Guitar god, Deep Purple guru, and Rainbow ruler Ritchie Blackmore turns 70 today. As an axe-wielder and a gentleman, Blackmore is one of rock’s supreme beings—a superhuman giant in that rarified realm alongside Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, whose influence touches the frets of every hard rock and heavy metal six-string-slinger who will ever follow in his musical wake.
Let’s celebrate Ritchie Blackmore’s 70th with a chronological playlist of seven essential songs that bear his immortal touch.
1. “Hush” – Deep Purple (1968)
Ritchie Blackmore made his initial professional bones as an in-demand studio session player, doing particularly standout work for visionary producer Joe Meek for whom he performed on remarkable tracks by (among others) proto-metal horror-pop weirdo Screaming Lord Sutch.
So when Chris Curtis, drummer for the Searchers (of “Needles and Pins” fame), sought in 1967 to assemble a psych-rock supergroup, Blackmore was naturally recruited on guitar following the signing of Hammond organ wizard Jon Lord.
Blackmore and Lord hit if off so completely that, even when Curtis self-destructed, the guitarist and keyboardist elected to continue building their own perfect beast of a band. Thus was Deep Purple born (the name comes of which from the title of Ritchie’s grandmother’s favorite song).
The group’s debut LP, Shades of Deep Purple, contained the hit “Hush,” a barnburner that skyrocketed to #4 on the U.S. pop charts and launched the band on the myriad twists and turns to come over their next five decades as continually making hard rock history.
2. “Speed King” – Deep Purple (1970)
After a succession of commercial disappointments that might have undone a lesser rock force, Deep Purple upped their game by recruiting vocalist Ian Gillan and soldiering on, in 1970, with the album that would establish their wide-open heavy metal sound, In Rock.
“Speed King” kicks of In Rock with a tidal wave of Blackmore guitar histrionics followed by a hypnotic Jon Lord organ solo. The full band then fully explodes and Ian Gillan erupts like a volcano god leap leaping to life, reducing all he touches with his voice to hot, bubbling lava.
With “Speed King,” the band made it clear that the at-times too polite psychedelia of Deep Purple Mach I is being buried, as you listen, by this avalanche of unstoppable rock. From there, the onslaught just kept on coming.
3. “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple (1972)
It is the riff of riffs. Those thirteen down-tuned guitar strokes that open “Smoke on the Water” have ruled, since its release via the 1972 album Machine Head, as the absolute immediate go-to move for any and all hard rock guitarists, be they just beginners trying to wrap their fingers around an instrument’s neck or superstars noodling around on their longtime money-makers.
In terms of specific doom metal supremacy, the “Smoke on the Water” riff is rivaled only by “Black Sabbath” and “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. Still, even those masterworks don’t just get automatically played every time anyone, anywhere just happens to pick up a guitar.
“Smoke on the Water” itself maintains its initial guitar blast’s sense of wonder, recounting in vivid and precise detail a December 4, 1971 event when the group all went down to Montreux, Switzerland on the Lake Geneva shoreline to make records with a mobile.
Deep Purple’s plans went up in flames after a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention held in the casino complex where Purple was recording got done in when “some stupid with a flare gun/burned the place to the ground.” All anybody could do then was just stare stunned at, indeed, the smoke on the water.
The sheer supreme metal might of “Smoke on the Water” is encapsulted by the fact that it renders In Rock’s mind-melting opening cut, “Highway Star,” merely the second most awesome song on the album.
4. “Burn” – Deep Purple (1974)
Deep Purple Mach III sounds off with the first notes of the “Burn!,” the title track from the group’s 1974 LP of the same name. Blackmore blazes out a dizzying guitar lead with which the band more-than-ably keeps pace. David Coverdale, taking over vocal duties for the departed Ian Gillan, explodes with full-throated power and grace, propelling the song from a crunching rock blowout to an uplifting and inspiring race for the sky.
Blackmore’s solo on “Burn!” is all fleet-fingered precision and gripping intensity. Jon Lord’s keyboards enchant in such a manner that there simply is no other term to describe them. Few songs prove so emotionally involving while never skimping on the full-steam blasts of metal overwhelm.
5. “Stargazer” – Rainbow (1976)
Feeling as though he’d taken Deep Purple everywhere he could, Ritchie Blackmore departed the band in 1975 and launched Rainbow, an outfit named for the Sunset Strip’s signature hard-rock hangout the Rainbow Bar and Grill. He also took ex-Purple bassist Roger Glover with him.
Rainbow’s most crucial early step, however, was acquiring Elf frontman Ronnie James Dio to sing lead. Dio’s one-of-a-kind vocals immediately distinguished the group’s 1975 debut album, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and his sense of operatic possibilities laid the foundation for Rainbow’s 1976 masterpiece, Rising.
Rising constituted an almost entire remaking of Rainbow, with only Blackmore and Dio continuing on from the first record. Armed with drummer Cozy Powell, bass player Jimmy Bain, keyboardist Tony Carey, and the entire Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Rising’s centerpiece is “Stargazer,” an infinitely multi-layered symphony-in-rock that takes the listener all over the universe in eight minutes and 26-seconds of epic splendor that sound, and feel, like absolutely nothing else.
6. “Since You Been Gone” – Rainbow (1979)
Following the success of Rising, Ritchie Blackmore felt pulled in a more commercial direction. He aimed to rock the world with the impact of his contemporary bands that were typically filling stadiums and touching the lives of millions via multiplatinum albums. Ronnie James Dio own muse drew him elsewhere, and so in 1978 he split from Rainbow.
Graham Bennett got the call, and the former singer of rock duo the Marbles pumped Rainbow vividly alive with his extremely radio-friendly, R&B-tinged vocals. Roger Glover also came back on board, not just to play bass, but also to produce the 1970 Rainbow album, Down to Earth.
“Since You Been Gone,” the record’s smash single, is a cover of a 1976 number by former Argent guitarist Russ Ballard. That version also happened to be produced by Roger Glover.
An anthemic break-up lament built upon an utterly irresistible “Louie Louie” chord structure, Blackmore’s guitar wittily punches up the song’s inherent power-pop potency, while Bennett’s invigorating vocals vividly wrap the listener in the almost comical desperation entailed by longing for “the one that got away.”
As a result, “Since You Been Gone” became an instant FM-radio sensation, where it remains in regular rotation on classic rock outlets throughout the planet—and very much deservedly so.
7. “Knocking at Your Back Door” – Deep Purple (1984)
Deep Purple officially disbanded in 1976, scattering its members to various other projects and seemingly leaving the band to be just a summation of its majestic past. Come the mid-’80s, the group felt drawn back to one another, driven by new musical ideas and possibilities that only the classic Deep Purple lineup could bring to proper rocking fruition.
The resulting album, Perfect Strangers, became one of 1984’s definitive records, begetting two hit singles and MTV videos, “Knocking at Your Back Door” and the title cut, and resurrecting Deep Purple as one of hard rock’s most vital powerhouses.
In the two decades since then, Ritchie Blackmore has played with Purple on and off, but he’s since shifted his focus to the medieval folk-music project Blackmore’s Night, which is fronted by his multitalented wife, Candice Night. His legacy, 70 years in, remains ever evolving and ongoing.
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).
[Photo: Getty Images]