Ozzy Osbourne has been many things throughout his multi-platinum career: lead singer of Black Sabbath, successful solo star and a veteran touring artist.
But as Ozzy marks the 35th anniversary of his career, there is no doubt that his starring part in MTV reality series “The Osbournes” ushered in a most unlikely role for him: that of mainstream pop-culture icon.
Much has already been said about Ozzy and his family in the saturation media coverage that followed the success of “The Osbournes,” which documents the lives of Ozzy; his wife/manager, Sharon; and two of their children, Kelly and Jack (the Osbournes’ daughter Aimee does not appear in the show). The reality show – which debuted March 5, 2002, on MTV in the U.S. – holds the record for the highest-rated series on MTV. “The Osbournes” also grabbed hit status in other countries, including Canada and Great Britain.
The Osbournes and MTV have re-upped for a third season, expected to begin in 2004, despite Ozzy’s ATV accident Dec. 8.
Unlike other middle-aged rock stars whose glory days are behind them and are contemplating retirement, Ozzy has become a bigger star than ever. And he shows no signs of slowing down.
“Ozzy is a living legend,” says Epic Records executive VP/GM Steve Barnett, who was once Black Sabbath’s agent and has known Ozzy since 1971. “Ozzy is one of the few artists who’s maintained his relevance with a young audience. He’s stayed true to his craft, and he’s very special. He’s an incredibly passionate man, and in some ways he defies categorization.”
MTV/MTV2 president Van Toffler says, “Ozzy is downright loveable. In many ways, he’s the heart and soul of the Osbourne family. He represents everything that’s right about rock ‘n’ roll – you go with your gut and say what you feel.”
THE WILD RIDE BEGINS
Ozzy’s journey in the music business has been a virtual roller-coaster ride.
Born Dec. 3, 1948, in Birmingham, England, John Michael Osbourne, nicknamed Ozzy, might have been just another high-school dropout with a prison record (for burglary) and doomed to a dead-end existence had he not discovered his musical calling.
With the Beatles as his biggest influence, a teenage Ozzy decided to pursue a full-time career in rock ‘n’ roll. He hooked up with a series of unknown bands that went nowhere fast until, in 1969, the Birmingham band he was in changed its name to Black Sabbath. The group previously had used the names Polka Tulk Blues Band (later shortened to Polka Tulk) and Earth.
Ozzy and Black Sabbath’s classic lineup of guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terence “Geezer” Butler and drummer Bill Ward enjoyed a wild ride during the next decade. The occult-inspired imagery that the band embraced led to controversy but also a rabidly loyal following, influencing countless people.
Beginning in 1970, the band released several hit albums, toured the world and pounded out such classic heavy-metal anthems as “Paranoid,” “War Pigs” and “Iron Man.”
By the late ’70s, there were rifts in the band, and Ozzy’s marriage to his first wife, Thelma, was also crumbling. With Ozzy’s solo career seeming hopeless, manager Don Arden – who had shepherded Black Sabbath’s career in the latter half of the ’70s – parted ways with Black Sabbath and decided to manage Ozzy. Arden’s daughter, Sharon, worked with her father and also took a special interest in Ozzy.
MAYHEM AND DEBAUCHERY
If Black Sabbath was known for mayhem and drug- and alcohol-induced debauchery, the solo Ozzy booted his reputation up to an even more outrageous level. With the help of Sharon, Ozzy assembled a backing band, and his first solo album, the successful “Blizzard of Ozz,” was released in 1980.
“I first met Ozzy at a recording studio in England in 1979 or 1980, when he was recording his solo album,” says Harvey Leeds, Epic senior VP of artist development and marketing. “Ozzy was sitting outside on the grass, and I remember he pulled me into the studio because he couldn’t wait to play me his new songs. I remember hearing tracks ‘Mr. Crowley’ and ‘Crazy Train’ for the first time and thinking that this was the greatest music in the world and it would become an instant classic.”
“Blizzard of Ozz” also sparked the creative songwriting partnership of Ozzy and guitarist Randy Rhoadswhom many consider to be one of rock’s greatest guitarists – and bassist Bob Daisley.
By 1983, Sharon had fully taken the reins of Ozzy’s career by becoming his manager. But to do that, she had to buy out Ozzy’s management contract from her father at a reported cost of $1.5 million. The deal caused a bitter rift between father and daughter, and they remained estranged for almost 20 years until they reconciled last year.
It was during the “Blizzard of Ozz” era that Ozzy’s reputation as the ultimate “madman of rock” took on a life of its own. It was fueled by Ozzy’s antics, including an infamous 1981 incident in which he bit off the head of a live dove during a meeting with record-label executives.
“I wasn’t there,” Leeds says, “but it was literally the ‘bite heard around the world.’ Within moments of that happening, everyone at the company knew that there was an artist named Ozzy Osbourne at the label.”
Then on March 19, 1982, Rhoads was killed during an airborne joy ride that ended when his plane crashed into a house. The accident also killed pilot Andrew Aycock and Ozzy’s hairdresser, Rachel Youngblood. Ozzy, who was not in the plane, saved the life of a man who was in the house at the time – a fact that often gets buried under the negative stories about the rock star.
If Rhoads’ untimely death was Ozzy’s low point that year, his marriage to Sharon could be considered one of the highlights of his life. The couple married July 4, 1982.
Throughout the ’80s, Ozzy garnered more multi-platinum records and successful tours. But he was dogged by stints in rehab, hospitalizations for injuries and lawsuits against him claiming that his songs caused teenagers to commit suicide. None of the lawsuits were successful.
In the early ’90s, Ozzy was misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), leading him to prematurely announce his retirement from touring. His 1992 No More Tours trek was one of his most successful. He returned to touring in 1995, after learning that he did not have MS. The following year, Sharon launched the successful annual Ozzfest tour, with Ozzy as the headliner. Ozzfest has since become the premier touring festival for heavy metal and hard rock acts.
Then an MTV show would change the singer’s life.
It may be common knowledge that “The Osbournes” TV series had its origins in the family’s 2000 appearance on “MTV Cribs,” a program that showcases the homes of celebrities.
But what may not be widely known is that years before MTV labeled “The Osbournes” the world’s “first reality sitcom,” Ozzy had been toying with the idea of having a forum to show his more humorous side.
“The MTV show is a natural evolution of Ozzy wanting to show his comedic talents,” says Leeds. “He has said if he wasn’t doing music, he’d want to be a stand-up comedian. We were even talking about doing a spoken-word comedy record about 10 years ago. Another idea he had was doing a parody of the movie ‘My Dinner With Andre’ called ‘My Dinner With Ozzy.”‘
Although daughter Aimee chose not to participate in the show, Ozzy, Sharon, Jack and Kelly became media darlings. Most observers believe that the show’s impact has been far-reaching, not just on TV but in the broader pop culture.
” ‘The Osbournes’ been a flash point for other celebrities to get their own reality shows,” says Stan Soocher, University of Colorado at Denver associate professor of music and entertainment studies. “Doing a reality show is no longer considered a bad career move. ‘The Osbournes’ was the first reality series to show the inner workings of a dysfunctional but loving rock ‘n’ roll family.”
The third season will likely not shy away from Jack’s recent stint in rehab and Ozzy’s ongoing struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. In July, the Osbourne family also lost longtime tour manager Bobby Thomson to throat cancer.
MTV executives say that although Sharon decides what can and cannot be filmed for the show, the series is ultimately a collaboration between the Osbournes and MTV.
People close to Ozzy note that his charitable side often does not win as much media coverage as the wild rock ‘n’ roll stories about him. For example, Leeds recalls that at one of Ozzy’s concerts, the singer met a wheelchair-bound fan who wanted to ride his wheelchair across the country but did not have enough money to do so.
“Ozzy literally pulled money out of his pocket – hundreds of dollars – and gave it to the fan as seed money for his trip,” Leeds says. “I always see Ozzy meeting with needy people.”
Ozzy has also donated his money, time and services to dozens of charities through the years, including the International Rett Syndrome Assn. Leeds, whose daughter has Rett Syndrome, a developmental disorder, says that one of his most treasured memories of Ozzy is of the rock star donating money he won in a lawsuit to Rett Syndrome research. “He told me he was doing it for my daughter,” Leeds says. “I was really touched.”