Discovering the ‘Other’ Black Sabbath Singers – Part 3

My project

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 – PART 3. (Check out Part 2 here).

The Unknowns

Back at the end of Part 2, we had left off with Black Sabbath having parted company with Ian Gillan so that he could return to his Deep Purple comfort zone. Gillan’s stay in Sabbath was shortish, but not disastrous by any means (especially compared with what was now to follow). They’d had some fun, made a record, toured it. Things were often chaotic, and getting on with Tony Iommi for any length of time was seemingly impossible for any singer. But they somehow held it together.

But anyway, when Gillan left, the wheels fell off in a big way. We’re now in mid-1984, and first cab off the rank was a David Donato, who auditioned with Sabbath in LA and recorded a demo with them. Iommi disputes that Donato was ever an ‘official’ member of the band, but he ended up in a Kerrang magazine photo shoot with them, and is generally included in band biographies. But whatever you think about that, it didn’t work out for long enough to get to any serious recording, and Donato had to walk. Have a listen – he’s ok, but not really a guy who was ever going to take them back to their career highs.

Some guy called Jeff Fenholt also claimed to be a Sabbath singer for a few weeks in early 85, and again, a couple of demos were made, but it never went any further. The Hawk actually prefers Fenholt to Donato as a vocalist, but neither were a patch on what had gone before. ‘This isn’t Black Sabbath’, said Bill Ward on his own way through the exit door. Indeed.

Another ‘Solo Project’

What next? Iommi decided to start from scratch and put together a new band for a ‘solo project’, and avid readers of The Hawk’s ‘Other Black Sabbath Singers’ series may guess where this is heading, as there is a certain pattern forming. And yes, that continued – the project ended up with an album (Seventh Star, 1986) being released yet again under the ‘Black Sabbath’ banner for marketing purposes. Black Sabbath’s long time gangster-cum-manager Don Arden insisted, and that was that.

The singer on ‘Seventh Star’ was Glenn Hughes, who was at least familiar to fans from his own Deep Purple days. And there were arguably a couple of decent songs on the album – see ‘No Stranger to Love’ as an example. The issue is that it just doesn’t sound like Black Sabbath. Crooning ballad. Harmonized vocals. Where’s the darkness? The heaviness? In short, nowhere. Tony Iommi appears in the video for this single looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.

Ill Fated

The heavy metal gods must have agreed that the whole thing was ill fated. Hughes got into a physical fight in a bar with Sabbath’s production manager, and came out of it worse, ending up with a broken eye socket only days before they were due to go on tour. The injury left him unable to sing properly, and he had to quit the tour after just a few shows. Yet another replacement was brought in, this time Ray Gillen (no relation to Ian).

By this time, though, the fans were starting to vote with their feet (and their wallets) – many tour dates ended up being cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Gillen gamely finished the tour and then went into the studio for the next album, but the problems wouldn’t go away. Gillen wasn’t a great lyricist. Bassist Dave Spitz walked out because of personal issues. Replacement Bob Daisley turned up briefly, before walking out himself and taking drummer Eric Singer with him. The icing on the cake was when Gillen himself left the band just as they were wrapping things up. It meant that the album in question, ‘The Eternal Idol’ wasn’t  released with Gillen’s vocals on it, but there are recordings still around. Here’s one – at least it captures a little of the dark vibe that Sabbath made their name with.

Singer Stability

At this point, you wouldn’t have blamed Iommi for throwing his hands in the air and binning the whole thing – album, band, the lot. Instead, he hired Tony Martin to be (by The Hawk’s count), Black Sabbath’s 8th singer if you include the guys who only managed demos. Martin was determined to make his own mark, and so all the vocals on ‘The Eternal Idol’ were recorded word for word and note for note. Just for the sheer hell of it, so that we can all compare, here’s the ‘official’ version of the title track, this time with Martin’s vocals. And it’s a step up. Martin brings a range and power that had been sadly lacking of late.


But now as if there had not been enough problems, the band decided to really shoot themselves in the foot. Martin’s first task as a live performer with Sabbath was to sing in 6 shows in Sun City, a rich (and very white) paradise in the middle of apartheid South Africa. God only knows what possessed them. The drummer at the time, Bev Bevan refused to play, and the whole episode was the last straw for even the fans who’s stuck around for this long.

When ‘The Eternal Idol’ was released, it bombed to the point where Black Sabbath were dropped by their record label. On the plus side, they had found a bit of vocal stability for the first time in years, as Martin would stay around for 3 albums in total, with ‘The Headless Cross’ and ‘Tyr’ following. Both those 2 records had some highlights – many people thought ‘Headless Cross’ was the best record to come out since Ronnie James Dio had left. (A low bar, you might say, and The Hawk would not argue).

‘Tyr’ is more patchy, an album with lots of Norse mythology ideas running through it (a departure from the time honoured Satan themes). It also features the abomination ‘Feels Good to Me‘, which has nothing to do with Norse mythology, and not much to do with heavy metal for that matter. The band said it was always supposed to be a single, and didn’t fit in musically, but that’s a pretty crappy defense. Far better is ‘Jerusalem’, which Martin must have liked as well, as he put a version on a solo album, ‘Back Where I Belong’ a few years later.

Touring Drought Continues

Unfortunately, neither album could tempt the fans to fork out for concert tickets, at least not in sufficient numbers to make things viable. After ‘The Headless Cross’, the US tour lasted only 8 shows before it was canned due to poor sales. Europe was a little better though, and Sabbath made a little piece of history by being one of the first bands to make a tour of Russia – 23 dates following the opening up of the country in the prelude to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

The tour for Tyr was even worse – even at home in the UK, several shows had to be cancelled because sales had bombed, and the band did not even attempt a US leg – the first time in their entire careers that they had stayed away from what used to be their most lucrative destination.

No more new guys

Tony Martin was the last of the ‘new’ Black Sabbath singers – although the merry-go-round would keep turning for quite some time to go, as Sabbath thrashed around trying to recapture past glories in various different ways.

Ronnie Dio and Geezer Butler did a version of Neon Knights at a Dio show, and afterwards, decided to try and convince Tony Iommi to bring them both back into Black Sabbath.

The plan worked – Iommi fired Tony Martin and bassist Neil Murray, and Butler and Dio were back. Not long afterwards, they were joined by Vinnie Appice on drums, and suddenly, we had something resembling a ‘proper’ Black Sabbath line up again. The creative tension that had seen Dio leave the band first time around had gone nowhere, however, and tensions crackled from the outset, and songs were re-written endlessly.

‘It was something we had to really wring out of ourselves, but I think that’s why it works. Sometimes you need that kind of tension, or else you end up making the Christmas album.’

The end result was ‘Dehumanizer’, which turned out to be their biggest seller in years, helped by the recognizable lineup, and a plug for the song ‘Time Machine’ in the Wayne’s World movie.

Circus Reunion (Almost)

The Dehumanizer tour was also going well – too well. Ozzy Osbourne had announced his first retirement tour of many, and invited Black Sabbath to open for him at the last couple of shows. Black Sabbath as support for their erstwhile singer – that must have been hard to swallow. But nostalgia is a powerful force, and most of them agreed to do it. Not Dio though, who refused flat out to perform with ‘that clown.’

Dio figured that having the original line-up back in the same venue (even if not on stage at the same time) would be an inevitable precursor to a reunion, and wasn’t going to let himself be the stooge in that particular performance. He quit Sabbath (again) right before the mooted Ozzy support shows – Judas Priest’s Rob Halford had to fill in at the last minute.

But Dio was to be proved (almost) – the original Black Sabbath quartet did indeed announce a reunion, though Ozzy quickly got cold feet and backed out. Awks!!

The Wheel

There’s this game show on TV called The Wheel, where 3 contestants sit below stage. One gets lifted up at random to play, then busted down if they get a question wrong, at which point the whole process repeats.

The Hawk doesn’t know whether the show’s producers were Black Sabbath fans, but wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where they got the idea. Because look who’s coming back up though the trapdoor now. Why, it’s Tony Martin, back for another 5 year and 2 album stint. (‘Cross Purposes’ and ‘Forbidden’ if you still have the energy.)

And what’s this?

It wasn’t even supposed to be a Sabbath album; I wouldn’t have even done it under the pretence of Sabbath. That was the time when the original band were talking about getting back together for a reunion tour. Tony and myself just went in with a couple of people, did an album just to have, while the reunion tour was (supposedly) going on. It was like an Iommi/Butler project album.

Geezer Butler

You know where this is going, right? Yep, pressure from the record label meant it came out as another Black Sabbath album. Butler did the tour, but then walked out disillusioned again. Blach Sabbath – the band personification of history repeating itself.

‘Cross Purposes’ isn’t particularly inspiring, though it does at least recapture a somewhat authentic Sabbath sound.

Real Reunion

‘Forbidden’ actually reunited the ‘Tyr’ lineup – with the underwhelming results you might therefore expect. But now Tony Martin has got a question wrong, because he’s being lowered down through the trapdoor. Who will be next to appear? Why it’s Ozzy himself, in the first big reunion. (Martin later claimed that ‘Forbidden’ was nothing other than a paint-by-numbers filler that would allow Sabbath to complete a record company contract and facilitate the reunion. But they obviously didn’t tell him that at the time.)

So Ozzy was back – they did some live shows, and the live album ‘Reunion’ with a couple of new studio tracks on it came out in 1998. Bill Ward played a few of the shows when his health permitted. It was just like old times.

Solo commitments, especially for Ozzy, meant that no new studio album was released at this point. Sorry Ozzy, that’s an incorrect answer, so down through the trapdroor for you. Next on the way up, it’s ….. Ronnie Dio again.

Mind you, this time, they did all manage to follow through on changing the name of the project – the band now calling themselves ‘Heaven and Hell’, after their most successful Dio album back in the day. Though confusingly, the only album that got recorded, 2009’s ‘The Devil You Know’ was made by the same lineup that had recorded and released ‘Dehumanizer’ as Black Sabbath. Still with me? Great.

Final Reunion

Dio died from cancer the year after release, tragically. But this had the side effect of opening the way for another reunion with Ozzy. Everyone was super coy about the prospect, but sure enough, it happened with a bid reunion announcement in 2011. Health issues delayed proceedings a bit, but in May of 2012, Sabbath played their first gig with Ozzy since 2005. An album, ’13’, followed in June 2013 which topped the charts in both the UK and the US. Sabbath were back indeed.

And that, miraculously, is the end of the story as far as singer changes are concerned. It’s been a journey, even as a 3-parter. If you’ve kept up with it all, congratulations – The Hawk felt his own head might explode at some points trying to keep up with it all. They are indeed a very historied band.

What’s your favourite singer / era combination for Black Sabbath? Tell us in the comments below.   

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