Randy Rhoads: You Can't Kill Rock 'n' Roll

Ozzy guitarist Randy Rhoads played his final show in Knoxville, but his legacy is flying high

When Steve Blevins was 16, in 1982, his mother wouldn't let him go see Ozzy Osbourne. "I told my mom I wanted to go, but she was a very religious person," he says. "She wasn't going to let me go get my soul damaged."

Few performers since Jerry Lee Lewis inspired the kind of hysterical fear among parents and preachers that Ozzy Osbourne did in the early '80s. Twenty years before his turn as the demented patriarch of The Osbournes, the former leader of Black Sabbath was just starting his solo career. He promoted it by biting the heads off flying animals and pissing on the wall of the Alamo. His stage show featured a Spinal Tap-like medieval castle as a backdrop. In advertisements for the Diary of a Madman tour, he's pictured wearing a devil's cape and horns. Evangelicals and animal-rights activists picketed outside his concerts. Ozzy was, by most media accounts of the time, a moral nuisance, a threat to the public welfare, and quite possibly the very personification of evil.

It was precisely that image that lured Blevins from Jonesborough to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum on Thursday, March 18, no matter what his mother said.

"It was my first rock concert," Blevins says. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. They had this big castle on stage. To me, a 16-year-old kid who'd never been to a concert, it freaked me out with all the stuff that was going on. It was pretty wild. Then Randy Rhoads came out. He was real small; his guitar looked huge on him, and this monster sound was coming out of it. It was the most incredible show I've ever seen."

Dressed in a leather vest and spiked wristbands, with his signature Flying V-shaped black-and-white polka-dot guitar and feathered and frosted blond hair, Rhoads' appearance was enough to raise eyebrows. He raised them further with his performance—his full tone, sharp, quick-hitting rhythms, and classically inspired arpeggiated solos on "Crazy Train," "I Don't Know," and "Flying High Again," and his vivid re-inventions of the Black Sabbath standards "Iron Man," "Children of the Grave," and "Paranoid." It was all a revelation to Blevins.

"When I went to the show, I didn't go to see Randy," he says. "I didn't know who Randy was....I wanted to go see Ozzy because I was a Black Sabbath fan. I was pissed because Ozzy left Sabbath. I went to see Ozzy and I was introduced to Randy that night. After that night, I was inspired to be a guitar player....We were on the floor, right in front of Ozzy, probably 10 or 15 rows back. But we kept moving to the right and ended up right in front of Randy Rhoads."

A few years later, Blevins was playing guitar for a spandex-and-hairspray band from the Tri-Cities called Damage Inc. He spent the late '80s and most of the '90s playing professionally with a series of touring bands. "That show inspired all that," he says.

It was a timely inspiration. The day after the Knoxville concert, Blevins and his friend were on their way to a fast-food restaurant for lunch when they heard on the radio that Osbourne had died in a plane crash.

"It was a mistake," he says. "Ozzy wasn't dead. It was Randy. It freaked us out."

Like Hank Williams, who died somewhere between the Andrew Johnson Hotel and West Virginia, and Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who gave his last public recital at the University of Tennessee in February 1943 a month before his death, Rhoads is now a part of Knoxville's mythology. His ghost became inextricably linked with the city at the moment of impact.

I Don't Know

On Friday, March 19, the morning after the Knoxville concert, Ozzy's tour bus stopped for maintenance in Leesburg, Fla., on the way to Orlando. The 25-year-old Rhoads and band hairstylist Rachel Youngblood went for a ride in a small Beechcraft plane with Andy Aycock, who was also the band's bus driver. Aycock buzzed the parked bus three times, but on the fourth pass clipped a wing and crashed into a nearby house. Rhoads, Youngblood, and Aycock were killed.

Among some people in Knoxville—mostly men in their 30s and 40s who saw Ozzy, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest at the Civic Coliseum when they were teenagers—it's a well-established fact that Rhoads' final show took place here. Ask them about the 1982 Ozzy concert, and the first thing they say is, "That was Randy Rhoads' last show." Even if they weren't there, they know the story. Everybody recognizes "Crazy Train," and most people know it's an Ozzy Osbourne song. Only a small percentage of the general public can name the guitarist who played that immediately identifiable riff. Some of these guys—the ones who know about Rhoads' last stand—can probably play it from memory, even more than 25 years later.

Around the country, guitar players and longtime fans have preserved Rhoads' legend with expensive replica guitars, tribute websites, cover versions of his songs, and regular magazine features about his style and significance. March 18, 1982, is a date with almost mystical overtones for Rhoads' fans. Guitar nerds may not have a high profile outside of Guitar Center and some Internet message boards, but they do constitute a giant market. Replicas of Rhoads' white and polka-dot Jackson guitars and the cream Les Paul he played sell for up to $2,500. Marshall just released a Randy Rhoads-model amplifier. Ozzy's 1987 Tribute album, featuring live performances from 1981, sold more than two million copies, went to number six on the U.S. album charts, and is generally regarded as the definitive Ozzy greatest-hits compilation for the casual fan.

But the story of Rhoads' death and its connection to Knoxville is essentially an oral history. Knoxville newspapers didn't report on the plane crash. For years, the story was scattered among a collection of police and coroner's office documents, old and often inaccurate newspaper clippings, and a few pieces in guitar magazines.

No Bone Movies

The details are starting to come together. Rudy Sarzo, Rhoads' bandmate in an early line-up of Quiet Riot and in Ozzy's touring band in '81 and '82, wrote the memoir Off the Rails in 2006, and a feature-length documentary about Rhoads' life, directed by one of his former guitar students, is in the works.

In 2005, Peter Margolis, a veteran TV producer, director, and production manager who's worked, in varying capacities, on NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me!, and The Larry Sanders Show, was working on a televised awards show in Los Angeles. He sat down for lunch with a camera operator he'd worked with several times but only knew casually. The operator told Margolis he was from Burbank, and Margolis told him he'd taken guitar lessons there from Rhoads in 1978 and '79.

"In the middle of L.A., where there are 5,000 camera operators, I was talking to the one guy who was Randy's guitar tech when he was in Quiet Riot," Margolis says. The camera operator introduced Margolis to Lori Hollen, who had been president of the Quiet Riot fan club when she was a teenager. A few weeks after Margolis met Hollen, he was pitching a documentary film to Randy's mother, Delores Rhoads, in her living room in Burbank.

"She'd been approached by writers, directors, filmmakers, and repeatedly said no," Margolis says. "She felt like it had to be someone who knew him. Anybody else couldn't understand what he was about and who he was."

Margolis and his crew started filming on March 19, 2007, when hundreds of fans gathered at Rhoads' grave in San Bernardino, Calif., to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death. Since then, Margolis has filmed almost 80 interviews, with Rhoads' family and friends and people who worked with him. The list of names includes Kelli Garni, the original bassist in Quiet Riot; Carlos Cavazo, the guitarist in the Metal Health line-up of Quiet Riot; Sarzo and his brother Robert, who was considered as a replacement for Rhoads in Ozzy's band; Jodi Raskin, Rhoads' girlfriend at the time of his death; Grover Jackson, whose company made Rhoads' signature guitars; Randy's brother Kelle, who's wearing the silver "RR" ring Rhoads had on when he died; and Mountain guitarist and '70s legend Leslie West, one of Rhoads' idols.

"I'm about 80 percent done shooting," Margolis says. "But the first 80 percent took as long as it's going to take for the last 20 percent. It's the same as if you've ever built a house. Pouring the concrete and putting up the walls is easy. It's the finishing touches, the final stuff, that takes forever....I work, too. I'm doing the film because it's something I want to do, but I can't ignore my career. I'm doing it around my schedule, so at times it's slow going. Realistically, it'll be summertime before I finish all the interviews, then trimming it, adding pictures and music."

The movie also has a local connection. Several years ago, Blevins' web-development work in Jonesborough got him in touch with Sarzo. When Sarzo became a consulting producer on the movie, he introduced Blevins to Margolis.

"When they found out I was at Randy's last show, they flew me out and interviewed me for the film," Blevins says. "It's been a year-long process, and I've become really good friends with them, so they made me part of the research team....When he died, it was like, ‘poof,' no more information. That's one reason the film is being made, all the fans and new kids buying [Randy Rhoads] guitars, rediscovering him and his music. There's not much out there about his life."

Margolis says he has a distribution deal lined up, but he also plans to shop the as-yet-untitled documentary at film festivals when it's done.

Margolis was working in his father's manufacturing plant in suburban Los Angeles when he heard the news of Rhoads' death on the radio. "I was literally frozen," he says. "I thought it couldn't possibly be true." He'd watched Rhoads, his friend and teacher, play several nights a week for two or three years with Quiet Riot in Los Angeles clubs. But he'd never seen him play with Ozzy Osbourne.

"He played in Los Angeles twice, once on each tour," he says. "I was in a band that was fairly popular in '81 and '82. Both times he played here, I thought, ‘He'll be back next year. I've got a gig or rehearsal tonight.' Who ever thought he was going to die? I've asked myself over and over again, ‘Why didn't I take off from rehearsal and go down to that show?'"

Flying High Again

In the years since his death, Rhoads has become an iconic hard-rock guitar hero. His introduction of classical training and technique and his undeniable, but often overlooked, sense of pop dynamics into heavy metal revolutionized the form and influenced a generation of guitar players.

Sarzo moved to Los Angeles in 1977. One Saturday night after he got there, he writes in Off the Rails, he wanted to go see the hot new band Van Halen at the Whiskey a Go Go. The show was sold out, so he walked a few blocks to the Starwood, where Quiet Riot was playing. After an intro of police lights, sirens, and a fake breaking news report, "an avalanche of guitar chords came ferociously ripping from the right side of the stage. Suddenly, the spotlight hit the sonic assailant, revealing a diminutive young man with long blond hair, matching polka-dotted vest and bow tie. The chainsaw riffs from his cream-colored Les Paul along with his glam-rock looks drove the young girls in front of the stage into a frenzy."

The end of the 1970s was a weird time for rock bands on the West Coast. Stadium rock was taking a big hit from punk and New Wave; skinny-tie bands were filling up the clubs that hard-rock groups had ruled for most of the previous decade. Young players like Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, Warren DeMartini, George Lynch, and Jake E. Lee were refashioning the lumbering blues-based sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Ted Nugent. By incorporating the pomp and flashy technical prowess of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and injecting a dose of California sex-and-drugs hedonism, they were laying the groundwork for what turned into one of the defining scenes of the 1980s. But at the time, they were drowned out by synth-pop.

"In '76, '77, '78, Quiet Riot was a staple at the Starwood and the Whiskey a Go Go," Margolis says. "They went from playing five nights a week to four, then three, then only weekends, then Thursdays. A lot of kids were cutting their hair and putting safety pins in their noses and cheeks. The tide was turning. Quiet Riot and their type of music was getting pushed out by the time Randy left."

Ozzy's pedigree and his devilish reputation got his new band plenty of attention. Rhoads' guitar work on Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, both released in 1981, opened the way for the explosion of Los Angeles hard rock and metal that followed. Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Dokken, and Quiet Riot all owe something to Randy Rhoads, either in style or substance.

"It became Metal Guitar 101, that machine-gun-type accuracy," Sarzo says. "Every kid now, that's the first thing they tackle. But 25 years ago, everything was Hendrix-style, looser, with a lot less control."

Sarzo cites Rhoads' most familiar work, "Crazy Train," as evidence for both his skill and influence. "That riff," he says. "It's one of the main archetypes of what's become known as the '80s sound. It's the '80s sound more than Def Leppard or Bon Jovi, as far as guitar, attitude. It's definitely Randy Rhoads."

Now Rhoads' influence is showing up again among contemporary metal musicians who grew up listening to Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Brann Dailor, the drummer for Mastodon, plays a black-and-white polka-dot kit in Rhoads' honor. And traces of Rhoads' style—speed and precision combined with big hooks and classically tinged interludes—are more and more apparent on big-selling metal albums.

"That's something that's become a little bit more acceptable in extreme music the last couple of years," says Albert Mudrian, editor-in-chief of the metal magazine Decibel. "It's probably part of the reason some of these bands are becoming bigger....Alexi [Laiho of Children of Bodom] is a modern-day metal shredder who isn't afraid to do those crazy, insane, self-indulgent solos but also do that metal/pop material. And Adam Dutkiewicz from Killswitch Engage—he's a gifted, talented shredder, but there are monster ballads all over Killswitch Engage albums."

Off the Rails

Ozzy Osbourne was fired from Black Sabbath in 1979; in the fall of that year, Rhoads auditioned for his new band. Rhoads was immediately enlisted and left Quiet Riot, the band he'd formed when he was 17. He flew to England with Osbourne to write and record Blizzard of Ozz. That album contains many of Rhoads'—and Osbourne's—defining moments: "Crazy Train" and "Mr. Crowley," the short acoustic exercise "Dee," "I Don't Know," "Steal Away (The Night)," and "Suicide Solution." Blizzard was recorded with Bob Daisley on bass and Lee Kerslake on drums, but the pair wasn't free to tour. Quiet Riot had dissolved after Rhoads left, so Sarzo tried out for the touring band and got the job. Veteran drummer Tommy Aldridge completed the rhythm section.

The group covered the United States from April to September of 1981, then took a month-long break. Diary, which had been recorded almost immediately after Blizzard, was released over the break, and then the band went to Europe. The U.S. tour resumed in December. This leg included a bigger stage set—the castle backdrop, the crew in robes, a fog machine. Don Arden, Sharon Osbourne's father and head of the Jet label that had released Blizzard and Diary, negotiated a distribution deal with CBS Records. But Rhoads was growing dissatisfied.

"At the time, his plan was to give notice to Ozzy and Sharon and go back to school," Sarzo says. "He was interested in fulfilling his contract [for one more album and tour] and then carrying on with his education. He wanted to get a master's in music and then make contacts in the New York studio scene....Randy was touring from '80 to '82, two years in a row. He was fed up with playing the same thing over and over again. He was pretty sure that some accommodation could be made to pursue that and remain a member of Ozzy's band. Sharon and Ozzy knew the value of his playing."

What Rhoads might have done became a moot point the morning after his Knoxville show. Sarzo remembers Randy's excitement when they woke up in Florida. "The last time I saw Randy, he was trying to convince me to get up on the plane and ride with him," he says. "We had done everything together. We'd taken a helicopter ride. That was the only time I turned down an offer to do something exciting with him. I just went back to sleep. The next thing I feel is the impact of the plane rocking the bus, then jumping out of my bunk. I thought we were on the freeway and had been in a crash....The whole torment of finding out the reality of what was going on, it was devastating. It was something I'll never forget. One of the reasons I wrote the book was so I wouldn't have to talk about it anymore, but I've had to talk about it a lot since the book came out. It was painful, painful."

Over the Mountain

In 1982, Osbourne wasn't the legendary madman he is now. After Rhoads' death, he couldn't afford to cancel the tour. The last few dates, with replacement guitarists Bernie Tormé and Brad Gillis (later of Night Ranger), put Rhoads' contributions and importance in stark relief. Former Knoxvillian Don Rutherford was at the Knoxville show in ‘82.

"I was 16 years old when Diary of a Madman was released," Rutherford writes in an e-mail from Los Angeles, where he's a movie make-up artist. "At that time I had been playing guitar for five years and was very well aware of who and what Randy Rhoads was. I bought Ozzy records for the guitar players, not the bat-eating. I had spent many hours attempting to figure out his guitar parts and was extremely interested in watching him perform....I was up against the rail directly in front of Randy. I took one of those little notebooks to write down where he was fretting his guitar parts, just in case they were different than where I had presumed them to be. Let's just say I took a lot of notes that night!"

After Rhoads' death, Ozzy, the band, and the crew went back to Los Angeles. Eight shows were canceled. The tour resumed on April 1, less than two weeks after the accident. When the tour ended up back in East Tennessee on April 23, at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Gillis was filling in on guitar.

"I went to Johnson City and saw Ozzy trying to finish the tour with Brad Gillis on guitar," Rutherford says. "Gillis was a fine player, but was in no way, shape, or form the musician that Randy was, and no one ever will be."