After being fired from Black Sabbath in 1979, the Prince of Darkness not only picked himself up but put out two albums that redefined heavy metal, earning him a following that rivaled that of his former band. Although everyone had their doubts, Osbourne had reinvented himself. His secret? Randy Rhoads.
At 25-years old, Rhoads—who is often heralded as one of the era’s most promising young guitarists—helped Osbourne work through his musical ideas in ways that his Sabbath members hadn’t. But in March 1982, everything came to a screeching halt. Rhoads was killed in a fiery plane crash while on tour with Osbourne. To this day, Osbourne blames himself for the young guitarist’s death.
This is the tragic story of Randy Rhoads.
When Black Sabbath decided they had finally had enough with Osbourne’s antics in 1979, the singer began a three-month binge of drugs and alcohol. “My thinking was, ‘This is my last party because after this I’m going back to Birmingham and the dole,’” Osbourne told Classic Rock Magazine in 2012.
However, Black Sabbath manager Don Arden wasn’t done with Osbourne yet. He signed him to Jet Records and sent his daughter Sharon to keep a watchful eye on his investment. At first, Arden hoped that Black Sabbath would eventually take Osbourne back, and he tried to convince the Prince of Darkness to name his new band the “Son of Sabbath.” Osbourne hated both ideas.
Sharon then tried convincing Osbourne to form a supergroup with guitarist Gary Moore, who wanted nothing to do with the singer. Moore did, however, offer his band, G-Force, to help Osbourne audition other musicians in Los Angeles.
“If drummers were trying out, I played guitar, and if a bassist came along, my drummer would help out,” Moore recalled in 2006. “We felt sorry for him, basically. He was always hovering around trying to get me to join, and I wasn’t having any of it.” In the days before Osbourne was set to head back to England, 23-year-old Randy Rhoads came in for an audition as a favor to his friend, Dana Strum.
With his Gibson Les Paul in hand, Rhoads began to warm up. Osbourne, who was extremely intoxicated that day, later recalled, “He played this solo, and I’m like, am I hallucinating or what the f*** is this?” The singer gave him the job on the spot.
Rhoads, on the other hand, was wary of the offer. He had only played a few riffs. How could Osbourne possibly know what he was capable of playing? Rhoads later told friends that he left the audition, never meeting Osbourne, who remained in the control room, too drunk to stand up. According to the guitarist, it was actually Strum who told Rhoads the news of his acceptance into the band.
Over the next few days, Osbourne, Strum, Rhoads, and drummer Frankie Banali jammed together before Osbourne’s scheduled flight to England. A few weeks later, Rhoads flew to England for a meeting at Jet Records. But while Osbourne had accepted him into the band on the spot, the label needed some convincing.
Arden wanted the band to have an entirely British lineup. There was no way he was going to hire some unknown American guitarist. The manager eventually caved in but made sure to let everyone know who was really in charge. After accepting Rhoads into the band, a representative from Jet Records was called into English customs to “clear things up” regarding the guitarist’s work permit.
Before he knew it, Rhoads was spending the night in a holding cell before being booked on the next flight back to Los Angeles for not having a proper work permit. Many people say this was Arden’s way of letting everyone know that he had friends in high places, but that’s an entirely different story. Osbourne later called Rhoads to apologize for the whole fiasco.
The singer explained that all the arrangements were set for Rhoads to return to England to start working. After a short search, drummer Lee Kerslake joined Rhoads, Osbourne, and former Rainbow bassist Bob Daisley (whom Osbourne had met shortly after returning from Los Angeles). With the lineup complete, the band headed to the studio to record their debut album, Blizzard of Ozz.
After each session, Daisley and Osbourne were blown away by the raw talent spewing out of Rhoads, and they encouraged him to play whatever and however, he wanted. “I knew instinctively that he was something extra special,” the singer told Biography.
“He was like a gift from God — we worked so well together. Randy and I were like a team.” With Rhoads helping Osbourne work out his musical ideas in ways that Black Sabbath never had, the singer finally came back to life. “One thing that he gave to me was hope, he gave me a reason for carrying on,” he says. “He pulled the best out of me. We had a lot of fun.”
The band released two singles, Mr. Crowley and Crazy Train, which were instant hits. Critics praised Rhoads’ Crazy Train riff, and today the single is considered one of the most noteworthy recordings in hard rock music history. It seemed that Osbourne’s career was finally back on track. “I envied Ozzy’s career,” former Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward said in 1996.
“He seemed to be coming around from whatever it was that he’d gone through, and he seemed to be on his way again. I envied it because I wanted that.” With Osbourne’s newfound success, Rhoads’ visibility rose. It was a gradual process, and the guitarist had no sense of what was happening, but he embraced it.
Lori Hollen, a childhood friend of Rhoads, says that she remembers the day that the guitarist realized that he was famous. It happened during one of Rhoads’ visits home to California. The two were coming back from a walk on the beach when they saw a car with a bumper sticker that read, “Randy Rhoads Rocks.”
Taken by surprise, he turned to Hollen, asking her if she knew who this guy was. “I said, ‘I don’t think we know him, Randy, but you are famous now,” Hollen said in the 2012 biography, Randy Rhodes. “He was so blown away that somebody took the time to get a bumper sticker with his name on it, and we didn’t know who that person was.”
In June 1981, the tour pulled into The Long Beach Arena for their 39th stop on tour. This arena had a special place in Rhoads’ heart. It was there that Rhoads had decided he wanted to become a rockstar after seeing Alice Cooper perform. Now he was returning home a conquered hero, and everyone could finally see what he had become.
Rhodes picked his family up in a limousine and rode with them on the 405 Freeway from Burbank to Long Beach. It was the first time that any of them saw Rhoads play with Osbourne, and whatever they expected to see, their imaginations fell short of the reality. The guitarist gave a performance that no one could ever forget.
In October 1981, the band released their sophomore album, Diary of a Madman, and by December, Rhoads was voted “Best New Talent” by Guitar Player Magazine and “Best Heavy Metal Guitarist” by Sounds Magazine in the UK. While on the outside, everything appeared to be going great, tensions between the band members had already begun to heat up.
Before leaving for their U.S. tour, Sharon suddenly fired both Daisley and Kerslake and replaced them with bassist Rudy Sarzo and drummer Tommy Aldridge. According to Kerslake, Rhoads was so upset over their dismissal that he almost left the band himself. “I told him not to be stupid, but thanks for the sentiment,” the drummer said in 2011.
Around this same time, Rhoads told Osbourne that he wanted to take a break from rock for a few years so he could earn a degree in classical guitar at UCLA. But his love for classical guitar wasn’t the only factor in his decision to take a break. Although he had a great relationship with Osbourne, the day-to-day struggle of touring with the singer had begun to take a toll on Rhoads.
As the U.S. tour of Diary of a Madman progressed, Osbourne often refused to perform because he was so hungover from bingeing the night before. Sharon was the only one who could convince him to take the stage, but even she couldn’t get him up there every night. Many shows were simply canceled, and Rhoads was fed up with the unpredictability.
The final straw came in February 1982 when Jet Records announced that the band was going to record a live set of Black Sabbath songs at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Rhoads and drummer Tommy Aldridge felt that they were already established recording artists and thought that an album of cover songs was a step backward in their career.
The two refused to take part in the recording, which put a strain on their relationship with Osbourne. He viewed their decision as a betrayal, and he began to drink even more. That’s when Rhoads made the decision to part ways with Osbourne once his contractional obligations were up. Little did he know that his days here on earth were numbered.
Rhoads played his final show on March 18, 1982, at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum. The next day, the band headed down to Florida to play at the Rock Super Bowl XIV in Orlando. According to Osbourne, their final conversation that night on the bus involved Rhoads warning him about his drinking habits.
“You’ll kill yourself, you know? One of these days,” he told the singer. Those were the last words Rhoads ever spoke to Osbourne. After driving for most of the night, the band stopped in Leesburg, Florida, to fix the bus’s broken air conditioning unit. There was a small airstrip on the property, which was owned by the Calhoun Brothers tour bus company, and a few small helicopters and planes.
Without permission, Andrew Aycock, the tour bus driver and private pilot took a single-engine Beechcraft F35 plane for a ride along with tour manager Jake Duncan and keyboardist Don Airey as passengers. Duncan later revealed that Aycock tried to wake up drummer Tommy Aldridge by “buzzing” the bus.
Duncan later explained that although they knew Aycock had been partying the night before and were concerned about his behavior, there was no looming feeling of danger. “I must admit it got a bit scary when he started buzzing the bus trying to wake Tommy up,” the tour manager recalled in 2017. “But after a few attempts, we just landed. That was it.”
Right after the group landed, Aycock announced that he was taking makeup artist Rachel Youngblood for a ride. 58-year-old Youngblood had a heart condition, but Aycock assured everyone that he was just going to circle the property a few times and not pull any crazy stunts.
Rhoads had a fear of flying, but when he heard that Aycock was going to take it easy, he decided to join with his camera. He reportedly wanted to take some pictures from the sky to show his mom back at home. But as the plane took off, it became apparent to everyone that Aycock had no intention of taking it easy and again began “buzzing” the tour bus again.
Osbourne was sleeping in the back of the bus when he heard a loud crash and Sharon screaming for him to get off the bus. “I couldn’t understand what’s going on. It’s like I’ve been in a nightmare,” Osbourne told Biography in 2020. With everyone asleep on the bus, Airey was the only person who witnessed the crash.
He was standing next to the tour bus taking pictures for the guitarist, when he saw Aycock and Rhoads fighting in the cockpit. “I had my telephoto lens on and could tell that there was some sort of struggle going on board the plane,” Airey later recalled. “The wings were rapidly tipping from side to side. At one point, the plane almost became perpendicular, no more than six feet off the ground.”
With the plane headed straight for the bus, Airey quickly crouched down to avoid getting hit. As the keyboardist looked over his shoulder, he saw the plane clip the bus, hit a pine tree, and explode after hitting the garage of a nearby mansion. Rhoads, Aycock, and Youngblood were all killed instantly.
After hearing the crash, Tommy Aldridge grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran towards the plane, but his efforts were in vain. The plane was engulfed in flames, and there was little anyone could do. The three bodies were burned beyond recognition and were only identified by dental records and personal jewelry. “They were all in bits, it was just body parts everywhere,” Sharon later recalled.
According to Osbourne, it took over thirty minutes for help to arrive. Even after firefighters arrived on the scene, there was little they could do. As everyone tried making sense of what had just happened, Sarzo remembers stepping over broken glass with his bare feet and Duncan rocking back and forth on the ground crying, “They’re gone! They’re gone!”
While we’ll never know the exact reason why Aycock and Rhoads were fighting in the cockpit and why the pilot was aiming for the bus, some of the band members have their theories. Wanda, Aycock’s estranged wife, had slept on the bus that night. Everyone knew that the pilot was trying to get her back, but Sarzo believes that something inside him snapped while up in the air.
According to witnesses, Wanda woke up shortly after the second flight took off. She walked to the doorway just as the plane made its final descent. Sarzo believes that upon suddenly seeing his estranged wife appear, Aycock may have made the impulse decision to kill Wanda by crashing the plane into the tour bus.
Sarzo also says that Aycock seemed agitated in the hours leading up to the fatal crash, which was worsened by cocaine and a lack of sleep. The bassist’s theory makes sense, especially since Airey saw Aycock and Rhoads fighting in the cockpit seconds before the fatal crash. They believe that Rhoads’ actions prevented a direct hit with the tour bus, saving Wanda and everyone else’s lives.
Aycock’s toxicology reports found traces of cocaine in his system, while Rhoads’ only tested positive for nicotine. Investigators also revealed that not only was his aviation license expired, but that six years prior, Aycock had been the pilot during another fatal crash in the United Arab Emirates.
Sharon apparently had been aware of Aycock’s history, but for some reason or another, didn’t tell the band’s tour manager or anyone else for the matter. According to Sarzo’s 2006 book Off the Rails, Sharon scolded Duncan for allowing Aycock into a plane after he had been up all night doing drugs, screaming, “Don’t you know that man had already killed one of the Calhoun kids in a helicopter crash?”
In the hours after the crash, the band called their loved ones to let them know that they were okay, as the news didn’t immediately release the names of the crash victims. However, no one called Rhoads’ longtime girlfriend, Jody, who only found out about her boyfriend’s death while she was driving listening to the radio.
She recalls hearing a block of Blizzard of Ozz songs before the DJ announced that Rhoads had been killed. Jody was so distraught that she couldn’t continue driving, but she wasn’t the only one to be understandably and visibly shaken from the fatal crash. Sarzo went out looking for a church to pray. When he walked inside, there was one man crying uncontrollably next to the altar.
Moved by this man’s overwhelming grief, Sarzo didn’t approach him, nor did he know who it was. But when the man eventually cried out, “Why? Why?” Sarzo realized that it was Osbourne. Losing such a close friend and musical partner nearly killed Osbourne. “The day that Randy Rhoads died was the day a part of me died,” the singer told Biography in 2020.
“I miss him terribly.” Sarzo has also said that Sharon’s job became much harder in the aftermath of Rhoads’ death. Not only did she have to keep Osbourne from drugs and alcohol, but she also had to keep him from “doing damage to himself” as well. Sharon knew that keeping Osbourne busy was key.
So, Sharon helped find a replacement guitarist, and the tour picked up a week and a half later. The guy’s name was Bernie Tormé, an Irishman who had previously played in Ian Gollan’s solo band. But with such short notice, Tormé had problems learning the song material. “I loved the songs, and Randy’s playing was genius,” the guitarist told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2018.
“But it was incredibly difficult for me in that short amount of time to take in anything more than the structure of the songs and where Randy was doing licks.” Tormé listened to the songs on a cassette player on his flight to Los Angeles, hoping that he’d have time to learn Rhoads’ little details as time went on.
The replacement guitarist met up with Osbourne and the rest of the band about a week after the fatal accident. Although everyone was nice to him, he recalls that “No one really wanted me there — they obviously wanted Randy to be there.” Tormé also says that Sharon was the one who kept everyone motivated.
Besides dealing with Rhoads’ death, Osbourne was also having a lot of health issues, especially with his voice. “A lot of shows had to be canceled. Sometimes when you came offstage, Ozzy would be crying,” Tormé later recalled. “And for the record, Ozzy didn’t drink at all on gig days. You couldn’t even bring a can of beer anywhere near the dressing room. It wasn’t allowed.” Off days, however, were a different story.
The one performance that stands out to both Tormé and Osbourne was the third gig after Rhoads’ death: Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was the concert that Rhoads had been most looking forward to. “He really should have been there,” Tormé said of Rhoads. “I wasn’t entitled to be.”
But for Tormé, this show proved to be extra stressful because of an incident that happened right as the band began their performance. Sharon had run up to the stage to give Osbourne, who was her fiancé at the time, a kiss for good luck before the screen lifted and revealed the band to the audience. However, she never made it to the singer.
Someone in the audience threw a firework that somehow bounced under the screen and hit Sharon in the neck, where it exploded. “She goes down like a rag doll, blood everywhere, two crew guys run out and pick her up, and she’s gone,” the guitarist recalls. “I seriously thought she was dead.”
However, because of the way the stage was set up, Tormé was the only one who saw this happen. Less than ten seconds later, the curtain fell, and drummer Tommy Aldridge began Over the Mountain. The guitarist says that he was distracted the entire first half of the performance until one of the crew members gave him a thumbs up that she was okay.
Coincidentally, it was at this show that Osbourne’s later guitarist, Zakk Wylde, first saw the singer perform. “I remember being 14 or 15 years old, and we had tickets to see Randy,” Wylde told Rolling Stone Magazine. But even though Tormé was distracted, Wylde says that the show was “phenomenal” and set him on his path to becoming a guitarist.
Osbourne also recalls that Tormé played just as well as anyone else in the band even though people were shouting “Bloody Randy” at him. “It was a f**ing hard gig for him,” the singer later said. Tormé parted ways with the band in Rochester, New York, a few weeks later and was replaced by Brad Gillis.
Tormé didn’t see Osbourne until his No More Tours II tour came through Sweden in 2018. The guitarist came to the singer’s dressing room and thanked him for the short time they played together. Osbourne then brought up not being able to sell records these days and asked if Tormé did.
“I said, ‘Ozzy, I never sold any records.’ We had a good laugh,” the guitarist told Rolling Stone Magazine. “It was a nice closure for me on a terrible time.” But Osbourne will never get closure on that terrible time of his life. According to Sharon, her husband battles guilt every day. “If only I was awake, I would never have let him get on that plane,” Osbourne often says.
In every sense of the word, Rhoads meant “everything” to Osbourne. Even as Osbourne continued on with his career and his family reached international stardom, the weight of the young guitarist’s death still weighs heavy on him. Today, Osbourne is currently on a break from his No More Tours II. In January, the singer revealed that he is battling Parkinson’s disease, which is why he canceled many of his shows.
However, Sharon recently confirmed that Osbourne will continue performing in 2022. Osbourne told Rolling Stone Magazine that he will continue performing no matter what. “I’m no good at anything else. I literally can’t do anything else.”