When Bill Ward was a young kid growing up in post-war Birmingham, he used to walk past the factories where they stamped the edges of sheets of metal, and make up rhymes and rhythms in his head. Back then he never dreamed, of course, that the noises he was imagining would eventually lead him into a career as a successful musician and one of the founding fathers of an entire genre.
As the original drummer with Black Sabbath, Ward was there at heavy metal’s Big Bang moment. His drumming – powerful yet jazzy, like Gene Krupa in a patchouli-soaked denim shirt – is embedded in the DNA of so many people who came along after him. His friend and contemporary John Bonham had the volume, but Bill Ward had the swing.
“I knew from the day we went into Aston Community Centre and played Black Sabbath for the first time that we were different,” he says. “We had something I didn’t understand, and I knew that I loved it.”
The softly-spoken 73-year-old, who has lived in California since 1980, is a world away from the Bill Ward of legend. That Bill Ward was a bearded wildman who could give Ozzy Osbourne a run for his money in the lunacy stakes; someone equally likely to be found drunkenly climbing a lamp-post as having his facial hair set on fire by his bandmates.
There may be some truth in that, but it isn’t wholly accurate – watch footage from the early 70s on YouTube and you’ll see a thoughtful, intense young man who seems to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. That intensity is still there today. Ward’s journey, musical and personal, has seen him face the best and worst that life has to offer.
The plan was for our conversation to cover it all, but it’s made clear before we speak that some topics are off limits. He won’t talk about his struggles with alcohol, his departure from Black Sabbath in the early 80s, or his acrimonious split with the band in 2012 shortly after the original line-up’s second reunion. Nor will he address his relationship with his former bandmates today.
The message is that he wants to focus on the positive. That’s fine. Even without the metaphorical highs and lows, Bill Ward’s life and career is worth celebrating.
William Thomas Ward was born in the Birmingham suburb of Aston in 1948, three years after World War II ended. He grew up next to a patch of bombed land – the Wards’ house was the last on their row left standing after the German Luftwaffe blitzed Birmingham. His mother would tell how the family would crouch under the stairs to hide from the bombs.
“There’s something so fragile and tender about that,” he says. “So brave.”
Over the past 25 years, Ward has spent time talking to US military veterans. He learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition triggered by traumatic events such as war.
“It was almost healing for me, because they put a name on something I recognised,” he says. “It helped me to understand my household growing up, because everybody had [PTSD]. When I was a child and I was blamed for something, I thought I’d done something wrong. Now I know it wasn’t about me, but about the after-effects of what they went through.”
Ward’s dad wanted his son to follow him into the factories, but that didn’t look appealing. He’d been hooked by music: Elvis Presley and Little Richard at first, followed by the jazz, swing and R&B records that would eventually bleed into his own playing. Then, of course, there were the ever-present rhythms of the machines all around town.
“I was born into drums,” he says. “I wanted to play music, I wanted to take it as far as I could, I wanted to become whatever I could, I wanted to roll the dice on it.”
He started young, joining his first band, The Rest, at 15. They would head out on the road in a knackered old van.
“For a kid from Aston, that was a big deal, coming out of the city and going into the countryside. That’s when I met some of the musicians that would become friends of mine for a number of years to come.”
One of these kids was a guitarist named Tony Iommi, who had just left another local group, The Rockin’ Chevrolets. Iommi had a reputation on the Birmingham scene as a great player, and The Rest wanted him in their band. So much so that they trooped to his house, almost as if they were auditioning for him.
“It was the first time I’d ever gotten close to what I considered a real guitar player,” says Ward. “He played Johnny B. Goode, and it was wild. I thought I was out of my depth, to be honest: ‘Wow, this guy is really good.’”
Except Bill Ward wasn’t out of his depth. Iommi joined The Rest for a while, then he and Ward spent the next few years in and out of each other’s bands, eventually moving up to Carlisle in Cumbria to sign up for blues-rock workhorses Mythology. When that band fell apart a couple of months after a cannabis bust in mid-1968, Ward and Iommi headed home to Birmingham – and to the beginnings of what would become Black Sabbath.
Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne only lived on opposite sides of Aston Villa’s football ground, but they never met until the would-be singer placed an advert in a local music shop saying: “Ozzy Zig requires gig, owns his own PA.” More than 50 years on, there’s fondness in the drummer’s voice when he talks about his old bandmate.
“He walked in, and I think it took ten minutes before we started rattling,” he says. “Ozzy had an amazing blues voice. I remember in our very, very early days, before we had made a record, we were rehearsing and he was warming up. I thought: ‘Wow, that’s so powerful.’ He had everything there.”
So did Bill Ward. The chops he’d learned listening to jazz drummers Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones brought something different to the music they were playing.
“Bill was a fanatic for jazz, which was brilliant, because it threw a different angle on the music for us,” Tony Iommi told Classic Rock in 2020. “He played that jazzy style in certain songs, and it meant we could try different ideas.”
Ward said he knew this group – originally The Polka Tulk Blues Band, then Earth, then Black Sabbath, after a Boris Karloff B-movie that bassist Geezer Butler’s brother had seen – were on to something special the very first time they played the song they’d named after their band.
“I came away knowing that we were different and that everybody would probably hate us,” he says, laughing. “And I was right. But at twenty-one I was unstoppable. I was in Black Sabbath, what did you expect?”
The press did hate Black Sabbath. “The whole album is a shuck,” Rolling Stone sneered in their review of Sabbath’s self-titled debut album, released in February 1970. But the reaction, combined with endless hours cooped in a van rattling around the motorways and B-roads of Britain, only brought them closer together.
“It was us against the world,” says Ward. “The camaraderie was amazing. We were always fucking around and cracking jokes and at each other’s expenses, but we respected each other’s abilities and the friendships we had. We were all from the same place, same background; we had a common language.”
That background – the streets of post-war Aston – was evident in their music, the volume of which matched that of the factories their drummer used to walk past. It was there in their attitude too; there was none of the posturing of their peers.
“We played like punks on stage,” says Ward. “The band was just fucking crazy. There was this force, all this resentment and anger that was coming out. It came from what we thought was bullshit at the time: politics and war, and upbringing and people’s ways of life. And [PTSD].”
The six albums Sabbath made from their debut to 1975’s Sabotage (Master Of Reality, from 1971, is Ward’s favourite Sabbath record, if you were wondering) is equalled only by Led Zeppelin. Ward knew the members of Zeppelin, particularly their West Midlands contingent Robert Plant and John Bonham.
“Bonham really loved [Sabbath’s 1972 song] Supernaut,” says Ward. “He really had that song down. We were in the studio one day and he came by. He saw I was playing the double bass drum. He said: ‘I’ll do it on one.’ He was, without question, the best rock drummer in the world.”
A few years ago, Ward attended the Bonzo Bash, a tribute to the John Bonham at the NAMM music industry festival. That night, former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Whitesnake guitarist Brian Tichy teamed up for a version of Stairway To Heaven. Ward, watching from the floor rather than the side of the stage, was suddenly overcome with emotion.
“I just cried my eyeballs out,” he says. “It’s very difficult to listen to those things when I was of that time. It took me back – the smell of the grass, the Vietnam War, playing the halls in London or wherever, the times when the guys from Led Zeppelin would come over and fuck around. And all that’s changed. All that’s gone now."
Bill Ward got sober in 1984. He’d left Black Sabbath for the second time the previous year, shortly after finishing recording the Ian Gillan-fronted Born Again album. Ward had been completely drink- and drug-free during those sessions, after struggling with alcohol and panic attacks during his time with Sabbath in the 70s. But the prospect of touring scared him and he fell back into old drinking habits. He later told the LA Times things got so bad that at one point he was homeless and contemplating suicide. Thankfully, he got help and dried out for good.
“I last drank in January 1984,” he says. “And I spent some time thinking about a lot of the mistakes I made, the amends that I owed, and what I need to move forward musically to make a living.”
The latter took a while to figure out. He finally released his debut solo album, Ward One: Along The Way, in 1990. That record is a lost treasure, as quirky and unexpected as the cover photo of Ward in a bowler hat and plaid trousers and a bass drum strapped to his back like an old-fashioned one-man band. He sang on most of it himself, with former Cream frontman Jack Bruce chipping in on a couple of tracks.
The most notable track, profile-wise, was the single Bombers (Can Open Bomb Bays), sung by Ozzy Osbourne – the first time the two men had worked together in more than a decade. “Oz called me and said: ‘If you could do with some help, I’d be more than happy to sing a track,’” says Ward. “I’m proud of my writing skills, proud of the fact that I had the courage to do it. My sobriety taught me that, okay, I can actually deliver the goods if I need to.”
Yet despite half of Black Sabbath’s original lineup being on it, barely anyone noticed Ward One. The same went for the follow-up, 1997’s When The Bough Breaks, released following Sabbath’s high-profile reunion. That album features the killer one-two of stellar soul-tinged ballad Nighthawks Stars & Pines and the Lennon-esque Try Life, which stands shoulder to shoulder with anything any of his Sabbath bandmates have recorded away from the band.
“It was about being sober and coming through the darkness of myself and into a different life,” Ward says of the latter song. “That’s not always been an easy task. But I’ve managed it.”
It was another 18 years before he released his third solo album, 2015’s Accountable Beasts. During that time he joined and then bailed on a reunion of the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Sabbath line-up in 2008 (they later went out under the name Heaven And Hell, with Ward’s place taken by Vinnie Appice). He did the same four years later, shortly after the original foursome announced a reunion tour, unhappy with the contract he had been offered by Sharon Osbourne. He won’t address the latter event, except to describe it as “the big thing we went through in 2012”.
Today Ward says he’s sitting on a pile of unreleased albums – seven in total. One of these, Beyond Aston, germinated in the early 1990s and was finally finished in 2019. “It sounds incredible,” he says. “A fucking masterpiece, even though I say so myself.”
He has “surrendered to the idea” that he could release these albums digitally, and says that may yet happen. But he wants to find someone who will put them out in physical formats, although he’s had no joy so far.
“It’s not for lack of trying,” he says, sighing. “I think I got a bad rap a few years ago and people didn’t want to touch me. We’re within an industry that’s very tiny. I walked out on a deal, y’know…”
Despite that, he still writes every day – not only songs, but also poetry and prose. He plans to publish a couple of books, one “about life experiences in a kind of poetry format”, the other an autobiography that addresses the post-traumatic stress disorder he witnessed around him as a kid.
The man who did as much as anyone to define the sound of a genre still plays, although not as much as he used to. He last sat behind the kit a few months before we spoke.
“We were working out drum parts for tracks I was working on,” he says. “I did okay. I hadn’t played for a while.”
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Bill Ward. He was as integral as anybody to the success of Black Sabbath and everything that followed, but a combination of circumstances and choices means he hasn’t benefited from that legacy as much as his former bandmates. But you have to admire him, not just for escaping the factory and surviving everything that followed, but also for his integrity and refusal to back down from what he believes.
“I’m in a good place every day,” he says. “I cherish what I’ve been through, and I cherish what I have left in my life. I make the best of the best."