Many bands – especially those that have been around for long enough, and Black Sabbath have been around longer than most – have a degree of churn in their line-ups. So who’s up for finding out a bit more about Sabbath’s churn?
Everyone talks about the famous Tony Iommi / Ozzy Osbourne / Geezer Butler / Bill Ward troupe – the ones who kicked it all off, and for the most part ended it as well. It’s been much commented on, including on The Hawk’s blog. So by way of a change we’re going to look at some other famous (or not!!) Sabbath musicians – starting with the Black Sabbath singers.
Let’s start (briefly) with one of the singers most people have never heard of – Dave Walker. Everyone knows Ozzy got fired from Black Sabbath in 1979, the culmination of superhuman booze and drugs binges, with Ozzy alleged to have been the worst culprit.
But, that was actually the second time Ozzy had parted company with the others, having walked out on his own volition once before in 1977. He’d been unhappy during the recording of ‘Technical Ecstasy’, Black Sabbath’s seventh studio album, and an attempt by the band to branch out musically with some up-tempo rockers and more keyboards. (From the Lords of Doom, I know!)
The critics and fans had a collective ‘Meh!’ reaction, and the record didn’t sell that well compared to past numbers. Ozzy had felt like they’d just been going through the motions for commercial reasons, and quit rather than put himself through it all over again. With rehearsals for yet another album already under way, Iommi had to act fast, so brought in Dave Walker, a friend of his most famous for a stint in Fleetwood Mac. (From Fleetwood Mac to the Lords of Doom, I know!)
Walker threw himself enthusiastically into the writing and rehearsal process, and even made a TV appearance with the band, singing ‘Junior Eyes’ on the BBC.
Unfortunately for him, Ozzy had a change of heart in early 1978, and asked to rejoin Sabbath only a few weeks after having left. In what was probably a misjudgment, the others agreed, the temptation to go back to the familiar proving too great. Ozzy refused to sing any of the lyrics Walker had written, so they were basically trashed, new Ozzy-friendly material written, and the next plodding steps of the journey towards their inevitable demise were embarked upon. After seeing himself and his ideas unceremoniously dumped by the wayside, Walker ploughed on gamely with other musical projects on and off – though he never appeared with Black Sabbath again, or had any writing credit on the album he’d worked on with them. It’s a tough old game.
Ronnie James Dio
As said, when Ozzy was eventually fired in 1979, it was amid a total and acrimonious drink and drug fuelled breakdown – an atmosphere Bill Ward called ‘toxic, very toxic.’ And so at that point, there was considerable doubt about whether Black Sabbath would continue at all.
Sabbath’s manager, the gangster-like Don Arden (catchphrase: ‘Legs do break.’) tried for quite some time to persuade Ozzy to rejoin, even though Iommi didn’t want him back. (The others were more ambivalent – Ward was close to Ozzy and was hard hit by his departure. Ward’s own alcoholism went from bad to worse after the firing, of which more shortly.)
But the stars were aligning in other ways. Ronnie James Dio was out of work, broke, and living in Los Angeles wondering what to do with the rest of his life, following his falling out with Richie Blackmore and subsequent departure from Rainbow. Dio’s wife Wendy got to know Don Arden’s daughter Sharon. (Sharon Arden would, of course, go on to be Ozzy’s solo-career manager, and before long his wife, but that’s another story.)
It’s a small world – the Ardens invited the Dios over to their mansion to meet the rest of Black Sabbath, and everyone hit it off, though they didn’t discuss any musical collaboration – Ozzy’s departure hadn’t even been made public at that point.
A Chance Meeting
But plans were forming in Iommi’s mind. He casually dropped into the Rainbow one night, that famous LA diner, legendary hang-out of rock stars, AND the venue for which Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow was named. It was common knowledge that Ronnie James Dio was there most nights, and sure enough, Iommi bumped into him and invited him to listen to an idea for a new song down at the studio.
The riff was played back, Dio, suitably inspired, scribbled out some lyrics, and there was ‘Children of the Sea’ pretty much ready to roll.
The two started collaborating, and were soon churning out new material at an incredible rate. At the start, the thought was that it might just be 2 solo artists working together – everyone had misgivings about resurrecting Black Sabbath without Ozzy. But given the quality of songs, those doubts mostly fell by the wayside – though not with Don Arden, who dumped them completely when it was clear the Ozzy comeback talk was going nowhere. He sold their management contract to someone else, before putting Sharon on the job of managing Ozzy.
But when the dust settled, Dio was IN as the new Black Sabbath singer. By the time they hit the studio, the Iommi / Dio collaboration had churned out almost enough material for an album already, which was to become one of Black Sabbath’s best ever – the classic ‘Heaven And Hell’.
With legendary metal producer Martin Birch at the controls, everyone was delighted with the result. Dio was clearly a better singer with more range than Ozzy, and his epic lyrics with tales of medieval knights, kings and queens took the band to a whole new level with both critics and fans, eventually racking up over a million sales in the US alone. After some of that dodgy late-era Ozzy material that had the fans starting to turn off, they were back with a vengeance.
After ‘Heaven and Hell’ came out, the only obvious cloud on the Horizon was that Dio had still played no live shows as the new frontman of Black Sabbath. Would the fans now accept him when they had loved Ozzy’s showmanship so much?
Much to The Hawk’s surprise, it was the famous Horned Hand of Heavy Metal came to the rescue on that score. Now, Dio isn’t claiming he invented the horned hand, but he does say he was the one who popularized it as a heavy metal gesture. Dio was a New Yorker, but comes from proud Italian-American stock, and it seems his Sicilian grandmother, dear old ‘Gramma’, would show him the same gesture as a way to ward off evil spirits – the ‘Maloik’, she called it.
Dio remembered the gesture from his childhood and adopted it as a new way to connect with the fans. Ozzy had flashed the old ‘Peace’ gesture often enough, so this would be a way to re-invent that, but in an original way for the new boy. Log story short, it went down great guns on tour, culminating in a 4-night run at the Hammersmith Odeon in London where thousands of fans flashed the Maloik in unison every time Dio prompted them by doing it himself.
And now, even 40 years and more later, it’s ubiquitous across heavy metal. Look, even The Hawk is flashing it all over this site, starting right at the top of this page!
Anyway, back from the grave here are Sabbath performing ‘Neon Knights’ in Dio’s home city. Watch for him flashing that Maloik.
The Birth of 80s Metal
Anyway, that was 1980, at the same time as we were getting debut albums from Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. Judas Priest’s ‘British Steel‘. Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades‘. And now ‘Heaven and Hell’ on top of all that. What a time to be alive.
There was even some (relative) harmony in the Black Sabbath camp at the time. Dio was happy to take on press duties and meet the fans, something the others had grown weary of. He even took on the management duties that Iommi, ostensibly the long-term leader couldn’t stomach.
Out of it
The high wasn’t to last though – Dio was out of the band again only a couple of years later. What happened? A combination of things really. Even in the ‘relative’ harmony of the Heaven and Hell camp, Bill Ward’s alcoholism was turning into a serious issue. During a playback of the ‘Neon Knights’ video at an old cinema, he went crazy and started ripping the seats out – turned out his mother had dies days before, resulting in a marathon bender. The old Sabbath members took it all in their stride – see it all before, hadn’t they? Dio wasn’t sure what to make of it though.
On the tour, Ward played well some nights, and was barely there on others. He couldn’t accept playing without Ozzy fronting the band. In the States, he went round in a motorhome instead of by plane with the rest, imbibing drink and drugs the whole time. During that American leg, he quit the band and stormed out ‘forever’ – shows were cancelled for the next week until he could be persuaded to return. Then after another week of playing, he quit again.
Realizing this was unsustainable, the band accepted reality second time round and hired Vinnie Appice to complete the tour.
But even without Ward falling apart in their faces, there were more plenty problems for Sabbath to contend with. For ‘Heaven and Hell’, Dio and Iommi had written more or less everything in a bubble together. Long time writer / lyricist Geezer Butler had been absent during the process. But now, Butler was back, and keen to slot back into his old role for the writing of the next record, ‘Mob Rules’. Dio, who was used to singing his own lines, wasn’t having a bar of that.
Dio and Iommi then fell out over a side deal Dio had been offered to record a solo album at some unspecified future point. It seemed to drive Iommi nuts.
Dio wasn’t heavy on the booze and drugs, so didn’t get wasted with the others like Ozzy used to. The 2 New Yorkers, Dio and Vinnie started hanging out alone, causing more alienation from the rest. Maybe they missed Ozzy by this point. Separate cars were used to get around.
Once the poison has been injected into working relationships, it spreads quickly. Where once, the rest of Sabbath had welcomed Dio’s creative input, commanding presence, and willingness to take on leading roles with the fans and media, they now saw him as a control freak, someone trying to take over THEIR band. Rows between Iommi and Dio escalated into regular screaming matches.
In the midst of all the rows, ‘Mob Rules’ had somehow completed and released, and a tour embarked upon. But whilst everyone had been in raptures about ‘Heaven and Hell’, the new record came out to mixed reviews. It did well commercially, but many saw it as little more than an inferior copy of ‘Heaven and Hell’. Was a song like ‘Turn Up The Night’ just a replica of a dusted off ‘Neon Knights?
Matters came to a head during the production of ‘Live Evil’ during a pause in the ‘Mob Rules’ tour. Legend has it that Dio and Appice would sneak into the mixing studio when the others weren’t there to turn up the vocals and drums in the mix. This seems to be a misunderstanding / exaggeration, but there were certainly real disputes over the production of the album, and it’s no secret that Dio was unhappy with the end result – the overdubs and lack of crowd vibe.
By the time ‘Live Evil’ was released, he was already out of the door. Ultimately, Black Sabbath had never really got to grips with the level of dysfunction that had surrounded them for years, way before Dio joined them. The drugs, the arguments, the pressure. Ronnie James Dio had an ego that ended up clashing with Iommi’s for sure, but really, it’s unlikely anyone could have lasted in the Sabbath environment at the time. Indeed, the pattern would be repeated throughout the 80s.
They wanted a creative genius with a top quality metal voice and a flair for showmanship that could rival Ozzy – all the attributes to deliver the success they thought they deserved. Someone who could steer what was a sometimes listing ship when nobody else could be bothered. And at the same time, someone who, having done all that, would take a back seat whenever the founders’ egos required it.
Can you think of the right candidate? No, me neither. Only Ozzy could ever really fit the bill, and he wouldn’t be available for years to come.
That’s all for the next parts of the story though. As most of you probably know, the Black Sabbath / Ronnie James Dio story was far from over. And in the interim, Dio would hit the straps of his solo career with instant classics like ‘Rainbow in the Dark‘.
So stay tuned for the next part of ‘The Other Black Sabbath Singers’. The link will appear here when it’s ready to go.
In the meantime, let The Hawk play you out with the best track on ‘Mob Rules.’
What’s your view on the first Ronnie James Dio spell with Black Sabbath? Is Heaven And Hell the best, or must that prize go to an Ozzy record? Had you ever heard of Dave Walker? Fleetwood Mac? Spill in the comments below.
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