by Steven Sanchez
Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Whitesnake, Blue Oyster Cult, Dio, Geoff Tate’s Queensryche, and The Guess Who…what is the connection that all these great heavy metal bands share? It’s one man, and that man is bassist and metal legend, Rudy Sarzo. He is the hired assassin of rock and metal, the secret weapon, the desired piece to the puzzle. If you were looking to add that extra punch to your sound, Rudy was the man you called. His tenure in most of these bands was during the height of their popularity. He was with Ozzy Osbourne in the early 80s when he went solo after his stint in Black Sabbath; reconnected with his first group which was Quiet Riot when they released Metal Health in 1983 that became the first metal album to reach number one on the Billboard chart; appearing with Whitesnake in the late 80s during the heyday of MTV. And that’s just naming a few.
Behind the music is a great story of a spiritual and accomplished human being whose journey has relevance to what’s going on today. Born in Cuba, he moved to Florida in 1961 and then Los Angeles in 1977. LA was a music mecca, and Rudy got involved in the scene during a time when there wasn’t a lot of diverse musical figures in which to look up to with the exception of Ritchie Valens in the 50s and José Feliciano in the 60s and then Carlos Santana breaking out in the late 60s. Not only that, but history has shown that there were a lot of Hispanics that played during the birth and rise of rock ‘n’ roll but their heritage wasn’t made public or they changed their names to avoid suspicion. The genre of metal isn’t really known for celebrating diversity especially when the conventional wisdom exists now as it did then…that Hispanic audiences don’t go to rock shows or buy metal records. From Rudy’s 40-year career perspective, he believes the contrary.
“When I played with Ozzy, the craziest crowds we would get would be the border towns like El Paso and San Antonio,” proclaims Rudy. “When I was living in Miami, my Hispanic bandmates and I were very supportive of European rock with bands like Led Zeppelin. Back in the day most British bands would start their tours in Florida because it was a port to bring their equipment, so we would see Yes and Bad Company doing their pre-production rehearsals.” When Rudy became a rock star and returned home, he didn’t see the support differ at all. “When I was touring with Whitesnake and we came to the Miami arena, there was nothing but huge support from the young Latin crowd,” says Rudy.It’s established that he was the musical lone gunman of his generation. As a matter of fact, that’s the main reason why he was a featured subject in the music documentary that is showing on Netflix called Hired Gun, about studio/touring musicians whose purpose is to either record albums or to perform live with a particular band or artist. One would assume that the process to transition into the next endeavor would affect a musician’s style and technique when they’re already used to playing a certain way. Rudy, who is the consummate professional, doesn’t see it that way. “It’s not tough when you know what you’re getting into. First, I’m a fan, and I respect the legacy of the music,” Rudy explains. “I do play with different bass brands to capture the original sound, because my goal is I want it to sound like what it’s known for.”
And one of the things that Rudy is known for was his friendship with guitar aficionado, Randy Rhoads. He and Randy served in the first original lineup of Quiet Riot in the late 70s; they both played and toured with Ozzy Osbourne before his unfortunate passing due to a plane accident. He compiled his memories into a biographical tell-all book, Off The Rails, detailing his time with Randy while performing with the so-called “Godfather of Heavy Metal.” Rudy actually started out as a music teacher, and it was Randy who inspired him to teach bass lessons at his mother’s music school, Musonia. “Randy showed me the ropes. He gave me good tools that I could apply when it comes to teaching,” announces Rudy. It serves him now since he’s a counselor at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, where everyday people get to perform with their rock idols and receive instrument and song writing training.
Randy’s talents and accomplishments in such a short time has made him a legend as the music carries on. Wherever Randy went it was like Rudy was right there by his side. So, it makes me beg the question, if Randy were still with us, whatever musical endeavor Randy would’ve done post-Ozzy, would’ve Rudy joined him? “Randy’s path was going to be a solo journey. He was going to go back to school and get his degree in music, and he wanted to be a session musician in New York. That was his goal,” informs Rudy. “It was his journey, I doubt that he would’ve asked me to join him. He wanted to do the complete opposite of what we were doing, and asking me to come along would’ve reminded him of that world.”
It’s a touching subject for him as it is with other people that knew Randy. He made an impact on those that he played with and anyone that wanted to pick up a guitar. To compile all that into a book and the process of putting it together and to be constantly reminded of the past, makes me think that it must’ve been a hard thing in which to do. Not for Rudy. “It was actually very enjoyable to keep Randy alive inside my head while writing it,” claims Rudy. “It took me a year to complete it. The most challenging part was Chapter 18, the last moments of his life. I thought it’d be hard, but it took over 20-something years of it just waiting to come out. It was cathartic, and I couldn’t write it fast enough.”
The impact that Randy made on him was the same way Rudy’s music impacted my father and me. During my father’s glory days in the early 80s playing high school football, Quiet Riot was one of the biggest bands in the world, and he would tell me stories how his teammates would get pumped up on the bus or in the locker room listening to their music before they took the field. Then he passed it on to me; I played football in high school in the mid-2000s and while everybody else was listening to hip hop, I felt like I could run through a wall whenever I would play Quiet Riot. The only difference was he would hear them on a cassette player and I would play them on an iPod. From firsthand experience, I informed him that his music has moved people to do other things than it being just music related. Those moments are synonymous to that time in our lives and Rudy knows that effect all too well, because he, himself, declares that he is also, a fan. “I’ve been a fan longer than I have been a professional musician. I’ve met some of my idols as well, and I understand the need for the fan to tell the idol how much their music means to them. That admiration needs to be expressed,” shares Rudy. “To me that’s the ultimate outcome is for you to make something that makes an impact on someone.”
I told him the fan’s point-of-view, then he schooled me on the musician’s and creator’s viewpoint. “As a creator, I’m always thinking about the next creation that could keep that admiration going on and to make a new connection,” he instructs. Whoa. Then he gets all Socrates on me by grabbing a pillow on the couch in the lobby of the hotel where we are conducting the interview, explaining how the pillow makes up his whole discography and each stitch he points out is each song and album he’s done and the more he puts in it the more it completes him. Mind blown!!! I’ll never look at a pillow the same way again.
That Confucius moment shows that he’s a spiritual man. I’ve seen plenty of interviews with him where he describes his spirituality and how he’s made peace with his Creator. It always made me ponder one thing… how? He was a part of a genre of music that lives by the motto: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. He was around a scene on the Sunset Strip in LA when glam and hair band metal was big and where the environment had every temptation around not only there but on the road as well. But his spirituality never wavered and he never gave in. “I’ve always wanted to be a recording artist, I wanted to have a long career and I knew you couldn’t have that extra baggage, drugs and alcohol, and that’s stuff you don’t need,” he advises. “It was my choice not to do it, and I had an epiphany, before I joined Ozzy, where I found my spiritual center and without it I doubt if I would’ve been strong when facing those temptations.”
There was a brief moment where I had to go off record to just talk to him like if it were a causal conversation. I felt like I was talking to someone I knew for a long time. He’s still teaching music as he gave me tips on how to play mandolin since I picked up one ever since I heard REM’s song, Losing My Religion, and wanting to play that song. A teacher but also a giver to the musical Hispanic community. He had his own music label, Sarzo Music, under EMI, Caroline Records, he funded it himself because he believes in the Latin youth and that “the best way to express themselves artistically is through music.” He had bands from Argentina, Mexico, and Columbia, that were rock and metal bands to help bring awareness to them when others wouldn’t take a chance on them.
Lately he’s become a kind of spokesperson for rock as he continues to do interviews, no matter the format, even on podcasts, where he still talks about his glory days and giving insight into the music industry that not a lot of people would know about. From my own experience and seeing them in the tabloids, most celebrities or high-profile people don’t like talking about their past, or just don’t like interaction, but not Rudy, he talks about it with the same enthusiasm that has never decreased over the years. Keeping the old days relevant and to show how special that music was through his stories.
I saw the uniqueness of that genre when I attended The Guess Who show that night. The Canadian hit makers behind “American Woman” and “These Eyes” jammed the night away and didn’t miss a step. Drummer Garry Peterson, the last original member, has kept the band persevering with a new lineup with Sarzo, vocalist/guitarist D# (Derek Sharp), lead guitarist Will Evankovich, and keyboardist Leonard Shaw. The audience was predominately older as I was one of the few young people there, but as soon as they busted into their hits, and saw the attendees cheering and moving about that I came to the conclusion that no matter how old we were, in those moments we all felt young. And the only thing that entered my mind was how this music affected them, and what memories do they have to these songs, which just shows the power of music in general, especially rock. That energy transferred to their performance and they tore the Tower Theatre stage up.
What does the future have in store for Rudy Sarzo? There was a scene in Hired Gun where you just see walls covered in his gold and platinum records. Even with all those accomplishments, he looked me into the eyes and told me that he’s more of a student than a teacher and he concludes that at 67, still in shape and who’s still got it, that he’ll never be the bass player that he aspires to be. What? He wants to enjoy the journey, and he still wants to learn and that’s what keeps him going. Well, let’s just see what stitch he adds to the pillow of his musical career.