-The History: In many people's view (mine included), Black Sabbath are the originators of metal. They were the first to bring all the elements that are now known as heavy metal (ie. downtuned guitars, heavily distorted amplifiers, lyrics about dark topics, etc.) together into one cohesive band. The importance of Black Sabbath in regards to heavy metal literally cannot be overstated. They wrote the template and have been putting out crushing records since 1969. Even today, while many Sabbath records sound aged technologically speaking, they are still crushingly heavy. The song "Black Sabbath" is, to me, more menacing and evil than anything that shock rockers like Marilyn Manson or the black metal bands from Scandinavia have ever laid down on track. While Black Sabbath has released 19 (including the one as Heaven & Hell, because, let's be honest- it's Black Sabbath) studio albums featuring six different lead singers, their best material clearly centers around two of them: Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. Because of the less than pleasant exit that Osbourne had from the band in 1979, as well as the striking difference in styles between the two singers, debate has raged in the metal world for the last 30 plus years as to who really is the best Black Sabbath frontman.
- Ozzy Osbourne: Ozzy was the lead singer in Black Sabbath for eight albums. While the last two (Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die) are widely panned, the first six are considered metal classics. The highlights of Ozzy's years in Sabbath include the songs "Black Sabbath," "War Pigs," "Children of the Grave," "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," and "Hole in the Sky." At least three of the albums he sings on as the original Black Sabbath vocalist are considered essential metal listening (Paranoid, Master of Reality, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), and three more that easily could be as well.
- Ronnie James Dio: Following Ozzy's exit in 1979, Black Sabbath recruited Ronnie James Dio to replace him. Whereas Osbourne became famous due to his time in Black Sabbath, Dio was already well known from him time in Richie Blackmore's (Deep Purple guitarist) band, Rainbow. Dio released two albums in his initial run with Sabbath, as well as a third in the early 90s, and finally, one more in 2009 (under the Heaven & Hell moniker). Unlike Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio wrote a majority of his own lyrics. Dio's highlights in Black Sabbath include "Children of the Sea," "Heaven and Hell," "The Sign of the Southern Cross,""Falling of the Edge of the World," and "I." The first two albums Dio recorded with Black Sabbath ( Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules) are widely considered classics.
The important part about this debate, to me, is that the argument is about best FRONTMAN, not best singer. If the debate centered around the best singer, there is no argument that Ronnie James Dio would be the winner. His voice was far superior to Ozzy's even before the effects of time (and on Ozzy's part, heavy drug abuse) came into play. While Dio was a great frontman in his own right, Ozzy just fits Black Sabbath better in my opinion. His lack of a quality voice actually benefits many of the songs, considering their less than happy topics (war, death, evil, etc.). It really adds an element of grit that otherwise would not be there, and the vocals complement the distorted tones of Iommi's guitar and Butler's bass (especially on the early records when they were cooking amps). Dio's voice, while excellent, sometimes leads Sabbath into a zone that borders on cheesy. Off the stage, Ozzy Osbourne's legendary consumption of a variety of substances, combined with his unpredictable behavior while on them, certainly helps to cement his image as a true "metal" frontman. While this is not a desirable trait (drugs are bad, kids), and it did lead to his exit from the band, it helped push Sabbath as a band on the edge, which is what heavy metal should always strive to be.
Ultimately, Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio sounds like a different band than it did with Ozzy Osbourne, and we as listeners should be happy for the sheer volume of classic music that either vocalist made with the band. Black Sabbath is a truly legendary band, and any listener of heavy music should be thankful that either vocalist was there to lay down the amazing songs that they did.