Black Sabbath has been so influential in the development of heavy metal rock music as to be a defining force in the style. The group took the blues-rock sound of late ’60s acts like Cream, Blue Cheer, and Vanilla Fudge to its logical conclusion, slowing the tempo, accentuating the bass, and emphasizing screaming guitar solos and howled vocals full of lyrics expressing mental anguish and macabre fantasies. If their predecessors clearly came out of an electrified blues tradition, Black Sabbath took that tradition in a new direction, and in so doing helped give birth to a musical style that continued to attract millions of fans decades later.
The group was formed by four teenage friends from Aston, near Birmingham, England: Anthony “Tony” Iommi (b. Feb 19, 1948), guitar; William “Bill” Ward (b. May 5, 1948), drums; John “Ozzy” Osbourne (b. Dec 3, 1948), vocals; and Terence “Geezer” Butler (b. Jul 17, 1949), bass. They originally called their jazz-blues band Polka Tulk, later renaming themselves Earth, and they played extensively in Europe. In early 1969, they decided to change their name again when they found that they were being mistaken for another group called Earth. Butler had written a song that took its title from a novel by occult writer Dennis Wheatley, Black Sabbath, and the group adopted it as their name as well. As they attracted attention for their live performances, record labels showed interest, and they were signed to Phillips Records in 1969. In January 1970, the Phillips subsidiary Fontana released their debut single, “Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games With Me),” a cover of a song that had just become a U.S. hit for Crow; it did not chart. The following month, a different Phillips subsidiary, Vertigo, released Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album, which reached the U.K. Top Ten. Though it was a less immediate success in the U.S. — where the band’s recordings were licensed to Warner Bros. Records and appeared in May 1970 — the LP broke into the American charts in August, reaching the Top 40, remaining in the charts over a year, and selling a million copies.
Appearing at the start of the ’70s, Black Sabbath embodied the Balkanization of popular music that followed the relatively homogenous second half of the 1960s. As exemplified by its most popular act, the Beatles, the 1960s suggested that many different aspects of popular music could be integrated into an eclectic style with a broad appeal. The Beatles were as likely to perform an acoustic ballad as a hard rocker or R&B-influenced tune. At the start of the 1970s, however, those styles began to become more discrete for new artists, with soft rockers like James Taylor and the Carpenters emerging to play only ballad material, and hard rockers like Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad taking a radically different course, while R&B music turned increasingly militant. The first wave of rock critics, which had come into existence with the Beatles, was dismayed with this development, and the new acts tended to be poorly reviewed despite their popularity. Black Sabbath, which took an even more extreme tack than the still blues- and folk-based Led Zeppelin, was lambasted by critics (and though they eventually made their peace with Zeppelin, they never did with Sabbath). But the band had discovered a new audience eager for its uncompromising approach.
Black Sabbath quickly followed its debut album with a second album, Paranoid, in September 1970. The title track, released as a single in advance of the LP, hit the Top Five in the U.K., and the album went to number one there. In the U.S., where the first album had just begun to sell, Paranoid was held up for release until January 1971, again preceded by the title track, which made the singles charts in November; the album broke into the Top Ten in March 1971 and remained in the charts over a year, eventually selling over four million copies, by far the band’s best-selling effort. (Its sales were stimulated by the belated release of one of its tracks, “Iron Man,” as a U.S. single in early 1972; the 45 got almost halfway up the charts, the band’s best showing for an American single.)
Master of Reality, the third album, followed in August 1971, reaching the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic and selling over a million copies. Black Sabbath, Vol. 4 (September 1972) was another Top Ten million-seller. For Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (November 1973), the band brought in Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman on one track, signaling a slight change in musical direction; it was Black Sabbath’s fifth straight Top Ten hit and million-seller. In 1974, the group went through managerial disputes that idled them for an extended period. When they returned to action in July 1975 with their sixth album, Sabotage, they were welcomed back at home, but in the U.S. the musical climate had changed, making things more difficult for an album-oriented band with a heavy style, and though the LP reached the Top 20, it did not match previous sales levels. Black Sabbath’s record labels quickly responded with a million-selling double-LP compilation, We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll (December 1975), and the band contemplated a more pronounced change of musical style. This brought about disagreement, with guitarist Iommi wanting to add elements to the sound, including horns, and singer Osbourne resisting any variation in the formula. Technical Ecstasy (October 1976), which adopted some of Iommi‘s innovations, was another good — but not great — seller, and Osbourne‘s frustration eventually led to his quitting the band in November 1977. He was replaced for some live dates by former Savoy Brown singer Dave Walker, then returned in January 1978. Black Sabbath recorded its eighth album, Never Say Die! (September 1978), the title track becoming a U.K. Top 40 hit before the LP’s release and “Hard Road” making the Top 40 afterwards. But the singles did not improve the album’s commercial success, which was again modest, and Osbourne left Black Sabbath for a solo career, replaced in June 1979 by former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio (b. June 10, 1949). (Also during this period, keyboardist Geoff Nichols became a regular part of the band’s performing and recording efforts, though he was not officially considered a band member until later.)
The new lineup took its time getting into the recording studio, not releasing its first effort until April 1980 with Heaven and Hell. The result was a commercial resurgence. In the U.S., the album was a million-seller; in Britain, it was a Top Ten hit that threw off two chart singles, “Neon Knights” and “Die Young.” (At the same time, the band’s former British record label issued a five-year old concert album, Black Sabbath Live at Last, that was quickly withdrawn, though not before making the U.K. Top Five, and reissued “Paranoid” as a single, getting it into the Top 20.) Meanwhile, drummer Bill Ward left Black Sabbath due to ill health and was replaced by Vinnie Appice. The lineup of Iommi, Butler, Dio, and Appice then recorded Mob Rules (November 1981), which was almost as successful 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 on the schedule was a concert album, but Iommi and Dio clashed over the mixing of it, and by the time Live Evil appeared in January 1983, Dio had left Black Sabbath, taking Appice with him.
The group reorganized by persuading original drummer Bill Ward to return and, in a move that surprised heavy metal fans, recruiting Ian Gillan (b. Aug. 19, 1945), former lead singer of Black Sabbath rivals Deep Purple. This lineup — Iommi, Butler, Ward, and Gillan — recorded Born Again, released in September 1983. Black Sabbath hit the road prior to the album’s release, with drummer Bev Bevan (b. Nov 25, 1946) 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 remained with Black Sabbath until March 1984, when he joined a Deep Purple reunion and was replaced by singer Dave Donato, who was in the band until October without being featured on any of its recordings.
Black Sabbath reunited with Ozzy Osbourne for its set at the Live Aid concert on July 13, 1985, but soon after the performance, bassist Geezer Butler left the band, and with that the group became guitarist Tony Iommi‘s vehicle, a fact emphasized by the next album, Seventh Star, released in January 1986 and credited to “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi.” On this release, the lineup was Iommi (guitar); another former Deep Purple singer, Glenn Hughes (b. Aug 21, 1952) (vocals); Dave Spitz (bass); Geoff Nichols (keyboards); and Eric Singer (drums). The album was a modest commercial success, but the new band began to fragment immediately, with Hughes replaced by singer Ray Gillen for the promotional tour in March 1986.
With Black Sabbath now consisting of Iommi and his employees, personnel changes were rapid. 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 singer Tony Martin. Bevan and Daisley didn’t stay long, and there were several replacements in the bass and drum positions over the next couple of years. Headless Cross (April 1989), the band’s first album for I.R.S. Records, found veteran drummer Cozy Powell (b. Dec 29, 1947, d. Apr 5, 1998) and bassist Laurence Cottle joining Iommi and Martin. It marked a slight uptick in Black Sabbath’s fortunes at home, with the title song managing a week in the singles charts. Shortly after its release, Cottle was replaced by bassist Neil Murray. With Geoff Nichols back on keyboards, this lineup made Tyr (August 1990), which charted in the Top 40 in the U.K. but became Black Sabbath’s first regular album to miss the U.S. charts.
Iommi was able to reunite the 1979-1983 lineup of the band — himself, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, and Vinnie Appice — for Dehumanizer (June 1992), which brought Black Sabbath back into the American Top 50 for the first time in nine years, while in the U.K. the album spawned “TV Crimes,” their first Top 40 hit in a decade. And on November 15, 1992, Iommi, Butler, and Appice backed Ozzy Osbourne as part of what was billed as the singer’s final live appearance. Shortly after, it was announced that Osbourne would be rejoining Black Sabbath.
That didn’t happen — yet. Instead, Dio and Appice left again, and Iommi replaced them by bringing back Tony Martin and adding drummer Bob Rondinelli. Cross Purposes (February 1994) was a modest seller, and, with Iommi apparently maintaining a Rolodex of all former members from which to pick and choose, the next album, Forbidden (June 1995), featured returning musicians Cozy Powell, Geoff Nichols, and Neil Murray, along with Iommi and Martin. The disc spent only one week in the British charts, suggesting that Black Sabbath finally had exhausted its commercial appeal, at least as a record seller. With that, the group followed the lead of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, putting the most popular lineup of the band back together for a live album with a couple of new studio tracks on it. Recorded in the band’s hometown of Birmingham, England, in December 1997, the two-CD set Reunion — featuring all four of Black Sabbath’s original members, Iommi, Osbourne, Butler, and Ward — was released in October 1998. It charted only briefly in the U.K., but in the U.S. it just missed reaching the Top Ten and went platinum. The track “Iron Man” won Black Sabbath its first Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance. 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. By the end of the year, a failed recording session with producer Rick Rubin proved what an unreasonable idea this was, and the band laid dormant while Osbourne enjoyed scoring a hit TV series the following spring.