Fans attending the Ozzfest show at the Tweeter Center at the Waterfront in Camden, New Jersey, on August 26, 2004, had a shock when Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford filled in for a bronchitis-stricken Ozzy Osbourne during Black Sabbath's headline set.
Halford had sung with Black Sabbath before, at the final two shows of Ozzy Osbourne's No More Tours tour at the Costa Mesa Amphitheatre in California in November 1992, after the group’s then-singer Ronnie James Dio famously refused to open for the man he'd originally replaced in Sabbath in 1979, and then quit.
"I was told in the middle of the tour that we would be opening for Ozzy in Los Angeles," said Dio. "And I said, 'No. Sorry, I have more pride than that.'"
“I got a call from either Sharon Osbourne or Tony Iommi, asking if I’d step in," Halford remembered. "That was such an honour, getting the chance to sing all those amazing classics. But there was never any chance that it would lead to anything more permanent. To me, Sabbath is Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward. I belong with Priest, not with them.”
Priest were special guests for the Ozzfest tour 12 years later, which had kicked off at CTNow.com Meadows Music in Hartford, CT, on July 4 and had successfully weaved its way through a further 20 North American shows before Ozzy fell ill.
“We were backstage, leaving catering, and we had heard that Ozzy was really sick and he didn’t know if he could play," said Dez Fafara from Devildriver, who were also on the bill. "The talk was to get on the bus and get ready to split, because there could be riots. We thought it could go really sour really fast."
Sabbath drummer Bill Ward’s announcement that Ozzy would be unable to perform was inevitably met with boos, missiles and catcalls, but Halford told the 25,000 fans, “Yesterday was my [53rd] birthday, and I feel as though today is, too! I’m getting to sing for one of my favourite bands in the world.”
Halford went on to perform a set that featured War Pigs, N.I.B., Fairies Wear Boots, Into the Void, Black Sabbath, Iron Man and Children of the Grave, before finishing with the traditional show-closer Paranoid. Guitarist Tony Iommi and the Philadelphia Enquirer newspaper were among those later praising Halford for saving the day.
“If you closed your eyes, it was Sabbath on their best night in the mid-1970s,” claimed the Enquirer’s Patrick Berkery. “Unlike with Osbourne, however, Rob’s voice rarely wavered.”
“My God, Rob did an amazing job,” Iommi told Classic Rock afterwards. “Ozzy’s been singing really well on this tour – better than he has in years – but Rob did the entire set and knocked everybody out. We gave him a video of the show, and he watched it on his bus. Anyone would have thought we’d rehearsed it for a week."
“Priest and Sabbath come from the same place, born and raised," said Halford. "We go all the way back to when both bands started, and so we have so much in common. Any chance we had we were in each other’s company, and as soon as we are, the rock’n’roll stories start flying!
"We love and support each other, so whenever we can help out, we do. In this case it was just mates making sure the show went on."