Remembering The Brief, Prolific Career & Death Of Guitar Master Randy Rhoads
On March 19th, 1982, a joyride went horribly wrong, and the music world lost one of the most explosive players to ever pick up a guitar, Randy Rhoads. A small prop plane carrying Rhoads, Rachel Youngblood and pilot Andrew Aycock crashed in the morning hours at in Leesburg, FL, killing all three on impact. The “whys” of the crash will never truly be known, but the tragic results sadly are: The music world lost one of its most promising rising stars.
Ozzy Osbourne, Randy Rhoads’s bandmate and employer at the time of his death, had always considered the fiery rocker more of a brother. He was devastated by Randy’s loss, and that reaction was mirrored by all who knew and loved the soft-spoken Rhoads. From an early age, Randy Rhoads was always more the type of person to let his playing do the talking for him. As a child, he practised the guitar so long and hard that he worried his mother enough to consult a physician about the possibility that her son’s constant playing could cause any permanent damage to his hands. Driven by his twin passions of classical music and the heavier side of rock and roll–which seemed like mutually exclusive styles–Rhoads would pursue his vision of joining the two ends of the spectrum until the day he died.
Rhoads formed several bands in his teens, sticking to covers from his heroes like Alice Cooper and the Rolling Stones for the bulk of their material, with a few nascent originals thrown in for good measure. Improving his fretboard skills soon became his primary focus in life, to the detriment of his schooling. Luckily, his passion was recognized early on, and he was admitted to a special program that allowed him to graduate high school early and begin teaching guitar and playing with his band, Quiet Riot, formed in 1973. While singer Kevin DuBrow was great at working the crowd, the main attraction at their shows was always Rhoads. His emerging virtuosity was so entrancing that members of the band would find themselves losing their place in the music because they were awestruck at the skill that would erupt from within him.
Quiet Riot quickly became the kings of the Los Angeles rock circuit, playing sold out shows at the famed Whisky A Go Go and throughout the rest of LA’s club scene. The band’s live shows were known for their party atmosphere, and their music was gradually pared down to simple chord progressions to allow for a more anthemic, accessible sound that disappointed their studious guitarist. After signing with CBS Records, Rhoads was unhappily constrained by the band’s new sound and did not feel the recording came close to capturing what he could really do. The label was not impressed with Quiet Riot’s efforts either, only releasing the band’s two discs in Japan.
Rhoads was frustrated, and when he got the call from a friend letting him know legendary Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne was vetting members for a new band, the prospect was too exciting to ignore. Rhoads auditioned for a very hungover Osbourne in a hotel room, and barely had time to finish warming up with some scales and a few of his fiery riffs before Ozzy hired him on the spot. Rhoads was a bit off put, thinking “He hasn’t even heard me play yet.” Ozzy turned out to be a shrewd judge of talent, even with a raging headache.
Osbourne’s management and the label had wanted to keep the lineup all British, but after Rhoads blew manager Jet Records executives and manager David Arden away with his chops and energy, he easily sealed the deal. During his time in England, he lived with Osbourne and eventual wife Sharon Arden, beginning what would become a deep personal friendship between the three of them.
During the recording of the new band’s first album, Blizzard Of Ozz, Rhoads was encouraged by Osbourne to go beyond the simple arrangements he had been limited by in the past. This freedom to explore and innovate allowed Rhoads to freely marry his dexterity and his passion, and the result was amazing to everyone involved. Finally given the opportunity to fuse the expressiveness of rock with the precision and breakneck technicality of classical music, Rhoads found vast, uncharted musical territory to explore. His leads became faster and more open, and his solos took on a level of explosiveness and originality that was miles beyond his previous work. Both Osbourne and the label knew they had a superstar-in-the-making on their hands and were eager to turn him loose on the record- and ticket-buying public. After a tour of England, the band returned to the studio to record their follow-up, Diary Of A Madman, and set their sights on America. Not many recordings survive from that era, but here’s audio of an entire show here:
Before their 1982 tour began Arden fired the band’s rhythm section, replacing them with stand-ins for the upcoming dates. This action shook Rhoads, who had enjoyed the chemistry the band had found. It’s been said he considered quitting the band himself in protest, though he clearly decided to stick it out. During this period, Rhoads began feeling the pull to further explore the bounds of music, telling friends he was considering leaving rock and roll and pursing a degree in classical music. It seemed certain that his time with the band would soon come to an end, though no one would be prepared for the tragic way it would all play out.
The Diary Of A Madman tour was a major success, selling out concert halls and auditoriums across the country. The two albums, both launched with Ozzy’s Black Sabbath street cred, were earning more buzz for Rhoads’ incredible guitar work than they were for Osbourne. The onstage chemistry between Osbourne and Rhoads was electric and endearing. Their friendship and their mutual passion to entertain led to unforgettable performances. Ozzy would stalk the stage exhorting the sea of fans, stoking the fires and Rhoads’s guitar playing was like dumping gasoline on the blaze. Word rapidly spread that Rhoads’s live playing was a spectacle not to be missed by anyone, fan or player alike.
Though social media was yet to exist, there were a plethora of music magazines published at the time, and they all honoured Rhoads as a fast-rising star. Guitar Player magazine named him “Best New Talent” in 1981, the same year Sounds magazine proclaimed him “Best Heavy Metal Guitarist.” Jackson Guitars worked with him to create a signature model guitar, though he was never able to see it hit stores. He would practice for hours before a show–and hours after–in pursuit of personal perfection. He would be forced to soak his hands to reduce the swelling he regularly dealt with in his hands after his marathon sessions. Rhoads was constantly seeking out classical guitar teachers as the band travelled the country, eager to add to his ever-deepening chops. Seeing his drive led all of his friends and admirers to wonder just how far this talented young man could take his music, with no limit in sight.
Though he was thoroughly serious about his playing, Randy Rhoads was also known as a jokester, and it seems as though that playful spirit lead to his untimely and gruesome death on this day in 1982. It is impossible to know exactly what occurred inside the cockpit of the 1957 Beechcraft Bonanza prop plane, but the terrible facts are a matter of public record: After a show in Knoxville on March 18th, 1982, Osbourne’s band had stopped for the night to get some much-needed repairs on the bus the following day. That morning, the band’s bus driver and ex-commercial pilot Andrew Aycock spotted the small aircraft and decided to take it for a quick spin. He boarded the unguarded plane with keyboardist Don Airey and tour manager Jake Duncan. After a couple of minutes of circling the area, Aycock landed and asked if anyone else wanted a ride.
As the story goes, the night before, Rhoads and Osbourne had argued about Osbourne’s partying, warning the singer, “You’ll kill yourself, you know? One of these days.” The exchange had angered Ozzy, who drunkenly slipped off to sleep off his prodigious buzz. The next morning, the mischievous Randy Rhoads is said to have suggested that flying the plane past the passed-out singer’s window would be a good way to wake him up and punish him ever-so-slightly for his previous night’s transgressions. Randy Rhoads and band seamstress Rachel Youngblood boarded the plane with Andrew Aycock and took to the skies.
Shortly after take-off, Aycock attempted to fly over the tour bus where Osbourne and the rest of the crew were still resting from the long night before. Not satisfied with the first pass, Aycock tried twice more, getting faster and lower with each subsequent pass. On their fourth attempt, flying in excess of 150 miles per hour, the plane’s wing clipped the top of the tour bus, sending it spiralling out of control. Striking a tree, the plane’s forward momentum dragged it along the ground, scattering pieces before finally careening into the garage of a nearby house. Rhoads and Youngblood were thrown through the windshield before the wreckage exploded in a fireball that curled high into the sky. All three passengers were instantly killed, burned so badly that they had to be identified by dental records and personal effects.
The explosion woke the remaining sleepers, including Osbourne, who amazingly did not awaken when the plane actually struck the bus. Sharon was screaming for everyone to clear the bus, and when they did they were confronted with the sight of the smouldering wreckage of the plane. Emergency services were slow to respond, but it was far too late regardless. Autopsies showed that Aycock had cocaine in his system, and Osbourne later testified that he had witnessed Aycock using the drug late into the night before that tragic morning. Rumours persist to this day about Aycock’s motivation for buzzing the plane, ranging from harmlessly pranking the band and crew to hard feelings for an ex. In the resulting investigation into the incident, it was learned that Aycock’s pilot license had long expired and he was well overdue for a re-certification of his skills.
No record exists of the conversations inside the plane that morning, but in the end, knowing why this happened would not change the result. Randy Rhoads’ death was a loss that the perpetually strung out Osbourne was ill-equipped to handle. Ozzy has remarked in years since that the death sent him spiraling farther down the path of self-destruction that had caused the argument in the first place. The fans and the music world shared their grief. All the music magazines of the day, from the more serious Rolling Stone to the more personality-driven Cream ran pieces on his death. Guitar World magazine seemed to feel the loss particularly hard. In an editorial, the magazine’s editors lamented his demise, saying he had the potential to be “The best that ever was.”
Any loss of life is a reason for sadness, but in a case, the senselessness of it seems all the more tragic. While we will never know what Randy Rhoads might have done with his talent, what he managed to do while still with us was truly breathtaking. An entire generation of players was inspired by his style. Heavy metal guitarists around the world began focusing on speed and classical influences to make their own music sound more like his. Osbourne still clouds up when Rhoads’s name is mentioned, any comment on his lost friend said with an emotionally choked voice. Clearly, for Ozzy, the loss of his “little brother” is a wound that never fully healed. We may have lost a singular talent that morning in 1982, but thanks to the impact of his playing, the echoes of his innovative body of work became a part of the fabric of heavy metal itself.