June 18, 2018

FTV: Ritchie Blackmore


    Ritchie Blackmore claims that there are two or three of him.  He even has a hospital surveillance video to prove it. The police visited him recently and asked if he was the man pictured in the video and if he was, was he feeling okay?  Noting that perhaps having people impersonate you is ‘one price of fame’, Blackmore assured them that it wasn’t him. Having followed Blackmore’s career since the days of the Mark II Deep Purple lineup that brought us classic albums like 1972’s Machine Head and Made in Japan, I suggest that a lot of people might think there maybe more than one Ritchie Blackmore.  Depending which sources one read over the years, he has more personalities than poor Sybil.   Even the editor of Guitar World magazine had this to say when setting up the feature article they ran on Blackmore in their June 2018 issue:  “(Blackmore) has something of a reputation in our industry, a reputation for being at times difficult, short-tempered, maybe even downright irascible, particularly when dealing with the press (as well as some former bandmates, if you were to ask them).  Having said that, the truth is that Guitar World’s relationship with Ritchie over the years has been nothing short of pleasant . . . Still, I went into this (interview) with a large degree of trepidation – nervous that it would all fall apart before the interview took place – nervous that he would take offense at something that was asked or said . . . but our chat lasted nearly two hours and covered various facets of Ritchie’s career . . . Ritchie’s reputation may precede him, but he’s always been a prince with us.”

    Fair enough.  At age 71, Ritchie Blackmore doesn’t seem to waste much energy on what other people think about him.  He fully acknowledges that he has not always been the easiest musician to work with: “I’m quite domineering.  I like to steer the bus” is how he phrased it for Guitar World.  His comments on working with singer Ronnie James Dio and drummer Cozy Powell in the first version of his post Deep Purple band Rainbow shine a little bit of light on where the reputation for being difficult may come from.  The line about being domineering came up as he discussed the first incarnation of Rainbow: “With Ronnie James Dio, in the beginning of Rainbow, everything was fine. He was a great singer. But, he didn’t have a lot of patience.  So we kind of got on each other’s nerves after two or three years. And with (drummer) Cozy Powell, he was a pretty uptight guy, too. So after a few years, we were arguing too much and weren’t as creative. That’s when the first lineup folded.”  What was reported at the time came out more like, “The mercurial Ritchie Blackmore folded Rainbow” without regard to the reasons why the band went under. Blackmore further explained, “Following that, I wanted to be more accessible and on radio. So that’s when we started recording stuff like the ballads I wrote with Joe Lynn Turner.  He had more of a commercial voice.” I do believe that it was the Joe Lynn Turner fronted band that was scheduled to perform in Marquette with Blue Oyster Cult back in the late 1970s. Rainbow canceled, forcing BOC to play a two set show (which was terrific, I might add), but again, “Blackmore pulls out of Marquette show” was the only explanation given.

    Blackmore spent a number of years divorced from rock and roll touring when he and his wife, Candice Night, formed Blackmore’s Night.  Performing Renaissance music may seem to be a major shift in direction for Blackmore, but he claims that he has had an interest since the first time he heard Greensleeves at age ten.  Unlike Medieval or Baroque music, he likes the organic quality of Renaissance music, particularly when played with woodwind and brass instruments like schwams, sackbuts, and crumhorns.  He favors guitar, hurdy gurdys, and mandolas when trying to recreate his version of music from that period. Blackmore finds that some dismiss what he plays with Blackmore’s Night (people he calls ‘purists’) saying, “‘That’s not Renaissance music’, but no one actually knows what Renaissance music is actually like ‘cause they weren’t there.”  

    Blackmore’s wife discovered current Rainbow vocalist Ronnie Romero on YouTube.  The Chilean-born singer was asked to come and visit them in Germany. After running through a few Rainbow tunes acoustically, Blackmore thought, “You know, it might be interesting to do a few shows, just for old time’s sake,  Basically nostalgia.” The live performances they recorded in 2017 are being released as a CD/DVD package called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow:  Memories in Rock II. Blackmore doesn’t see this lineup recording any new music, but having a band that can do a handful of shows every once in a while pleases him after concentrating on Blackmore’s Night for the past twenty years:  “I think this new incarnation also has the capability of being quite commercial, if we want to be, with Ronnie Romero’s voice. But at the same time, we can try all the good songs that Rainbow has done in the past . . . just going out and having fun playing all the old songs to the fans who would normally not hear it.”  He also professes to not be tired of playing Smoke on the Water due to a couple of factors:  “Maybe because I haven’t played it probably for 20 years, because I’ve been focused on Blackmore’s Night.  I mean I’ve played it off and on, but I haven’t been in a band that’s playing it every night on tour.” Secondly, when they do play Smoke, they begin with the verse and chorus instead of the iconic guitar intro:  “I do prefer playing it with the verse first and coming in with the impact of the riff later. . . although it is funny, because sometimes people in the audience don’t know what we’re playing when we start out with the verse.”

    The classic Blackmore stage set up was a Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall stack, but interestingly enough, he started out playing a Gibson 335 guitar through a Vox amplifier.  He switched to a Stratocaster because he liked the way it looked after seeing Jimi Hendrix play one. One of Eric Clapton’s roadies sold him a Strat that Clapton had given him and he has been a Strat man ever since.  He frequented Jim Marshall’s music store and mentioned that future Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell was working behind the counter there when Blackmore bought his Gibson 335 guitar. Blackmore also visited the Marshall factory frequently to act as a sounding board for their technicians as they tried to build an amp that sounded like the Vox units he was using.  Blackmore’s test sessions were so loud that the factory workers would often leave, that is until they built a sound proof test room for him to to use when trying out the amps.

    According to Blackmore, “One of the secrets that they will deny to this day – ‘cause they told me they would – was that they could not come up with the sound that I wanted.  I wanted this Vox sound which was very distorted and very cutting, but seemed to have a bass resonance. And they just couldn’t get that. So in the end they said, ‘What we’re going to do is get one of our combo amps and we’ll take out the innards and put in the Vox innards.  So you’ll actually be playing a Vox, but it’ll say Marshall.’ That was the big secret of the day.” Eventually they got it right by hot-rodding a 200-watt amp into a fatter sounding 280-watt amp. “For the first probably five years of Deep Purple – ‘70 to ‘75 – I did have the loudest amp in the world,” says Blackmore.

    Blackmore has at times performed with orchestras going back to Purple organist Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969), but as he remembered the experience:  “I was set next to the violinists, and you could see that they hated every note I played.  ‘Cause it was just too loud. I didn’t do too many of those after that, because I just found it very awkward – to have to play so quietly.  And I am not a schooled reader.” As the discussion segued into reading music, and the Guitar World writer mentioned that (Ricky Nelson’s guitar player) James Burton claimed that he could read music, but “Not to where it hurts my playing.”  Blackmore mentioned that the main riff in the Deep Purple song Black Night actually was written around Nelson and Burton’s version of their 1962 song Summertime.  The writer pointed out the riff also appears in the Blues Magoos song We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet (a band Blackmore wasn’t familiar with) and Blackmore countered that the introduction of Hendrix’s rendition of Hey Joe was also straight out of the Nelson/Burton catalog.  Blackmore might be revered as a rock guitar innovator, but he is humble enough to give credit to those who came before.  What he laments, however, is how much easier it is now for new guitarists to learn from their elders.

    In their discussion about players needing to know their rock history, Blackmore commented, “I think back to when I was starting out and I’d listen to a solo by Cliff Gallup from Gene Vincent’s band and try to figure out the notes.  Whereas now, not only are you told the notes, you get the video of how to play it on YouTube. It takes all the secrets away. All the things that you had to work so hard for are much easier to obtain. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.”  Even the availability of good guitars at an affordable price has removed some of the hardship that Blackmore feels he needed to fuel his development as a guitar player: “When I was starting with an acoustic guitar, I’d put a pickup on it by the time I was 11.  By the time I was 13, I had two pickups on it, My own wiring and everything . . . I think they’re missing out on the hardship.”

    Ritchie Blackmore may have had his share of dust-ups with various bandmates over the years, but he hasn’t let any of it sour his love for playing music.  He won’t do long tours anymore because he doesn’t have to. Touring the current line up of Rainbow is done with an eye toward smelling the roses, not pushing album sales:  “I want to go play in places that I’d like to visit, have a look around, stay in a few castles and have a good time.” As for keeping up with who’s who in the guitar universe?  “I always read the guitar magazines when I travel. And I always get a bit nervous because I read about so many brilliant guitar players.” The reviewer reminded him, “‘There’s only one Ritchie Blackmore,” prompting Blackmore to reply, “Actually, I’ve heard that there’s three,” which we explained in this FTV’s opening paragraphs.

    The Memories in Rock II package was new information at the time this article was being researched.  Good money says it will be airing on WOAS-FM when the fall broadcast season rolls around.

Top Piece Video:  Ritchie Blcxkmore’s Rainbow in 2018 from Memories In Rock