Randy Rhoads: The guitarist who changed the world

This is a story about several different people. The first is a slight figure, five-and-a-half feet tall, weighing a little over seven stone; a sickly child, always getting fevers and colds; the baby of the family, who liked playing with train sets and went on to become a teacher. Then there’s the tough guy, the LA-wise street kid who walked out on his own band to find stardom with another, kept his head down as those around him were either fired or fucked over, then decided to walk out on that too, contemptuous of the close-mindedness of the so-called rock star life.

Then there’s a third person. The one whose best friend describes him as having “an angelic heart”; an innocent, churchgoing soul whose shy mien charmed and calmed the most tumultuous personalities. Another is the joker, who as a teenager stole from rich people’s houses, set fire to his own street and experimented with cocaine; the little guy who dreamed of becoming so big that his week would always beat your year.

There’s one final person – arguably the most important one of all. The one who wielded a polkadot Flying V guitar and who, when he died 30 years ago this March, left behind only a slender body of work, but one that would alter the sound of rock as we know it.

His name was Randall William Rhoads – Randy, to his friends. And he was every one those people mentioned above. Everybody’s memory of him is different. To the bereaved family and broken-hearted fiancée he left behind when he died, Randy was a kind and gentle soul whose destiny was ultimately to teach.

To those who only knew the cocksure person who appeared on stage, in his platform boots and blue velvet suit, his hair coiffed into a glam-rock plume, he was a born star, as the man who would make him famous, Ozzy Osbourne, once said. To people who bought the two albums Randy and Ozzy made together, or were fortunate enough to see them live in the 18 months they performed together, Randy was the sound of the future.

Randy himself never saw it that way, though.

“When I first got up and played [and] people started clapping, it was a fluke,” he would say. “I was blown away. I thought that everybody was better than I was.”

“He was the best guitarist I’d ever seen,” his friend and fellow musician Dana Strum says today. “It was Randy’s sound – along with Eddie Van Halen’s – that changed the whole way the next generation of guitar players thought about music. The ones they tried to emulate but never could. It was such a tragedy that he wasn’t able to stick around.”

Randy Rhoads was destined not only to play music, but also to be damned good at it. Born on December 6, 1956, in Burbank, a few miles north-east of Hollywood, he was the youngest of three children. His mother Delores – Dee for short – was a 36-year-old, UCLA-educated music teacher who, with her husband,William, founded the Musonia Music School, where all three of her children would also become students.

The eldest of the children, Douglas Rhoads – known as Kelle (pronounced Kelly) – is now the 60-year-old head of Musonia, as well as a professional musician in his own right. His sister Kathy, four years younger, runs the Santa Rosa Winery in Sonoma County which is owned by her husband Richard D’Argenzio and his twin brother Ray.

In the week before Christmas 2011, Kelle and Kathy come together at Kathy’s Burbank home to speak to Classic Rock about Randy. They explain how their mother had studied under Herbert Lincoln Clark (the bandmaster who conducted the original recording sessions for Sousa’s The Stars And Stripes Forever march) and Arnold Schoenberg (whose innovations in atonality turned the classical world upside down). 

Their father had played clarinet and saxophone in the army, her maternal grandmother played the piano, and their grandfather was a doctor who also played guitar – a 1918 Gibson model Army-Navy Special. “I think the hereditary tendency was there,” says Kathy. “But Randy took it to a new level. He blew my mom away because he was so gifted, and it came out at a very young age.”

Randy was six when he first picked up his grandfather’s ancient guitar. “He didn’t even know how to hold it,” says Kathy. “He would put it on the ground and play it.” Noting his aptitude, Dee arranged for Randy and Kathy to start guitar lessons together at Musonia. After just nine months his teacher told Dee that the young Randy couldn’t be taught any more; he knew everything the teacher knew.

Home life was far from idyllic. His parents had divorced when he was two. “It created quite a stigma,” says Kelle. “Back in those days, that was like saying your mom was a drunk or something.” Instead Dee was super-strict. When the kids got out of line they were beaten with a strap. “Or anything else she could pick up,” says Kathy. “She was not a warm, fuzzy person.” Kathy recalls seeing Dee telling a 12-year-old Randy how gifted he was. “He burst into tears, because she did not give out compliments,” she says.

Apart from music, the other main pivot to family life was the church and school they all attended, the First Lutheran, where Dee was also the choir teacher.

“Randy was actually kind of religious,” reveals Kelle. “He wasn’t, like, running to a church every 10 seconds, but he always wore a cross and he took it seriously.”

Although the Rhoads family were one of the first in the neighbourhood to get a colour TV, they didn’t own a record player until Randy finally bought one with Green Stamps when he was 15. He and his brother had also begun attending rock shows. In 1971 Kelle took Randy to an Alice Cooper show. “That influenced him very much. At that point I think he decided: ‘Maybe even I could do this one day’.”

Like most young guitarists in the 70s, he admired Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Mountain’s Leslie West. But what really turned Randy on was glam rock. He adored the instant-gratification flash of Cooper band guitarist Glenn Buxton; he admired the technical nous of Be-Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson. Above all else, he was in love with David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, who he saw playing at Bowie’s now famous show at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in October 1972.

Kelle: “When Mick Ronson held his finger on the guitar with one hand and walked it around the stage during Moonage Daydream, that made a big impression on Randy. It looks good, sounds good, it makes really great theatre. Randy ended up getting a Les Paul very similar and a hairstyle very similar to Mick Ronson.”

It wasn’t just Ronson’s long, centre-parted blond hairdo that left its mark, either. Randy now began dressing in full glam regalia. He and his best pal at Burbank High School, Kelly Garni, would spend weekends rifling through thrift stores buying secondhand threads. “He’d come back with these outfits and dresses and jewellery,” says Kelle Rhoads. “I’d say: ‘What are you gonna do with those dresses, Randy?’. He said: ‘I’m gonna fix them up. You’ll see’. He would slash ’em up and make these great tops. He had quite a style. He was very artistic. He used to draw a lot. He would have been a fantastic clothes designer.”

Peacocked out in his new glam finery, Randy began to attract even more attention – not always a good thing for an otherwise shy high-school kid. “People gave him a hard time,” says Kathy Rhoads. “They used to want to beat him up. It upset me. I’d scream at these people, because he just didn’t fit in.”

Kelly Garni first met Randy Rhoads when he was 12 and Randy was 13. Garni was another Burbank High misfit who shared the 13-year-old’s extravagant tastes in clothes and music. Inspired by his new, older friend’s example, Kelly took up bass (“It had less strings than a guitar”). When the two weren’t out raising hell they would practise together, something Garni says they did “every day for nine years.” When Randy was ready to form a band, his best friend was the natural choice as bass player.

“We had no academic interest whatsoever,” says Garni. “The under-privileged kids were the ones that gravitated towards us; the girls that were generally not as virginal and were more apt to indulge in our favourite activities, like drinking and raising hell.”

Now 54, and speaking from his home in Las Vegas, Garni abandoned music after Randy left to play with Ozzy Osbourne, and spent the intervening years working variously as a paramedic and a bodyguard. Recently he has begun to play again. He is also writing his own, as yet untitled biography of Randy – the first three chapters of which he claims were stolen from his computer by mysterious hackers. As Garni suggests, shy and quietly spoken Randy may have been, but that didn’t mean he was a saint. “He was by nature the angelic person that he’s often described as. But he also had a sometimes dangerous sense of humour.”

At school the pair would get their own back onwhat they saw as straight society by pulling off increasingly hazardous pranks, including gatecrashing parties in Hollywood mansions. “We would put eggs under the pillows on their beds; hiding things that would smell, like meat, under the bed,” recalls Garni. “We’d help ourselves to some trinket if we saw something that we liked – a belt, a necklace. We never took anything valuable. If we found money laying about we would only take half of it. We had sort of a conscience, you see.”

Other nights they would rifle rich people’s garbage cans in Beverly Hills, looking for bottles with an inch of booze left in them, or old clothes. Or they would pour gasoline across the road in front of Randy’s house, wait for a car to come along then set the oil on fire. Sometimes the cops were called.

“Generally we were let go cos we were kids and the cops didn’t want the hassle,” says Garni. “But it was done with a sense of innocence, too. Randy never wanted to hurt anyone. We were young. We didn’t understand we were causing anyone any distress.”

Inevitably, given the times, there were also experiments with drugs. “Anything mind-altering, we were very afraid of,” explains Garni. “We smoked weed quite a few times but decided it really wasn’t for us. We did do some cocaine. Everybody was throwing it in our face. We saw it as a very harmless drug, as something that allowed you to be able to stay up all night and drink and have fun. That’s all itwas to us. We didn’t consider it getting high – at all.”

Maybe not then, but Randy would certainly have a more pragmatic understanding of how ‘harmless’ drugs really were by the time he came to work with Ozzy, then at the height of his multiple addictions. Randy may have had the occasional ‘bump’, but he steered well clear of Ozzy’s all-night binges, preferring to practise in his room or write home.

When they weren’t running amok around the neighbourhood, Randy and Garni would make music. They put together a high-school band withKelle Rhoads on drums, which the brothers named Violet Fox (their mum Dee’s middle name was Violet). Later Randy and Garni began backing a long forgotten musician called Smokey at Sunset Strip hangout Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. But it wasn’t until they put together their own band, Little Women, in 1973, that things began to get serious. They had been out partying all night with a friend named Hillary when she mentioned a singer she knew who “does this kind of Rod Stewart thing”.

Randy asked for an introduction. Enter, Kevin DuBrow, an 18-year-old Anglophile from Van Nuys.

“I was 18, Randy was 17. He walked in and he had hair down to the middle of his back and a really long thumbnail,” DuBrow later recalled of the moment they met. “He was brilliant, he was gifted, he was hilarious and a wonderful person. But he was not an angel, the way he is made out to be.”

Nor was DuBrow. A singer of average talent, where he really scored was in his ability to get things done for the group. “I was a motivator,” he said. “I found managers and stuff like that. And you know these guys were just out of high school. They were a mess.”

Recruiting a jazz drummer from Burbank High called Drew Forsyth, it wasn’t long before Little Women changed their name to Quiet Riot. DuBrow got the idea after meeting Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt, who told him: “If I had my own band I’d call it Quite Right.” Mishearing Parfitt’s accent, DuBrow thought he’d said Quiet Riot, an English-enough sounding name to get Randy’s attention.

Randy Rhoads and Kevin DuBrow spent five years trying to turn Quiet Riot into a success. The closest they ever came to it was a second rate, Japanese-only record deal from which came two decidedly so-so albums – Quiet Riot (1977) and Quiet Riot II (78), the latter featured the song Slick Black Cadillac which was covered by James Hetfield’s pre-Metallica band Leather Charm – and regular, ever more soul-destroying appearances at sleazy LA nightspots like the Starwood. The band got regular bookings, working four nights a week, sometimes two or three sets a night. But they weren’t making money. Randy, still living at his mum’s house on Amherst Drive, began giving lessons on the days when he wasn’t with the band.

Kelle Rhoads cites Kevin DuBrow as the main reason Quiet Riot didn’t get signed. “Everybody was putting the blame on Kevin,” he says. “They didn’t like the way he sang, the way he looked on stage. They didn’t like his personality. I’d be with Randy, and people would come up and say: ‘I love your band, dude. When you gonna dump your singer?’.”

“Randy adored Kevin,” Garni says now, “and I could never figure out why. I’d say: ‘Why in hell do you like that asshole so much?’. Randy would simply say: ‘Oh, well, I get along with him okay’.”

Led by DuBrow (who died of a cocaine overdose in 2007), Quiet Riot eventually found major success with 1983’s Metal Health album. But in the mid-70s, Randy’s reputation far overshadowed his singer’s.

Greg Leon, another young guitarist, then fronting Suite 19 with future Mötley Crüe man Tommy Lee on drums, recalls meeting Randy backstage at a Quiet Riot and Van Halen concert in 1976 at Glendale City College. “I’m 17 and I’m the hotshot guitar player in Glendale. But I saw Randy and went: ‘Oh, man!‘,” says Leon. “He just had that aura about him. Then if you can imagine Van Halen is the next band on, and that was it – my life was never the same after that one.”

The arrival onto the LA club scene of not one but two outlandish new guitar talents divided local opinion. Randy was the only one who couldn’t see it. “He resented the fact that he was always compared to Eddie Van Halen,” says Kathy. “Like: ‘Who’s better?’.”

Despite this, Randy was a fan of his rival. “I do a solo live, and I do a lot of these things that Eddie Van Halen does, and it kills me that I do that,” he later told writer John Stix. “It’s just flash, and it impresses the kids, and I’m trying to make a name as fast as I can. I wish I could take time and come up with something that nobody has done. But it will take me a few years.”

But then as Greg Leon points out, Randy had one advantage over Eddie Van Halen. “Randy always had his image together,” says Leon. “He was wearing a blue velvet vest, blue velvet pants and platform shoes. He loved platform shoes, because he was so little. He walked out and he looked like a star. I mean, the guys in that band were the skinniest living people on earth, they looked like they’d just escaped from Auschwitz.”

Leon and Randy become such friends that when the latter eventually left Quiet Riot, he recommended Leon as his replacement. The grateful Leon repaid the favour by later helping Randy write what would become one of his signature riffs with Ozzy Osbourne: Crazy Train.

“We were hanging out, and I showed him the riff to Steve Miller’s Swingtown,” he says. “I said: ‘Look what happens when you speed this riff up’. We messed around, and the next thing I know he took it to a whole other level and end up writing the Crazy Train riff.”

The only thing missing was some words and someone to sing them. In 1978, Dana Strum was the bassist in Bad-Axe and a habitué of the Sunset Strip clubs. For months he’d watched Quiet Riot strut their stuff.

“I would go to the Starwood just to see Randy play,” says Strum. “It was the first thing for me that wasn’tgood or bad – it was extraordinary. I loved Queen, and I saw Randy doing this a capella solo and it made me think of Brian May doing Keep Yourself Alive. I thought: ‘Where’s this person been?’. This guy in a polka-dotted outfit and frosted hair. For days it bothered me.”

Finally, one night towards the end of 1978, Strum summoned up the courage to speak to Randy. A local hero on the Sunset Strip, Randy was used to receiving compliments from younger musical wannabes.

“I said: ‘I gotta tell you, man, I think you’re so good’. He looked at me like: ‘You do?‘. He was extremely humble, soft spoken, not a super-outgoing person. I told him: ‘You know, there’s gotta be something out there for you, man. You’re just too good.’.” Six months later Strum finally stumbled upon what that something might be. Ozzy Osbourne had been sacked from Black Sabbath in early 1979, and had spent months mouldering in a suite at Le Parc Hotel in West Hollywood, opening the doors only for deliveries of drugs and pizza. He was still signed to Jet Records, and half-hearted attempts were made to get Ozzy at least thinking about putting a new band together. Which is how he came to catch Strum playing at the Starwood one night in the summer of 1979. Although Ozzy would barely remember it the next day, he offered the hotshot young bassist an invitation to audition for him.

“It wasn’t like now, where every young band pays homage to Black Sabbath,” Strum recalls. “Back then you either loved them or hated them. I was a huge fan, so I was very excited to meet Ozzy. It was at Frank Zappa’s rehearsal studio on Sunset. Gary Moore was here. I had no idea who he was, but he was stunning. When I started talking to Ozzy I ended up saying to him: ‘This guy [Moore] is not the guy for you’. I was so into Black Sabbath, and I thought his more kind of blues style is nothing to do with what Ozzy does.”

Moore was actually putting together his own band, G-Force, and only helping Ozzy out. But Strum was 20, and “so innocent and full of passion for music, I just came out with it. Then I said to Ozzy: ‘But I know the guy you need.’.”

Ozzy ignored that, but he did offer Strum the gig as his new bassist. The next day he found himself driving Ozzy around LA, checking out prospective guitar players. “He had a list with names and addresses, and we would just show up. It was bizarre. And I’m saying to Ozzy: ‘Look, let’s forget this. I know the guy’.”

The bassist had already phoned Randy: “I said: ‘You know I told you there had to be something out there for you? Well, you know the band Black Sabbath?’. But before I could get another word out he said: ‘Yeah, man, I really don’t like them’. I was distraught. I’d never considered that possibility. But Randy did not like Black Sabbath at all. I don’t think he even knew the name of the singer. I’m like: ‘Look, just come down, see what happens’. He’s like: ‘Will I get gas money? Like, 10 or 15 bucks?’. ‘Yes. Please just come…’.”

Kelly Garni confirms Randy’s apathy towards Sabbath. “Growing up, we thought Black Sabbath was a ridiculous thing… a joke,” he says. Nevertheless, Strum eventually talked Randy into coming down that evening to play for Ozzy at Dalton Records, the Santa Monica studio where Dana worked part-time. “But by now Ozzy’s begun knocking back Heinekens,” Strum recalls. “I didn’t do drugs at all. But I’d booked time at the studio and persuaded Randy to come down and play, and there was no way I was going to let that slide now.”

By now Ozzy was taunting Strum. “‘Okay, we’ll see this Jesus of guitar players!’,” he says, doing an impressive impersonation of a stoned Ozzy. “‘It’s gonna be like the fucking Messiah’.”

Years later, Ozzy would recall that night: “I’m lying over the studio desk, and Dana keeps throwing water and shit over me. I looked through the studio window and Randy says something like [softly-spoken voice]: ‘Whaddaya want me to play?’. I says: ‘Do you got a solo?’. He says: ‘Well, kinda…’. I says: ‘Well, play anything’. He had a little fucking tiny amp. He played, and I just went: ‘What?!’.” I remember thinking, in my haze, this is not really happening, I’m asleep really. Cos this guy…you hadn’t heard stuff like that before.”

“I’m starting to wish I’d never opened my mouth,” says Strum. “Ozzy wants to go home. Randy says he doesn’t like Sabbath. I had the control room dimly lit, because I wanted Ozzy just to focus on the music. Randy is sitting on a stool on the other side of the glass – we couldn’t even see him. I told him just to do the guitar solo he did at the Starwood.”

By now Ozzy had passed out and Strum had to virtually carry the singer into the control room. As soon as he got his cue, Randy let rip. “It was louder than hell, it sounded huge.” Less than a minute later, Ozzy tottered over to Dana and said: “Tell that kid… tell that kid he’s got the job. And then take me home.”

Too embarrassed to stop Randy after just 60 seconds, Strum rushed Ozzy back to his hotel, with Randy still playing. Then he came back to tell the guitarist the news. “He was like: ‘So what’s gonna happen now? What’s next?’. I’m like: ‘I don’t know, dude. I really don’t know’. What happened next was… nothing.

Or so it first appeared. There had been a brief meeting at Ozzy’s hotel the following day, during which Randy failed to endear himself to Ozzy by drinking Diet Coke and dressing so extravagantly that Ozzy asked if he was gay. “No,” replied Randy. “Church of England.”

This was followed by a jam session a few days later at Pasha Music studios, where Ozzy, Dana and Randy were joined, at Randy’s suggestion, by drummer Frankie Banali. “And that was it,” sighs Strum. “I never heard any more, except that Ozzy was getting ready to go back to the UK.”

There were complications behind the scene. Ozzy’s affairs were then being handled by Jet Records supremo and notorious music biz hard man Don Arden, and he’d been ordered back to the UK, where the singer’s then-wife Thelma was living, and where there were no hotel bills for Don to pay.

Back in England, Ozzy would hook up with the man whose musical nous and way with a lyric would dovetail perfectly with Randy’s own talents, and played a large part in resurrecting Ozzy’s shattered career. Australian-born bassist Bob Daisley had first made his name in the UK in the early 70s with blues rockers Chicken Shack, before forming Widowmaker with former Mott The Hoople guitarist Ariel Bender. When Daisley’s next gig, as bassist in Rainbow, came to an end in 1979, Don Arden’s son David, then running the London offices of Jet, approached him to work with Ozzy.

“They wanted to keep it a UK-based band,” Daisley recalls now from his home in Sydney. And so the search for a new guitarist began all over again. “But nobody in England wanted to know. Then Ozzy told me about this guitarist he’d seen in LA that was a teacher. I envisaged a bloke with a pipe and slippers and a cardigan. But Ozzy said he’s a great guitarist, so I said, well, let’s get him over. David Arden didn’t want to do it at first but eventually he said – and David’s words were exactly this: ‘Against my better judgement I agree to fly this unknown kid over from LA’.”

What nobody knew was how reluctant Randy was to make that leap into the unknown. “He didn’t want to go,” says his sister Kathy. “My mom made him go. He was teaching at my mother’s school, and he loved teaching. But my mom said: ‘This is probably your break, your chance to be exposed’. She knew he had the talent, and she thought this would be his opportunity to finally be noticed. But he did not want to go. My mom said: ‘You’re going.’ ‘Well, I don’t have a jacket’. ‘Well we’ll buy one’.”

Blizzard of Oz group shot

(Image credit: Fin Costello)

When Randy got to London in September 1979, he would phone home and write postcards and letters every day complaining of how homesick he was. “We had never been away from home, any of us,” says Kathy. “To suddenly be thrust out into the world, especially with someone like Ozzy Osbourne, must have been very difficult for him.”

Bob Daisley met the 23-year-old kid guitarist at Jet’s London office. “I said to Ozzy: ‘Is he gay?’.

Because he had perfect fingernails and coiffured hair and very fitted clothing and all that. But it became very obvious very quickly that, no, he wasn’t gay.”

Randy and Daisley immediately struck up a musical partnership. “Ozzy was so out of his mind, smoking pot and drinking all day,” says Daisley. “I used to get on his case about it and he started calling me Sid Serious. And there’s me and Randy just working out the musical part. Randy had the chords and we would work them up into songs. Then we’d play the music and Ozzy would sing over it and come up with a vocal melody. Then I’d take a tape away of that vocal melody and write lyrics that would fit with his phrasing and melody.”

According to Daisley, it was never meant to be an Ozzy solo album they were working on, but the debut album from a collective band named Blizzard Of Ozz (photo above, l-r: Rhoads, Kerslake, Ozzy, Daisley). Certainly that was impression ex-Uriah Heep drummer Lee Kerslake was given when he signed up in December 1979. And it was what Randy wanted to hear too – an impression reinforced when he asked Ozzy if he minded him laying down a 50-second classical guitar instrumental named after his mother, Dee, to which Ozzy replied: “It’s your album too.”

“Ozzy’s music is both of ours,” Randy told an interviewer at the time. “A lot of times he’ll have a melody, and I’ll have a riff that fits in. He hums something and I go: ‘Hey, I have a chord progression that will go with that!’. Other times I’ll be practising, and he’ll say: ‘I like that – remember it’. Naturally, I never can. So we’ll do it right there and build a song.”

The idea of this being an entirely new band lasted only as long as it took to make their first album. The message was made even clearer when the first tour jackets went on sale – emblazoned with the words ‘OZZY OSBOURNE’. The concept of the Blizzard Of Ozz was kept as the title of Ozzy’s first album, but it was launched as a solo project, however the members of the ‘band’ might have preferred to think of it.

Recording at Ridge Farm, a residential studio in Surrey, with first-time producer Max Norman at the controls, the result was a nine-track masterpiece that remains among the best things Ozzy has ever released. Indeed four of its tracks – the rousing opener I Don’t Know; the stirring anthem Crazy Train; the ode to recently deceased AC/DC singer Bon Scott, Suicide Solution; and the unsettling Mr Crowley – would remain the cornerstones of Ozzy’s live shows for the next 30 years. Released in the UK in September 1980, the Top 10 success of the album acted as an override to the ambivalence Randy was still feeling privately as he embarked on his first UK tour with Ozzy.

“Before I met Ozzy I was very insecure on stage,’ he reflected. ‘If my amps acted up, or the sound system wasn’t good, it really affected my playing. Being with Ozzy has given me a great deal of self-confidence. He pushed me into trying things and doing things I never would have done on my own.”

Nevertheless, with only one album to draw from, the set ended each night with three cast-iron Sabbath classics: Iron Man, Children Of The Grave and Paranoid. Randy detested them all.

“He couldn’t understand why they still had to play Black Sabbath songs,” says Kelle Rhoads. Randy hoped that by the time the band recorded a second album it would no longer be necessary to carry on trading on Ozzy’s past. When Sharon Arden – Don’s ambitious daughter, who had now taken over the day-to-day running of Ozzy’s career for Jet – decided to rush them back into Ridge Farm to record another album before sending them out on their first US tour, Randy assumed that was the reason. He was wrong. The first thing Randy Rhoads did when he received his first sizeable royalty check was get an acoustic guitar made for him in Spain, in order for him to begin his classical guitar studies.

The guitar cost $5,000, a handsome sum 30 years ago. That, though, was his only extravagance. Speaking of his new-found success in 1981, Randy said: “It still hasn’t hit me yet. I’ve still got my past in me and I guess I’m trying to mature into it, but I don’t have my feet on the ground at all. I don’t even know who I am, or what I am. People say this will go to your head and make you egotistical. That’s a load of shit. What it does is make you totally frightened and humble.”

Unlike their first visit to Ridge Farm a year before, there were few new songs written when the band returned at the start of 1981. Some were built on parts of songs from some of Bob Daisley’s old bands: the bass riff from a song called Black Sally that Bob had written for Mecca became the backbone of Little Dolls; another Bob bass riff from another band, Kahvas Jute, became the one they used on You Can’t Kill Rock And Roll. Randy dipped into his own glam past with Quiet Riot for the sleazy riff to Flying High Again.

A perfectionist unused to compromising his music in order to meet a record company deadline, Randy was not happy with the new album. “I really cringe about some of the songs,” he later confessed. “We were so rushed for time in the studio because we had to get to America to start the tour.”

Nevertheless Diary Of A Madman (as the album was titled) had its moments, not least the epic and genuinely chilling title track. Randy was thrilled when Sharon later decided his atmospheric intro to it would replace Carmina Burana as the opening overture at Ozzy’s shows.

What he was less thrilled with was the media shitstorm that was about to erupt in American when news broke of Ozzy biting off the heads of two live doves during a record company meeting in LA. “It tasted like a lovely Ronald MacDonald,” Ozzy jokingly said later. But nobody was laughing at the time. At least not until the news caused such widespread outrage it began propelling the Blizzard Of Ozz album up the US charts. It was the beginning of Ozzy’s reinvention as the wild man of rock. Previously, in Sabbath he’d been seen as, at best, the mournful mouthpiece for an impossibly earnest band of sheet-metallists, at worst a clown. Now, to a new generation of teenage metal dudes, he became the very embodiment of party-hearty, 80s-style satanic rock, and over the next year fans started to bring all manner of grisly gifts for him to the shows.

It may have provided Ozzy with some much needed sales traction in the US – where initial sales had been so slow that Randy worried that “maybe new wave and punk killed our music” – but Randy cringed at the way it detracted from the music he was trying to make.

“He said they brought a dead goat to present it to Ozzy,” Kelle recalls. Randy told his brother that he didn’t want to become part of a “a circus”.

Surprisingly, other equally major changes had proved less unsettling for Randy. When Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake were fired just weeks before the US tour – for “all this complaining and back-talk about money”, as Ozzy later put it – Randy was the only one who took the trouble to phone and wish them well. But he was also the only one to immediately approach Sharon with ideas about who to replace them with – his old pals from Quiet Riot: drummer Frankie Banali and bassist Rudy Sarzo.

Sharon, however, had already lined up former Pat Travers and Black Oak Arkansas drummer Tommy Aldridge, and the only spot that still needed filling was on bass. Sarzo was duly approached and, with Quiet Riot now in temporary abeyance, instantly accepted.

Dana Strum, who had introduced Ozzy and Randy, refuses to admit he felt put out by this development. “Maybe my name had come up and [Randy] had been shut down.” Or maybe Randy simply preferred Rudy’s playing. Either way, it shows that Ozzy and Sharon weren’t the only ones prepared to look out for number one.With the second Ozzy Osbourne album already in the can, but unreleased until November 1981, the rest of the year was spent almost entirely on the road. Mainly in North America, but also on tour in Europe that autumn where they opened for Saxon, and a fortnight of UK dates leading up to Christmas. On stage Ozzy and Randy had developed quite a show, the singer playfully interacting with Randy in ways he would never have dreamed of doing with stern-faced Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi: pulling at his hair, jostling him, laughing wildly as Randy ripped away at his solos.

“That first tour was fun,” recalls Rudy Sarzo. According to Sarzo, Randy admitted having a one night stand with Sharon. Ozzy’s then-wife, Thelma, had visited Ridge Farm during the making of Diary…, leaving Sharon, who had begun an affair with Ozzy, with nowhere to sleep. Randy had offered to let her share his room. He told Sarzo: “We started drinking, and the next thing you know we were making out…”

“You guys did it, didn’t you?” Sarzo yelled gleefully. Randy replied: “I respect Ozzy and Sharon and I don’t want to be in the middle.” Besides, he loved the girl he’d left behind in LA, his future fiancée Jodi Raskin.

The guitarist also confided in Rudy that his father William had recently been in touch after years of silence. Randy, who was devoted to his mother, couldn’t fail to remark on the coincidence of his father’s re-emergence now Ozzy’s album had started to sell. William had invited his son to visit him when the tour hit New England. But Randy was wary.

“I don’t know,” he told Sarzo, “it’s going to be hard after all these years.” Finally, in August, backstage at a show in Providence, Rhode Island, he agreed to meet his dad. “It wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be,” he told Sarzo, though he never saw his father again.

During a short tour break that summer, back at the family home, Randy regaled Delores, Kelle and Kathy with stories from his past nine months with Ozzy. He hung out with Jodi, with who he had kept in contact with a series of sometimes daily postcards. And he played with his train set. On vacations as kids, Delores had always taken the train not the plane – Randy’s first time on a plane had been when he flew to the UK to join Ozzy. As a child, Randy had loved those long train journeys, gazing out of the window at the passing world and wondering. Now, as an adult, the co-author of Crazy Train seemed to relive those times by building his own elaborate train set.

Kathy: “He had a track in his room. You could build the villages, and he would work on those constantly when he was home.”

Kelle: “Everything that Randy drank should have had a little parasol in it. A little bit of liquor and a lot of sugar. He would make his sugary drink and get his cigarettes and listen to classical music as he worked on his little model railroad. Boy, he loved that.”

Back on tour, though, the pressure was starting to tell. During off-time in Germany that autumn, when the band were on the road in Europe, Randy was delighted to discover the smallest-gauge toy trains he’d ever seen. But it was also in Europe that Ozzy truly went off the rails. His dalliance with Sharon Arden had blossomed into a full-on affair – a fact his wife Thelma was still in the dark about – and Ozzy was starting to crack after months of living on the tour bus. Each night he would complain that his back hurt, his voice had gone, he couldn’t go on. And each night Sharon, wise to his almost pathological stagefright, would push him out there, literally sometimes. In the end, after another enormous drink and drugs bender, the dates were cancelled and the band returned to London, where they stayed until the start of their second UK tour, in November.

Sarzo recalls a visit to a high-class London brothel with Randy, although the guitarist claimed to have run from the room when the lady he’d been assigned began hitting him with her riding crop. “All I wanted was someone to talk to,” he told Rudy. “There are so many uncertainties surrounding this band. I’m just not sure about our future any more.”

The pressure was only set to increase, though, with the commencement of their next US tour in January 1982. With both Blizzard… and Diary… now platinum albums in America, Ozzy was ready to step up to arenas. Determined to keep Ozzy contemporary, Sharon had commissioned a new show for the tour, featuring a castle facade, complete with turrets, gantries, and medieval outfits for the band to wear, as well as a dwarf – nicknamed Ronnie, after Ozzy’s replacement in Sabbath, the diminutive Ronnie James Dio.

None of the band was happy with the set-up. Tommy Aldridge’s drums were set so high among the castle’s turrets that he complained he couldn’t hear what the rest of the band were doing, while Randy’s and Rudy’s amps were hidden so far behind the castle’s walls they also had trouble with to their own sound. Worst of all, Ozzy was required to stand on a giant mechanical hand for the encores, which would lift him above the front rows of the audience.

“If it’s so fucking safe, you do it!” Ozzy roared at Sharon before storming off. By now Ozzy and Sharon’s fights were such a regular occurrence that the band accepted it as part of the touring landscape.

Not that Randy liked it. “He fucking hated all the bollocks of them fighting and throwing things at each other and screaming and all that,” says Bob Daisley.

By the start of 1982, despite being voted Best New Guitar Player by Guitar Player in the US and Best Guitarist by Sounds in the UK, Randy was in bad shape. Rudy recalls Randy confiding in him: “I don’t feel like I’m myself any more.” He was uncomfortable being back in LA where suddenly “everyone wants to hang out with me”. He talked of the night he got drunk and threw furniture out of the window with Ozzy. “That’s not really me,” he said. “That’s not the reason why I started playing the guitar.”

On January 20 came the incident in Des Moines where Ozzy bit the head off a bat on stage. He insisted he thought it was “a fucking toy – until I put its head in my mouth and its wings started flapping”. But Randy was unimpressed. Then Ozzy started complaining about Randy’s non-stop practice with a nylon-strung classical guitar. The stars of the show were getting on each other’s nerves. It was not a good sign. Randy began to withdraw from Ozzy’s company, calling up local classical music teachers in each city the tour stopped in, taking lessons in theory, and writing his own neo-classical compositions.

The last straw for Randy came when he was told they’d be recording a show entirely of Sabbath covers for a double live album. He was told Jet wanted it. Sharon later said it was part of her deal to get Ozzy off Jet – and away from her father. Whatever the truth, it caused a major rift between Randy and Ozzy. Randy tried to lead the band on strike against doing it. Ozzy threw a tantrum and fired the whole band. Sharon smoothed things over. The singer taunted Randy that Frank Zappa and Gary Moore had agreed to play on the record if he didn’t. Randy sighed and went back to his classical studies.

The growing differences between guitarist and singer were not just musical. When, in February 1982, Ozzy was arrested for urinating on the Alamo, during a tour-stop in San Antonio, Randy was aghast. This was not the sort of thing Mick Ronson would have had to put up with when he played with David Bowie. Alice Cooper was properly alcoholic too, but even he’d never pissed on one of the country’s most hallowed shrines.

Ozzy latest adventure made headlines around the world; ticket sales for his US tour increased, as did sales of the Blizzard… and Diary… albums. The next day, however, Randy dropped his bombshell. He would do the live album of Sabbath songs, he would record one more studio album with Ozzy, if they insisted, but that would be it. He would no longer subject himself to the humiliation and privation of an Ozzy Osbourne tour. Instead his immediate future would entail going back to school to study classical music.

Ozzy, still drunk from the night before, was furious and punched him in the face.

Bob Daisley: “I wasn’t there but I’ve spoken to Tommy Aldridge and [keyboardist] Don Airey, who both said when Ozzy heard Randy wanted out he punched him in the face and called him an ungrateful little shit. Tommy said it was a sucker punch, too, one of those when he wasn’t ready, wasn’t even looking.”

The atmosphere on the bus after that was deadly, with neither man speaking to the other. Rudy recalls one night during a break back in LA, a stoned and drunken Ozzy telling him: “You go tell your friend he’d better reconsider leaving the band. You tell him he’s fucking up the best thing he’s ever had.”

Eventually Ozzy would be more accepting of the situation. Years later he talked about how he didn’t think Randy would have continued playing rock music. How on that last tour he was already writing his own music, how it was all modal and very technical and that even Delores, a trained classical musician, couldn’t work out what it was Randy was working on from the notes he left. And how when Randy said he was leaving Ozzy told him: “Are you out of your fucking mind? Another few albums and you’ll be able to buy your own university!’”

As well as asking his mother to approach UCLA about him taking a masters degree in classical music, Randy had also spoken to John Stix, then editor of Guitar World, who’d offered to introduce him to New York scenesters like Steve Gadd, Jean-Luc Ponty and Earl Klugh. Randy had also been in touch with Richie Podolor, former Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night producer and a renowned classical guitarist who’d studied with Andrés Segovia, and who’d agreed to let Randy take part in classical sessions with him.

Kathy Rhoads says their mother knew that Randy wasn’t happy. “But she knew what Ozzy did for my brother too,” she says. “It’s not that he got sick of Ozzy. He got sick of the road. It’s not that he didn’t like Ozzy. That’s not true. He just didn’t like that lifestyle.”

The first two shows of the resumed US tour were at the Omni Arena, Atlanta, on March 17, and the following night at the Civic Coliseum in Knoxville. That night, on the 665-mile road trip to the next stop in Orlando, the whole band sat at the back of the bus watching the World War II epic Midway. Rudy was first to retire to his bunk.

“After one too many kamikaze suicide crashes on the TV screen,” he says. The driver of the tour bus was 36-year-old Andrew Aycock. Against Sharon’s wishes he had picked up his wife, who he was separated from, and allowed her to sit next to him for the drive to Orlando. Early the next morning the bus stopped over at a depot, the Red Baron Estates, near Leesburg. Aldridge recalls Aycock bragging about also being a pilot and promising the band “a little joyride” on one of the small propeller planes also stationed at the depot.

True to his word, Aycock offered the only other people awake – Don Airey and tour manager Jake Duncan – a quick spin in the air. The aircraft, a 27-year-old Beechcraft Bonanza F35, made a few passes over the tour bus then landed. At which point Aycock offered Randy and the band’s seamstress, a 50-year-old woman called Rachel Youngblood, a quick trip in the air. Randy’s fear of flying was well-known, and Rachel had a heart condition. Yet they both agreed to go up, persuaded by Aycock’s promise that “it would be just going up and down”, as Rudy Sarzo recalled.

Randy, who’d begun taking a camera everywhere with him, grabbed his case then stuck his head into Sarzo’s bunk, inviting him to come along too. But the bassist was half-asleep and not interested. What happened next, once the plane was in the air, has since become a matter of lengthy, unresolved discussion. But, for whatever reason, the plane suddenly dipped and seemed to be heading straight for the tour bus.

Don Airey, who’d been using a telephoto lens to snap the plane in flight, claimed he saw figures onboard struggling. Aycock’s wife Wanda was standing in the doorway of the bus, and many who were there believe the pilot, who’d been up all night driving and apparently arguing with her, had decided to kill her by ploughing the plane into the bus. Sarzo concluded that Randy had saved all their lives by preventing Aycock from flying into the tour bus.

Other rumours have suggested that Rachel Youngblood, who was sitting in the front of the dual control plane, had had a heart attack, and as she slumped forward onto the controls had forced the plane into a dive – that the struggling figures Airey saw were in fact Randy, who was seated behind, trying to pull her inert form back as Aycock tried to bring the plane out of its steep descent.

Whatever the truth, the result was that the left wing of the plane clipped the bus at about five feet off the ground, then the plane flipped over and hit a large pine tree, severing the trunk, and ploughed into the garage of the mansion situated about 60 feet from the bus. The explosion killed all onboard instantly.

Rudy Sarzo recalls jumping out of his bunk on the bus and seeing Jake Duncan down on his knees, sobbing: “They’re gone, they’re gone…” Meanwhile, Sharon was screaming at him: “How could you let that baby get on that plane?”

Randy Rhoads’s funeral took place beneath an overcast, gunmetal grey Los Angeles sky. It wasn’t cold but it wasn’t warm either. Everyone pulled their coats just a little tighter as the memorial service began at the First Lutheran Church, where Randy had attended every Sunday with his mother and siblings, and where Delores Rhoads still taught the choir. Family friend Arlene Thomas played an acoustic guitar and sang in the background. She taught at Musonia at the same time Randy did, and her presence was greatly appreciated by Delores, but nothing could change the mood of despair.

Ozzy Osbourne wept on Delores’s shoulders throughout. Randy’s fiancée Jodi Raskin was comforted by Rudy Sarzo. Ozzy, Rudy, Tommy Aldridge and Kevin DuBrow were pallbearers, along with Randy’s old friends Frank Santa Cruz and Kim McNair. Absent from the service was Kelly Garni.

“There’s no way I wanted to see his coffin,” he says today. Kelle Rhoads had also been asked to be a pallbearer but couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I was in shock,” he says. “I didn’t even believe it. I figured it was a publicity stunt, like the bat and pissing on the Alamo. All these years later I’ve never gotten over it. I think about him every single day. It’s almost like he dies every single day for me. I can go on with life but Ireally can’t completely come to terms with it.”

Delores Rhoads made it her business to thank everyone for coming, comforting those she barely knew as warmly as she did her own grief-stricken family. Yet behind the kindly gestures likes an irreparably broken heart.

“It was never the same for her again,” says Kathy. “She never put up another tree at Christmas to this day. She’s left his room exactly how Randy left it. It’s like time stopped in her house. If you go there, it’s like you’re walking through that door in 1982. No one is allowed to go into his room. It’s just the same as it was the last day that he was in there.”

Afterwards, a motorcade wound from Burbank to San Bernardino, where Randy’s remains were laid to rest at a mausoleum in Mountain View cemetery. “It’s a beautiful spot,” says Kelle. “Kinda like Lady Di’s.”

Dana Strum was driving in the same little white Triumph TR7 coupe he’d ferried Ozzy around town in two years before when he heard the news. He was so shocked he drove straight through a red light. “It literally sucked the breath out of me and I just pulled over and started crying.” He says he was tormented with guilt for years, “for forcing him to go, for talking him into it”. He was also plagued with late-night phone calls from fans blaming him for Randy’s death.

“As soon as the Rainbow [club] closed each night the calls would start.” Years later, when his band Slaughter supported Ozzy on tour, he would sometimes look at Zakk Wylde, one of Randy’s successors as Ozzy’s guitarist, and think: “That really should have been Randy.”

Except that Randy had already decided he was not going to be part of Ozzy’s long-term future. Ozzy has said how, from the moment he met Randy, he knew he was only passing through. He says he felt the same way when he saw Jimi Hendrix play at the Woburn Abbey music festival in 1967.

Despite his genuine grief – “I thought, that’s it, it’s over” – he was back on the road barely two weeks after Randy’s death, with former Gillan guitarist Bernie Tormé in tow.

Why someone as gifted and apparently fated as Randy Rhoads should have died so young is one of those questions there simply aren’t adequate answers to. Why it happened, how it happened, what should have been done, what shouldn’t… the arguments have raged ever since, and will no doubt continue to do so.

The aftermath of Randy Rhoads’s grisly death, though, changed not just the course of Ozzy Osbourne’s career, but also arguably that of rock. Unlike his close rival, Eddie Van Halen, whose career would be overtaken with drink and drug-fuelled melodrama, we never really got to hear the best that Randy Rhoads had to offer. The music he made on Blizzard… and Diary… may have been some of the best Ozzy would be involved in, but for Randy it was merely the start.

And yet, as his brother Kelle says: “He was a guiding light for so many people. When people tell you what an influence he was on them, that’s pretty amazing.”

Not just the generation of guitarists that used whatRandy did on record with Ozzy as the reference point for their own work – not least those who came close to filling his shoes in Ozzy’s band, most memorably Jake E Lee and Zakk Wylde – but also the hundreds of kids he taught before and during his time in the spotlight with Ozzy. Each one of the last 30 years, a new wave of teenage metal dudes has discovered those two landmark Ozzy albums; found themselves mesmerised by the guitar playing of the forever 25-year-old Randy Rhoads.

Kathy Rhoads ends our interview by telling me how every March 19 she and Kelle always go out to the cemetery where Randy is buried. “We always meet with everyone, and everybody shares aboutRandy, and it’s kind of a nice memorial.”

“It will be big this year cos it’s the 30th anniversary,” adds Kelle Rhoads. “It’s a Monday and the whole world is invited.”

This was originally published in Classic Rock issue 168.

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.