Savatage Biography

Previously known as Avatar, this melodic, heavy rock quintet was formed in Florida, USA by the Oliva brothers. The founding line-up comprised Jon Oliva (Jonathan Nicholas Oliva, 22 July 1960, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA; vocals/keyboards), Criss Oliva (b. Christopher Michael Oliva, 3 April 1963, USA, d. 17 October 1993, Florida, USA; guitar), Steve ‘Doc’ Wacholz (drums) and Keith Collins (bass). Their initial approach was strongly influenced by Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, a style demonstrated by the original City Beneath The Surface EP recorded as Avatar in 1982 (the name change was for legal reasons). The band’s first two albums, 1983’s Sirens and 1985’s Power Of The Night, also clearly reflected their influences, with a high-energy fusion of power riffs and high-pitched vocals. Fight For The Rock, featuring new bass player Johnny Lee Middleton (b. 7 May 1963, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA), marked a detour towards more melodic AOR, which was poorly received by their fans.

Savatage returned to their roots for the next album, Hall Of The Mountain King. Chris Caffery (b. 9 September 1967, Suffern, New York, USA) was added as a second guitarist in 1989 during the recording of Gutter Ballet, but left shortly after the tour to support the album. Gutter Ballet and Streets: A Rock Opera, represented some of the band’s finest work. Both were elaborate rock operas, featuring a mixture of dynamic hard rock and atmospheric ballads. Utilizing an orchestra and state-of-the-art production techniques, they also found themselves with a minor hit single on their hands in the shape of ‘Jesus Saves’.

Jon Oliva was then relegated to nominal backing vocals behind new frontman Zachary Stevens - having elected instead to concentrate on penning rock operas full-time and working as part of Doctor Butcher. Stevens was ex-White Witch, and joined in time for 1993’s Edge Of Thorns. That year also brought tragedy when founding member and guitarist Criss Oliva was killed by a drunk driver near his home in Clearwater, Florida. For Handful Of Rain the band recruited ex-Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick (b. 29 September 1968, Berkeley, California, USA), whose former band had toured with Savatage in support of Dio in 1989. The set included one notable tribute to the late guitarist, ‘Alone You Breathe’.

Further personnel change saw Wacholz and Skolnick replaced by Jeff Plate (b. 26 March 1962, Horseheads, New York, USA) and Al Pitrelli (b. 29 September 1962, New York City, New York, USA) respectively, and Jon Oliva becoming a full-time playing member of the band once more. Caffrey also returned to the line-up on 1995’s Dead Winter Dead, a concept album about the war in Bosnia and Serbia. The same line-up also inaugurated the Trans-Siberian Orchestra side-project with their producer Paul O’Neill, recording several albums and enjoying particular success in Japan.

Savatage returned in 1997 with another well-received concept set, The Wake Of Magellan. Further personnel upheaval ensued three years later with both Pitrelli and Stevens leaving the band. Oliva returned to the lead vocal position on Poets And Madmen, recorded as a quartet. The following year saw new touring members Damond Jiniya (b. 16 December 1974, Palm Springs, California, USA; vocals) and Jack Frost (b. 4 July 1968, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA; guitar) joining the line-up, but following the completion of a summer tour the band was put on indefinite hiatus.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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