Tony Iommi is synonymous with heavy rock, his innovative, de-tuned, dark riffs are considered to be the blueprint for hundreds of bands that followed.
Born on February 19, 1948, in Birmingham, England, left-handed Tony picked up the guitar after being inspired by the likes of Hank Marvin & the Shadows as a teenager. By 1967, he had played with several blues-based rock bands, one of which evolved into Polka Tulk (later Earth), with bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler, drummer Bill Ward, and singer John “Ozzy” Osbourne.
Iommi’s musical career was nearly derailed prematurely as he suffered a horrible accident at a sheet metal factory, when a machine sliced off the tips of the fingers on his right hand. Depressed and figuring that his guitar playing days were behind him, a friend turned him onto guitarist Django Reinhardt (who lost use of two fingers in a gypsy caravan campfire accident), inspiring Tony to give the six-string another go, with soft plastic tips attached to the ends of his fingers.
Shortly thereafter, Iommi received a tempting offer to join Jethro Tull’s band in 1968, which he reluctantly accepted. After only a single performance with Tull (miming the track “Song for Jeffrey” on the Rolling Stones’ never-aired TV special “Rock & Roll Circus”), Iommi split from Tull to return back to his pals in Earth.
With another band already playing around England by the name of Earth, Iommi & co. were forced to change their name, taking “Black Sabbath” from the American title of the classic Italian horror movie “I Tre Volti Della Paura”.
With the name switch came a change in musical direction — the band would explore dark lyrical subjects, while the music would be repetitive, plodding and heavy. In the process, Sabbath created the blueprint for heavy metal with such incredibly influential, all-time classic releases as their 1970 self-titled debut and Paranoid, 71’s Master of Reality, 1972’s Vol. 4, and 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. These albums lifted Black Sabbath to one of the world’s top hard rock bands in the process. Iommi’s guitar playing propelled such metal standards as “Black Sabbath,” “N.I.B.,” “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Into the Void,” and “Children of the Grave,” which boast some of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history.
But by the mid- to late ’70s, constant touring and drug abuse began to fracture the band, leading to Osbourne’s exit in 1979. However, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Black Sabbath name was reborn with the inclusion of Ronnie James Dio (RIP) on vocals, then right out of Rainbow. Ronnie brought a new and fresh angle to the gig, and from these sessions a masterpiece was born, the Heaven & Hell album. The sound on this album was unlike anything that Black Sabbath had done to this point. It contained a fresh new sound under the banner of Black Sabbath. This album was part of the metal revival in 1980, and of course the revival of Black Sabbath itself. The Heaven and Hell tour cost Black Sabbath its original drummer, Bill Ward, and Bill was replaced quite capably by Vinny Appice (then of Axis/Rick Derringer). A couple of more albums with Ronnie and Vinny followed (Mob Rules, Live Evil), but the Sabbath lineup was not to stay stable for long after this.
After Ronnie & Vinny left to form the Dio band, Tony, Geezer, & Geoff Nicholls were tasked with putting together another incarnation of Black Sabbath. After a few changes already, they decided they wanted some more stability, so Bill Ward was convinced to return to the band, and a search for a new vocalist ensued. They eventually settled on former 70’s rival, Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) to handle vocals for the aptly named Born Again album. The lineup wasn’t to stay the same, as Bill Ward bowed out from touring. Old Brum friend and former ELO dummer Bev Bevan handled the skins for the Born Again Tour which lasted into the Spring of 1984.
1984 brought a season of change, as Ian Gillan left to pursue a reunion of Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath tried a few times to work with new singers (Dave Donato, Ron Keel), but nothing materialized from these sessions (which again included Bill Ward). After this, it became just Tony when Geezer and Bill departed to pursue other options.
During this period the original Black Sabbath reunited for one day in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. This was to play the Live Aid benefit concert, along with a slew of other artists in Philadelphia and in London. This was short lived, though, was just a reunion for that day.
Not long after that, Tony began work on a solo album initially using vocalist Jeff Fenholt, and later using several folks including long time pal Glenn Hughes on vocals, Eric Singer (Alice Cooper/Kiss) on drums, as well as others like Dave Spitz, as well as Sabbath stalwart Geoff Nicholls. As the album neared completion, a struggle ensued with the record label. The Seventh Star album was originally intended to be the first Tony Iommi solo album, but the label wanted a Black Sabbath album. All this caused the released album to have the hybrid name of “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi”. The Seventh Star tour started off well, included a really nice stage set and show, but quickly it became obvious that a change in singer was needed.
Enter Ray Gillen (RIP), who took over early on in the Seventh Star tour. Ray was a friend of Dave’s, and the tour finished well, played to crowds around the world. But when the tour ended, thoughts turned to the next album, which ended up being “The Eternal Idol”.
The Eternal Idol turned out to be one the most tumultuous parts of Sabbath history. Featuring two singers, two credited drummers, two bassists (three if you count music videos), two producers and studios; the album took quite a path to completion. The live shows surrounding The Eternal Idol included Greece (then a first time Sabbath stop), South Africa, and mostly centered around Italy. The tour was short lived, and save for a single charity show the following year, a restart was needed, given the mountain of management and record label problems. It also marked the first time since the original Black Sabbath record contracts were signed in 1969 that the band was not on their usual label. Tony Iommi signed Black Sabbath to a new label for the first time in the band’s history, this time I.R.S.
So in 1988, Tony and then singer Tony Martin embarked on getting some credible musicians in to bolster the lineup and bring some stability to the band, who had seen quite a number of people in and out in the previous five years. Brought in on drums was long time friend, Cozy Powell. Cozy was actually approached to play drums a few times in the past. First when Bill Ward left in 1980, again in 1983 when Vinny Appice left, and again in the mid 80’s around the Seventh Star period. Cozy finally agreed in 1988, and joined on. Session man Laurence Cottle recorded the Headless Cross album, but was replaced for the tour and afterwards by Neil Murray. This solidified the late 80’s/early 90’s Black Sabbath lineup of Tony Iommi / Tony Martin / Neil Murray / Cozy Powell / Geoff Nicholls. The Headless Cross album and tour as well as the Tyr album and tour did very well in and around Europe.
However, towards the end of the Tyr tour, thoughts turned to the end of the Ronnie James Dio era. After a few meetings, it was decided to reunite the Heaven & Hell / Mob Rules lineup of Black Sabbath. Dio back, Geezer back, Vinny Appice back. This lineup put together the Dehumanizer album and world tour. Featuring tracks such as Computer God, TV Crimes, and the powerhouse “I”, the album was very well received by Sabbath fans who missed the chance to see Ronnie Dio singing with Sabbath the first time around. A world tour followed, and lasted most of 1992. The tour ended in Costa Mesa, CA where Black Sabbath played with Ozzy Osbourne, who at that time stated he wanted to retire – which didn’t happen of course, but the shows where Black Sabbath played for Ozzy marked the end of the Dio Era Mk II, as Rob Halford had to step in at the last minute and sing for Black Sabbath, creating one of the more unique lineups in the band’s history.
Following the Costa Mesa shows, thoughts turned to a new record, and given the departure of Dio, it was decided to bring Tony Martin back. Cozy Powell was then unavailable, so Bobby Rondinelli was brought in to handle drums on the Cross Purposes album. A world tour followed, which ended with the departure of Bobby. To handle some gigs in South America, the band recruited Black Sabbath founding member Bill Ward to handle drums. Some of these shows were televised in South America.
But again, the lineup changed for the next album, 1995’s Forbidden, which featured the return of the Headless Cross / Tyr lineup. This album was not as well received as some of the previous efforts, and while there was a tour behind it, the tour had a lot of problems with canceled shows, and other related issues. At the end of the tour, Tony put out a “Tony Martin” era Greatest Hits album on I.R.S., thereby ending that record label relationship.,
1996 saw a time of rest, to have a rethink, and recharge the batteries. Tony & Black Sabbath next appeared in 1997, reunited with Ozzy Osbourne for the first tour since 1978, on Ozzfest ’97. The live shows in the NEC in Birmingham were recorded, and later released in 1998 as the “Reunion” album. From that album came Black Sabbath’s first Grammy award, for the track “Iron Man”. It won the “Best Metal Performance” in 1999.
And although one of the Sabbath albums from the ’80s could have arguably been considered a Tony Iommi solo album, Tony issued his first true solo release in the form of 2000’s “Iommi”. The ten-track disc, which was very warmly received by both the press and the public, featured many of rock’s top names lending their vocal talents including Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl, Billy Corgan, Phil Anselmo and Ozzy Osbourne, among others.
The following year Iommi returned to touring, with Black Sabbath as the headline act at 2001’s Ozzfest. The band earned a second Grammy nomination for the track “The Wizard” from the live album “Ozzfest 2001: The Second Millennium” that followed the tour. The tour also premiered a then brand new Black Sabbath track “Scary Dreams”, which to this day remains unreleased officially.
On 3rd June 2002, he joined Ozzy to perform “Paranoid” in front of the Queen, the Royal Family and 12,000 members of the public (plus millions of TV viewers) on the lawn of Buckingham Palace at a concert to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
As one of the writers of “Changes”, Tony received his first Ivor Novello nomination when the song competed in the category Best Selling UK Single following the 2003 cover released by Ozzy & Kelly Osbourne.
The early part of 2004 was spent in the studio working on solo projects, including putting the finishing touches to material recorded with Glenn Hughes in Birmingham in 1996, which was picked up by Sanctuary Records for an autumn release under the title “The 1996 DEP Sessions”. In between this, Tony and the 3 other members of the original Black Sabbath line-up reunited as the headline act for summer 2004’s Ozzfest in the USA.
The touring continued in 2005, with a Black Sabbath tour of Europe starting in June (including a notable performance at the UK’s Download festival), and another headline slot at Ozzfest from July to September. The Iommi solo album ‘Fused’ was also released in July 2005. Featuring Glenn Hughes on vocals and Kenny Aronoff on drums, the album was recorded at Monnow Valley studios in Monmouth, Wales in late 2004 under the production skills of Bob Marlette who had produced Tony’s first solo album back in 2000.
Black Sabbath was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in November 2005. The band was inducted by Queen guitarist Brian May, and performed ‘Paranoid’ at the ceremony at London’s Alexandra Palace. In March 2006, Metallica inducted Black Sabbath into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York. Throughout all of this, Tony was also working on his radio series ‘Black Sunday’ for the UK’s Planet Rock station.
In late 2006, Tony reunited with Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice to record three new songs for the CD “Black Sabbath: The Dio Years” which was released by Rhino in April 2007. In the month leading up to the release, the foursome did a tour of Canada under the moniker ‘Heaven & Hell’ which ended with a special show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, later released on CD and DVD. A tour of the USA followed in April & May, followed by European summer shows, Australia, a second US run, Asia and finally a UK arena tour in November 2007, in total 98 shows in 9 months!
At the start of 2008 the band began working on a new Heaven & Hell studio album, for release in early 2009. During the summer this was put on hold while the guys played under the ‘Metal Masters’ banner with Judas Priest for 17 shows across the US. To coincide, Rhino Records released a re-mastered box set of the complete works with Ronnie James Dio (“The Rules of Hell”).
Picking up where they left off, the guys finished writing and went into the studio in the autumn to record the new album. Whilst track laying at Rockfield Studios the guys took time out to join Tony as he was awarded a star in the pavement at Birmingham’s Broad Street.
“The Devil You Know” was released in April 2009, and was greeted by rave reviews, the guys backed it up with a world tour that kicked off in South America and concluded some 47 shows later in Atlantic City, NJ USA. Along the way the band recorded a live DVD at the Wacken Festival in Germany. Unknown to everyone at the time, this video would have a huge significance as Ronnie’s health suddenly deteriorated and in the autumn of 2009 he was diagnosed with cancer. Despite putting up a tremendous battle he sadly passed away in May 2010, the DVD being a fitting tribute to a huge talent.
In October 2009, the Armenian government honoured Tony for his work on the “Rock Aid Armenia” charity that had taken place some 25 years earlier. He travelled to Armenia with Ian Gillan to receive the Medal of Honour and whilst there was taken to some of the areas that had been rebuilt. He and Ian were upset to find that a music school was the one institution still operating in temporary tin huts and they decided to get the facility re-built. A single “Out of My Mind” followed featuring Ian and Tony, plus Nicko McBrain, Jason Newsted, Jon Lord and Linde Linstrom. This had the effect of both raising funds and the profile of the project, and they subsequently released a full album entitled ‘WhoCares’ of rare recordings to further the cause.
2010 was largely spent in the studio writing new music, and working on his autobiography with writer TJ Lammers. A chance conversation with Sharon Osbourne resulted in the idea of the original Black Sabbath working together again and he met up with Ozzy at Christmas to discuss things. Geezer had already dropped by the studio and was also keen to give it a go so they all met up, including Bill Ward, in Los Angeles, January 2011 and spent some time together discussing the way forward.
Most of 2011 he spent working on new material and the release of his autobiography “Iron Man” in October that went on to make the New York Times Bestseller list. It was after feeling unwell whilst undertaking promotion for the book that he went for a medical check-up. His concerns were well justified as the removal of a lymph node confirmed he had Follicular (non-Hodgkin) Lymphoma. Being his ever determined self, and despite undergoing both chemo and radio therapy, writing for the new Sabbath album continued at his home studio as Ozzy and Geezer came to the UK for an extended period, due to the tiring nature of the treatments.
Whilst unable to undertake the planned European tour, Tony had recovered sufficiently to play a hometown gig in Birmingham, along with headline appearances at Download Festival and Lollapalooza, the mighty Sabbath were back!
In the summer of 2012, Tony and Ian Gillan released a full album (a double album, actually) under the WhoCares name. This album included numerous rare and b-side tracks from Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, a couple of extra tracks from the Fused album, and some of Ian’s other projects. The proceeds from this album benefit the Armenian music school that the original WhoCares single did.
Recording of “13” started in September 2012 in Los Angeles with Tony returning home for treatment every 8 weeks. By the end of the year the album was in the can and ready for mixing which was finished in early 2013.
Defying his ongoing treatment, Tony and the guys set off for New Zealand, Australia and Japan in April, the first time they had been in these countries with Ozzy and it proved hugely successful.
Released on June 10th 2013 the album, titled ‘13’, has been a staggering success reaching number 1 in the US, amazingly the first Sabbath album to do so. It also got to the top in most countries around the world, in the UK setting a record for being a 40 year span between number 1’s, the longest ever!
Black Sabbath continued to play live gigs throughout the remainder of 2013, covering numerous countries and shows. This was inbetween Tony’s returning home for treatments. The band also made an appearance on the show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, where they played the song “End of the Beginning”.
In January 2014, Black Sabbath made an appearance on the Grammy Awards show as presenters for Ringo Starr, and also winning a Grammy award in the “Best Metal Performance” category for the song “God is Dead?” from the “13” album.
The live shows shows carried on into 2014, with the gig in Hyde Park on July 4, 2014 being the final date on the “13” tour.
What comes next?
…TO BE CONTINUED…