British Honour to Tony Iommi

Iron Man? - If You Say So!

Great story from Tony's friend!


 Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I lived in a nice house set on a golf course, just outside of a little town called Redditch not far from Solihull where Tony Iommi used to live. As a businessman, my work involved dealing with a reasonably representative cross section of the community, so one day, when Tony appeared as a client it was no surprise. 

What was surprising was how absolutely normal he was. Impeccably mannered and softly spoken, fame had done nothing to spoil him and the sense of humour for which he is famous took only a minute or so before it surfaced and continued to surface for as long as I was to know him.

 I can´t remember exactly how it happened but in no time at all Tony and myself had become friends. His wife, who then was Valerie, became very friendly with my own wife. Valerie was an extremely attractive lady and when on the arm of Tony they made a really handsome couple.

I guess the time when my friendship really started with Tony was one day when he called in at my business to see me. We had just built a small studio which allowed the use of ISDN telephone lines to connect with radio stations anywhere in the world. I mentioned to Tony that the project was finished and we were just waiting for a mixer for the studio, to which he said, “I think I can help you here, have you got a couple of hours”. I said I did and we drove into Birmingham in his car to visit Laney's. We went into the production section of the factory and Tony walked over to where the mixers were awaiting packaging, picked one up and offered it to me asking if it would do. It was a magnificent piece of equipment and more than adequate for our use. I was somewhat apprehensive but Tony assured me that it was quite OK.

This was to prove so typical of Tony. He was both generous and considerate to a fault. As time went on I gradually met all of Sabbath who with one exception were quite unique as heavy rockers in that none of them used bad language. With hand on heart I can honestly say that in all the time I knew Tony, I never heard him swear once. Perhaps it was because he never had the need or had been brought up very well.

 I mentioned above, Tony´s humour. It was with him 24 hours a day and he never missed a chance to play a practical joke. No one was safe from him. On the times I went into town with him or out for a meal (his favourite food is curry) he was remarkable, in that he had time for everyone. Nothing seemed to be too great an effort, something I was to see in the United States several times but more of that later. 

One day, my wife and I went to Tony´s house for dinner. Visiting Tony was always an experience because behind his gates he had three of the largest Rottweilers I had ever seen. I have seen smaller cart horses. He always said don´t worry about them they´re soft as fudge. However, I preferred him to open the gates and would stay in the car until I was convinced I could beat them to his front door if necessary. He was very good with those dogs and had built for them what he described as kennels but were more akin to individual apartments. Each kennel had its own verandah and was about 7 or 8 feel high to the ceiling and much more to the apex. If he was at home he would always walk the dogs regardless of the weather. More likely they walked him but regardless, they always got a long walk each day.

 However, I digress, during dinner I mentioned the large amount of framed platinum disks hanging on the wall and Tony said he had to put them somewhere. I mentioned they were a magnificent collection and out of the blue he asked me if I wanted one. I was somewhat taken aback by this as these disks were part of his history but notwithstanding he gave me the Platinum disk for Paranoid which for a long time hung in pride of place in my own house, losing it only when my wife and I divorced and she would not return it to me. I often think about it.

As time passed I met many of Tony friends, acquaintances and business colleagues and the common denominator was that all held him in the same high regard. It was difficult not to. He was always or almost always, evenly tempered and even when he had great pressure on him, he still remained friendly and affable. It´s very easy to be Mr. Nice guy when everything in the garden is rosy but the mark of a true man is someone who stays pleasant all the time. In my experience, Tony was such a person.

One winter evening, Tony and Val arranged with me and my wife to go out for dinner. I said I would pick them up in my car which was not really suitable because it was a BMW850 and whilst it had back seats, there wasn´t a lot of room. Described as a two plus two it was more like a two crush two. However, we all managed to get in and set off for wherever it was we were going but which required the M42 motorway - a three lane highway. We´d only been on it a few seconds when Tony suggested I put my foot down. It was dark, raining quite heavily but nonetheless I stepped on the loud pedal. At about 110 miles an hour Tony said “won´t it go faster than this”. I said it would and put my foot down.

At 145 miles an hour in conditions far from perfect, Tony started giggling. Lamp posts were flying by and eventually I chickened out and slowed right down. Very little frightens Tony and that includes cancer which he developed and beat some years later. God know what would have happened if we had slid off the road at that speed. Thousands at Tony´s funeral but none at my own…

Tony is known for heavy metal and heavy rock music but many would be surprised to known that he writes and composes all types of genre. I remember Val telling me that her mother had died and Tony had written the music for her funeral. I had visions of the poor old girl being sent off to the accompaniment of something like “Children of the Grave” but not so. The music was beautiful, entirely appropriate and indicative of what a real and versatile talent Tony has.

If there is one thing about Tony which can be said it´s that he shirks neither work nor responsibility. I have seen him work until he almost drops. A perfectionist, he won´t give in. He does relax from time to time and he´s no slouch when it comes to parties. One organised by my wife for some reason or other and which Tony and Val attended, was at my place of work. I guess we all had a little too much to drink that evening. With Tony hardly able to walk it befell Val to do the driving. The following day she phoned and said how far is it from your place to the top of the road. I said about 300 yards. She said “I had to stop 4 times in that distance to let Tony out of the car. “If you want your alcohol back its all in the hedge”!

From time to time Tony would go quiet. This was usually when he was working on an album or planning a gig or a tour. One day he mentioned he was off to the United States to make a video. I was very surprised to learn that artists have to pay the cost of these themselves and this one was costing Sabbath 50,000 dollars. On top of this there were the air fares and hotel expenses. I don´t know how it happened but my wife and I ended up going with him. I believe we stayed at the Wilshere hotel on Wilshere Boulevard. I seem to recall it took about four days for the Video to be completed, during which time my wife and I visited business colleagues in Los Angeles. It was interesting to see the reaction to Tony by the Americans, which overall was very similar to that I saw in the UK. Perhaps the exception was that in America, three generations of Sabbath fans would approach Tony. In the UK it was the younger fan who wanted to talk, the older ones tending to hold back and observe.

Video completed the band returned to the UK and I think we followed a day or two later. I was amazed at the workload the band had taken on in the States. There could be no way the UK Inland Revenue could have claimed duality of purpose for their visit. It was all work and no play.

 Shortly before Easter I was telephoned by Tony to ask if Chris (my wife) and myself would like tickets for the Freddie Mercury concert on Easter Monday. Tony was guest appearing and playing with Brian May as part of the tribute to Freddie Mercury. I gratefully accepted and was delighted when arriving at Wembley to find that Tony had got us seats one back and two across from Elizabeth Taylor. Everything about the show was fantastic and the photo I managed to take shows Tony with Brian May on stage. 

The concert was produced for television by Ray Burdis and broadcast live on television and radio to 76 countries around the world, with an audience of up to one billion
Following the show, everyone set off for a nightclub in London called Browns and there I met for the first time Brian May. I knew Brian and Tony were close friends and I asked Brian how he had got to know Tony.

He told me that when he was at university he used to listen to Sabbath and play all their music and one day they had simply met at a gig. He said that Tony was one of the finest musicians and nicest person he knew. A sentiment held by many other people.

Over the next few months I met Tony for a curry from time to time but didn´t see too much of him and then one day he announced that the band was to tour the United States and Canada. I had often spoken to Tony about the method of Transport groups used to get themselves between Gigs, asking why they chose huge buses for themselves instead of flying. He suggested I go with him on tour and then could see for myself. Try as I may I could not find the time.

Some time after Tony had set off on tour I had cause to visit Miami on business and by coincidence, at the same time Sabbath were gigging at the Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce which was only 80 miles from where I was in Miami. I phoned Tony and told him I was in the area and he suggested I come over. Phoning Tony when he is on tour is not quite as simple as it sounds. To protect themselves, not from their fans but rather from the time they would lose if they spoke to them, each member of the band checks in under a different name. The hotels understand the necessity for this and go along with it.

 The day of the Gig, which for some reason I can remember, was July 24th and I agreed with Tony to meet him in the afternoon at the Sunrise. I arrived at about 1.30 and picked up my passes from the box office and was surprised at the amount of people milling around. There were literally hundreds of them. I Asked a couple what they were doing and was told they were hoping to be able to get tickets and were prepared to pay enormously above the ticket face value. I entered the theatre and had a look around. It was quite impressive and the stage hands had done a really good job. It was typically Sabbath, with a huge Satanic trident, which every now and again would sinisterly move. Brilliant red and blue lights provided a chilling atmosphere as technicians ran huge cables from the stage to the sound console in the middle of the theatre.

Tony arrived at two o´clock on his own and immediately began checking things. After an hour he came over to me and suggested we take a few minutes off and he would show me the buses they were travelling in. As we stepped outside I was amazed at the amount of people gathered by the stage door and the Bands transport. I estimated that there must have been at least three hundred people.

The buses were huge and equipped like a small house. In the front was the kitchen with three large fridges – all full of beer but no food. The centre of the bus was for sleeping accommodation and at the very back was a quite large lounge complete with TV stereo etc. One of the advantages of travelling this way was because they could literally drive up to the doors of the hotel and quickly go inside. Something quite important if there are crowds of fans.

Leaving the bus, Tony walked over to the fans and sat on a wall and started to sign autographs and chat to them. He stayed with them for almost two hours. I asked him if he always did this and he said whenever possible because a lot of those present would not have been able to get tickets. So if you are an Iommi fan, the thing to do is on the afternoon of the gig, go and find the bands transport which won´t be far from the venue and wait for him.

I was extremely impressed with Tony. At his stage of life there was no need to go to all this trouble, particularly as he had a hard show in front of him and would be travelling again through the night. However, as he has said so many times, he is what he is because of his fans and he never forgets it or them.

Following the show, which was fantastic and left me with hearing problems for four days, fans with VIP passes came backstage where they were able to mix with the group and avail themselves of the considerable hospitality which had been laid on for them. Regardless of their ages, all seemed to be quite excited and well and truly caught up in the fabulous atmosphere. Ronnie James Dio had been fantastic and I had and have always believed that he was the best singer Sabbath have ever had. He too had time for everyone.

And then suddenly it was all over, the fans slowly trickled away and the band took a few minutes well deserved rest. Tony had gone back into the theatre for some reason or other and I had been amazed at the roadies and the speed at which they could dismantle, label and pack things. They were running with large containers on wheels putting them into large trucks, which once full immediately set off to the next destination.

It had been an interesting and lovely day. I had been very impressed with the respect and interest Tony had shown for his fans and having known this Brummie for quite some time I knew it to be genuine.

The day done, I set off back to Coconut Grove in Miami and Tony moved on to the next location. For any who envy show business singers or musicians I can only say whatever they get out of it they put in ten times as much. It´s not an easy job.

Back in the UK, between the months of July and November I think I met Tony only a couple of times for dinner, then out of the blue he telephoned me to say the original Sabbath group was getting together in a gig in Costa Mesa, California - something which almost did not happen.

 Tony, for whatever reason, had gone to Modesto. I have always believed it was to see his daughter from his first marriage but he never talked about the reason for the visit so I can't be absolutely sure. However, to cut to the chase, he ended up being arrested by the Sheriff, apparently because of a mistake in the recording of his daughter maintenance records not having been updated. 

By then I was in Costa Mesa, where Sabbath were getting together. When the news arrived there was panic. Initially the belief was that he required $100,000 dollars if he was to be released from the care of the Modesto Sheriff. It later turned out that the figure was $75,000. In those days I could and would have happily paid this amount of money but I was neither asked nor did the opportunity to volunteer present itself.

Tony's management dealt with the matter and in no time at all, which was just in time, Tony arrived in Costa Mesa for the reunion of Black Sabbath. If you have ever wondered what Tony meant, when on the inside cover of Cross Purposes he thanked the Sherrif of Modesto for showing him that there is no place like home, well now you know.

Later Ozzy Osbourne sued Tony for $75,000 the amount he claimed he had put up to bail him out. The outcome of the case was never known, probably because it was nothing more or less than another Ozzy publicity stunt. In my opinion if was a pretty crass and classless thing to do. As always in situations like this, the Iron Man remained silent.

Although only my opinion, I infinitely preferred Ronny James Dio to Ozzy. I met Ronny several times and liked him very much. It was sad to hear of his death a few years later.

After 1996 I did not see or speak to Tony again. Apparently something happened between us and whilst I have a good idea of what it was, life goes on.

I remember so many things about Tony – his humour, his generosity, his time and respect for his fans and the fantastic workload he could undertake. One day he mentioned that he had put my name and that of my wife's in the credit part of his Dehumanizer album. Somewhat puzzled, I asked him why he had done this. He smiled, put an arm around my shoulder and said, because you're my friends. He did the same again in the Forbidden album with Tony Martin. An album I personally like very much. So if as you flick through the credits on Dehumanizer and Forbidden, you see the names John and Chris, you'll know we're there because he's our friend!

I always felt Tony took friendship very seriously and in my experience of him can say it's a friendship worth having.

He may be The Iron Man but he has a heart of gold.


By John DeVries