Updated September, 2013Terry "Geezer" Butler bass guitar
This influential Birmingham group are regarded as the major originators of what became known as "Heavy Metal", a style of music that typically includes a combination of doom-laden lyrics and distortion-heavy guitar riffs, all played at a volume previously unknown to those other than jet aircraft mechanics!
While Black Sabbath's first ground-breaking album wasn't released until 1970, the origins of the group can be traced back to the early 1960s Birmingham beat scene with their musical roots coming directly from jazz, R&B and blues along with the psychedelic influences that followed later in the decade.
John Michael Osbourne was born on December 3rd 1948 at 14 Lodge Road in Aston, Birmingham. He grew up in what was (and still is today) one of the roughest areas of Birmingham. The Osbournes were just one of many similar families living in that area, struggling to get by on a limited income. As one of six kids living in the two bedroom house, the young Osbourne's early years were tough if not traumatic. John's mom worked at the Lucas's factory making car parts, while his father worked shifts as a skilled machine tool operator and ruled the rather crowded Osbourne household with an iron hand.
John Osbourne was a pupil at Birchfield Road Secondary Modern School in Perry Barr. While known as a rebel at school and not well regarded by his teachers, he showed some enthusiasm and talent for acting and singing in the school plays. Unfortunately, this led to teasing by his classmates who called him names like "Ozz-brain" in reference to his last name - this ultimately becoming "Ozzy" by which he is known to this day. Ironically, one of his playground tormentors at the school was a boy named Anthony Iommi who would one day play a huge part in the development of Ozzy's subsequent career.
Ozzy Osbourne left school at age 15 and having no money, took a series of jobs - none of which he liked for very long - that included plumber's apprentice, factory work, and even slaughtering animals for a butcher in Digbeth. Seeking to improve his meagre income, he soon ended up in trouble with the police after getting caught while breaking into and robbing a shop.
Ozzy was charged with burglary and unable to pay the fine, was sent to Birmingham's infamous Winson Green Prison for several weeks. The sentence apparently had little redeeming effect as after release, he was soon in trouble again and charged with assault. Probably the only positive influence in Ozzy's life during the mid 1960s was listening to The Beatles on the radio and thinking he would like to become a professional singer in a band.
Anthony (Tony) Iommi was born on February 19, 1948 and lived on Park Lane in Aston Birmingham. He went to the same school as Ozzy Osbourne and although the two knew each other, they did not get along well at all. Tony Iommi started playing guitar after hearing 'The Shadows' and soon that group's guitarist Hank Marvin became Tony's biggest influence. By 1963 while still in school, Tony had joined his first band called 'The Pursuers'. Like many of his friends, Tony Iommi took on a factory job after leaving school but did not give up the dream of one day "turning pro" with his own band.
Tony Iommi's first 'professional' group was called 'The Rockin' Chevrolets' with the other members being vocalist Neil Cassin, guitarist Alan Meredith, drummer Pat Pegg, and bass guitarist Dave Wadley. The Rockin' Chevrolets played every week at the Bolton Pub in Small Heath and were soon getting many other bookings. Tony Iommi's talent as a guitarist was clearly evident even in those days as the audiences went wild when he played brilliant renditions of instrumental numbers by groups such as The Shadows and The Dakotas. Tony stayed with The Rockin' Chevrolets for about two years until they disbanded. The next group he joined was called 'The Birds & The Bees'.
Tony's new band was offered work over in Germany. Thinking this would be their big break, Tony decided to quit his factory job and go full-time with the band. Then - disaster struck. On his last day at work, Tony Iommi had an accident in which the ends of two fingers on his right hand were sliced off by the machine he was operating. Being left handed, this awful incident could easily have finished his career as a guitarist and at the time, he thought he would never play again.
One of Tony's friends gave him a record by Django Reinhardt, a world-famous jazz guitarist who while a teenager, had lost some fingers after being burned in a fire. Finding inspiration from the record, Tony Iommi resolved to play guitar again and initially tried sewing thimbles on his injured fingers, and then made plastic & leather caps so he could press on the strings. Eventually, through pain and great effort, he was once again playing guitar.
William (Bill) Ward was born in Aston, Birmingham on May 5, 1948 and lived on Witton Lodge Road. He learned to play drums at an early age and by the time he was a teenager was playing in a group at school. Bill Ward was influenced by the great jazz drummers of the time such as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. He started a band called 'The Rest' with some friends and continued with the group after leaving school.
As was the case with many groups, members came and went but when their lead guitarist decided to leave it was Tony Iommi who filled the position in 1965. While The Rest appeared similar to many of the beat groups active in and around Birmingham at that time, there was little indication as to the musical direction that two of its members would eventually follow.
Meanwhile, Ozzy Osbourne had decided to pursue his ambition of becoming a singer and in early 1967 joined a group called 'The Approach'. They apparently developed from an earlier line-up called 'The Music Machine' but had yet to play any proper gigs. Jeff Hibbard was guitarist for the Approach and he remembers going on the bus into town with Ozzy Osbourne to George Clays music shop on Broad Street. Jeff bought a Vox Conquerer guitar amplifier while Ozzy purchased a set of Vox P.A. speakers along with a microphone and stand from a down-payment he had persuaded his father to give him.
The Approach rehearsed in an Aston church cellar where they played R&B covers like 'Knock On Wood' and 'Midnight Hour', sometimes in front of a small audience of friends. Unfortunately, Ozzy Osbourne didn't get along well with other members of the group and left before the band could play any bookings.
Ozzy decided to put an advertisement in a local record shop which read "OZZY ZIG - VOCALIST - LOOKING FOR A BAND - OWNS OWN P.A." The ad attracted the attention of a recently-formed amateur group called 'Rare Breed' who soon enlisted Ozzy as their lead vocalist. The band had been put together by guitarists Roger Hope and Terence Butler who lived close to Ozzy's house. The other members of Rare Breed were Tony Markham (drums), and Mick Hill (bass).
Terence Michael Butler was born on July 17, 1949 in Birmingham and became known as "Geezer" from an early age. He started playing guitar when he was in his late teens - learning rhythm guitar for about six months before becoming a member of Rare Breed. The band actually played a couple of shows with Ozzy before disbanding as some of the other members did not want to give up their day jobs and go at it full-time.
Geezer Butler decided to switch from rhythm to bass guitar after being inspired by bassist Jack Bruce from the well known group Cream whose members also included legendary drummer Ginger Baker and guitarist Eric Clapton. As Geezer could not afford to buy a bass guitar, he temporarily solved the problem by removing two strings from his electric guitar and re-tuning the remaining ones.
By early 1968, Tony Iommi had left The Rest and successfully auditioned as guitarist for a Carlisle-based group called Mythology. He was soon joined in this band by Bill Ward whom Tony had recommended to the group's bass guitarist Neil Marshall and vocalist Chris Smith. Tony Iommi had by this time, developed a more blues-based guitar playing style that had a strong Jimi Hendrix influence and the band was playing heavier sounding music which included material by groups such as The Yardbirds and Cream. Mythology didn't gain a lot of attention in Birmingham but were very successful in Carlisle where the band all lived in the same flat.
Mythology disbanded before the end of 1968, so Tony Iommi and Bill Ward decided to form a new blues-based group. Tony and Bill both knew Geezer Butler who lived close by so invited him to play bass guitar. Geezer suggested they should try his former bandmate Ozzy Osbourne from Rare Breed as vocalist. Tony was dismayed to find it was the same Ozzy he had once picked-on in school and was at first reluctant about having him in the group. To make matters worse, Ozzy had also decided to become a skinhead and had shaved off all his hair! Despite this and with the addition of saxophonist Alan Clarke and guitarist Jim Phillips, the new line-up started rehearsing and was named 'The Polka Tulk Blues Band'.
After a short time it became apparent that the Polka Tulk line-up was not working out. Tony's heavy blues style of playing left little room for a second guitarist and the saxophone just did not fit the new format. The band broke up but reformed a short time later as a four-piece under the new name of 'Earth'. The group now consisted of Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward.
Even at this stage, Tony Iommi had doubts about the line-up. He reportedly played a gig with another local group called Velvett Fogg before auditioning for and getting a job with the well-known folk-rock group Jethro Tull. Disliking their management, Tony stayed with that band for only a week or two - just long enough to appear on the Rolling Stones 'Rock & Roll Circus' film before deciding to go back to Birmingham and continue with Earth.
In 1969, new groups like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were attracting a lot of attention from both the music press and the public. This was partly because of the loud volume generated on-stage by these bands and 'Earth' certainly gained a reputation early on for their loud performances. Difficulties for the group were encountered in securing bookings as most of the pubs and clubs in Birmingham at that time still catered to a pop audience.
One well known story about Earth involved them being hired to play at an upscale club in Birmingham and while the group was setting up they were told the audience was looking forward to a performance of the band's latest single. The group was initially confused about this request as they had not made any records but soon realized that the club's management had mistaken them for another band which had a similar name and was currently in the charts. As can be imagined, Earth's performance at the club that night was not well received and they were promptly banned from ever appearing there again!
Jim Simpson was a well known musician and band manager in Birmingham. He was manager and trumpet player of the pop group Locomotive who had a minor hit record in 1968 with Rudi's In Love and also worked as photographer for the Midland Beat newspaper. Jim Simpson had opened a new club in Birmingham at the corner of Hill Street and Station Street called 'Henry's Blues House'.
Led Zeppelin were one of the first bands to play at Henry's so thinking this might be a good opportunity, the members of Earth approached Jim to see if they could perform there too. Jim Simpson was at that time managing local bands Bakerloo Blues Line and Tea & Symphony. It was obvious that Earth needed a manager who understood their music so Jim allowed them to open for the well-known band Ten Years After at his club. The audience response to Earth's performance was favourable so Simpson also agreed to manage them.
Jim Simpson sent the group over to Germany to appear at the legendary Star Club in Hamburg where many well-known British bands including The Beatles had originally performed before they became famous. Earth had to play several 45 minute shows per day and although much of it consisted of extended blues jams and improvisation, the German audiences loved it.
To avoid future confusion with any other band, it was decided that a new group name should be selected. Geezer Butler came up with 'Black Sabbath' after seeing an advertisement for a horror film of that name and it was agreed by all to be a good choice. The band had started to compose original material by this time - much of it evolving from extended bass or guitar riffs supplied by Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi. This, along with Ozzy Osbourne's ever-more-manic and foreboding vocals and Bill Ward's well-placed drumming, combined to form a unique sound that fitted well with their new name and dark image. It was a sound that would soon have far-reaching influence on many other bands for decades to come.
The band's controversial name naturally attracted attention though not all of it was welcome. Black Sabbath had a request from a group of 'Satanists' who wanted them to perform at their annual ceremony held at Stonehenge. The band politely refused the request but were later informed that the cult leader had placed a "hex" on them. Fearing for their lives, Ozzy Osbourne asked his father to make a metal cross for each band member and these were worn around their necks as protection.
The crosses soon became a well known symbol for Black Sabbath although the band always denied having any religious associations or an active involvement in the occult - Tony Iommi explaining they were "Just a band that played heavy music".
While Black Sabbath were gaining recognition and a larger audience, there was little money available and the group members sometimes had to rely on their parents or friends for support. The band had purchased an old ambulance as transportation for themselves and their equipment and would often cause gasps and stares from passers-by when they emerged from the vehicle, all dressed in black with crosses round their necks and long hair that barely revealed their faces.
In late 1969, successful record producer and promoter Tony Hall went to a Black Sabbath performance and was impressed enough to arrange for them to go to London and make some demo recordings. One track recorded by the band at Regent Sound Studios was their cover of a song called 'Evil Woman' that was issued as a single on the Fontana Records label in January of 1970.
The band was then provided with one day of studio time in which to record an album of original material - most of which had been composed and rehearsed during the previous six months. Unfortunately, few record companies were enthusiastic about the resulting album so it took a lot of effort on Jim Simpson's part before he found one that would agree to release it.
The first track on the album was a doom-laden number entitled 'Black Sabbath' which was introduced by sounds of a thunderstorm and the distant tolling of a church bell. The ambience is suddenly shattered by an incredibly powerful bass and guitar riff, repeated in unison over a wonderful background of drum dynamics. Ozzy Osbourne's menacing vocals ranged from a dark murmer to screaming bursts of emotion throughout the recording. No one had heard anything like it. The other tracks on the album displayed a similar quality with each group member sharing equal prominence on the recordings.
On February 6th 1970, just a week before the release of the album, Black Sabbath performed at the legendary and influential 'Mothers' club in Birmingham - their first of several appearances there. The club was formerly Erdington's Carlton Ballroom where the Moody Blues had played regularly before making the big time.
No one, including the group themselves, expected the Black Sabbath album to sell many copies as they were at this time still very much an underground attraction. Amazingly, the LP record which was released on the Vertigo Records label, climbed to the number 8 position in the album charts and also got to number 23 in the U.S.A.
Black Sabbath were soon sent over to the United States for a tour but found the American audience lethargic when they played at a show in New York. The band put in a typically energetic and loud performance but got little reaction from the audience. Out of frustration, Bill Ward picked up his bass drum and threw it into the watching crowd who then went wild in response. Black Sabbath ended up doing seven encores that night. By the time the band reached Los Angeles on the West Coast, Black Sabbath had become a big success in America.
This success was further consolidated later that year when Black Sabbath had their second album release which became an instant classic. It included the hit single 'Paranoid' that got to No. 4 in the U.K. during August of 1970, remaining in the charts for 18 weeks. The band would spend the next several years touring the world and recording top-selling albums but the success did not come without cost. On-going problems with management along with alcohol and drug abuse would eventually take its toll on the group. They are, however, recognized by many as the prototype "heavy metal" band.
Ozzy Osbourne left Black Sabbath in 1978 and was replaced by a succession of well known singers which included American vocalist Ronnie James Dio and Deep Purple's Ian Gillan. Bill Ward was forced to leave Black Sabbath due to ill health and replacements have included legendary drummers Cozy Powell (see Young Blood) and Birmingham's own Bev Bevan (formerly of The Move and E.L.O.).
Tony Iommi continues to be a major inspiration for millions of young guitarists all over the world. These days, he leads the present line-up of Black Sabbath, a band that still manages to pack stadiums whenever they go on tour.
Ozzy Osbourne became hugely successful as a solo artist during the 1980s and has recorded several multi-million selling albums backed by his own band aptly named 'The Blizzard of Ozz'. After a divorce from his first wife, he married Sharon Arden - daughter of notorious pop music manager Don Arden.
Sharon became Ozzy's manager and in 2001, Ozzy and Sharon became the subject of an American "reality TV" show called The Osbournes in which their day-to-day family life was recorded and shown on the MTV network. Incredibly, the show gained a massive audience, resulting in Ozzy Osbourne and his family becoming major stars on American television. Not bad for someone who once shared the bedroom of a small house in Aston with five brothers and sisters!
Copyright © John R Woodhouse
Thanks to Jeff Hibbard, Roger Hope and Neil Marshall for assistance in preparing this Black Sabbath biography.
Black Sabbath 1960s Record Releases
Some official Black Sabbath related websites are listed below:
Ozzy Osbourne: www.ozzy.com
Tony Iommi: www.iommi.com
Bill Ward: www.billward.com
Geezer Butler: www.geezerbutler.com
Tony Iommi's official autobiography was published in 2011. The book title is; 'Iron Man - My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath'. Written by Tony Iommi with assistance from T.J. Lammers (Da Capo Press ISBN: 978-0-306-81955-1). This book is well recommended to fans of Black Sabbath and is a fantastic read full of great stories and details in the life of one of the most influential guitarists of all time. Available in good book shops and on line. Check out Tony Iommi's official web site for more details at: www.iommi.com
To read more about Black Sabbath's early years, the book "HOW BLACK WAS OUR SABBATH" ISBN 0330411942 written by David Tangye and Graham Wright is highly recommended. For more information, visit their web site at www.blacksabbath.co.uk
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