheers and then went off somewhere. Suddenly, the other BBC guys sidled over to me and asked “Did Wogan actually buy you a drink?” They said that I should be honoured as he never bought anyone a drink. Getting that pint from Terry Wogan was my greatest achievement.

As a supporter of Sunderland Football Club, have you been able to get to many games since the lockdown lifted?

I went to the away game at Milton Keynes where we won 2-1 but that’s it so far.

How do you think they’ll do this season?

I think we’re in a good position. I think the worst place to be is top at Christmas. It’s good to be there or thereabouts. I think there’s something odd with the ownership of the club and I think Madrox are still there somewhere behind the scenes. It’s not great for the club. I thought the new guy had taken over but who knows.

The way Newcastle are going at the moment, we may well have our first derby game in over half a decade?

That is something to hope for.

Is anyone within the club aware of that there’s a Sunderland fan in the ranks of Deep Purple?

We actually met up with Sunderland in Toronto and we were having breakfast and I saw Danny Graham and Lee Cattermole out of the window and thought that I was seeing things and then Dick Advocaat and Ellis Short walked in. I went up to them and said hello and Dick Advocaat actually knew who I was as he was a Rainbow fan when he was younger and had been to concerts in Rotterdam. I told him that I had something that may surprise him and I pulled out my season card and Ellis Short said “How did we not know this?”. We then had a photo shoot of Deep Purple meets Sunderland Football Club.

Looking to the future, what have you got lined up for 2022?

We start touring again in May so fingers crossed it’s all going to go ahead. I just hope I’m still up to it after so long!!

Turning To Crime is out now.

For more on Deep Purple visit

Interview By Mick Burgess


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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