Mixing equal parts bone-crushing volume, catatonic tempos, and ominous pronouncements of gloom and doom delivered in Ozzy Osbourne's keening voice, Black Sabbath was the heavy-metal king of the '70s. Despised by rock critics and ignored by radio programmers, the group sold over 8 million albums before Osbourne departed for a solo career in 1979 [see entry]. The band's original lineup reunited for a two-year tour in 1997.

The four original members, schoolmates from a working-class district of industrial Birmingham, first joined forces as the Polka Tulk Blues Company, a blues band. They quickly changed their name to Earth, then, in 1969, to Black Sabbath; the name came from the title of a song written by bassist Geezer Butler, a fan of occult novelist Dennis Wheatley. It may also have been an homage to a Boris Karloff film. The quartet’s eponymously titled 1970 debut, recorded in two days, went to #8 in England and #23 in the U.S. A single, “Paranoid,” released in advance of the album of the same name, reached #4 in the U.K. later that year; it was the group’s only Top 20 hit.

The single didn’t make the U.S. Top 40, but the Paranoid LP, issued in early 1971, eventually sold 4 million copies despite virtually no airplay. Beginning in December 1970 Sabbath toured the States relentlessly. Despite the band members’ intense drug and alcohol abuse, the constant road work paid off, and by 1974 Black Sabbath was considered peerless among heavy-metal acts, its first five LPs all having sold at least a million copies apiece in America alone.

In spite of their name, the crosses erected onstage, and songs dealing with apocalypse, death, and destruction, the band members insisted their interest in the black arts was nothing more than innocuous curiosity (the sort that led Ozzy Osbourne to sit through eight showings of The Exorcist), and in time Black Sabbath’s princes-of-darkness image faded. Eventually, so did its record sales. Aside from a platinum best-of, We Sold Our Soul for Rock ’n’ Roll (1976), not one of three LPs from 1975 to 1978 went gold. Osbourne, racked by drug use and excessive drinking, quit the band briefly in late 1977 (ex–Savoy Brown–Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker filled his shoes for some live dates). In January 1979 he was fired. Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, replaced Osbourne.

Although Dio could belt with the best of them, Sabbath would never be the same. Its first album with Dio, Heaven and Hell (1980), went platinum; its second, Mob Rules (1981), gold. But thereafter, the group’s LPs sold fewer and fewer copies, as Black Sabbath went through one personnel change after another. Ill health forced Bill Ward out of the band in 1980; Carmine Appice’s brother Vinnie took his place. Friction between Iommi and Dio led the singer to quit angrily in 1982; he took Appice with him to start his own band, Dio. Vocalists over the years have included Dave Donato; Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan; Glenn Hughes, another ex-member of Purple; Tony Martin; and Dio again.

By 1986’s Seventh Star, only Iommi remained from the original lineup. He had to wince when Geezer Butler teamed up with the phenomenally successful Osbourne in 1988, though the bassist did return to the fold three years later. Despite bitterness expressed in the press between Osbourne and Iommi, the original foursome reunited in 1985 at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, and again in 1992, at the end of what was supposedly Osbourne’s last tour. Throughout 1993 word had it that Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward would tour, but by year’s end Osbourne had backed out, allegedly over money. The indefatigable Tony Iommi went right back to work with Butler, rehiring vocalist Tony Martin and adding former Rainbow drummer Rob Rondinelli. That lineup proved as unstable as the previous one, with drummers coming, going, and returning over the following years. Despite hiring Body Count’s Ernie C to produce 1995’s Forbidden (and inviting guest vocalist Ice-T to sing on a track), Black Sabbath seemed increasingly out of touch with the times, and at the end of the Forbidden Tour, the band unofficially went on hiatus.

But not for long, as Iommi, Butler, and Osbourne reunited to headline Ozzfest 1997. Ward was not invited (he was replaced by Faith No More’s Mike Bordin), but he did participate in two shows in the band’s hometown of Birmingham, England, in December 1997. The resulting live album, Reunion (#11, 1998), also featured two new studio tracks, including the single “Psycho Man.” The album went platinum in the U.S., and the live version of “Iron Man” earned the band its first Grammy for Best Metal Performance - nearly 30 years after the song was originally released. The ensuing tour lasted two years and ended in December 1999. (Ward, who suffered a heart attack in May 1998 before the European tour kicked off, rejoined the group in December 1998; Appice sat in for him while he recuperated). Tony Iommi released his first solo album in 2000; a prestigious roster of guest singers (Osbourne, Billy Corgan, Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl) handled the vocals. Among metalheads, Iommi is something of a guitar god, due in part to the fact that he plays spectacularly despite having lost the tips of two right fingers in a welding accident at age 17. His hero was the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who also lost two fingers and yet continued to play. In mid-2001 it was announced that all original members were writing material for a new Black Sabbath album.

from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)




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