Osbourne, Ozzy (actually, John Michael)

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Osbourne, Ozzy (actually, John Michael)

Osbourne, Ozzy (actually, John Michael), one of the founding fathers (and perennial performers) of heavy metal; b. Birmingham, England, Dec. 3, 1948. As the lead singer for Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne helped take the band’s grinding blues and turn it into something louder and more sinister. Along the way he was accused of biting the heads off of small animals and birds, driving young men to suicide, and consorting with Satan.

Born into a working class family in the British steel-and-industrial zone, Osbourne’s father worked in a metal factory and his mother worked on a car-assembly line. Not an especially keen student, Ozzy (as he was known since grade school) left school for a series of jobs that included tuning car horns, and working in a slaughterhouse and a crematorium. Not happy in any of these positions, Osbourne embarked on a small-time life of breaking and entering. Unfortunately, his preferred dress included sporting gloves with the fingers cut off; tracked by his tell-tale fingerprints, Osbourne was sent off for a three- month stay in prison. However, unreformed and unrepentant, on his release he returned to small-time thievery. His second prison sentence followed a botched robbery attempt after a large television fell on his head; on his release, he was involved in a brawl with a policeman, leading to yet another jail term. While in prison, he gave himself several tattoos, the first in a large collection. His grandfather, who apparently had a snake tattoo that started at his head and wound its way down to his feet, might have inspired this.

After his third prison stretch, Osbourne decided to go straight. It was the height of Beatlemania and amateur pop groups were forming left and right. One of Osbourne’s friends invited him to sing with his band, and thus began a series of gigs with various bands, usually ending with Ozzy being evicted for his less-than-reliable behavior. Working under the name Ozzy Zig, he put an ad in the local music shop and hooked up with guitarist Geezer Butler. Their band Rare Breed joined forces with another band called the Rest with, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward. Butler took up the bass and the band became first Polka Tulk Blues Band, then Earth, and finally Black Sabbath.

After more than 10 years with Black Sabbath (see separate entry), Osbourne was asked to leave in 1978, his personal excesses beginning to get in the band’s way. He secluded himself in a hotel room frequented by delivery people from local food and liquor establishments, and his various drug connections. Finally, the daughter of Black Sabbath’s manager (and owner of its record company) suggested he start a band of his own. He pulled together former Rainbow bassist Bob Daisley, former Uriah Heap drummer Lee Kerslake, and former Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads. Largely due to Rhoads’s style and flash, Osbourne’s 1981 solo debut Blizzard of Ozz offered a fresh take on the whole metal sound. Osbourne achieved immediate success, outstripping Black Sabbath as his first album went triple platinum.

The band’s tour in support of the album is the stuff of rock legend. During part of the show, Osbourne began throwing raw meat into the audience. As word spread, people started throwing things back at Osbourne: dead animals of all descriptions wound up on stage. At a Des Moines, Iowa, show, someone tossed onto the stage a live bat. Thinking it was a toy, Osbourne picked it up and bit the head off, before realizing that it was a living thing. Beyond freaking himself and the audience out, Osbourne needed a series of rabies shots over the next week. The incident entered rock ’n’ roll folklore. At a stop in San Antonio, Tex., Osbourne got drunk and relieved himself on the Alamo, for which he was arrested; as a member of Black Sabbath, he peed on Hitler’s Shrine in Berlin.

Later in the tour, as the band traveled between dates in Term, and Fla,, the band took a rest stop at a northern Fla. airstrip. There the bus driver (who also happened to be a pilot) started taking band and crew members on airplane rides. During one of these rides, Rhoads, a member of the crew, and the driver were killed when the plane hit a building and exploded. Several guitarists passed through the band to fill in for Rhoads during remainder of the tour. Despite this loss, Osbourne managed to release two more albums, 1981’s Diary of a Madman and the double live album Speak of the Devil a year later, both charting in the Top 20 and selling extremely well.

Still in shock from losing Rhoads, Osbourne married his manager, Sharon Arden, and retreated after the 1982 tour. To make a break with the past, he left his old label and signed with CBS. During an event to introduce him to CBS executives, Sharon suggested releasing a pair of doves to make a grand entrance. Drunk and feeling like a piece of merchandise, Osbourne released one dove and bit the head off of another; the stunt was immortalized on film. This stunt landed Osbourne in rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic. There he began work on his next album, Bark at the Moon. Once again he was joined by Daisley on bass, and he finally found another compatible young guitarist in Jake E. Lee. The album went double platinum in 1983 and rose to #19.

Following a relatively uneventful tour, the band set to work on the The Ultimate Sin album. The album hit #6 and sold double platinum after its release in 1986. During that year, Osbourne made news again when the father of a young man who committed suicide while listening to Diary of a Madman accused Osbourne of causing the tragedy. In his complaint, the father focussed on the song “Suicide Solution,” which was actually a cautionary tale inspired by the death by alcohol and exposure of AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott. The prosecution brought in “experts” from the Inst. for Bio-Acoustic Research who claimed that lyrics recorded faster than normal, yet still audible, subliminally urged the listener to “get the gun and try it.” They further asserted that the album contained “hemisync tones,” a means of using sound waves to influence mental acuity. Ignoring these claims, Osbourne won the case largely on First Amendment grounds. However, defending himself kept him off the road and out of the studio.

Despite these problems, Osbourne made his acting debut in 1987, ironically playing a preacher in the horror film Trick or Treat. Earlier in the year, he had sent some unreleased tapes featuring Rhoads to an engineer to see if they could be brought up to releasable quality. The result was the #6 platinum Tribute album.

In 1988, with yet another new young guitarist, Zakk Wylde, joining Daisley and drummer Randy Castillo, Osbourne recorded No Rest for the Wicked. The album went platinum and hit #13. The tour took the band to the Moscow Music Peace Festival. Osbourne next recorded a duet “Close My Eyes Forever” with Lita Ford, and in 1989, it became the first Top Ten hit of his solo career, reaching #8 and going gold. Early in 1990, Daisley left the band and was replaced by Osbourne’s old friend Geezer Butler. Osbourne also finally quit abusing substances, making a concerted effort to get healthy. In this frame of mind, he created No More Tears. The album was a departure, going beyond the heavy metal sound to include softer numbers. “Mama, I’m Coming Home” became his only solo Top 40 hit, topping out at #28. Another song on the album, “I Don’t Want to Change the World” won the Grammy Award for Best Heavy Metal Performance. The album hit #7 and went triple platinum. He called the subsequent live jaunt “No More Tours,” claiming that at 44 he was getting to old to spend his life on the road. As a special treat during the last two shows, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler joined him on the encore. The tour was taped and released in 1993 as Live and Loud.

A few weeks into his retirement, however, Osbourne decided that the life of a country squire would bore him to death. He started working on a new project with former David Lee Roth guitarist Steve Vai. With Vai, Wylde, former Yes keyboardman Rick Wakeman, and Butler in tow, they recorded dozens and dozens of tracks, winnowing them down to the 10 that appeared on 1995’s Ozzmosis. The most daring record Osbourne ever made, with shades of progressive rock and psych-delia, it eventually went double platinum. He called the subsequent tour “Retirement Sucks.” Replacing Wylde with one of Rhoads’s former students Joe Holmes, the tour began during the spring of 1996. That summer marked the height of the multi-artist Lollapalooza festival and the advent of the all-woman Lilith festival. Inspired by these, Osbourne and his wife came up with Ozzfest, a touring metal caravan featuring Danzig, Sepultura, and a half-dozen other bands that fell into the abyss of heavy metal. It proved one of the year’s most successful tours, second only to Lilith. A live album from the festival came out in 1997.

Into his 50s, Osbourne continues to rule the heavy metal roost with even more authority than he did at its inception some 30 years earlier. During 1999, he toured again with Black Sabbath. An updated version of “Iron Man” from the subsequent Reunion album won the band Best Metal Performance Grammy.


Blizzard of Ozz (1981); Diary of a Madman (1981); Speak of the Devil (1982); Bark at the Moon (1983); The Ultimate Sin (1986); Tribute (1987); No Rest for the Wicked (1989); Ten Commandments (1990); Just Say Ozzy (live; 1990); No More Tears (1991); Ozzmosis (1995); OzzFest, Vol.1: Live (1997).

—Hank Bordowitz