Iconic rock legend tells FBPO’s Jon Liebman the whole Black Sabbath story, plus memories of Ronnie James Dio, his passion for animals and lots more!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
June 6, 2011
Terence “Geezer” Butler, best known as the longtime bassist for the groundbreaking heavy metal group Black Sabbath, was born in 1949 in Birmingham, England. As a teen, Geezer formed his first band, Rare Breed, with schoolmate John “Ozzy” Osbourne. The two reunited in 1968 in the blues quartet Polka Tulk, which also featured guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward. After briefly renaming themselves Earth, the group adopted the name “Black Sabbath” in early 1969, at Geezer’s suggestion.
Black Sabbath was catapulted to the top of the heavy metal charts, particularly after the release of their breakthrough album, Paranoid, which sold four million copies in the US alone, largely on the strength of the hits “War Pigs” and “Iron Man.”
Geezer has gone in and out of Black Sabbath over the last two decades and formed his own band, G//Z/R, in 1995. As of this writing, it is rumored that the original Black Sabbath members may reunite once again.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
GB: I had absolutely no formal musical education. I suppose my earliest musical experience happened when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Skiffle was big in England at the time and the bass players would make basses out of a tea chest, a broomstick and string. I had a toolkit for Christmas, so I made a “guitar” from two pieces of wood, nails and rubber bands.
My first real guitar was an acoustic, bought from a kid at school when I was 11. It had two strings and cost ten shillings (about seventy-five cents). I used to play Beatles vocal melodies on it, no chords. Eventually, my brother saw how serious I was about learning to play and he bought me a new guitar, complete with six strings, for eight pounds (about twelve dollars), when I was 13. I learned to play chords, mainly Beatles songs, with the help of Bert Weedon’s Play In A Day book.
I formed a group with some schoolmates and we called ourselves The Ruums. I eventually bought an electric guitar, a Hofner Colorama, and an amp, a Selmer. We played a few birthday parties and a wedding. The guitarist, Roger “Dope” Hope, and I wanted to get serious about the band, so we replaced the drummer and bass player, recruited a vocalist and started playing heavier, blues-orientated stuff and changed the name to The Rare Breed. We played around Birmingham at proper gigs, but we were never asked back because of our outlandish (for then) stage act. We were so desperate for gigs we temporarily changed the name to The Future, but when we turned up at gigs, the promoter would recognize us and refuse to let us play. Finally, the singer left to be replaced by Ozzy. We did one or two gigs, then disbanded.
FBPO: How did you end up choosing the bass as your primary instrument?
GB: I chose to switch to bass from rhythm guitar when I got together with the band which would eventually become Black Sabbath. Rhythm guitarists were superfluous at that time in the genre we were playing. Cream and Hendrix had pioneered the guitar/bass/drums lineup and that was the style I wanted to play in.
FBPO: Who were your earliest musical influences?
GB: I came from a large family, three brothers and three sisters, so there was always some kind of music being played in our house. My mother and father played mostly traditional Irish music. My brothers were listening to Elvis and Buddy Holly, but when I heard the Beatles, I really related to them. After that I was into the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, John Mayall, Cream, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Zappa, etc. Jack Bruce was my biggest influence on bass.
FBPO: Where did the name “Black Sabbath” come from?
GB: My brother had seen the horror film Black Sabbath in the early ’60s and he mentioned it quite a lot. I always thought it would be a great name for a band. When the band I was in, Earth, need a name change, I suggested Black Sabbath and everyone liked it.
FBPO: You were quite young when Black Sabbath was launched. How did the band’s success compare to whatever you might have been expecting?
GB: I was 18 when we first got together, in June 1968. I used to dream about being successful. I sort of knew it was my destiny to be in a band, but none of us ever thought we’d have the success and longevity that we have enjoyed – and endured! At that time, if you were over 25, you were considered too old to rock ‘n roll, so we thought if we were still around after five years, we’d have accomplished our mission.
FBPO: At what point did you realize your career had really taken off?
GB: We felt that we had “arrived” when we played a club in England called The Nottingham Boat Club. It was the first time we traveled to the gig in a car, rather than sitting on top of our equipment in the back of our van. When we got there, we found a big lump of hash in our dressing room and we were paid 125 pounds for the show, the most money we had ever seen! Oh, and the crowd was fantastic, greeting us like heroes.
FBPO: It seems that once Paranoid came out, there was no turning back.
GB: We’d built up a huge, loyal following, mostly by word of mouth. The UK record company released “Paranoid” as a single, which was eventually played on Radio 1 in the UK and became a massive hit. The album went to number one on the UK charts and eventually went on to sell tens of millions worldwide. It is amazing that over forty years later, “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” are still being played everyday, somewhere in the world.
FBPO: Why do they call you Geezer?
GB: Geezer was my nickname at school because I used to call everyone else geezer when I was a kid. It means “guy” or “dude” in England, not an old man, as in the USA, although it is now befitting in both places. I picked it up from my brothers.
FBPO: On a more somber note, what can you tell our readers about Ronnie James Dio?
GB: Ronnie was the most honest bloke I’ve ever worked with. He’d tell you exactly what was on his mind, no holds barred, whether good or bad. It led to quite a bit of arguing, but you always knew where you stood. As a friend, there was none better. He’d go out of his way for you, and often did. He always made me feel welcome and we had some great times together.
Ronnie genuinely loved his fans and would stay for hours after each gig, talking to them. He’d often have a drink at the hotel bar or nearby pub with his fans. I miss him greatly. It was one of the saddest periods of my life watching him succumb to that horrible disease, but he put up a brave fight until the end. He passed with lots of the people he loved, and who loved him, by his bedside.
FBPO: There’s all kinds of talk, especially lately, about the prospect of a Black Sabbath reunion. What’s up?
GB: No idea.
FBPO: What else lies ahead for you and your career? What can we look forward to seeing and hearing from Geezer Butler?
GB: I have been writing songs for a possible G//Z/R album and slowly compiling memoirs – what I can recall of them. I’m hoping to have the book out in 2012, but it is very slow going. An album, maybe in 2012, is also a possibility.
FBPO: What do you like to do when you’re not immersed in music? I understand you’re a real animal lover.
GB: I do love animals. I’ve always had dogs and cats in my life. At the moment, I have four dogs and nine cats, all rescued from abuse or abandonment. I am also a book addict and a soccer fanatic and guitar/bass collector. I read a lot of crime fiction and historical novels and have a large signed first edition collection. I probably watch more English soccer than anyone else on the planet, especially in the USA, where almost every game is on live every weekend. It’s why I live in America!
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?