The Ballbuster Interview
by Troy Wells
Life as a keyboard player in rock 'n' roll is not always glamorous. Often relegated to "side man" status, keyboardists rarely enjoy the kind of spotlight that is afforded to lead "front line" players. Still, they have the unique position of having an outsiders view of the inside! Deep Purple keysman Don Airey has enjoyed over 25 years of just such privileged anonymity, playing with such legendary bands as Black Sabbath, Whitesnake and Rainbow. Airey has played on nearly 200 albums by almost every major name in hard rock.
It is quite curious then that Don is rarely the subject of interviews. Not only has he scaled the heights of the music industry by playing on multi-platinum albums and performing in hundreds of arenas around the world, but, Airey has seen the depths of tragedy along that same road to fame and fortune. Don was one of the few who witnessed the fatal plane crash that claimed the life of legendary guitarist Randy Rhoades. Airey was actually on that same plane just minutes before it went up for its last ride. Don was also the last person to talk to acclaimed drummer Cozy Powell before his untimely passing.
Don Airey is truly a man who has seen it all in his impressive career. As it turns out, he is also a very pleasant and humble man, who when asked to do this interview was extremely gracious and even thankful for the opportunity. So, I present the Ball-Buster world exclusive interview with a seasoned rock veteran and a true gentleman: Don Airey!
Ball-Buster: Give us a time line on your musical career before Rainbow.
Don Airey: I started out in a band called Cozy Powell's Hammer which was Cozy's pop band. That was 1974, and we had three hit singles. Then I was in a band called Coliseum, which was a fusion band with Gary Moore. Then I joined Rainbow. I was in Black Sabbath for a little bit, but when Rainbow called, I didn't stay with Sabbath! I played on "Never Say Die."
BB: Didn't you play on "Eternal Idol" as well (later on?)
Don Airey: Yeah.
BB: What led to your fallout with Rainbow? Was it one of Ritchies whims?
Don Airey: No, no. I left the band. I wasn't very happy after Cozy left. I left after the "Difficult To Cure" tour and joined Ozzy's band. I played on "Blizzard Of Ozz."
BB: You're not on "Diary Of A Madman" though?
Don Airey: No, I'm not.
BB: Is it Lindsey Bridgewater?
Don Airey: No, it's not Lindsey. I can't remember the name. But, it was some session guy.
BB: But you did the "Diary" tour.
Don Airey: Through my long friendship with Ozzy, I did the "Blizzard Of Ozz" album. They were pretty desperate. They had no money. They just had a great band and asked if I would come in and help them out, so I did. I couldn't do the "Diary" album because I was on tour with Rainbow. I did do the "Diary Of A Madman" tour.
BB: Which, unfortunately, brings us to the Randy tragedy. Forgive me, as I know this is a sensitive subject, but, I have to ask. As I understand it, you were the main witness to the accident. You were actually up in the plane just before Randy did, right? Didn't you come down just minutes before Randy & Rachel went up?
Don Airey: I think so. We went up and then came down. Then Randy went up with Rachel. That's what happened.
BB: Were you standing outside watching when it happened?
Don Airey: I saw the whole thing.
BB: I've heard so many things about it. I've heard that both Randy and Rachel hated to fly. And recently, I heard Sharon say that they didn't even like each other. So, what put them on a plane together at eight in the morning?
Don Airey: No, it was just one of those things, you know? It was a beautiful morning. You could smell the orange blossom. We trusted the guy who flew the plane. I never talk about it. I've never really talked about this. It was the most awful thing I ever saw. I don't like to talk about it because the ramifications are so awful. What actually happened that day? We'll never know. I'll never know why the plane crashed. It was just an innocent kind of thing.
BB: What was the drivers mindset like when you went up in the plane with him? Did you notice him being a little wacky? I guess they found coke in his system during the autopsy. Sharon and Ozzy seem to believe that because the piolet's ex-wife was standing outside by the bus, that for a split second he saw her and wanted to "off" her and that's why he swooped down. Does that sound even possible to you?
Don Airey: I'll just say this one thing about this and I don't want to say anything more. I had to give a deposition to the FAA and the guy said to me, "If it's any comfort, this wasn't an accident."
BB: This was the head investigator?
Don Airey: Yeah, he said, "but we can't say anything." The thing is, no one will ever know. We'll never know why it happened. All I know is I lost the best guitar player I've ever played with. He was just fantastic. He was just one of those guys who wasn't long for this world. Ozzy used to say about him, "He ain't gonna make old bones!" I was very glad I knew him (Randy). He was something very special, that's all I can tell you. I feel very happy about the fact that I knew him. I feel happy about the fact that I got on very well with him musically and personally. We were planning great things. We had the next "edition" of the Ozzy saga kind of planned. We used to get together and try out different things. I was older than him. It was the first time I had been in a band where I was significantly older than someone. So, he was like a kid to me. He was so fresh, but he understood everything. I could talk about him all night and I never get the chance.
BB: Well, that's exactly why I wanted to talk to you! Plus, you had the eye witness view of what happened the morning of the accident.
Don Airey: I'm lucky to be here. The plane missed me by inches.
BB: Were you right by the bus?
Don Airey: I was by the bus, then decided to move. When I turned around, there was a plane there! I'll never understand it. I saw Ozzy recently.
BB: Yeah, I heard you stopped by after being on a tour bus and saw where his house was! Did you leave the band on good terms? You were on "Bark At The Moon" as well.
Don Airey: I was on "Bark At The Moon." I left the band because I said to Sharon "Ozzy's killing himself and I don't want to be around another death in the band." and so I left. I did see them recently. I said to my son, "Let's go to the States," so we went to L.A. and stayed with my mate Graham Bonnet, my best friend. We did a 20 date tour in England in 2001. The Graham Bonnet/Don Airey band did a club and theater tour. He was amazing! Anyway, we went to L.A. and stayed with Graham. We went on this bus tour (of Hollywood) and it was very funny. The driver was going past this house with a big black cross and he said to my son, "Now, young man, you'll know who lives here!" So, my son said, "Is it Marilyn Manson?" (both laugh) I just said to myself, "I know that black cross anywhere." So, the guy told me where it was and we drove back afterward and knocked on the door. MTV were just leaving. They had just finished.
BB: You could have been in an episode!
Don Airey: Well, they wanted to film me. But, Sharon wouldn't let them. Quite right too! It was great to see them.
BB: You know, there's one more Randy thing I wanted to ask. Again, forgive me, but, I've never read anything extensive about it from you.
Don Airey: There is nothing I ever said about it.
BB: Sharon has mentioned you as being the "band photographer" on the road. Aren't there pictures that you took that morning?
Don Airey: Yeah.
BB: Do you still have those?
Don Airey: Of course.
BB: Did you take them just when you went up or were they flying around too?
Don Airey: I took a lot of photos.
BB: Did you take some of the scene afterwards?
Don Airey: I went in the house to see if I could get anyone out. There wasn't much left.
BB: I'm sorry, I know it's a heavy thing.
Don Airey: I don't know what to do. I don't know whether to talk about it or not.
BB: You know, this year is the 20th anniversary.
Don Airey: Oh, I know. March 19th of this year is a very difficult day for me. I send flowers every year. We've got pictures of him in our house. I remember him as best I can.
BB: Did you take a ton of pictures throughout the tour?
Don Airey: Yeah, yeah. Tons.
BB: You should do a book because I bet you have some great candid stuff.
Don Airey: I'm doing a book! I think Ozzy and Sharon are so pleased to see me because they might have thought I was going to sue them! (laughs) Everyone else is, but, I wouldn't sue them in a million years.
BB: Don't you think that they are being rightfully sued though, particularly by Bob Daisley?
Don Airey: I don't know. Bob is a very good friend of mine.
BB: But, what do you think of what she did, I say "she" because I'm very positive that Sharon was behind the rerecording of the first two albums. I mean, I don't know the situation like you do, but, I'm assuming that Ozzy didn't just decide to replace the original tracks with his new rhythm section. I'm pretty sure that was her call.
Don Airey: I have no comment.
BB: What about you being on "Blizzard?" Two people that you never even MET are now playing along side you on an album! You don't feel slighted in any way?
Don Airey: The original is still there and that's the one.
BB: Don, come on! This is your forum, man! (laughs)
Don Airey: I've got nothing to say about that. The thing is, it's got nothing to do with me. I'm very proud to have been a part of that album. It was the funniest thing when I did with that session. I went down for two days. I said, "Ozzy, I'll come down for two days, that's all I've got man" because I had to go back to the states. So I turned up and I hadn't met Randy. I didn't know anything about it. So, they played me the stuff. Immediately I went (impressed) "SHIT!"
BB: Did you write the intro to "Mr. Crowley?"
Don Airey: No, what happened was, they said, "We need an intro for this" so I sent them all out. I said, "you lot, just bugger off. Come back in half an hour and I'll have something for you." They all went out and Ozzy kept (hanging around) and I said "Ozzy, go away!" So they all went off. So, we did it and they all came back and I asked them "What do you think?" Ozzy answered, "It's alright man. It's like you plugged into my head!" So, I said, "alright then, onto the next track!"
BB: So, that is yours then, the intro to "Mr. Crowley?"
Don Airey: Oh, yeah. I wrote it. And I wrote "Revelation Mother Earth." So, we finished the first day and it was good. I liked Randy. We had dinner at the studio and the chocolate cake was really nice. It was hash cake and I didn't know! I was out of my brain! There was this program on television about english garden gnomes and I was watching it. I saw the funny side about people who put these little gnomes in their garden. We all ended up on the floor, Ozzy, me, everybody was just flat out hysterical! It was the funniest night of my life!
BB: So, is that madness that led to the funny things at the end of "Crazy Train?" "It's an egg!"
Don Airey: Yeah, yeah. But, they wanted me to play on "Crazy Train" and I told them I had nothing to put on that track. Then we did "Suicide Solution." That was just me and Randy. We did the guitar and Hammond together and that was really cool because at the end it goes so strange. We tracked it live. And Randy, if he liked something he'd say (in mock Randy voice) "Oh woowww!" It was really funny. He was a great kid. He was a greak bloke. I miss him. He's a big hero in my house. My son is a guitar player and Randy is his favorite.
BB: Didn't you just talk to somebody for the Ozzy book they are doing?
Don Airey: Unfortunately, I did. I wish I hadn't. Well, I didn't know who they were. I thought they were someone else. I regret saying anything. I didn't give much away. My book is just going to be funny.
BB: I've always heard that about you that you're always good for a laugh.
Don Airey: Oh, we always have a laugh! I have a good laugh with this band (Purple) too. We just get on so well.
BB: Is it a tough gig musically with Lordy's stuff and all?
Don Airey: What do YOU think?! (laughing) I told them the other day that the Scorpions are making big inroads here so we better do something, so the guys in Purple say, Oh. Well, we're doing "Fireball" and "Knocking On Your Back Door" tonight on the morning of the gig. It's one thing knowing it, but it's another thing going on stage and playing "Fireball" with Deep Purple!
BB: I have to admit, when I heard Jon had left, I couldn't imagine Purple without him. But, I was relieved when I heard that you were the replacement. You are the only person I can think of that has the stature and ability to pull it off. You're the only one I can really see fitting in. I hope the Purple fans see it that way!
Don Airey: Well, yeah, it's something to get over. I'm having a lot of fun!
BB: I hate to keep returning to tragedy, but, I heard that you were actually on the phone with Cozy when his accident happened. Is that true?
Don Airey: No. He called my wife and I, and was on the phone for about 20 minutes. About ten minutes with my wife and ten minutes with me.
BB: Was this while he was driving?
Don Airey: No, he was just at home. It was in the evening. We'd just been working together on something.
BB: Oh, I had heard that you were actually on the phone when it happened.
Don Airey: No, it was about 15 minutes before. We were the last people to talk to him.
BB: That had to hit you so hard. Both his and Randy's accident were so senseless and for no reason at all.
Don Airey: It hit me real hard. My father fought in the Western desert in World War II. When Randy died, I turned to him and he helped me. It's what a lot of people learned about in New York on September 11th. You just don't know what's going to happen next. You don't know. Watch out. You think it's gonna happen to other people, it's gonna happen to you. And if you're not ready for it, it's a hard thing to cope with. We as people these days aren't ready to cope with it because we lead an unreal existence. We live virtual lives. We were just in India with Purple. Now, you want a dose of reality. It's tough times down there. It's utopia over here. This tour has been the most wonderful experience, to see how America has come up. Even in just five years since I toured here. This place is always coming on and improving. But, you don't know what's going on. What happened on September 11th has woken you guys up. And you coped with it. That's what people in England didn't expect. You really coped with it. Hats off! Ozzy just told me about how he was in New York when it happened. He was on the roof of the hotel, he saw it happen. He said he was by the swimming pool and he saw the second plane come in and he's standing there watching and there was this guy sun bathing. The guy said, "Hey man, would you mind moving, you're blocking my light!" (laughs) And the whole thing had just gone up!!
BB: It's always a rediculous situation with Ozzy!
Don Airey: God, you're getting a lot of world exclusives here!!
BB: Well, you know, that's why I'm so suprised that no one has tapped you for any of this stuff. And again, back to the Ozzy period. After the Randy accident everyone is devastated and I know it must've been like, "Keep working and keep focus." But, wasn't it only two or three weeks off and you were right back out on the road with Bernie Torme?
Don Airey: We're all tougher than you think!
BB: Yeah, but, that goes beyond coping, that just had to be surreal to be back out on the road with a new guy right after that happened.
Don Airey: I'll tell you what, we went to L.A. to audition guitarists. I was kind of in charge of finding someone I could teach. It was one guy, then another guy, it was hopeless. Then Bernie came in. He was pretty good. But, it was hard. I walked into the studio, we were in SIR in L.A. I'm standing in the corridor going "help me!" I look down the corridor and I saw this black guy with headphones on standing there. It was Quincy Jones. So, I went over to him and said, "Mr. Jones, I'm sorry to bother you. I'm working here with Ozzy's band." He said, "Oh, hello, nice to meet you." Nice guy. He saw Ozzy and they shook hands. Quincy was mixing an album.
BB: He was mixing "Thriller!!"
Don Airey: He was mixing something big. He said, "When I mix an album, I let them do it. Then they pass me the cassettes and I listen on the walkman outside." I told him, "Man, I'm going through a hard time, what's your advice?" He said, "What do YOU advise?" (laughs) I went "Thank you." (laughs again) He was basically saying he couldn't help me. Bernie was wonderful, but, he just couldn't take the pressure. The whole thing was just so awful.
BB: Do you remember exactly how long he was in it? Was it really only a few weeks?
Don Airey: It was three gigs. That's it. And then Brad Gillis turned up out of nowhere. Brad was wonderful.
BB: So, are you going to delve into all this history as well as the Randy stories in your book, with pictures and everything?
Don Airey: Yeah, yeah. Another funny thing happened at the end when we sent Randy's guitars home. We put them all up and we took pictures of them and then they went home. When the pictures came back, they were all faded and fuzzy. My pictures of it are like they're in a mist. Tommy Aldridge's are the same. It was the weirdest thing. Very odd. He was just a fantastic player and the nicest guy. What can I say about him? He was uncorrupted by the music business. That was the thing about him. He hadn't sold his soul. He was just what he was. When I worked with him, I had to change what I did. I was a British keyboard player. When he would play I would think, "Shit, I don't know what to do with this guy." So, I would say to him, "Hey, don't mind me saying this man, but, what do you want to hear?" Randy would reply, "Something different, something out there." So we would listen to the tapes every night and if he went (in mock Randy voice) "Oh, woowww!" then I'd keep it in. We would do that in the back lounge of the bus with a tape of the gig and I would be playing things I normally didn't do. I read a book about Hendrix once, and it's not that he died, it's that he lived. He did an awful lot in the short time span he had. He affected everyone he ever worked with. None of us will ever get over the fact that he's gone. But, that's the good thing, you don't get over it. You don't forget it. I can still hear him! I can hear it in the back of my head. Ozzy said the same thing. He's still going. The sad thing about what happened that day is that it broke the whole thing apart and no one ever really recovered from it. Ozzy never did. I mean, there was no music really there afterwards. How long has it been? Ozzy is a very talented man. His TV series, I think he deserves it. I watched it and I had sent him a letter after I had seen it and it came back undeliverable. I saw the first episode in England and I just thought it was the most hilarious thing and touching! It's funny, but, at the same time, he's like every parent. The funny thing was, it was a bit of an event in England. My kids and all their friends watched it and had a bit of a party. They were suddenly realizing what I was a part of. And they came to me and I said, "What did you think of it?" and they said, "Dad, we all said the same thing, that you're just like him!" (laughs)
BB: I know you were around when Amy was born, but, you weren't really around when Ozzy and Sharon had their kids.
Don Airey: It was a funny thing. After the tragedy, suddenly we all had children. Tommy Aldridge had twins, I had another son, Amy was born. Then Jack was born on the same day and at the same time as my daughter. Same time, within about five minutes. It's really weird. It was just too intense for me and I left the band.
BB: But, you toured for "Bark At The Moon."
Don Airey: Yeah. I'm enjoying talking to you more than you're enjoying talking to me! (laughs)
BB: Well, than you for saying that. So, what did you do after you left Ozzy?
Don Airey: I was just always working. I was in Jethro Tull for a bit. I was in Whitesnake for a bit. I had a solo album. Then I was with Gary Moore. I was with ELO for a bit. I played with a wonderful guitar player by the name of Uli Jon Roth. A group called Company Of Snakes. There is a thing I'm on in Germany with Gary Barden and Bernie Torme called Silver. Gary is a great friend. We've been friends since the first Schenker album, which I played on and Roger produced it. It's terribly incestuous! Plus, my unsung work with Judas Priest, which I'm very proud of. I'm on "Painkiller" and "Demolition." I've got a website. So, you can check it all out! http://www.donairey.com