Although they were despised by Rock critics and virtually ignored by radio station programmers, Black Sabbath was the top Heavy-Metal band of the seventies, selling over eight million albums before lead singer Ozzy Osbourne departed for a solo career in 1979. Mixing ear splitting volume and ominous pronouncements of doom and gloom, the group took the Blues-Rock sound of forerunners like Cream, Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge to a whole other level, giving birth to a musical style that has continued to attract fans decades later.
The band was formed in 1968 by four teenage friends from Aston, England; Anthony "Tony" Iommi (b. Feb 19, 1948) on guitar; William "Bill" Ward (b. May 5, 1948) on drums; John "Ozzy" Osbourne (b. Dec 3, 1948), lead vocals; and Terence "Geezer" Butler (b. Jul 17, 1949), on bass. They originally called their Jazz-Blues band Polka Tulk, later renaming themselves Earth, then in 1969, to Black Sabbath. The final moniker came from the title of a song written by bassist Geezer Butler, a fan of occult novelist Dennis Wheatley.
Performing extensively in Europe, they soon attracted attention for their live performances and record labels began to show interest. Phillips Records signed them in 1969 and in January 1970, the Phillips subsidiary Fontana released their debut single, a cover version of Crow's "Evil Woman (Don't Play Your Games With Me)", which failed to chart. The following month, another Phillips subsidiary, Vertigo, released Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album, which soared into the U.K. Top Ten. Warner Brothers Records licensed the band's recordings for release in America and the LP was issued in May, 1970. By August it had cracked the Top 40, topping out at #23 and remained on the charts for over a year, selling more than a million copies.
A second album, "Paranoid" was released in September 1970 and went straight to the top of the U.K. chart. The title track, issued as a single in advance of the LP, reached #4. In the U.S., where the first album had just begun to sell. "Paranoid" was held back until January 1971. By March, despite receiving virtually no air-play, it broke into the Top Ten and remained on the Billboard Hot 200 for over a year, eventually selling over four million copies. The title track and one called "Iron Man" were issued as singles, but neither made the U.S. Top 40. "Master of Reality", the third album, came in August 1971 and reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic, selling over a million copies. "Black Sabbath, Vol. 4" was next, issued in September 1972 and also became a Top Ten million-seller. Rick Wakeman of the British progressive Rock band Yes recorded one track for the next L.P., "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (November 1973). Considered by some to be the band's signature album, it went on to become Black Sabbath's fifth straight Top Ten hit and million-seller.
In spite of the band's name, as well as songs dealing with death, destruction and apocalypse, the group insisted their interest in the black arts was nothing more than innocuous curiosity, and in time Black Sabbath's princes-of-darkness image faded. After some managerial troubles that idled them for much of 1974, they returned in July, 1975 with their sixth album, "Sabotage". The effort was immediately welcomed in their home country, but in the U.S., the musical climate had changed when Disco and dance oriented music captured the attention of record buyers. The L.P. cracked the Top 20 of The Billboard Hot 200, but sales did not match previous levels. Sensing their decline in popularity, Black Sabbath's record labels issued a double-LP compilation called "We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll" in December, 1975. The album sold over a million and the band was encouraged to adapt a more pronounced change of musical style, which caused friction between guitarist Toni Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne.
October 1976 brought "Technical Ecstasy", which introduced Iommi's interest in horns, but frustrated Osbourne and eventually led to him quitting the band. He was replaced for a few live dates by former Savoy Brown vocalist Dave Walker, but returned in January 1978. Black Sabbath recorded its eighth album, "Never Say Die!" (September 1978), and the title track became a U.K. Top 40 hit before the LP's release, and "Hard Road" made the Top 40 afterwards. The singles however did not improve the album's commercial success, which was again modest, and Osbourne left Black Sabbath for a solo career. He was replaced in June 1979 by former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio (b. June 10, 1949). Keyboardist Geoff Nichols also became a regular part of the band's touring and recording line-up, though he was not officially confirmed as a band member until later.
When the new lineup released "Heaven And Hell" in April 1980, die hard fans were waiting, resulting in a U.S. million seller. In the U.K. it reached the Top 10 and spawned two hit singles, "Neon Knights" and "Die Young". Capitalizing on their resurgence, Black Sabbath's former record label issued a five-year old concert album, "Black Sabbath Live at Last", that was quickly withdrawn, but not before making the U.K. Top 5. "Paranoid" was also re-released as a single, getting it into the Top 20.
Unfortunately, drummer Bill Ward was forced to leave the band because of health problems and was replaced by Vinnie Appice, brother of Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice. The lineup of Iommi, Butler, Dio, and Appice recorded "Mob Rules" (November 1981), which sold nearly as well as its predecessor: In the U.S., it went Gold, and in the U.K. it reached the Top 20 and spawned two chart singles, the title track and "Turn up the Night". Next up was a 'live' concert album, but Iommi and Dio could not agree on the mixing of it, and by the time "Live Evil" appeared in January 1983, Dio had quit Black Sabbath, taking Appice with him to start his own band, Die.
The group was forced to reorganize and persuaded original drummer Bill Ward to return and, in a move that surprised Heavy Metal fans, recruited former Deep Purple front man, Ian Gillan. The new lineup of Iommi, Butler, Ward and Gillan recorded "Born Again", released in September 1983. Black Sabbath set out on tour prior to the album's release, with former Electric Light Orchestra drummer Bev Bevan substituting for Ward, who would return to the band in the spring of 1984. The album was a Top Five hit in the U.K. but only made the Top 40 in the U.S. Gillan stayed with Black Sabbath until March 1984, when he left to join a Deep Purple reunion. He was replaced by vocalist Dave Donato, who was only in the band until October of '84 and was not featured on any of its recordings.
Ozzy Osbourne reunited with Black Sabbath for an appearance at the Live Aid concert on July 13, 1985, but soon after, bassist Geezer Butler left the band. With that, the group became the vehicle of guitarist Tony Iommi, a fact emphasized by the next album, "Seventh Star", issued in January 1986 and credited to Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi. For this album the lineup consisted of Iommi on guitar, another Deep Purple alumni, singer, Glenn Hughes handling the vocals, Dave Spitz on bass, Geoff Nichols playing keyboards, and Eric Singer on drums. The album was only a modest commercial success and the new band began to fragment immediately, with Hughes replaced by singer Ray Gillen for the album's promotional tour in March 1986.
Now that Black Sabbath consisted of Iommi and hired sidemen, personnel changes came quickly. "The Eternal Idol" (November 1987), which failed to crack the U.K. Top 50 or the U.S. Top 100, featured a returning Bev Bevan, bassist Bob Daisley, and vocalist Tony Martin. Bevan and Daisley didn't last long and there were many replacements in the drum and bass positions over the next couple of years. "Headless Cross" (April 1989), the band's first album for I.R.S. Records, found veteran session drummer Cozy Powell and bassist Laurence Cottle joining Iommi and Martin. The album brought a slight upturn in Black Sabbath's fortunes at home, with the title song managing a week in the singles charts. Shortly after the L.P.'s release however, Cottle was replaced by bassist Neil Murray. With Geoff Nichols back on keyboards, this lineup recorded "Tyr" in August, 1990, which charted in the Top 40 in the U.K., but became Black Sabbath's first studio album to fail to reach the Billboard chart in the U.S.
Iommi reunited the 1979-1983 lineup of himself, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, and Vinnie Appice for "Dehumanizer" in June, 1992, which brought Black Sabbath back into the American Top 50 for the first time in nine years. In the U.K. the album spawned "TV Crimes", their first Top 40 hit in a decade. On November 15, 1992, Iommi, Butler and Appice backed Ozzy Osbourne appeared as part of a show that was billed as the singer's final live appearance. Shortly after however, it was announced that Osbourne would be rejoining Black Sabbath.
That didn't reunion didn't happen. Instead, Dio and Appice quit the band again and Iommi brought back Tony Martin and added drummer Bob Rondinelli. "Cross Purposes" (February 1994) was only a modest seller, and the next album, "Forbidden" (June 1995), proved to be an ill-fated effort that featured uninspired performances by Cozy Powell, Geoff Nichols and Neil Murray, along with Iommi and Martin. The L.P. spent only one week in the British charts. Blender magazine called it "an embarrassment... the band's worst album." Many suggested that Black Sabbath's days as a record selling outfit were over. Desperate to avoid that fate, the most popular lineup of the band reunited for a live album with a couple of new studio tracks on it. Recorded in their hometown of Birmingham, England in December 1997, the two-CD set "Reunion", which featuring all four of Black Sabbath's original members, Iommi, Osbourne, Butler and Ward, was released in October 1998. Although it charted only briefly in the U.K., it enjoyed a better fate in the U.S., coming up just short the Billboard Top Ten and going Platinum. The track "Iron Man" won Black Sabbath its first Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance. Two other tracks, "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul", cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The band toured through the end of 1999, concluding their reunion tour on December 22, 1999, back in Birmingham. In February 2001, Black Sabbath announced that it would reunite once again to headline the sixth edition of Ozzfest, Osbourne's summer concert festival, playing 29 cities in the U.S. beginning in June. More surprisingly, the group also announced its intention to record a studio album of all-new material, the original lineup's first since 1978. Unfortunately, recording sessions were halted when Osbourne was called away to finish tracks for his solo album in the summer of 2001. "It just came to an end", Iommi said. "We didn't go any further, and it's a shame because (the songs) were really good". Iommi commented on the difficulty getting all of the band members together to work on material: "It's quite different recording now. We've all done so much in between. In (the early) days there was no mobile phone ringing every five seconds. When we first started, we had nothing. We all worked for the same thing. Now everybody has done so many other things. It's great fun and we all have a good chat, but it's just different, trying to put an album together."
In March 2002, Ozzy Osbourne's Emmy winning reality TV show The Osbournes debuted on MTV and quickly became a worldwide hit. The show introduced Osbourne to a broader audience and to capitalize, Sanctuary Records released a double live album "Past Lives", which featured concert material recorded in the '70s, including the previously unofficial "Live at Last" album. The band remained on hiatus until the summer of 2004 when they returned to headline Ozzfest 2004 and 2005. In November 2005, Black Sabbath was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame and in March 2006, after eleven years of eligibility, the band was finally inducted into America's Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. At the awards ceremony Metallica played two Black Sabbath songs, "Hole in the Sky" and "Iron Man" in tribute to the band.
Rumors of a reunion had been swirling for months, when finally, on November 11th, 2011, the band announced that they were reuniting to record their first studio album with original front man Ozzy Osbourne since 1978, and would support it with a massive 2012 tour. In a clever marketing move, they made their plans known at a press conference at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, where Sabbath played its first show in the city exactly 41 years earlier. When it came time to tour and record however, drummer Bill Ward was left off the roster. Ozzy claimed that Ward was too "over weight" to handle the rigors of touring and feared for his over all health. Ward insisted that contract issues were the problem. Ozzy later said that "The door is always open," and that fans may yet see a full Black Sabbath reunion.
In June, 2013, Black Sabbath reached number one on the Billboard 200 album chart with "13", almost 43 years after their first chart entry, "Never Say Die!". Their previous best was 1971's "Master of Reality", which reached #8. In November of 2013, the band announced plans to extend their reunion tour into 2014 with a series of shows in North America and Europe.
The continuing feud between Ozzy and drummer Bill Ward boiled over again in April, 2015 when Ward posted on his Facebook page, "With a sad heart, I have to say I will not participate in any musical undertakings until a righting of the wrongs spoken against me has been achieved. I must admit, I have little to no expectations of this happening, but in the order of first things first, I'm looking for an honest accountability of all of Ozzy's statements that I felt were untrue." In August, 2013, Osbourne had called Ward "incredibly overweight" and said, "I don't think he could have done the gig, to be honest... a drummer has to be in shape. He's already had two heart attacks. I don't want to be responsible for his life." Ozzy responded to Ward's post by saying "Deep down inside, you knew you weren't capable of doing the album and a 16-month tour... Stop playing the victim and be honest with yourself and our fans."
In August, 2015, Ozzy was spotted on the set of the new Ghostbusters movie, preparing to film a scene in which he plays the leader of a Heavy Metal band. Much to the disappointment of fans, Black Sabbath announced in late October that they had abandoned plans to go back into the studio to record a second reunion album. Instead, they opted to extend their farewell tour well into 2016. Along with those shows, Ozzy was busy collaborating with his son Jack Osbourne on a new television show. On the bright side, the albums "Black Sabbath" (1970), "Paranoid" (1970) and "Master of Reality" (1971) were slated for a deluxe reissue treatment in mid-January, 2016, two days after the band launched its The End tour in Omaha.
August, 2016 brought the good news that the cancer that Tony Iommi had been battling since 2012 was now in remission. Another lump found in his throat was later found to be non-cancerous. Asked in November 2016 about lay ahead for him, Iommi responded, "I'll be doing some writing. Maybe I'll be doing something with the guys, maybe in the studio, but no touring."
For an inside look at Black Sabbath, be sure to read Gary James' interviews with