Express & Star

As Ozzy Osbourne turns 75 - first Black Sabbath manager opens up about rock legend's early years

“Stop breathing down my neck, Ozzy, you’re too close!” quips Black Sabbath’s first manager Jim Simpson, cosying up to the singer.

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Jim Simpson with the metallic likeness of Ozzy Osbourne on the Black Sabbath Bench in Broad Street, Westside, Birmingham

Or at least he’s cosying up to Ozzy’s heavy metal etching on Broad Street’s now world-famous Black Sabbath Bench, now sitting proudly on the renamed Black Sabbath Bridge on Broad Street, Birmingham.

With the Prince of Darkness about to turn 75 on Sunday, Jim was happy to sit on the bench to reminisce about their early days together 55 years ago.

Today, Ozzy is a global legend – with John Michael Osbourne’s old Prince Albert Primary School nickname now making him easily the world’s most famous Brummie.

Under Jim’s management, Black Sabbath released their seminal debut eponymous album on 13 February 1970 and followed it up with the equally adored Paranoid six months later on 18 September 1970.

Jim lost control of the band when the single was No 2 and the album was No 1, but he still considers that he managed Ozzy’s two finest moments.

Best vocal performance? “I like the way he roars into Paranoid at 200mph,” says Jim. “And I think the greatest track that they recorded was the opening song Black Sabbath off the Black Sabbath album. That terrific introduction with that rainstorm, the thunder and the lightning and the band coming in. Really great. That’s my favourite track, but Paranoid for me runs a close second.”

Ozzy’s Black Sabbath band career might have culminated with The End of their world tour shows at the NEC’s then Genting Arena on 2 and 4 February in 2017.

But across the road from the Bench is the O Bar on the corner of Gas Street, which hosts Jim’s latest version of Henry’s Blueshouse. This is the Tuesday night event that first put Ozzy on stage in 1968 at The Crown pub on Station Street, turning blues band Earth into heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath.

For Jim, sitting with Ozzy on the Bench, then returning to Lodge Road as well as the grass bank in Edgbaston where he took the band’s first photograph, is his way of celebrating Ozzy’s milestone birthday.

What does Jim think Ozzy would like for his 75th birthday?

“Everything Ozzy wants, I’m sure he’s got,” says Jim. “So I hope he’s in touch with his first family, Louis and co, who live in Harborne. Otherwise I’d like to take Louis over there to the US and say ‘Hey, Ozzy, enjoy some fun with your son on your 75th’.

“Ozzy is a very loyal man. The last time I saw him, I was having tea with him and his two aunties and that was an experience in itself.”

Was Ozzy an old romantic or was he scared of women before he met Sharon?

Black Sabbath taking a break in an early image on a bank in Edgbaston

“I met his first wife [Thelma Riley],” says Jim. “Ozzy wasn’t a womanizer, but had a tremendous thirst for knowledge, asking questions all the time about the origins of music. He liked learning and he’s a very good learner.

“The last time I saw him, he gave me a hug and said: ‘We would never be here without you, Jim’. In his book, Ozzy says I was the most honest man he’d met in the music business.

“I miss the old Ozz … I’d like to see him tonight over a calm glass of wine. I’m sure all of the old times would come back.”

When the band used to visit Jim’s home in their formative days, he says Ozzy used to listen to his record collection of blues greats and worshipped Jimmy Rushing from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Jimmy was one of Ozzy’s big influences in the early days when he was getting used to singing the blues stuff. Ozzy concentrated everything on getting that voice from the pit of his stomach somewhere, an exercise on its own.

“He listened a lot, but I’m sure he didn’t practice by standing in the corner of the room singing long notes into the corners to build up his lung capacity. He just got up there and did what nature gave him to do.”

Standing outside of Ozzy’s former two-bedroom home where he had three older sisters and two younger brothers, Jim can’t believe the number of cars parked on the now one-way street compared with 1968 – including one sideways across the pavement!

Looking at the now white-fronted terrace, Jim says: “This is where we first signed Ozzy’s contract – his mother [Lilian, 1916-2001] and toolmaker father [John Thomas ‘Jack’ Osbourne, 1915-77] had to sign it because he was under 18.

“Much good it did in the end, because they all walked out on their contracts after a couple of years [which produced the Black Sabbath and Paranoid albums] but at least we had something to go to court with.

“Being here brings back a lot of memories, but it somehow doesn’t quite feel the same as it did back in 1968. It was a two-way street back then and was always well kept. People think Aston was ‘rough’, but it wasn’t. It was a perfectly nice place to live and Ozzy’s parents worked hard. The house wasn’t opulent, but it was a very nice and comfortable place to be, though there wasn’t any central heating – nobody had that in those days,” Jim recalls.

Jim Simpson pictured outside of Ozzy’s former home at 14 Lodge Road

“It was carpeted and neat in the way that people used to keep their houses. Their home was a normal household, normal family nothing like the wild man of Ozzy we’ve heard about in subsequent years.

“His dad was very interested in how we were going to make Ozzy famous! They were very civilised, if rather bewildered by it all. And confused as to why their John was going to be a rock and roll star as we all believed. But they got used to it, I think.

“I don’t think Ozzy’s bedroom would have posters but I was never invited to see it. I don’t think I ever even used their toilet. We just sat in the sitting room and drank tea with his mother.”

Jim was RAF bound and aged just 18 when he had an aisle seat to watch Louis Armstrong sing next to him at the then Embassy Sportsdrome in Walford Road, Sparkhill on May 17, 1956. Jim had already been fully immersed in music legends for more than a decade when he signed Ozzy – and knew he had something about him.

Black Sabbath’s first manager Jim Simpson sits next to Ozzy, left, and Tony Iommi, on the Black Sabbath bench on Broad Street

“Louis Armstrong was such a big part of my early life, I didn’t know he wasn’t my uncle until I was 12,” laughs Jim. “Ozzy was a simple, straightforward guy and by simple, I don’t mean stupid. I mean uncomplicated. He was fun to be with and always questioned me about the old blues guys. Ozzy was never very confident in what he could do. All the other guys could play an instrument and pick it up and make a noise. He wasn’t a trained singer, he just decided to be a singer and he was never quite convinced he could get away with it.

“So he used to come round to my house and listen to these old blues records with singers like Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Witherspoon and he got interested in their backgrounds. Ozzy was always thirsting for information, he was a very open and trusting kid.

“The band were there and he just learned to ‘shout’ above them. Like Jimmy Rushing, he had this voice that started somewhere in his stomach and it came out, in the nicest possible way, as a bellow. It was a big voice, which a lot of the great blues singers also had. Again, they were untrained but just decided to be singers. It was what Ozzy did but he was very much lacking in confidence and needed to be bolstered all the time and told he could do it.””

What was Jim’s reaction when Ozzy became a ‘wild’ man?

“I think he was always a bit over-enthusiastic, shall we say, easily lured down the wrong path,” reveals Jim. “It probably wasn’t a surprise at a certain level of his wildness, but then when it came to wildness he was up there with the world champions, wasn’t he?”

By Christine Dyer