Live hard, die fast

By Tom MacIntosh

Randall William Rhoads (December 6, 1956 - March 19, 1982), was an American metal rock guitarist who played in Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne. Randy Rhoads grew up in a musical family, his parents were music teachers, so he picked up a Gibson acoustic when he was 6 and the future legend was off to the races. His mother Delores put him into piano classes so that he could learn to read music and theory, but they didn’t last long because young Randy, after seeing an Alice Cooper concert, knew what he wanted to play and who he wanted to be.

He started his first band when was 15, called Violet Fox (using his mother’s middle name Violet) with his brother Doug on drums. Then came his other teen bands that played parties in Burbank, like The Katzenjammer Kids, and Mildred Pierce. At 20 he formed Quiet Riot with bassman and buddy Kelly Garni (he taught him to play bass), singer Kevin DuBrow and on drums Drew Forsyth. They played mostly the L.A. night club scene, high schools, and colleges, but got their big break in 1978, by signing with CBS/Sony records and released their first album Quiet Riot, then a year later Quiet Riot II. They got rave reviews in Japan where they were considered “the next big thing, but weren’t released in the U.S., Rhoads was meticulous with his look onstage, often clad in polka-dotted clothes, looking more ‘glam’ than hard rock, but his followers loved it; they would attend their concerts dressed the same way as their hero. Before leaving the band he would go to California luthier Carl Sandoval with drawing and specs of the guitar he wanted made: the result was the Karl Sandoval Custom Polka Dot.  It was similar to the Gibson Flying V, but more pronounced Vs, like a dart, or shark fins, it would become a signature model and always associated with the flamboyant guitarist...but more on that later.

Enter Ozzy Osbourne. The former Black Sabbath singer was in search of guitarists to form a new band. He held auditions in Los Angeles with multiple players but didn’t like what he saw, and was about to return to England when in walks a young 22-year-old Rhoads with a ‘74 Gibson Les Paul Custom, and ripped into a few riffs. Osbourne was sold; he’d found his new axeman. A bemused Osbourne would later say he had always wondered why such a talented young guitarist like Rhoads would ever want to get involved with a “bloated alcoholic wrecklike himself. But now he had to design the rest of the band. The story varies according to whomever wanted to give an opinion, but let’s stick to the final lineup in 1979: Rhoads/lead guitar, Lee Kerslake (Uriah Heep)/drums, and Bob Daisley (Black Sabbath) on bass, with Ozzy as lead vocalist, naturally.  

They were then off to England to work on their first record Blizzard of Ozz. They put all the material together in about a month, rehearsing at John Henry’s hall in London. After they composed each song, Ozzy and Rhoads would go to local clubs to gauge the public’s reaction. They played under the name Law, and one of their first songs Crazy Train left an impressive mark on the audience; they were onto something special. Blizzard of Ozz went straight to #7 on the British  charts, and they hit the road in 1980 with 34 shows in the U.K., doubling their album’s sales wherever they played. It went Gold (500,000 copies sold) in just 100 days. The premise of the album was to put kickass metal alongside more conventional balladry, with the focus on the songs instead of the ‘show’. This is where Rhoads absolutely shines with some nimble riff work and creativity, especially on Suicide Solution and Goodbye to Romance. The composed material was a band effort, but in reality, Ozzy had his hands full with the tussle between thirst and liver. Around this time Rhoads sought to get another guitar made so he contacted Grover Jackson at Charvel Guitars. Two months later he received a white Flying V which was to become the Jackson Rhoads “Concorde” and history was made and played. The second and last album Rhoads appeared on was Diary of a Madman (1981), which included Rudy Sarzo on bass and drummer Tommy Aldridge in the credits on the CD copy, but the original recording was with Kerslake and Daisley. It’s called a neoclassical metal, a mix of metal with classical guitar acrobatics provided by the dextrous Rhoads. BBC Music called the album “classical rock in every way...lifted out of the ordinary by the legendary rock axe god Randy Rhoads”. IN 2015, Rolling Stone magazine listed it #15 on the “100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time. It has sold over 3 million copies to date: triple platinum. On the heels of its release they once again hit the road but only did 3 gigs due to Ozzy’s poorly state of mental and physical health.

They were back on it shortly after and started a tour of the USA filling stadiums across the country with an elaborate stage show involving cruelty to animals. At one show Osbourne bit the head off a bat which caused full-throated protests from the S.P.C.A. among others. Osbourne quipped, “I got rabies shots for biting the head off a bat but that’s ok - the bat had to get Ozzy shots
. Even though they were selling 6000 Blizzard records a week, their concerts were boycotted, and sponsors were concerned. With all this swirling around him, Rhoads turned to classical guitar training and seemed disconnected entirely. Rumour has it that at one point Osbourne punched him in the face to “knock some sense into him. Nevertheless, he was given the ‘Best New Talent Award’ by Guitar Player Magazine, and ‘Best New Guitarist’ in the U.K.’s Sounds magazine.

The last performance by Randy Rhoads was on March 18, 1982, in Knoxville. After the show the band boarded the bus and headed for Orlando. On the road the bus’ air-conditioning unit broke so they pulled into Leesburg, Florida. There was an airstrip with small planes and helicopters near to where they were waiting for repairs, so the bus driver and a private pilot commandeered a small plane (without permission) and flew a couple of members over to Orlando. On the second trip Rhoads was on board with makeup artist Rachel Youngblood, but instead of heading straight away they thought they’d play a joke on the rest by ‘buzzing’ the bus - flying very low overhead to scare them - the first 2 attempts were a laugh, but the third was not. The plane’s wing clipped the bus and went corkscrewing through the air and crashed into a house nearby. All three bodies were burned beyond recognition. It was truly one of the most tragic endings among a host of similar fates to other rock stars.

Gone was one of the great rock guitarists in history. He had been an influence to so many, including Dimebag Darrell, John Petrucci, Buckethead, and George Lynch to name a few. As a tribute to the legend Marshall Amplification put out a 1959RR at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in 2008, Jackson Guitars made a replica of his white ‘shortwing’ Flying V, and Gibson issued a 1974 Rhoads Les Paul Custom. In January of 2017 Randy Rhoads was inducted into the Hall of Heavy Metal History.

A blazing end to a virtuoso whose life and legacy lit up the entire guitar universe for just a fleeting moment; a shooting star, here and gone.