Uriah Heep and Ozzy Osbourne Drummer Lee Kerslake Dead at 73
Semi-retired for health reasons since 2007, Kerslake was best known for appearing on Osbourne’s first two solo albums, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, and for the legal dispute that arose over his contribution to the early ‘80s titles.
"It's with the heaviest of hearts that I share with you that Lee Kerslake, my friend of 55 years and the best drummer I ever played with, lost his battle with cancer at 03:30 this morning," Kerslake's longtime Uriah Heep bandmate Ken Hensley wrote, according to Classic Rock. "He died peacefully, praise the Lord, but he will be terribly missed."
English-born Kerslake’s first notable appointment came with a band called the Gods, with whom he recorded the albums Genesis and To Samuel a Son in 1968 and 1969, and in 1970 he appeared on Orgasm with Head Machine and Toe Fat’s self-titled LP. All these projects featured Hensley, who became part of Heep’s founding lineup. In 1971 Kerslake played on Albert One with National Head Band.
“The English scene was always at a boil,” he recalled in 2002. “We were always waiting to get connected in English music, because there was so much cross-talent. Where I was born and bred, there were major musicians Bob Fripp, Greg Lake, John Wetton – and I consider myself somewhere in among that league. There were some fabulous musicians, but the only way we could make it was to go up to London, because it's the heart of the music industry.”
Later in 1971 he reunited with Hensley in Heep in time to become a member of their classic-era lineup. The drummer’s first studio appearance came on their fourth album, 1972’s Demons and Wizards. “When I was offered it the first time, I turned it down,” he admitted. “And it wasn't [Hensley] that was the deciding factor. It was when I met [band leader] Mick Box. Mick and me got together down at Jubilee Studios. … I set my kit up, he set his guitar up and we just started playing a bit and jamming. About three and a half hours later, when we put our instruments down, we looked at each other and went, ‘Fancy a beer?’”
He added of breakthrough LP Demons and Wizards, “Mick and others said the missing link was, they didn't have the drummer – they didn't have the harmony choral parts quite there … I was the missing part of the key, so to speak. From then on, I wrote music as well. I wrote three songs with Mick on that album, and with David Byron. It seemed to gel when I joined. We all worked with each other.” He played on eight further LPs before being replaced by future AC/DC drummer Chris Slade for 1980’s Conquest.
That same year Kerslake met Osbourne, who’d recently been fired by Black Sabbath, and helped found the band Blizzard of Ozz alongside bassist Bob Daisley and guitarist Randy Rhoads. He recalled receiving a call from an agent in Germany: “He phoned me up and said, ‘I didn't know you're not in Uriah Heep. Do you want to join the band Ozzy Osbourne's trying to put together?’ I said, ‘I don't know. We'll audition each other.’ I auditioned them, and they auditioned me. It was the first time I ever heard Randy Rhoads play. I knew Bob Daisley – I knew how good Bob was. When I heard Randy, I just went, ‘Wow!’ And when he heard me, he jumped about three feet in the air. I hit the drums and they went off like a couple of cannons and hit him in the back! He just jumped for joy. It was great. As much as they were impressed with me, I was certainly impressed with Randy and Bob.”
Ozzy Osbourne - 'Crazy Train'
He remembered the musical experience as incredibly positive, saying, “The recording was fun, because we were left to our own devices – me, Bob, Randy and Ozzy. …We all used our own experiences. I would come up with ideas from Randy's guitar part. Randy would come up with ideas for a riff, and give me a drum pattern to it. It was great. Wonderful. And the tour was excellent, because it was so tight. Professional. It was really good.
“As soon as we finished that English tour, things started to take flight with Blizzard of Ozz and we were asked to do another [album] together. That's when I had the opportunity to come in with a lot more ideas. That's when I co-wrote six of the songs. I had ideas from other things I'd been writing. Plus what Randy had, and what Bob had. We put them all together. On a couple of the tracks I think we churned out two of them in about eight or nine minutes. That was the magic.”
Things began to go wrong during the Madman cycle, Kerslake said. “[T]he only annoyance we had was we were trying to get them to give us the money they promised up front. We were going in, doing the album, and saying, ‘Wait a minute. You've got a record deal. We want some money up front. We need to have some money to live off of, and get ourselves together.’ … They said ‘OK, guys, you've got your deal. Now go back and finish the album.’ So we thought, ‘That's great.’ We went away for a break, and next we found out [Daisley and I] were out.
“Everything [had been] working fine. It was only when Sharon [Osbourne] came in that we had a problem… she wasn't the manager until Diary of a Madman. … [S]he came in and it started to get edgy. But we never suspected a thing until we went away on holiday. Next minute, they're rehearsing with Tommy Aldridge and Rudy Sarzo, and going to America. Ouch.”
After his 1981 dismissal – with the official line having been that his sick mother needed his care – Kerslake received a call from Mick Box, who wanted to reinvent Heep, so he rejoined and brought Daisley with him. “Our minds were taken off [Diary of a Madman]. We were too busy getting Uriah Heep off the ground,” the drummer said.
However, foundations for the future legal dispute had been laid when Kerslake and Daisley were denied Madman songwriting credits they believed they were entitled to, and neither were named in the recording credits. Aldridge, of Whitesnake fame, spoke in 2005 of his involvement in being named and pictured as the drummer on the LP: “I think it's pretty obvious that it's not my drumming on that album. I have never taken credit for that recording and have always given Lee Kerslake, whenever asked or interviewed, the credit he rightly deserves. … As for the photo, it was as big to me as well. I first saw it when everyone else did... when the record was released. It was not my choice/decision for that image to imply that I was on the album.”
Part of Kerslake’s argument centered on the musicians’ assertion that Blizzard of Ozz had been a band of equals, while Sharon Osbourne argued that it had always been a solo project with three hired hands. The lawsuit went to court in 1998, with Kerslake and Daisley claiming credits and royalties. The case was ultimately dismissed in 2003, leaving the pair bankrupt. The previous year, reissues of both albums had featured new drum and bass tracks by Mike Bordin and Robert Trujillo respectively, with the originals only returned in 2011. “That was a really kind of fucked-up thing," Faith No More and ex-Ozzy drummer Bordin said later. “That wasn’t what I was going in expecting to do. It wasn’t the way it was presented to me at all. I never knew that.”
“The audacity!” Kerslake said in 2002. “Whatever we've done to deserve that, I have no idea. It doesn't make me look bad, or Bob look bad. It makes Ozzy and Sharon look terrible for doing such a destructive thing. Those first two albums have stood the test of time – 20 years – because of us writing and playing them. … It's like taking a Harley-Davidson and making it sound like a Yamaha. … It is senseless, because at the end of the day all the fans are gonna realize… that's why suddenly I'm getting inundated with interviews.”
In 2003 Kerslake and Daisley recorded their own versions of some of their Osbourne tracks with Living Loud, which also featured Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse and Australian singer Jimmy Barnes. Kerslake continued to work with Uriah Heep until his health-related departure in 2007, after having appeared on 13 more studio albums. A band statement said that he’d “found the rigors of constant touring increasingly stressful and will now take the opportunity over the next few months to embark on a stringent campaign in order to resolve his health issues.” Box lamented the departure of “not only someone who I have worked with for some 35 years, but also one of my closest and oldest friends who I love like a brother.”
Living Loud - 'Over the Mountain'
In 2009 Kerslake explained, “I’ve had a lot of illnesses which I’ve refused to let take me over and beat me. But there are certain things you cannot beat, old age and everything that comes with it. You can’t deny that. That’s why I had to retire. I have rheumatism in my neck bones, from shoulders to the brain. So because of this I have a headache 24/7. It’s bit of a pain but I’m not going to complain because that’s my life. I’ve had a tough life, I’ve lived hard and fast and I’ve enjoyed it. And I’m enjoying it now probably more than ever. … I couldn’t do a three-month, six-weeks on one go anymore. It just takes all out of me. But I still play just as hard on the drums. As I did when I was 25. Except now it hurts!”
Among other projects, he formed his own Lee Kerslake Band to continue working periodically and also appeared alongside Hensley and fellow ex-Heep man Paul Newton on occasion. In 2015 he and Hensley appeared with Heep for a two-hour reunion show in Moscow.
He announced his cancer diagnosis in 2015 but asserted his determination to defeat the illness, saying, “I have had numerous tests and have been told by my specialists that I will be around for a good while yet — meaning years. My bone and prostate cancer can be controlled for me to live pretty much a normal life — after all, I kicked my diabetes into remission, so I will bloody well beat this." He added, “I still have a lot of loyal fans to play to, which I intend to do in the coming years. I also want a big spread on my 80th.”
He continued to work intermittently, pursuing a documentary about his career to be titled Not on the Heep. “I wanted people to realize there is camaraderie in the music industry between all the musicians, even when we don’t speak to each other for maybe 20 years,” he said in 2018. “I went to Joe Elliott’s house from Def Leppard and he did an interview, I went to Ian Paice’s house, and it was bloody wonderful – we played drums together.” He added that he also wanted the film to act as encouragement for artists who were trying to work through poor health. In addition, he reported he’d completed a solo album, Eleventeen, which he was “shopping” with a view to a 2019 release.
In 2018 Kerslake reported he’d been given eight months to live, and said the dispute with the Osbournes was “all forgotten and forgiven,” adding, “I’ve written to Sharon and Ozzy recently, a personal letter basically asking them to kindly send me platinum album certifications for Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, to hang on my wall before I die. It’s on my bucket list. I hope they will come to terms with it and say yes. I went belly-up bankrupt when I lost the case to Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne in the courts. It costs me hundreds of thousands and I had to sell the house, and then started to get ill. … But a platinum certification on my wall for these albums would be fantastic. … It would say I helped create those albums.” In January 2019 his wish was granted when the Osbournes sent him his platinum discs.