The keyboardist and composer Donald Smith Airey was born on this day in 1948.
Born in Sunderland to a family with a fair amount of interest in music, Airey began piano lessons with his father, a jazz pianist, at the age of three; by the time he had turned seven, he had learned everything his father could teach him and went on to lessons elsewhere. Playing club gigs in his teenage years turned into writing gigs while he was attending university; he even wrote for a few TV shows!
After graduation, he went to the Royal College of Music in Manchester for a year to study classical piano. Ironically, it was during that time that the seeds of his career were sown; while there, he attended a gig by Deep Purple. Airey would later claim it convinced him to go into rock ‘n roll in the first place. Over thirty years later, he would join them full-time as their second keyboardist; during his tenure with the band, the group has released five albums: Bananas, Rapture of the Deep, Now What?!, Infinite, and most recently Whoosh!
While Airey had played gigs in working man’s clubs during his teenage years, he began his music career proper on a cruise liner. While there, he led the jazz band, known as the Don Airey Trio. After returning to England, he was recruited into a band called Cozy Powell’s Hammer.
Over the years, Airey has played styles ranging from jazz fusion to heavy metal, sharing the stage and studio with such artists as Cozy Powell, Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Hiseman, Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Moore, Bernie Marsden, Graham Bonnet, and many, many more in groups like Colosseum II, Rainbow, Jethro Tull, Whitesnake, and Black Sabbath. In this time, he’s racked up a massive amount of credits with his work, including a collaboration with Katrina and the Waves which ended up winning Eurovision in 1997. In between performing with Purple and racking up a truly dizzying list of studio credits, Airey has even found time to have a solo career; he has released a total of six albums so far, with rumors of a seventh circulating.
During his collaboration with Ozzy Osbourne, Airey wrote one of the most famous keyboard intros of the metal canon: that to “Mr. Crowley”, released in 1980 on Blizzard of Ozz. It still provides the introduction to his own onstage keyboard solos to this day.
Speaking of his solos, Airey’s style during these spots is highly eclectic and one of the biggest hallmarks of his work overall; he tailors them to his specific location, bringing in national anthems, folk songs, sports club anthems, and the like to make each of his solo spots truly unique.
Today is a good day to listen to Airey’s work. If you want an idea of where to start, I rank them by my own preferences here. I personally want to wish this very special musician a happy birthday, and a spectacular year to come!
- Edit on 2020-08-05: Optimized for new site. Added info.
- Edit on 2020-09-17: Updated to reflect release of Whoosh!
- Edit on 2020-09-21: Added info on “Mr. Crowley”‘s release date.