Mixing bone-crushing volume with Ozzy Osbourne's keening, ominous pronouncements of gloom and doom, Black Sabbath were the heavy-metal kings of the 1970s. Often reviled by mainstream rock critics and ignored by radio programmers, the group still managed to sell over 8 million albums before Osbourne departed for a solo career in 1979.
The four original members, schoolmates from a working-class district of industrial Birmingham, England, first joined forces as the Polka Tulk Blues Company. They quickly changed their name to Earth, then, in 1969, to Black Sabbath; the name came from the title of a song written by bassist Geezer Butler, a fan of occult novelist Dennis Wheatley. It may also have been an homage to a Boris Karloff film. The quartet's eponymous 1970 debut, recorded in two days, went to Number Eight in England and Number 23 in the U.S. A single, "Paranoid," released in advance of the album of the same name, reached Number Four in the U.K. later that year; it was the group's only Top Twenty hit.
The single didn't make the U.S. Top Forty, but Paranoid, issued in early 1971, sold four million copies with virtually no radio airplay. Beginning in December 1970 Sabbath toured the States relentlessly. Despite the band members' intense drug and alcohol abuse, the constant road work paid off, and by 1974 Black Sabbath was considered peerless among heavy-metal acts, its first five LPs all having sold at least a million copies apiece in America alone.
In spite of their name, the crosses erected onstage, and songs dealing with apocalypse, death, and destruction, the band members insisted their interest in the black arts was nothing more than innocuous curiosity, and in time, Black Sabbath's princes-of-darkness image faded. Eventually, so did its record sales. Aside from a platinum best-of, We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll (1976), not one of three LPs from 1975 to 1978 went gold. Osbourne, reeling from drug use and excessive drinking, quit the band briefly in late 1977 (ex–Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker filled his shoes for some live dates). In January 1979 he was fired. Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, replaced Osbourne.
Although Dio could belt with the best of them, Sabbath would never be the same. Its first album with Dio, Heaven and Hell (1980), went platinum; its second, Mob Rules (1981), gold. But thereafter, the group's LPs sold fewer and fewer copies, as Black Sabbath went through one personnel change after another. Ill health forced Bill Ward out of the band in 1980; Carmine Appice's brother Vinnie took his place. Friction between Iommi and Dio led the singer to quit angrily in 1982; he took Appice with him to start his own band, Dio. Vocalists over the years have included Dave Donato, Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, another ex-member of Deep Purple Glenn Hughes, Tony Martin, and Dio again.
By 1986's Seventh Star, only Iommi remained from the original lineup. He had to wince when Geezer Butler teamed up with Osbourne, who had since launched a he phenomenally successful solo career, in 1988, though the bassist did return to the fold three years later. Despite bitterness expressed in the press between Osbourne and Iommi, the original foursome reunited in 1985 at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, and again in 1992, at the end of what was supposedly Osbourne's last tour. Throughout 1993 word had it that Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward would tour, but by year's end Osbourne had backed out, allegedly over money.
The indefatigable Tony Iommi went right back to work with Butler, rehiring vocalist Tony Martin and adding former Rainbow drummer Rob Rondinelli. That lineup proved as unstable as the previous one, with drummers coming, going, and returning over the following years. Despite hiring Body Count's Ernie C to produce 1995's Forbidden (and inviting guest vocalist Ice-T to sing on a track), Black Sabbath seemed increasingly out of touch with the times, and at the end of the Forbidden Tour, the band unofficially went on hiatus.
But not for long, as Iommi, Butler, and Osbourne reunited to headline 1997's Ozzfest. Ward was not invited (he was replaced by Faith No More's Mike Bordin), but he did participate in two shows in the band's hometown of Birmingham, England, in December 1997. The resulting live album, Reunion (Number 11, 1998), also featured two new studio tracks, including the single "Psycho Man." The album went platinum in the U.S., and the live version of "Iron Man" earned the band its first Grammy for Best Metal Performance — nearly 30 years after the song was originally released. The ensuing tour lasted two years and ended in December 1999.
Tony Iommi released his first solo album in 2000; a prestigious roster of guest singers (Osbourne, Billy Corgan, Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl) handled the vocals. Among metalheads, Iommi is something of a guitar god, due in part to the fact that he plays spectacularly despite having lost the tips of two right fingers in a welding accident at age 17. His hero was the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who also lost two fingers and yet continued to play.
In mid-2001 it was announced that all four original members were writing material for a new Black Sabbath album to be produced by Rick Rubin. The band scrapped all the material and the album never materialized, although Sabbath performed one new song, "Scary Dreams," on that year's Ozzfest. The band was put on hold throughout 2002 as Osbourne refocused on his solo music and new MTV reality show, The Osbournes, in which his family was portrayed as a sort of real-life Munsters. The band came back together for the 2004 and 2005 Ozzfest tours.
In 2005, Black Sabbath was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, and the following year, after many years of eligibility, the band made it into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2007, Iommi and Butler reunited with Appice and Dio to record new material for the compilation Black Sabbath: The Dio Years (Number 54); that configuration of the group toured as Heaven and Hell (to avoid being confused with the Osbourne-fronted Black Sabbath) into the year 2008. On April 28, 2009, Heaven and Hell released its debut album, The Devil You Know.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.