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29 October 2014
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Rock's journeyman who never forgot his roots
Don Airey rehearsing
Don Airey rehearsing, during his stint in Rainbow
Journeyman keyboard player, Don Airey, talks to BBC Wear about growing up in Sunderland, life on the road, and his influences in a career that has spanned 30 years, playing in some of Britain's biggest rock bands.

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Strange but true, Don Airey is actually a Eurovision Song Contest winner, having arranged and conducted the song Love Shine a Light, for Katrina & the Waves to win the competition in 1997.
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Don Airey is a much-travelled man. One of the most sought after keyboard players in popular music, his CV reads like a who's who of British rock music.

He's played on albums by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Rainbow, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Gary Moore, Brian May, Cozy Powell, and Jethro Tull, and is in the middle of recording a new album with rock legends Deep Purple, still a force to be reckoned with on the live circuit.

Born in Sunderland in 1948, Don Airey has never forgotten his roots, despite touring the world many times over. Busier then ever, he still found time out to talk to BBC Wear. Posing the questions, Rahul Shrivastava:

What are your earliest memories of growing up in Sunderland?

I grew up in Sunderland in the 50s and 60s when it was quite different to what it is today. I remember waking up each morning at 7.30 to the sequence of shipyard buzzers summoning the faithful to work – it was like a symphony.

We’d sometimes stay on the school bus all the way back into town, just to watch the thousands of men pouring out of the yards and up the High St when work was over. A distant memory now!

Left to right: Clive Chamen, Bernie Marsden, Cozy Powell, Frank Aiello, Don Airey
Cozy Powell's Hammer: Left to Right - Clive Chaman, Bernie Marsden, Cozy Powell, Frank Aiello, Don Airey

In the fifties there were still lots of bomb-sites from the war, and I guess there was considerable poverty, but I was part of a close family, four brothers and sisters & lots of cousins, and life was full, with musical evenings, the great round of birthday parties, church outings, soccer in the winter, cricket in the summer, fishing off Roker pier, sledging down Tunstall Hill, wonderful times on a packed beach at Seaburn – happy days indeed.

Do you ever manage to find time to visit Sunderland in your busy schedule?

I get up at least twice a year to see the few members of the family still living there – its always a great time.

What do you miss most about Sunderland?

The people, the sea, Notorianni’s ice cream, a decent pint and going to Roker Park.

At a Bonnet/Airey gig you were seen wearing a Sunderland football shirt. Do you ever manage to get yourself to the Sunderland matches?

Guilty as charged! Visits to Sunderland always somehow seem to coincide with a home game, and without any prompting from me, my three children have all forsaken Man U & become avid supporters of The Lads.

Emerson Thome
'Citizen's substitution', Emerson Thome

We haven’t seen them win for a year or two but it’s always worth the trip just to hear the comments of our supporters.

We were at the 5-0 drubbing at Ipswich last year, and at 4-0 down my son became quite agitated and started shouting at Emerson Thome that he was going to come down there and take over from him. The bloke in front turned round and said " Ay, gan on son, make a citizen’s substitution".

What did you want to be when you were a child?

Funnily enough, a concert pianist – I didn’t achieve it!

How did you first get into music, and in particular, the piano/organ?

We had a piano in the lounge, both my parents played, and I started picking out tunes at the age of three. I had lessons from age 7 onwards and took all the grades. I was introduced to the Hammond organ backing the turns at the Ivy Leaf Social club in Grangetown. They used to let me practise on it during the week.

Who is/was the most influential person in your life and why?

My father Norman Airey, who sadly died almost 20 years ago. He initially taught me to play, and via his collection of 78s, introduced me to the wonders of American jazz and much else.

When I started playing with groups in the town he always seemed to be just passing the church hall or youth club where we were gigging and would help us home with the gear, such as it was.

Robert Schumann
Sparing time for Robert Schumann

He’d hoped I’d get a proper job, and got me interviews with local solicitors for example, but despite his misgivings about the music business, he was very supportive when I turned pro.

I finally got his seal of approval at Rainbow’s gig at the City Hall in 1980 – he said it was the loudest and most impressive thing he’d experienced since El Alamein!

What music do you listen to in your spare time?

Lots of classical music, Schumann, Chopin, and of course Prokofiev. I collect vinyl jazz records of the 50s and 60s, anything with a Hammond on it, preferably played by Jimmy Smith.

What bands have you seen live? What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?

It’s a long list and a difficult question to answer. I feel very lucky that in my student days I got to see the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, the Bonzo Dog band, John Lee Hooker, the Zombies, Moody Blues, and jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, & Count Basie.

I regret not seeing the Nice or Hendrix, though I had the chance. Not much to write home about lately, perhaps Faith no More, early Oasis.

Roy Wood
Roy Wood, formerly of The Move

The best rock concert would be either the Vinegar Joe, Yes, Iron Butterfly one at the City Hall in 1970, (Yes were mind-blowing!), or The Move at Nottingham University in 1968.

If we are talking classical, then Jacqueline du Pre, Daniel Barenboim, and Pinchas Zuckerman at the Free Trade Hall Manchester, 1970. As for jazz, the Jimmy Smith Quartet at the Jazz Lounge, Islington 1994.

How do you like to relax in your spare time?

With three kids, there’s not much time – I am a taxi service - but I practise the piano, walk, cycle, do a bit of gardening, go to the pub.

What’s your favourite food?


What’s your favourite TV program?

Till the demise of Angus, "Have I got News for You."

You’ve spent the best part of 30 years touring with some of Britain’s biggest rock bands. Who was the most fun to work with? Do you still keep in touch with any of your former bandmates?

The most fun was my first foray into the rock world with Cozy Powell’s Hammer in 1974. We were always on TOTP, or flying off to Europe to do television, and on the back of three hits there were 3-4 gigs a week for a year or so, mainly to an audience of delectable young ladies!

quoteOzzy was on a wild upward spiral of success, and a wilder downward one of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. quote
Don Airey

There were parties, mad games of football against other bands, wild nights in sea-front hotels etcetera. Quite a good band as it happens and we plan to release some lately discovered tracks soon.

I’m still friendly with fellow band members Neil Murray and Bernie Marsden and of course we all miss Cozy more than somewhat.

The media perception would have you believe that Ozzy Osbourne and Ritchie Blackmore are difficult to work with. How was your relationship with these two musicians?

Once I knuckled down, my relationship with Ritchie was very good, though he could be a bit temperamental on the road. The records speak for themselves.

It was a lot more difficult with Ozzy. At the time I was working with him, he was on a wild upward spiral of success, and a wilder downward one of addiction to alcohol and cocaine.

It made for interesting times and though I wouldn’t want to go through those four years again, am proud to have been there.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?

Playing with Ozzy at Madison Square Gardens in 1984 to 17,000 people. The keyboards were on a hydraulic lift complete with fake organ pipes. I used to appear for the second song playing the intro to "Mr Crowley".

That night as the riser started its ascent, the power cable got caught in the mechanism and was yanked out, bringing the whole contraption to a sudden halt.

Ozzy Osbourne
Former bandmate, Ozzy Osbourne

The keyboards went off and there was total silence in the packed hall. My roadie, Bobby Thompson, froze.

Looking over the rail I shouted to him, "Bobby, put the plug back in!" No effect, so rather louder, "Put the f****** plug back in."

Large sections of the audience picked up on this and in true New York style all took up the cry, "Yeah Bobby, put the f****** plug back in!"

In went the plug, the riser lurched back to life, and I completed the intro, the keyboards now horrendously out of tune.

Who would you most like to work with, that you haven’t already?

I am a great admirer of Eddie van Halen’s. I saw him recently at the NAMM show giving a demo in the Peavey booth.

He looked well and his playing was simply marvellous!

Later on I was at another stand when hundreds of punters stampeded past. I was told that at that time in the afternoon, Eddie liked to visit the Gents, and his adoring fans liked going with him too!

How did you feel when you landed the job of Deep Purple’s keyboard player? Did the size of the task daunt you at all?


Finally, what does the future hold for Don Airey?

I’ve just finished my bits on Purple’s new album, due for release in August, and I’m starting on a follow-up to the K2 solo album.

I’m also writing a book about my rather strange experiences in the music biz, getting a summer Bonnet/Airey tour together, and finally, planning plenty of visits next season to the grounds of the Nationwide league!

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