August 27, 2022

FTV: Rudy Sarzo


     The name might not be familiar, but I will lay odds that if you have seen any number of videos made by bands like Quiet Riot, Whitesnake, and Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz in the 1980s, you have seen his face.  Having seen many of the aforementioned videos, I knew who Rudy Sarzo was but I never really knew much about him.  When Guitar World ran a tribute issue about Randy Rhoads that we chronicled in FTV:  RR 40 Years On (6-15-22), Rudy Sarzo was one of the many musicians interviewed about the late great guitarist.  Sarzo had the good fortune to perform in two bands with Rhoads.  He also spent time teaching with him at Randy’s mother’s music school in Los Angeles.  In the CRM interview, Sarzo mentioned the book he had written about his experiences, (Off the Rails – Aboard the Crazy Train in the Blizzard of Ozz – Too Smart! Publishing, 2008).  I immediately prevailed upon my wife to find a copy via the inter-library loan service, MELCAT.  Some musicians bring in ghostwriters to help with their biographies, but not Sarzo.  He hunkered down with his Yorkshire Terrier muse Tory and penned his own story.  If I had any apprehension about how accurate his memories might be, he mentioned early on he was very happy he had kept a detailed diary of his adventures which he consulted when he put Off The Rails in print.

     For the Introduction, Sarzo started off with the traumatic events of March 19, 1982:  “‘Rudes!  Rudes!  Come on, get up!’  I hear a voice yelling to me through the curtains in my bunk.  As I slide the curtains open, I see Randy standing in the doorway of the tour bus. ‘What’s going on?’ I ask with a yawn as I wipe the sleep from my eyes.  ‘We’re at the bus depot and Andy’s going to take Rachel and me up on a plane to see the countryside.  Get dressed and come with us!  It’ll be fun.’  ‘What time is it?’ I ask, fighting back a yawn.  ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Randy says with a shrug.  ‘About 8 a.m.’  Oh, that’s all right Rand, you go ahead.  I’m just going to wait until we get to Orlando before I get up.’  I put my head back down on my pillow.  ‘Okay, but you’ll be sorry you missed it!’  Randy kids as I watch him step out of the tour bus and into the quiet Florida morning.  I pull back the curtains in my bunk and go back to sleep, never to see my friend Randy Rhoads again.”

     What happened next has been well documented.  On route to Orlando, Florida from their last show in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Blizzard of Ozz tour had stopped at the Calhoun Brothers Tour Bus company compound in Leesburg, Florida.  The company property had an airstrip and several helicopters and small airplanes on site.  Without permission, their tour bus driver, Andrew Aycock took a single-engine Beechcraft F35 plane on a couple of joy rides with members of the touring party.  Keyboard player Don Airey was on the first flight and said they had buzzed the parked tour bus in an attempt to wake drummer Tommy Aldridge.  On the second flight, with Rhoads and makeup artist Rachel Youngblood on board, they again tried to buzz the bus but on the third pass, one of the plane’s wings clipped the top of the bus.  The plane spiraled out of control, snapped off the top of a pine tree, and crashed into a garage where it burst into flames.  All three were killed instantly and their bodies had to be identified with dental records and personal jewelry because of the intensity of the fire.  

     Keyboardist Airey was the only eye witness and said as he was taking pictures from the ground, it looked like there was some sort of struggle in the cockpit of the plane and the wings were tipping from side to side just before they impacted the bus.  Later investigation into the crash revealed the pilot had been using cocaine prior to the flight and had been in an agitated state during the previous days.  His ex-wife had been on the tour bus and he was trying to reconcile with her.  Airey thinks that in his emotionally troubled state, the pilot had seen his wife standing in the bus doorway and may have been trying to intentionally crash the plane to kill his wife.  Airey surmises the struggle he witnessed between the pilot and Randy probably saved everyone who would have died if the plane had made a direct hit on the bus.  The answers to a lot of difficult questions went to the graves with the three on board the plane.  Randy Rhoads was 25 years old, Rachel 56, and the pilot 36.

     Grief stricken over the loss of his guitar player and friend, Ozzy appeared on David Letterman’s show six days later (March 25, 1982) to honor a previous commitment.  When Letterman noted how hard it must have been for him to be there, Osbourne explained, “Randy and Rachel would have wanted us to go on – you can’t kill rock and roll.  The tour is suspended until April 1.”  With Berne Torme filling in on guitar, later replaced for the rest of the tour by Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, they did get back on the road.  We will get to Sarzo’s feelings about it a little later.

     Rudy Sarzo grew up in Miami, Florida where his family settled after they emigrated from their native Cuba in 1961with little more than a couple of suitcases in tow.  Born Rudolfo Maximliano Sarzo Lavielle Grande Ruiz Payret y Chaumont in Havana (11-18-1950), he and his brother Robert underwent the culture shock of being in a new country twice.  First, they had to learn a new language and the customs of their new home.  With employment opportunities scarce, they relocated to New Jersey in  the summer of 1963.  When school began that fall, his teacher told him, “You’re in America now,  Your name will be Rudy from now on.”  The family began to realize they wouldn’t be going back to Cuba with Castro in charge.  The family cursed the dictator the day President Kennedy was assassinated.  To help Rudy and his younger brother Robert out of their depression about JFK’s death, they bought them an Old Kraftsman acoustic guitar from the Sears catalog for Christmas of 1963.  Catching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on February 9, 1964 shocked the family, but for different reasons.  Rudy’s mother and father were alarmed by their appearance, his father commenting, “The long hair reminds me of Fidel and his rebels.  I bet you they’re Communists, too!”  Rudy had a different reaction:  “I was in awe!  They were like nothing else I had ever seen before:  long hair, loud guitars, and hundreds of hysterical girls worshiping them.  They had all the cool qualities girls were crazy for.  Qualities, incidentally, that I lacked, since I was a timid, overweight 13-year old.

     When the family grew tired of the dreary winter weather, they moved back to their old Miami neighborhood in 1967.  Acoustic guitar in hand, he marched into the rehearsal of a garage band called Era of Good Feeling and announced, “Hi, my name is Rudy.  My family just moved in from New Jersey and I want to join your band.”  Lacking enough equipment, they told him they did not need another guitar player, but if he came back with an amp and an electric bass, he was in.  His parents went the Sears route again to purchase a Silvertone bass and amp on credit.  Rudy continues, “I initially bluffed my way through our song list mostly composed of Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who.  But it wasn’t long before I began to comprehend the role of the bassist:  The link between rhythm and melody.”

     By the end of 1967, Rudy had upgraded to a Fender Jazz Bass and became infatuated with learning the instrument.  Hours and hours practicing in his bedroom listening to and playing along with rock records as he also cycled through countless break ups of his ill-fated bands and teen romances.  After graduating from high school in 1969, his band Sylverster landed a nightclub gig backing an R&B singer who also acted as the emcee at the Topless Tomboy Club.  Playing seven forty-five minute sets a night six days a week was hard work, but an ideal opportunity to, as Sarzo said, “Hone my chops playing R&B and funk.  Also, sharing the dressing room with the friendly dancers exposed my raging teen hormones to an exhilarating lifestyle.  No more Cuban girls chaperoned by overly possessive mothers!”  Rudy’s brother dropped out of high school in the early 1970s and with their new band, Mango, they played hard rock (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and such) on the South Florida circuit.  

     His first meeting with his future Quiet Riot band mate Frankie Banali was memorable, mostly because Rudy mistook him for the bass player in the band Ginger.  Spotting him watching a local band at a club called The Flying Machine, Rudy asked, “Hi, are you one of the guys from the band Ginger?  I saw your band open for David Bowie a few days ago at Pirate’s World and I thought you guys were great!  Especially your drummer.  I thought he was the best thing out of the whole night.”  “Thanks, I’m the drummer,” replied the amused Banali.

     When disco transformed the whole local music scene in 1974, the Sarzo brothers decided to not follow the pack and switch their band over into the new dance club mode.  They struck out for New York state with Robert’s wife-to-be Suzie and a singer named Dave, landing in Utica.  Their father wished them well but told their mother, “They’ll be back in two weeks, you’ll see.”  Rudy would spend the next seven years chasing his rock and roll dream before he would return the two suitcases he borrowed when he left Miami.  The brothers would spend three years working together before Rudy decided to try his fortunes in the West.    

     Rudy arrived in Los Angeles in August of 1977 hoping to find a band he could join to take the next step up the industry ladder.  On one of his first nights in L.A., he could not get into the sold out Whiskey A Go Go to see a hot new band called Van Halen so he wandered down to the Starlight Club to catch another band called Quiet Riot.  QR impressed him because they went all out and performed what Sarzo called ‘a stadium show’, something most bands would not attempt in a small club.  While he was impressed with their guitar player, Randy Rhoads, it was the few minutes he spent talking to singer Kevin DuBrow that would later punch his ticket into the L.A. music scene.  Rudy survived in Hollywood during the summer of 1977 by, “living off the kindness of female strangers while playing in a string of unsuccessful outfits.”  His brother invited him to join him and his wife’s Top Forty band for a series of gigs in New Jersey.  A little disillusioned with Los Angeles, he jumped on a flight east.  Rudy banked much of his payroll from playing with his brother and sister-in-law in A New Taste, intending to head back to L.A. in the summer of 1978 to try his luck again.  

     A week before he headed back west, Kevin DuBrow tracked him down and asked if he would like to audition for the bass slot in Quiet Riot.  Dubrow sent him a tape of their demos to learn and told him to look him up when he got back in town.  Sarzo passed his audition with flying colors and the band began the hard work necessary to get noticed in the crowded L.A. music scene.  They had already achieved some buzz in Japan when their Quiet Riot I album was released there by Sony Records.  Quiet Riot II was being mixed when Rudy joined the band.  The Japanese music press was already calling them ‘the next big thing’.  Though it would have made sense for them to tour Japan in light of their album sales there, their managers turned down the offers presented.  This left QR little choice but to try and garner a record deal in the states just like the rest of the L.A. bands.

     Sarzo stepped on stage at the Starwood with Quiet Riot for the first time on October 5, 1978,  the same stage he had first seen them a little over a year earlier.  With New Wave bands getting signed left and right, Quiet Riot faced an uphill climb when hard rock bands seemed to be going the way of the dinosaurs.  A last ditch effort to get a record deal was hatched:  the band put word out to their fan base to gather so they could be taken around via two flatbed trucks to hold demonstrations at the major record company offices to prod them to sign the band.  The one hit they got was from an A&R guy from Capitol Records who encouraged them to, “write a couple of hit songs like the ones on the Billboard charts.”  When Capitol then rejected their demo of ‘hits’, the band was teetering on the brink.  Rudy was already working at a health food store to make ends meet when Randy suggested he come to work at his mother’s music store, Musonia.

     Even with Quiet Riot not gaining any traction, Randy told Rudy, “Yeah, I’m getting pretty frustrated myself.  Some guy named Dana keeps calling me to audition for Ozzy, the ex-singer in Black Sabbath.”  ‘Dana’ turned out to be Dana Bash, the bassist Ozzy was using while trying out guitar players.  Even though Randy was reluctant to audition, Rudy convinced him he would be crazy not too.  To make a long story short enough for our purposes, Rhoads got the gig and after  he was whisked off to England to record Ozzy’s first solo album (with drummer Lee Kerslake and bassist Bob Daisley), Quiet Riot quietly folded.

     By March of 1981, Rudy was working with an L.A. band called ‘Angel’ but sleeping on the spare bed in Kevin DuBrow’s small apartment in Sherman Oaks.  Kevin answered the phone and passed it to him, “Rudy?  This is Sharon.  I’m with Ozzy’s management.  We’re looking for a bass player and Randy has spoken very highly of you.  We would like for you to come down and audition.”  DuBrow went nuts when he heard Sarzo tell Sharon, “Well, I really appreciate the call, but you know, I’m already in a band.”  After she hung up with a curt, “Okay, I’ll tell Ozzy,” he wondered if he had done the right thing.  So did DuBrow:  “You turned down the gig with Ozzy?  Are you (expletive deleted) nuts?”  Rudy recalls thinking, “Yeah, I probably am.  Passing on Ozzy didn’t make any sense under my current strapped economic situation.”

     Fortunately for Sarzo, he was a little more clear headed when the phone rang again the next day:  “Is this Rudy?  Hi, this is Ozzy.  Listen man, we had some guys come down yesterday and they were all a bunch of bloody hacks.  Randy tells me you’re the guy.  So just come down and meet with me.”  Randy Rhoads picked him up later that day and Rudy Sarzo would board Ozzy’s Blizzard of Ozz band and take the ride of his life on the Crazy Train.

     In the wake of Rhoads’ fatal plane crash, Sarzo was naturally devastated at the loss of his friend.  They kept auditioning guitarists so they could continue the tour to keep Ozzy occupied.  Rudy’s brother, Robert, turned out to be perfect fit, but the Jet Records home office sent over Irish guitarist Berne Torme with the promise that he had the gig.  When he informed Sharon he was told he only had to do a handful of shows as he had his own commitments, she had a fit.  Another short term fill in (and an ill fitting one at that) was finally replaced by Brad Gillis who was also in the process of forming Night Ranger.  As the tour slogged toward the end, Rudy had already decided the band was not the same without Randy and he began making plans.  Reconnecting with his old band, the reformed Quiet Riot, he was on hand when their metal masterpiece Mental Health stormed the charts.  His tenure with the Blizzard of Ozz band finally ended as it had begun, with a phone call with Sharon.  This time, she wasn’t mad that he didn’t take the gig, she was mad because, “Nobody leaves Ozzy!”

     Sarzo credits his faith as the one thing that has seen him through.  Now happily married and carrying on a musical career with a variety of bands like The Guess Who and Blue Oyster Cult, he fondly remembers the time when he stopped worrying about his future.  He said, “I made a commitment to God expressing that if I was ever able to make a living as a musician, I would be eternally grateful – and if not, then I would accept it peacefully.  From that moment on, my relationship with God would always be the single most important concern in my life.” 

      Rudy still thinks about Randy Rhoads everyday and ironically, his latest gig is with the current version of their first band together, Quiet Riot.  Sadly, this version does not include Kevin DuBrow who died in 2007 or drummer Frankie Banali who passed away on August 20, 2020 after battling pancreatic cancer.  Sarzo returned to the band after an 18 year absence because before he passed, Frankie asked him to.  It sounds like Rudy Sarzo has come full circle.

Top Piece Video:  Rudy Sarzo where he started with Quiet Riot….where he has recently returned minus Kevin, Carlos. and Frankie