A view in the '80s era of Savatage, the albums, the events and the record companies. A clear view in the Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne connection with Savatage, the influence upon Jon and Criss Oliva and a new exclusive interview with Jon Oliva remembering Black Sabbath, his meeting with Ozzy and the Black Sabbath audition that never happened.
written by Andreas Andreou
Starting in bands like Tower and Alien, and recording the obscure Metropolis (also known as Metropolis USA) 7" single Let's Get Rowdy / Take Off With The Crowd, it was the year 1979 when brothers Jon (Johnathan Nicholas) and Criss (Christopher Michael) Oliva ended with the band name Avatar. When Avatar released City Beneath the Surface 7" EP (including the same-titled track, "The Whip" and "Sirens") with the line-up of Jon Oliva (vocals), Criss Oliva (guitar), Keith Collins (bass) and Steve Wacholz (drums), there were already a few other bands claiming the rights to the name so they changed to Savatage, something unique that no one would claim since no one knew what it really is! Jon, Criss and Criss' longtime girlfriend Dawn Hopkins (later Dawn Oliva) just came up with it one day playing with words... Avatar - Savatar - Savatage!
LET THE BATTLES OF STREET LIFE BEGIN
Dan Johnson of Par Records, a short-lived record label of the early '80s in Florida, already had signed the band for a brief record deal. The first two Savatage releases, the album Sirens and the mini-album The Dungeons Are Calling, were recorded at the same session that took place in one and a half days at the Morrisound Recording Studio. Produced by Dan Johnson and engineered by Jim Morris, those recordings were finally split in two and released in different years.
During that period in the United States, with the huge commercial success of European acts like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne, who also influenced the current (then) American metal scene, even a few major labels started looking for heavy metal bands. Among those bands that joined a major label, was Savatage. While there were already a few labels that became interested in Savatage, the band signed with Atlantic for a multi-album deal.
Joining Atlantic Records, was the first career-defining moment and as it happened many times in the '80s, a representative of a label saw that band on stage or just heard about their energy on stage. In the case of Savatage, a show supporting Zebra after the release of Sirens with their energy, the performance, the songs and of course the crowd's reaction was the key; a key element for all the A&R's - "if the crowd likes them, we like them". And that was it. Most of the time it was like that. If you couldn't deliver live and impress those A&R rep's that visited (sometimes incognito) those shows, you probably wouldn't join a major label. American bands like Armored Saint and Twisted Sister are another example. And both are in the top list of the very best US metal bands on stage.
The Morrisound Recording Studio In Tampa, Florida, the birthplace of Savatage, became one of the most iconic studios in the history of metal music in the coming years, with a huge list of recording artists in a wider metal field (death metal included). But during those early years, and after joining Atlantic Records, that "one and a half day" recording session of Sirens / The Dungeons Are Calling seemed like a pre-production procedure. Personally, I love that raw sound of those early releases and cuts like "Sirens", "Scream Murder", "The Dungeons Are Calling" and "By the Grace of the Witch", but when Atlantic let the band record a few demos for the upcoming album at Morrisound, they didn't really like the quality. Those demos included tracks like "Washed Out", "Fighting for Love" "No More Saturday Nights" and "Stuck on You", produced by Rick Derringer. However, Savatage were already in deal with Par Records but Dan Johnson "traded" the release of The Dungeons Are Calling and Savatage were allowed to record those demos for Atlantic.
Savatage and Metallica
It is widely known, and also mentioned in many interviews, that Jon Oliva (besides The Beatles) was a huge Black Sabbath fan. He was even performing Sabbath covers like "Iron Man" and "War Pigs" in his early years. On the other hand, Criss Oliva was heavily inspired by the first two Ozzy Osbourne albums and Randy Rhoads. In the October 1993 issue of the Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine, Criss Oliva mentions his dream band line-up. Of course, Randy Rhoads is his favourite guitarist, while he also adds Don Airey on keyboards for an extra flavor of Ozzy's early albums' influence.
The irony is that on October 17th of 1993 (the month when that magazine came out), Criss passed away and it's a pity that up to that point he wasn't mentioned in most of the famous guitar magazines.
Criss Oliva and his wife Dawn were driving north on their way to the Fourth Annual Livestock Festival held in Zephyrhills, Florida. An oncoming car of a drunk driver crossed the median and struck Oliva's car. Dawn survived the crash but Criss was killed instantly. The drunk driver survived with minor injuries and was later found guilty of "driving under the influence" manslaughter, serious injury and vehicular homicide. He served only 18 months in prison of a five-year sentence.
Criss Oliva is one of the greatest guitarists in heavy metal music with a unique and recognizable sound, unmatchable tone and feeling. A truly devoted musician and at the same time, the most underrated in the metal universe.
Back in 1985, Atlantic didn't really like the production quality of the Savatage demos recorded by Rick Derringer and the band was joined with producer Max Norman for the recordings of Power of the Night. A producer known for his work with Ozzy Osbourne and albums like Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Criss must have felt very happy recording with Max Norman, the producer of his favourite guitar player and the early Ozzy albums, that heavily influenced him in his early recording years, something that is more than obvious in songs like "Out on the Streets" or that cool orchestration in "Unusual".
No matter how we mostly (probably) prefer Sirens / The Dungeons Are Calling over Power of the Night, Oliva brothers sometimes refer to Power of the Night as their first proper album, since they had the time to record it as they wish and not in a "one and a half day" recording session. With a budget of 100,000 USD and staying in a "haunted" house during the recordings, Jon, Criss, Keith and Steve were living for a few weeks somewhere between a house full of weird things and Bearsville Recording Studios in New York, completing the album Atlantic wanted to present as "the first real Savatage album".
In the album, most of the songs are credited to Criss and Jon Oliva with the contribution of bassist Keith Collins to a few of them and while Criss was inspired and influenced by Randy Rhoads and Ozzy, in the lyrical part, Jon stated (taken from Clay Marshall's liner notes for the album's CD reissue of 2002): "I've always had an infatuation with the dark. At that time, I was very into Sabbath, and into the dark side". Also at that time, before the recordings of Power of the Night, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton was asked to join Savatage but he declined, staying in a Florida bar band with a fixed fee, performing Journey and Bryan Adams covers.
With a new album in a major label, Savatage joined the international music industry, attorneys, booking agents, managers and the Monsters of the Universe Tour, all of them leading to 1986 and the period of the Fight for the Rock album. Savatage had an international record deal and Johnny Lee Middleton was still playing covers in bars but the second time he was asked, he decided to join Savatage and after a few weeks' rehearsals, the band flew to England to record the new album. However, the band felt in a difficult spot and Atlantic had a different idea wanting the Sava-boys to follow a commercial path, leading to an artistic disaster. Even including two covers, "Wishing Well" of The Free and Badfinger's "Day After Day", the children of the metal movement felt in a trap where the supposed heavy metal songs didn't sound metal at all and the commercial tracks sounded like a different band.
The tour that followed the album's release and the post Chernobyl disaster wasn’t disastrous at all, since they joined Ted Nugent and Motörhead on the road and their performance was always on the edge. The sales though were poor and the band was somehow dropped by Atlantic. They almost broke up and thought the end was near...
JON OLIVA AND THE BLACK SABBATH CONNECTION
When Black Sabbath's Born Again Tour was completed in 1984, Sabbath were on the edge of nothingness and Tony Iommi started working on his first solo album Seventh Star. During an era where record companies were more powerful than you can imagine nowadays, it was said to Tony Iommi that according to his contract, he owed the record company another one Black Sabbath album and they wanted this one. And so it happened. Record label executives and managers wanted to name it "Black Sabbath" no matter how it was recorded and who performed. Seventh Star was released in January 1986 under the name Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi, with Tony alone on the cover sleeve; exactly as a solo project. When touring started, there were times when singer Glenn Hughes was unable to perform, so after just a week of touring as Black Sabbath (he also didn't like performing Sabbath songs since this wasn't supposed to be Black Sabbath), Hughes was replaced by Ray Gillen and the tour was a commercial failure while many shows were even cancelled. Tony Iommi couldn't do something else, so he continued using the name "Black Sabbath" without any other member of the classic line-up(s). The record company's decision to release his solo album under the Black Sabbath moniker served as a continuation for the rest of Sabbath/Iommi's 80s course, something that probably would't happen eitherwise.
Managers and executives were the people of the music industry that suggested ideas or just took decisions that had different kinds of impact to the artists related. Negative or positive. And there was also a huge amount of ideas that were never materialized.
When Atlantic technically dropped Savatage because of the poor sales of Fight for the Rock, Jon Oliva had the chance to claim the position of Black Sabbath's lead singer. There are many rumours over the years but we have the answers and the truth directly from Jon Oliva himself, since he was kind enough to clear the situation. "It was somebody from the management office for Black Sabbath that approached me", the Mountain King said. It would be interesting to know the songs he was supposed to learn for that audition, so Jon was asked and replied: "I did have a set list of songs that I would have to sing at the audition, "War Pigs", "Paranoid", "Sweet Leaf", "Symptom of the Universe", "Iron Man" and the"Black Sabbath" song."
However, that audition never happened and I don't think there would ever be a possibility that Jon Oliva would end as the singer of Black Sabbath during 1986-1987, no matter how interesting that could be. Having Jon Oliva on board for this article, we asked a few more things.
CL: I am sure that a Black Sabbath album with Jon Oliva would be great. But having in mind that period, would it be easy for you to work under the command of Tony Iommi? And having in mind your addictions in the mid to late '80s, would you escape the "dark side" even if you would enter in the dark side's band, Black Sabbath?
Jon Oliva: "I would have loved to do an album with Black Sabbath. I think my voice would have fit them very well and it wouldn't bother me that Tony Iommi was in charge because he is the riff master. What you're going to say... I would have just sang my ass off but again, you know, the '80s were very weird for me. I did have a lot of problems but it is what it is and I'm glad that Savatage was able to continue."
CL: Have you ever met Ozzy Osbourne or Tony Iommi in person? And what can you recall?
Jon Oliva: "Yes, I have met Ozzy Osbourne. I actually had dinner with him at the Lakeland Civic Center here in Florida. I doubt he remembers because he was totally wasted... It was very interesting and very funny. I was with a group of people who won a radio contest and that's what the prize was, to have dinner with Ozzy. I remember he came out in an evening dress and was totally wasted, one of the funniest things I've ever seen and it didn't last very long."
"I met Tony Iommi in Spain when we were all doing a festival and they were called Heaven and Hell with Ronnie. I met him backstage and got to talk to him for a little while. He was a very nice guy, he was one of my heroes."
CL: I wonder if you and Criss Oliva ever saw live Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne in your early years and what do you remember?
Jon Oliva: "I saw Black Sabbath at the California Jam in 1974 and it changed my life. I saw them again at the San Diego Sports Arena for the Sabotage Tour. Criss never saw Black Sabbath but we did see Ozzy with Randy Rhoads and that was awesome. We ended up working with Max Norman for the Power of the Night album and he produced the first three Ozzy albums so it was very cool."
CL: I've read that Paul O' Neill was a friend of Tony Iommi and Paul even let Iommi listen sometime in the 80s his main idea of "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" but told him something like "the world is not ready yet for this song". Is it true, and did Paul had this huge thing that followed in both later Savatage records and mainly Trans-Siberian Orchestra already by the mid '80s?
Jon Oliva: "I know Paul knew Tony Iommi but I'm not sure if he ever let him listen to "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)". As far as I remember that song was put together during the writing for our "Dead Winter Dead" album and I was the one who put the drums and the heavy power chords to it. At first I didn't like it and Paul asked me if I could make it Savatage and that's my memory of things. I demoed up some drum parts and some guitar parts and then we worked on it together and finished it with Al Pitrelli."
SOMETIMES YOU GOT TO BELIEVE
On the edge of darkness, Savatage were lucky enough to meet Paul O'Neill, the "x-factor" that took them by the hand and led them to a brighter future. Paul encouraged Criss and Jon Oliva to start writing new material and so they did. This time, the band composed without any label or management interference and once the material was ready, Savatage entered the studio and completed the album with Paul O'Neill. As Johnny Lee Middleton has mentioned to Crystal Logic, "Never give up on what you believe in and do not be afraid to struggle and suffer through the tough times because quitters never win and winners never quit".
In the beginning, Paul was approached by the same Atlantic A&R rep who signed Savatage to the record company, to consider helping them return in full form. Paul went to see one of their last shows during the 1986 tour without even listening to Fight for the Rock. Paul O'Neill couldn't believe how such a great band almost reached the end. He knew they shouldn't, he knew he wouldn't let them and he only needed to take their hand and lead them through their metal roots, to the future. Paul convinced Jon and Criss Oliva that they're not "fucked-up" because of that one last album and because the management made them change their sound. Paul already had a budget so he paid their pending bills and more or less, told them only to focus on writing new music with him producing, while they also changed management. Paul O'Neill cared for them and that was probably the first time something like that happened so powerful and with such a passion and vision for the future. Paul, already an established professional in the New York music scene, was also a visionary with ideas and manuscripts that served as a template for future Savatage songs.
Hall of the Mountain King, released on September 28th of 1987, is one of the best heavy metal albums ever, from one of the greatest metal bands ever. An ageless masterpiece with top notch musicianship. Raw, insane, solid and emotional at the same time. Two music video clips were shot, one for "Hall of the Mountain King" and one for "24 Hrs. Ago" with the same titled track getting a lot of airplay at Headbanger's Ball TV show, something that was very important at the pre-internet era and helped the sales and band's exposure.
There is one special guest at that album, singer Ray Gillen, brought in by Paul O'Neill who was his manager at the time because he needed another kind of voice and harmony to serve as an instrument in the chorus of "Strange Wings". That was one of the first recordings of Gillen who previously had performed even punk rock before entering the hard rock and metal scene. During that period, Ray Gillen had replaced Glenn Hughes in Black Sabbath and recorded vocals for The Eternal Idol album, before they were also replaced by Tony Martin's voice in the final release. Paul O'Neill produced (and helped write) the debut album of Badlands, fronted by Ray Gillen with ex-Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee but also Eric Singer who among others also performed with Black Sabbath. Bob Kinkel, a keyboardist and music engineer, a regular partner of Paul O'Neill, also helped in the debut album of Badlands that was released in 1989 but most important, he was introduced to Savatage during the recordings of Hall of the Mountain King with additional keyboards. Kinkel will be a key person in the following years of Savatage and the formation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
During 1988, with a major label supporting the band, Hall of the Mountain King had become Savatage's best-selling album and a world tour followed, including support shows with Megadeth and Dio. At that point and after O'Neill's suggestion, Savatage added a second guitar for the live shows to keep the rhythm playing during Criss' leads. Criss had a few thoughts about it in the beginning but in the end, they did it and Chris Caffery stepped in. The tour started with power and success despite being the opening act. Dave Mustaine even thought about the possibility of Criss Oliva joining Megadeth according to Sava-sources. However, Jon Oliva went a "little too far" during that tour, living the "rock n' roll life" just like one of his idols, Ozzy Osbourne and it took no long until he entered a chemical rehabilitation program. This situation stopped the band since they had to cancel a scheduled tour, including the European dates. The future was different for the band and it took them a few more years for a big commercial success, under a different line-up...
AND THE ORCHESTRA PLAYS
When Jon Oliva completed the rehabilitation program, he started immediately writing new songs with Criss. He already had a few lyrics written in rehab, so they completed tracks like "Target", "Living on the Edge of Time", "Metalhead", "Stranger in the Dark" and "Before I Hang" but none of them made it to the next album... Those five demo songs surfaced as bonus tracks to the 2002 silver anniversary collectors edition reissues of Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling from Metal Blade Records. When the Oliva brothers met Paul O'Neill again and started writing the follow-up album to Hall of the Mountain King, it was like writing again from scratch even if few ideas were reworked.
In every Savatage album including O'Neill, there is an element of progression; a step further exploring the talent of Jon and Criss. There was always a piano in young Olivas house since their father was a piano player so Jon was always messing with that. There was also a few keyboards moments in previous Savalbums and songs like "In the Dream" and "Lady in Disguise" but this time, Paul wanted to explore Jon's talent deeper.
When Savatage started writing the songs of the next album, one of their idols was about to enter rehab but he already released his album titled No Rest for the Wicked. During those recording sessions, there was also a track named "The Liar" that made it only in the 12" single version of "Miracle Man". That Ozzy Osbourne track, somehow foretold the future of Savatage but sounded out-of-place for that Ozzy record. Savatage kept that direction in the next album that was finally named Gutter Ballet.
It is said that in the Record Plant Studios where Gutter Ballet was recorded, there was the piano where John Lennon recorded "Imagine" and that was extremely inspiring for Jon Oliva. At the same time, O'Neill, like a master of psychology who knew how to bring on the surface and explore each musician's talent, took Jon Oliva to the Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera. These were key elements in the writing procedure of Gutter Ballet and when the album was completed and recorded in the summer of 1989, the result was something really progressive and experimental for the metal world of the late '80s. Inspired by one of O'Neill's manuscripts written a decade ago, the title Gutter Ballet was supposed to be for a different and complete play but it was adopted for that album, giving also a glimpse of the musical direction of the future and the next album.
The tracks "Gutter Ballet", "Temptation Revelation" (one of the alternative titles of the album), "When the Crowds Are Gone" and "Silk and Steel" are something like the albums "first act" while the rest, are somehow like the "second act" that was closer to the Savatage known style. However, they decided to move the song "Of Rage and War" as the opening track and what we call as the "first act" completed the vinyl's first side. What made it so unique that "first act" and especially a song like Gutter Ballet, is the Jon-piano Vs Criss-guitar duel that is something genius and unique, equal to the greatest moments in music ever. "Gutter Ballet" and "When the Crowds Are Gone" served as the album's leading tracks and music videos were shot for both of them. That album is a pure masterpiece including also tracks like "Summer's Rain" with one of Criss' best guitar solos and also the Black Sabbath-inspired "Hounds". As it is mentioned in Clay Marshall's liner notes in the Gutter Ballet 2002 reissue in the words of Paul O'Neill, "On certain influences, Jon and I come from different places", O'Neill explains. "I have way more classical and Broadway influences and Jon, on the other hand, has more Beatles influence than you'd ever believe. But by certain things, we're both influenced, and one of those was Black Sabbath. We both have an attraction to that side and you see it on the 'Hounds'".
A funny thing is that among the other album's tracks, there is also "The Unholy" with lyrics written by Jon Oliva but Paul didn't like them, so they weren't included in the booklet of the album's first pressings. O'Neill started penning a big part of the lyrics in a very different style than Jon, so he probably thought that lyrics like "before the birth of Christ lived a race trapped in soul" wouldn't really fit next to something like "when the crowds are gone and I'm all alone, playing the saddest song, now that the lights are gone".
Most of the live shows supporting Gutter Ballet took place in 1990 and among them, there was a part supporting King Diamond along with Candlemass and another one supporting Testament along with Nuclear Assault. In this kind of tour, Savatage needed to bring on stage some of their heavier stuff but that was never a problem since the band's material at that time was diverse but could fit in any occasion.
The '80s ended successfully for Savatage, establishing a respectful name and releasing albums like Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet that became future classics. The '90s and the future were different and yet so close but that's another chapter in the play...