Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)
Chapter 5. Out of The Shadows, into the limelight
Dad and all his brothers played the accordion, so they were quite a musical family. What I really wanted was a set of drums. I obviously had no room to put them in and certainly wouldn’t be able to play them in the house, so it was the accordion or nothing. I started playing it when I was about ten years old. I still have a picture of me as a kid in our backyard, holding my bloody accordion.
We had a gramophone at home, or a ‘radiogram’, as it was called. It was a unit with a record player on it, and two speakers. And I used to have a little radio. Because I was in my room a lot, it was either listen to that or what do I do? Can’t go and sit in the lounge, because we don’t have one. I’d listen to the Top 20 or Radio Luxembourg. That’s where my love of music originated, sitting in my room and listening to great instrumental guitar bands like The Shadows on my little radio. It made me want to play the guitar as well. I really loved that sound, it was instrumental stuff and I knew: this is what I want to do. So eventually my mother bought me a guitar. She was very good that way. She worked hard and saved up for it. Being left-handed, you were limited to what you could get, certainly in those days: ‘A left-handed guitar, what’s that?’
There was this electric Watkins Rapier that I saw in a catalogue. It cost something like £20, and Mum paid it off in weekly instalments. My left-handed Watkins had two pick-ups and a couple of little chrome selector switches that you’d push, and it came with a little Watkins Westminster amp. I stole one of the speakers from our radiogram and put it in that amp, which didn’t go down very well. But it hardly mattered, because my parents didn’t play music that much anyway.
So there I was, with my first little kit, playing away in my room. I’d listen to the Top 20 and wait for The Shadows to come on to tape them with a microphone on this old reel to reel, so I could try and learn their songs. Later I’d get the album and learn the songs from playing that over and over. I’ve always liked going back to The Shadows, as I like melodies and tunes. And I’ve always tried to make my guitar-playing melodic, as music is all about melody. Me trying to do that comes from those very early days. That stayed with me; it has always been a part of my songwriting.
I liked The Beatles, but The Shadows and Cliff Richard were more based on the rock ’n’ roll stuff than The Beatles, so they were more my thing. Of course I liked Elvis as well, but not as much as Cliff and The Shadows. They were it for me. Cliff was bigger in England than Elvis was, and that might have had something to do with it. I’ve met Cliff a few times, but I never said to him: ‘Oh, I was a big fan of yours.’
After school I’d sit upstairs and play my guitar for a couple of hours. I really took to the guitar and practised as much as I could, but bands weren’t immediately knocking on the door asking me to join. That’s why my first venture was with Albert. He was going to be the singer and I would take care of the music. He couldn’t sing, but he thought he could. His house was rather posh: it had two living rooms. We’d be in the front room with me and my amp playing away and him singing, and you’d always hear his dad shouting from the other room: ‘Shut that bloody row up! Can’t you go somewhere else?’
We only knew one song, which we played over and over: ‘Jezebel’ by Frankie Laine. We must have been twelve or thirteen years old then, and Albert used to wail: ‘If ever the devil was born, without a pair of horns, it was you, Jezebel, it was you.’
So that’s really what started it all.
After that I hooked up with this piano player and his drummer. They were a lot older than me and they asked me if I’d play with them in this pub. I couldn’t really play very well, but they thought I was great. I only did that a couple of times. I was incredibly nervous sitting in with these guys, but it was just something I would do then.
‘Blimey, a gig! In a pub!’
I wasn’t even old enough to be in a pub, but those were the first gigs I ever did.
Ron and Joan Woodward lived a couple of doors away from our shop. Ron visited us a lot. Him and Dad would be chatting and smoking away just about every night. He spent more time at our house than at his, and he became like another adopted son. He was probably ten or fifteen years older than me, but somehow I became friends with him. I talked him into buying a bass guitar. He started to learn to play it and we actually did a couple of little gigs. And everybody was going: ‘Well, he’s a bit old, isn’t he?’
I’d just say: ‘He’s my mate and he wants to be in the band.’
That’s how it was then; your mate would be in your band.
‘Can he play?’
‘Oh no, he can’t play but he’s my mate!’
We had a rhythm guitarist and a drummer playing with us. We rehearsed about three times a week at this youth club. It was great. From piddling around by yourself in your room to playing music with other people was a fantastic experience. Nigel, the rhythm guitarist, was a bit cocky. One day he was singing and the mic suddenly stuck to him, because it wasn’t earthed. He went rolling around on the floor and got a bad electric shock. Because nobody liked him, we all thought, it serves you right. But in the end we did unplug him, so he survived. As a matter of fact, he was right as rain afterwards, better than ever in fact. It was like it had done him good. But he didn’t last that long, and neither did that band.
I couldn’t wait to leave school. I didn’t like it, and I don’t think it liked me very much either. Everybody left school at fifteen, unless you stayed on and went to a college. Fifteen and that was it, you were out. And so was I. It was a great relief. I started looking for a job and I applied myself to playing the guitar even more.
Because I practised all the time, I was getting much better than people like Ron Woodward, so I joined this other band which I thought was very good, The Rockin’ Chevrolets. It must have been around 1964 so I was sixteen or so. To my mind they were really professional. They could play all The Shadows’ songs perfectly and, because a couple of the guys were older than me, they also did a lot of rock ’n’ roll. I’d never been a big fan of Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent or Buddy Holly, but I now got into that music as well.
The singer, Neil Morris, was the oldest guy in the band. There was a chap on bass called Dave Whaddley, the drummer was called Pat Pegg and the rhythm guitar player was Alan Meredith. That’s when I met Alan’s sister, Margareth. We were engaged to be married, actually. Our relationship would last a lot longer than The Chevrolets did.
I don’t remember how I got into this band. I probably saw an advert in a music shop window. That was your life; you’d hang around a music shop or you’d go to see another band playing and you’d meet people through that.
My parents were wary of me playing with this band in pubs. I even had to be home at a certain time, but after a little while they were okay with it, also because I brought some money in. The Rockin’ Chevrolets made things easier for me as well by meeting Mum first. They came down and she made them bacon sandwiches. As she did in later years with Black Sabbath, the same thing: she’d always ask them if they wanted something to eat. Always. That’s the sort of mother she was.
The Rockin’ Chevrolets started getting a lot of work. We all had the same red lamé suits, so we wore those at every gig. I didn’t really have any money to spend on a suit, but you had to look the part. At the weekend we played in pubs. One pub was in a bad part of Birmingham and every bloody time we played there’d be a fight. We provided the soundtrack to their fighting. We also played the odd wedding, or we’d end up in a bloody social club playing to people twice our age who would go: ‘Ooh, you’re too loud!’
Because things were getting more serious, I wanted a better guitar. Burns was one of the few companies that made left-handed guitars, so I bought me one of those, a Burns Trisonic. It had a control on it with the ‘trisonic sound’, whatever that was. I only played it until I eventually found a left-handed Fender Stratocaster. And I had a Selmer amp, with an echo in it.
The Rockin’ Chevrolets broke up because they kicked out Alan Meredith. My next big band was going to be The Birds & The Bees. I auditioned for them and got the job. They were professional, worked a lot and were even due to go to Europe. I decided to really go for it, quit my job and become a professional musician. I was working as a welder in a factory at the time. I went to work on the Friday morning, my last day at the job, and at lunchtime I told Mum I wasn’t going back for the afternoon shift. But she told me I had to, and to finish the job properly.
So I did. I went back to work.
And then my whole world fell apart.