“Does a man have to fight all his life only in death to take flight to the skies?/Warmongers vie to take my throne, no respect is ever shown.”
The lyrics from the song “Massacre of the Saxons” could easily be mistaken for something by Iron Maiden, yet they came from the mouth of the then-91-year old British actor Christopher Lee, who died from respiratory problems and heart failure today at the age of 93.
While he’s best remembered for playing various evil characters – Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster for Britain’s Hammer Films, James Bond’s foil Francisco Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun and the wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring flicks – Lee had a longstanding fascination with metal, which he channeled into his own music late in his life.
Lee became a fan of metal in the early Seventies when he first heard Black Sabbath, whose guitarist Tony Iommi reciprocated the respect the actor had for his band and the genre it spawned. In a 2013 promotional video for one of Lee’s own albums, he told Iommi, “You are the father of metal,” to which the guitarist replied, “But you’re the one that started it, really, because we used to go watch Dracula and the horror films you did and that’s what influenced us.”
Regardless of whether metal started in 1958 with The Horror of Dracula or in 1970 with Black Sabbath, Lee’s first musical contribution to the genre didn’t come until 2005 when the actor provided guest narration on Rhapsody of Fire’s single “The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream.” Two years later he dabbled in the genre again on his own 2006 operatic pop album, Revelation, with “Toreador March (Metal Mix),” a guitar-heavy reimagining of the song from the opera Carmen. Then in 2010 he teamed up with Manowar when the kings of power metal re-recorded their 1982 debut album, Battle Hymns, as Battle Hymns MMXI; Lee recited a spoken word passage originally performed by Orson Welles for the reworked version of the song “Dark Avenger.”
“We mourn the loss of our friend Sir Christopher Lee” posted Manowar bassist Joey DeMaio on Facebook. “He was not only a great man and a talented actor, but also a great singer and a dear friend.”
By the time of his collaboration with Manowar, Lee was already a bona fide metal recording artist in his own right, having released the galloping symphonic metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross earlier in 2010. On it, the actor-turned-musician – who released the record’s lead single, “Let Legend Mark Me as the King,” on his 90th birthday – chronicled the history of the first Holy Roman Emperor in sung and spoken parts. “He was, in fact, my ancestor and we can prove it,” Lee told an audience at a speech in University College in Dublin.
Three years later, the actor took things to a new level of confidence and power with the heavier, more majestic Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which was arranged by guitarist Richie Faulker right before he replaced K.K. Downing in Judas Priest. “It is entirely heavy metal,” Lee said in a promotional clip. Indeed, the album features Lee singing in an imposing baritone and other guest vocalists growling away while drums gallop and guitars chug and wail in accompaniment.
Lee’s final real metal release was the 2014 EP, Metal Knight, a hodgepodge of standards recorded with storming beats and crunching riffs. Lee also enjoyed putting out high-volume Christmas carols; 2012 EP A Heavy Metal Christmas featured amped-up renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Silent Night,” and 2013’s A Heavy Metal Christmas Too contained the single “Jingle Hell.” His last holiday tune was “Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing,” a spoof of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” which came out last December.
Due to his many contributions to the headbanging arts, both through music and film, Lee received the “Spirit of Metal” award from Iommi at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods awards show in 2010.
“I have a great belief that things, no matter what they are – music, literature, anything in life – should from time to time surprise people and that’s what I believe in: surprising people,” he told Metal Hammer last year. “Heavy metal has, since its very beginning, surprised in the best sense of the word, and people all over the world. To be involved in that, and to show people that even now I can still surprise my audience, it’s very important. I’ve spent my entire career taking risks. Acting is a risk, it has to be. I’ve never been afraid, and I’ve done my best to take those risks.”