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Zero The HeroIn mid 1984 the British 'Kerrang!' magazine ran a major feature on the new Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and David Donato. Although the central interview of the issue, the tone of the article was sneering to say the least. The quotes taken from the new frontman seemed overly confident and the whole thrust of the article put David Donato's ego, at least to the reader, on a par with the size of his now infamous lion's head belt buckle. The next mention of this version of the band revelled in its collapse; the interim has over the years simply become a void. Naturally the story presented to the public and the reality was at odds. Strangely, many Sabbath biographies have dismissed this chapter as merely another aberration, as if Iommi and co. had somehow been duped into undertaking an obviously organised official photo shoot with someone they had met minutes before then dismissed as soon as the magazine hit the news stands. Other accounts have expounded even more nonsensical 'facts'. Steven Rosen's book 'Wheels Of Confusion' states "... just prior to Gillan's membership, vocalist Dave Donato filled in on some live dates." Absolute garbage of course, not only is it historically arse about tit, to coin a delightful English colloquialism, but it is factually wrong on the issue of live dates to boot. It is statements such as these that have sullied this vitally important sector of the band's history. With the exception of promoting his post Sabbath White Tiger project David Donato has not spoken about his term of office at the Black Sabbath microphone stand. What follows is the unravelling of events in the aftermath of the unsuccessful search for a singer at the Pasha Studios sessions. David Donato's first forays with potential fame came courtesy of Armageddon in the mid seventies. Armageddon was a band initially assembled as a classic Rock 'Supergroup' uniting the troubled Keith Relf of Yardbirds and Renaissance repute, Steamhammer guitarist Martin Pugh, Relf's Renaissance comrade in arms Louis Cennamo on bass and Bobby Caldwell from Captain Beyond on the drums. Although having released a now highly collectable, solitary album, this act then stalled by the departure of both Relf and bassist Louis Cennamo. The exiting duo founded Illusion but this band too came to an end in 1976 with untimely death of their singer. Despite the setbacks and Relf's tragedy there were plans to persevere and record further material as the inaugural Armageddon album had sold respectable quantities in North America. The remaining band members, Pugh and Caldwell, set about formulating a fresh band structure. Enter David Donato. A man with a formidable set of lungs and looks to match, Donato had fronted acts such as Virgin, Hero and subsequently Headshaker on the California club circuit working with drummer J.R. Saenz, bassist Mike Christie and guitarist Neil Citron. To make ends meet Donato used his image to sustain his true passion. "Yes" he admits "I was doing a lot of modelling at the time in order to feed my addiction for singing. There was no ego involved. It was actually my singing instructor who suggested it as an easy way to make money. Just stand there and get paid - good job! It was good money and allowed me to get on with what I really wanted to do. The band I was in was doing OK, we were playing regular and building up a good vibe but like everyone else I was always searching for the next thing. I auditioned for Armageddon over a period of a month and a half at the A&M studios" he explains. "I wouldn't say I was actually in the band but we certainly got to work together for quite a period. I was constantly on the lookout for a better gig and this situation just presented itself. Keith Relf had just passed away so it was a heavy scene but the music was great, very inspiring. I remember the guys in the band told me how Keith had really bad asthma so he sometimes really struggled to get through a set. Musically Armageddon was definitely my thing, certainly not radio music in any sense, heavy, complex stuff that suited my voice well. More Progressive Rock and I fell right into that. It just didn't work out I guess." With the Armageddon liaison not coming to fruition Donato got back on the circuit in a band with Saenz once more and former Hero colleague Neil Citron on guitar. By 1984 the trio had been joined by a figure of international renown, Glenn Hughes. "It wasn't a band as such, all four of us were between things and we really enjoyed just playing good music with each other" reckons David. This project got into the studio to put down some demos with producer Andy Johns, before Mark Norton replaced Citron. "Glenn is of course phenomenal, he's like a white Stevie Wonder. We did a lot of acoustic, soulful stuff together. Together we complimented each other very well vocally. Some great stuff but it was all just for fun really, there was no determined direction or plan. Looking back, maybe if we had got organised it could have been a great band. A great collection of talent. J.R. was a fantastic drummer, really, really good and Mark was a speed demon on guitar. But, like I said, we were just having a blast jamming with each other." Donato's longstanding alliance with Norton though would be rudely interrupted when the guitarist was plucked from club land and put into the spotlight with the self styled greatest Rock n' Roll band in the world - Kiss. "Mark copped a gig, the Kiss gig. He was afraid to tell us" recalls David. "We knew he was going for the gig, and were outrageously hoping for the guy but when he got it he couldn't tell us. He actually cried, that's how much it got to him. I really felt for him because he was really eaten up by the whole thing. Actually though, it made me even more determined to push myself forward." David's drummer J.R. was close friends with fellow sticksman Randy Castillo, the late musician having his own Sabbs connection as he was later to find fame as a member of the Ozzy Osbourne band. It was this acquaintance that provided the key for the singer. "J.R. and Randy were best buddies. They were very close and had even both made the journey from New Mexico to Los Angeles together in a van with the sole purpose of becoming Rock stars. It was Randy, who was playing in Lita Ford's band at that time, told me about the opening with Black Sabbath." The timing was good as the singer was beginning to believe a break would never come his way. His resolve was reinforced by Rainbow frontman Joe Lynn Turner though. "I was so fed up with not being able to find a gig. We were at a party with Randy Castillo. Well Joe's Italian and I'm Italian so we got talking. He gave me some great advice 'Don't you ever fucking give up' he said 'The minute you give up you'll miss the best gig of your life'. Joe was right of course." As luck would have it Donato would chance a meeting with Lita Ford at a party. "As you know, Lita was dating Tony so I asked her straight, 'how do I get a tape to Tony?' She gave me the management address and instructed me to write very clearly 'c/o Tony' on the package. She said that way it would be guaranteed to reach Tony unopened. Her advice was good and I got a call back from Pat Sciciliano, Don Arden's assistant, asking me for an audition". Unbeknown to David his acquaintance Glenn Hughes had also smoothed his path by putting the word in on his behalf as the former Deep Purple star divulges. "I used to party with Dave, he's a nice guy and a good singer. I thought he would be worth a shot for Sabbath, he had all the right characteristics, so I told Tony Iommi to check him out." Practicalities became the order of the day for David once he had learned there was an opening in the band. "I was asked to learn a set list of ten songs but I knew 99% of it already because I was a major fan" he freely discloses. There was only one off the 'Born Again' album, 'Disturbing The Priest'. I auditioned with Tony, Geezer and Bill and that was that. I was in. Sciciliano told me, exact words 'They love you'. I then went for sushi with Tony and Geoff Nicholls so I figured that was a good sign. David Donato brought many attributes to the table. Not only could he sing with the power and style required but he unquestionably looked the part too. "Vocally my timing was good. Personally I was into that Dio and Gillan type of style so that was a big plus for them. In my club days I was a Robert Plant clone - happy to admit it. I was also big on Ronnie James Dio, even back to the old Elf days. Lots of power and melody I like to think. I had done my modelling so for that I obviously I had to look good. I was 6 foot 2 inches and kept myself in good shape. I certainly have a presence. It's like Halloween every time I get on stage. From that point on we just rehearsed at the Rockhouse. I remember the Olympics were happening at the time and Bill and I would travel into rehearsals together, driving past the Coliseum, because we lived very close to each other, Bill on Seal Beach and me on Huntington Beach. This went on for a good many months. Just solid rehearsing." For Donato this would be an opportunity to witness some of his favourite musicians at close quarters. "Tony is a stylist completely on guitar. When you hear a riff of his you know exactly who it is and there are very, very few guitarists you could claim that of. It's interesting the Heavy Metal label the band has because Billy always said they were a Blues band. They knew all of that old stuff, had a great knowledge of it." This observation about Sabbath's Blues heritage is poignant. Often overlooked it is vital to the understanding of Black Sabbath's immensely successful formula. They didn't title their fledgling act The Polka Tulk Blues Band for nothing. Geezer Butler backed this up, taking a momentary dip back into time when asked a question on the musical values of his 1997 solo record 'Black Science'. "I like to experiment, we all do. When I think of the hours and hours we have spent just jamming along in the studio. That's how we relax, have a good old blast with your mates and forget about everything else. If we could get paid just for that I would be very happy. Sometimes you forget why you're there. Oh, we have to make an album? Rehearse for a tour? Most of our stuff goes back to 12 bar Blues really. Our younger fans find that surprising sometimes. When we were kids we started out playing along to those old records in just the same way people like Jimmy Page did. Back in those days that's how you leant to play. We taught ourselves. All our early gigs were Blues songs and that is what we were - a Blues band. We would be happy to just jam instrumentally for ages. I suppose the transition to Heavy Metal was through Tony and I developing these very simple three chord Blues riffs into something of our own. It was like, OK, where can we go with this? Alvin Lee of Ten Years After had a big effect on us too. Alvin was doing the same thing, taking the Blues but turning it around into something different. It's the same for Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Deep Purple too, all those bands of that period, just expressed the Blues differently. Its all a tradition of the Blues so give us half the chance and we'll spend all day playing Willie Dixon. People seem surprised by that but I tell them, Heavy Metal would not exist without the Blues. Black Sabbath would not exist without the Blues." Tony Iommi, talking to the author backstage at the Leicester De Montfort Hall in 1986, would acknowledge the Blues as central to the very essence of Black Sabbath. "When we started both Geezer and I were playing guitar and we learned everything we knew from the Blues. Anyone who was serious about an instrument was either learning Blues or Jazz. The Blues is a great place to start, to build on and find your own style." Did Tony find a grounding in the Blues the reason for a dearth in quality of latter day Rock acts? He was diplomatic. "I would recommend it to anyone. Don't pick up a guitar and try to play my riffs. Get hold of some old Howlin' Wolf or Willie Dixon records first. That's the way to start. Ask Jimmy Page, Brian May, Rory Gallagher or Gary Moore or any of those guys. The thing is there are so many bands around today I can't keep up. There were not that many bands around and it was very creative because everyone was trying to find something different. Everything was based on the Blues though - everything. It really was inspiring, listening to what Jethro Tull, Taste, Cream, Traffic or Ten Years After were doing. There wasn't the huge numbers of bands around then either so if somebody made a really good record everybody picked up on it really quickly. You were very conscious about trying not to sound like anybody else too. That was OK if you wanted to be a Pop star but if you thought you were serious you had to do your own thing. That doesn't seem to happen so much anymore. I don't actually listen to much Heavy Metal at all, which might sound a bit strange. Americans in particular find it amazing I don't spend all my time listening to Black Sabbath albums. Instinctively if you put most bands of a certain age into a rehearsal situation the first thing they will play will be the Blues. When I'm at home I'll still listen to my old Blues records, Hank Marvin or Frank Sinatra." Really? Frank Sinatra? "Yeah" he replied with a straight face. I thought that was a joke? "Oh no, I love Frank. He's the best." Tony Iommi's affection for big Frank, often hinted at by way of jocular remarks from other band members in interviews, is very real. Black Sabbath drummer Bev Bevan once revealed to the author that Iommi's home listening consists almost exclusively of Sinatra and The Shadows and that Heavy Metal is conspicuous by its absence. Once some Sabbath fans received a rude reality check by pulling up at a red light on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and discovering the car parallel to them contained Messrs. Iommi and Nicholls. The four Metal types, obligatory joint in hand and blasting out 'Paranoid' no less, sat open mouthed and incredulous next to the Sabbath duo, relaxing in their open top Corvette Stingray matching the volume with Sinatra's 'My Way'. "As soon as they recognised us they just could not believe the music Tony was playing" laughs Nicholls. "We told them that 'My Way' was a song off the new Sabbath album. They were so stoned I think they believed us!" David Donato of course would be privileged to catch these moments of musical inspiration and relaxation first hand. "I have some great memories of walking into rehearsal, watching them do an orchestral warmup. They loved the old Blues stuff and those guys just had such a mastery of their instruments. The three of them were great; they just blew me away every day. Sometimes I would just sit and watch them play the Blues. They would just be away in another world. Wonderful times. It gave me every reason to be the best I could be." The now infamous photo session that appeared in the Rock magazines was taken a couple of months into David's employ. "Those pictures were taken before we did the demo. I remember going back and forth to Tony and Geezer's places writing up new songs at the time." Rehearsals would then lead onto the next logical platform of demoing up new material. "We did what was, in my opinion, a way premature recording with Bob Ezrin" affirms David. Bob Ezrin ranked as one of the true elite in Rock production. Known for his attention to detail and enthusiasm for large scale projects the man had a track record of the highest repute, having worked on classic albums by artists such as Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and Kiss. Ezrin can lay claim for the sonic values of Kiss' 'Destroyer', Alice Cooper's 'Billion Dollar Babies' and 'Love It To Death' and was known in the business as a bona fide hit maker. "He came in and I remember nobody in the band really seemed to know why. Maybe it was a management or label thing. I don't think the band was ready with new songs. Anyway, we cut some tracks, one called 'No Way Out' which lyrically was about Sabbath really. Like, there's no way I can quit this legend. I felt honoured to be there, with those guys and I wanted to express that in a song. The opening lyrics went "Let the story be told, history unfolds, And visions of the mind, fade to black." I was very conscious that this was Tony, Geezer and Bill I was working with - the original Sabbath. That was really exciting for me. Later I heard that same riff on a later Sabbath album, in a different song. Some of the vocal melody line was still there too! Its no big deal, everybody does it. Copies, borrows, remembers - whatever." Indeed he did. 'No Way Out' underwent a number of transitions over a period of years. The band obviously knew they were on to a good thing with this song, it mutating from 'No Way Out' to 'Black Fire', then 'Power Of The Night' and 'Rise Up' until it finally ended up as 'The Shining' on the 1987 'Eternal Idol' album. It is quite possible a number of singers had a stab at the track on its protracted journey to acetate. "Another song we did was called 'Don't Beg The Master', that was something Tony and Geezer wrote and I came up with the title. Very Sabbathy. Another title being kicked around was 'Dancing With The Devil'." The fourth track would be a laid back number entitled 'Sail On'. The upbeat 'Dancing With The Devil' became a close contender for future reworks but, ironically, Tony Iommi's skill at precision riffing proved its undoing. Paradoxically the main riff was so strong that no matter what the band did with the track it always failed to gel into a full blown song. Geoff Nicholls remembered that, from Tony Iommi's point of view, it would be these tapes that planted the seeds of doubt. Black Sabbath brought Bob Ezrin into the situation, both to gauge his methodology as a potential producer as well as to get a feel for Donato's vocals on tape. Only 'No Way Out' progressed in any form beyond this point. The keyboard player has this to say on the Ezrin sessions, interestingly choosing very similar words to the singer. "David Donato was a great guy, we all got on with him but it was too premature I think. When the band rehearsed they were just having a good time and, of course, Black Sabbath rehearsing is bloody loud so we couldn't really get a feeling for Dave's voice. With that kind of studio rehearsal vocals have no chance in competing with guitar, bass and drums. He had a good voice, don't get me wrong, but I think the Ezrin tapes showed Tony that it might not have been quite what he was looking for. David had a great bottom end, very rich and full voice. I think the top end was the problem. Tony wanted an extra bit of zaz in there. That's not to say David might not have been able to give Tony what he wanted. He certainly had the power. Remember that any singer who spent any degree of time with us in the studio had already beaten off hundreds of other singers to get there. David Donato was good. As usual, there was a lot of behind the scenes stuff going on as usual." It is worth underscoring the singer's concerns over the state of readiness of the band as they recorded these demo tracks. "Everything was way premature" he maintains once more. "It was odd for me because this was Black Sabbath, the whole thing was pretty overwhelming for me. These guys, like Purple or Zeppelin, were my heroes and I was working with them. The whole thing though was pretty undirected and when Bob Ezrin came in Tony and Geezer just said this is some material just to get started, just to get something down. It was all pretty loose and I think I would have preferred if they would have had a bunch of songs written for me to just sing on. Mark was enduring the opposite with Kiss. That was very regimented, they told him change your name (he became 'Mark St. John'), dye your hair, lose some weight, play like this. In a way I think I would have preferred that but it was very relaxed. I was given a writer's contract. I would rather they said 'Here's a song, sing it'. But it didn't work that way. We were building stuff up from scratch totally. There was nothing there, no songs at all. We would just jam and see what developed." And then came that article. 'Kerrang' had landed an exclusive but had, according to David, been exceptionally selective in their use of editing. "I spoke a lot about how honoured and privileged I felt to be in the band and they never printed a word of it. Y'know I never saw that feature at the time but just recently I saw some stuff on the Internet about me which was just horse-shit, just a misinformed guy talking shit about me! All that 'Donut' stuff ... I don't even like cake!" he laughs. "All we ever eat in rehearsals was Kentucky Fried Chicken. Tony and Geoff loved it, we ate it on a daily basis. After each rehearsal we would look at each other and one of us would say 'Shall we get some more of that chicken?' It became a ritual." Of course the strictly vegan Geezer would never have participated in such arcane practices. Geoff Nicholls believes it was the magazine that had pushed the band into an interview sooner than they would have liked. "That magazine, 'Kerrang', jumped the gun. They wanted a Black Sabbath story and they got one. It was way too early and of course it didn't do anybody any favours." This, of course, does not discount the fact that the management could have simply denied the request and begs the question - why the photo session? Besides the huge furor generated by the 'Kerrang' article the Sabbath camp shied away from the press. "It was all pretty tight lipped" David reckons. "No announcements were made and the only stuff I saw was accidental. I remember playing a board game with my girlfriend at the time. We had the TV on and my picture flashed across MTV but that was about it. There was also a strange thing on 'Nightflight', a report saying that Phil Mogg of UFO was in line to sing for Black Sabbath. As I was working with the guys in the studio every day I kinda just said 'oh yeah?' ' All told David calculates he was with the band some six months. He believes the alliance fell apart not from any lack of faith in his abilities but a split amongst the core members. "We kept up with these rehearsals at the Rockhouse for quite some time. Then I was called by Pat Sciciliano to come in to pick up a cheque. I was on just rehearsal pay at that stage but it was odd, to be asked to collect my cheque. So, I asked him what was going on to which he replied 'We're not gonna work for a while'. Of course I said 'Does this mean I'm fired?' Pat said 'No, they think you're great. You are not the problem. The guys are just not working.' The story I was then told was that Geezer and Tony had got involved in a managerial dispute, which, at the time I was unsure of. In fact I thought it was bullshit, but later events kind of confirmed for me that Pat was giving me the real story." When David actually received that telephone call he was at his friend J.R.'s house. Randy Castillo was also there. "It was very funny" laughs David. "This is a wonderful memory I have of Randy because he asked me what had happened when I got off the phone so I told him 'They asked me to come in and get my cheque'. Randy looked me straight in the face, real close up and said 'Welcome to the world of getting fucked Dave!' Then he gave me a big hug and a handshake and we all had a good laugh." Although David's accounts of that half year with the band once and for all determine what was really happening during this critical period what was to follow provides ample evidence that it was not his vocal talents that were found wanting and that Pat Sciciliano's reasoning was truthful. Not one to rest on his laurels the singer hired rehearsal space opposite the 'Guitar Center' in Los Angeles and convened a new band unit with guitarist Lanny Cordola (''He was just a kid back then, recommended by Mark who was his guitar teacher'') and Barry Brandt of Angel fame. "I wanted to call the band The Void because we were going to ... fill the void. The other guys found it too negative though!" Donato's days under the Sabbath umbrella were not yet at an end though. Four months went by until one day Gloria Butler, Geezer's wife and manager, got back in touch. "Gloria called me on my birthday. Both Mark and Randy Castillo were at my place at the time." The vocalist relates. "She said 'Terry wants you to come back and do some work with him. Can you come?' So, I spent two or three weeks working up new material with Geezer, very heavy stuff. They took it to Warner Bros. and apparently they said 'This sounds like the last Black Sabbath stuff'. Of course it was, because it was me singing again and Geezer wrote a lot of that stuff too. We spent quite a bit of time in Geezer's basement studio in St. Louis. Me, Geezer, his nephew Pedro Howse on guitar and a local drummer who was given a hundred bucks! It was very, very good heavy stuff. This was going to be The Geezer Butler Band. When I got there some tracks had lyrics; some didn't so we got them all finished. There was a song called 'Mr. D-He' which was what Geezer's little son called the Devil, a very powerful 'Neon Knights' type of song. We also did 'Looking Back' which Geezer wrote, 'Street Wars' and 'Inner World'. I loved Tony's playing but being with Geezer was a lot of fun I have to say. For some reason I think the record company wanted these songs rerecording again so we went to Malibu Middle C Studios and redid some vocals. I didn't question anything, just did the job. Geezer said he loved the songs, they were great. We were just there to fix 'em. Getting invited back by Geezer made me feel very good." This variant of The Geezer Butler Band, one of many aborted attempts at getting a solo venture for the bassist off the ground, never got past these demos for a proposed album. Pedro Howse, who had been treading the boards in Midlands club band Crazy Angel previously, would bond so tightly with Butler to the extent that he would be used on all of these tryouts right up to and including the G//Z/R albums in the mid nineties. Backtracking once more to the Donato fronted venture the whole project had the typically English working title of 'Bob's Your Uncle'. (So typically English in fact that it was only in 2002 that David Donato got to know the meaning of the phrase!). "We just lost contact," says David. "They were in St. Louis, then England and it kind of drifted. We kept in touch for a good while." Wishing to strike while the iron was hot David lost no time in making the most of his Sabbath credentials and Mark Norton's status as a Kiss member by formulating White Tiger. Directly due to the central characters recent associations with major status acts the resulting album was given high priority in magazine review columns. "We both had a reputation at that point so White Tiger made sense. We certainly both had the ability too. Unfortunately for us the production of the final album was just terrible, it was barely listenable. Everybody said the songs were there, the musicianship was there but ... so it was disappointing. We got Michael Wagener to remix just the one song, which sounded amazing. Trouble was there was no money for him to do the rest. Years later we heard he would have done it for free! So, White Tiger didn't happen. I think we got big in Sweden though!" White Tiger wrote a second album but would grind to a halt. Fans were simply of the misapprehension the band had simply vanished although behind the scenes work was in progress. "Mark and I wrote another album. It was good stuff. Mark is a speedball on the guitar, the guy can do anything on the neck, he's like an Allan Holdsworth kind of player but I was maybe looking for something a bit more like a classic four piece, Sabbath kind of thing. Mark was amazingly fast but sometimes a slow hand approach is good too y'know? Anyway, we had this album, 'On The Prowl', ready to record. We heard a rumour of an offer to our managers, which was apparently refused. We were never made privy to it. That's how White Tiger ended." And then, David Donato, drops off the face of the earth ... Only of course he didn't. There was a chance to audition for Michael Schenker but a former singer delivered some timely and sage advice. "Gary Barden, who is a great singer and a lovely guy, looked me straight in the eye and said 'Don't do it'." His next port of call would be high profile yet strangely muted. Hooking up with fabled Kiss drummer Peter Criss and his constant ally guitarist Mark St. John, ex-707 guitarist Kevin Russell and bassist Joey Mudarri, the singer fronted a 1989 outfit billed Keep. However, for this venture Donato went under the assumed name of Michael McDonald in an attempt to deflect the awkward Sabbath connections. Changes in the line-up then saw the introduction of St. John and new bassist Jim Barnes, the latter subsequently superseded by St. John's brother Michael Norton in January of 1990. This incarnation of Keep recorded demos at Sound City Recording Studios. Keep would put in just one live performance, at the Guitar Center music store in Lawndale, California on 2nd May 1990. It seems Black Sabbath kept him on their Christmas card list and one year, out of the blue, an anonymous package of backstage passes for the local Ozzfest event arrived in the mail. The Donato myth has been fuelled by his lack of musical appearances since the eighties but the singer has led a more than content lifestyle since those days, simply swapping one passion for another. "Musically, nothing much. I build custom motorcycles from the ground up, Harleys mainly, some other funny stuff too. It's very rewarding. I also busy myself with art, along with bikes and music I have always involved myself in art. All my life I have hung around with Rockers, bikers and artists. I still look the part, I can still sing with the same power and sometimes I will sit in with some local groups just for fun."