The Time Will Come: Lee Kerslake (1947-2020)

English musician Lee Kerslake died today at the age of 73, after a years-long struggle with prostate cancer. He was a long-time favorite of mine, holding down the groove and delivering the beastly beats for decades with a variety of acts I appreciate. He was best known as the hard-hitting drummer (credited on occasion as “The Bear” for his physical stature, grizzly beard and thunderous paws) for Uriah Heep and a pair of seminal Ozzy Osbourne solo albums. But there’s a bit more breadth and depth to his catalog and creative contributions than that, including some mostly-forgotten gems that get a lot of spins about our household. Let me share a few of them with you in a spirit of tribute and respect.

I’ve written before about my love for what I call “heavy organ music,” which I described thusly in 2001:

You can generally describe it as mid-tempo, choogly rock (complete with appropriately widdly guitar and ram-a-lam drum solos), fortified with strong, typically baritone male vocals and cemented together with swirly, gurgly organ parts, usually played on classic Hammond B-3 or Vox Continental organs. Or other combo organs of the era, Farfisas and the like. You know the sound. Organy.

Lee Kerslake played on a lot of Heavy Organ Music classics over the years. He began his recording career with The Gods, whose various lineups between 1965 and 1969 included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson, ELP), Ken Hensley and Paul Newton (both Uriah Heep), Brian Glascock (The Motels) and John Glascock (Carmen, Jethro Tull). Kerslake joined the group in 1967 as drummer and vocalist, part of the briefly stable quartet lineup with Hensley, John Glascock, and guitarist Joe Konas who recorded the group’s two official album releases (Genesis in 1968 and To Samuel A Son in 1969), along with the notoriously raunchy 1970 Orgasm, which was pseudonymously credited to Head Machine. Here’s a classic cut from The Gods, co-written by Kerslake and Konas:

R&B singer Cliff Bennett (ex-Rebel Rousers) joined The Gods near the end of their run under that name. A re-tooled ensemble called Toe Fat emerged in 1970, featuring Bennett, Hensley (primarily on guitar, rather than his usual keyboards), John Glascock and Kerslake. Their eponymous first album is an utter stormer, with some truly bizarre early Hipgnosis art work on its cover. Here’s its opening cut:

Kerslake and Hensley left Toe Fat before the group’s less exciting second (and final) album, Hensley heading directly into Uriah Heep, and Kerslake joining the woefully under-appreciated National Head Band, whose sole album, Albert 1, is a lost near-prog classic, filled with unusual styles and structures, and ballsy playing and singing throughout. Kerslake contributed on keyboards, vocals, drums and composition. Their best cut, to these ears, was this one:

After Uriah Heep had chewed through four drummers over the course of making their first three albums, Hensley recruited his former bandmate for Heep duty, soon cementing what most would consider to be their “classic” lineup: Hensley, Kerslake, Mick Box (guitar), Gary Thain (bass) and David Byron (vocals). That quintet released four studio LPs and one live album over three years, during which time the group scored their highest sales and spins figures in the UK and USA. There are many classic cuts in that great creative period, but I’d cite this one as my perpetual favorite of the era:

That stable run ended after Thain’s onstage electrocution, followed by his untimely death of a drug overdose. He was replaced by my much-admired (and missed) John Wetton for a pair of albums, which most Heep fans don’t particularly dig, but I think are under-rated. I picked the fitting title of this post from a song of that era, co-composed by Kerslake and found on the B-side of the “Return To Fantasy” single. (I appreciate that the current most-recent comment on the Youtube page linked below praises the complexity of Kerslake’s drum work).

The late ’70s found Uriah Heep in a state of churn and devolution following the departures of Wetton, Byron, Hensley and Kerslake, leaving Mick Box as the sole founder and still standard-bearer for the group. Lest that sound negative over the long-haul, please note that I am most fond of much Heep work since that time, grateful that they never stopped growing, and thankful that they never ossified into a stale vintage rock tribute show to their earlier glories. I saw their current line-up a couple of years ago in a Chicago-area venue, and would cite that show as one of the best I saw during my four years of living there. I also consider their latest album, 2018’s Living The Dream, to be one of their all-time career highlights; see entry #15 at this link for more on that.

But back to 1979: following his Heep exit, Kerslake went on to join a super-group originally dubbed Blizzard of Ozz, featuring Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Bob Daisley and guitarist Randy Rhodes. By the time their debut album came out, however, things had morphed into Ozzy receiving top billing as a solo artist, with Blizzard of Ozz being repurposed as the title of the 1980 disc that ended up selling in quintuple-platinum quantities. How many times have you heard this choice Kerslake drum opening in sporting events and other “gotta pump up the crowd” moments, live and on television?

The original four members of Blizzard of Ozz co-wrote and recorded a second album, Diary of a Madman, for a 1981 release, but relationships had soured between Ozzy and his manager-wife Sharon on one side, and Daisley and Kerslake on the other, leading to Diary‘s original release crediting a replacement rhythm section for the work done by the original members. It got worse a few years later, after Daisley and Kerslake sued the Osbournes to receive their due creative credit on that pair of immensely successful commercial releases, only to see Ozzy and Sharon literally re-record and re-release the records with yet another rhythm section, completing erasing Kerslake and Daisley’s contributions from what they apparently hoped would become the permanent record. Kerslake later reported that the related legal proceedings bankrupted him. Eventually, saner heads prevailed and the original recordings have become commercially available again. During his final illness, Kerslake cited a dying wish to receive his due credit for his work on those famous discs, a request that Ozzy honored, finally providing him with the platinum disc awards that he’d certainly earned all those years before. A small gesture, sure, but meaningful, and better late than never, I suppose.

As it turned out, Kerslake’s departure from Ozzy World aligned timing-wise with a complete retrofit and relaunch on the Uriah Heep front. Kerslake re-joined his former band, bringing Daisley with him, for their first post-Hensley release, 1982’s Abominog, which opened with this cut:

That record was a surprising commercial and critical success, and after another few years of personnel churn, the band’s longest-stable lineup emerged in 1986, with Box and Kerslake joined by singer Bernie Shaw, keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and bassist Trevor Bolder, once of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, and also a veteran of the late ’70s Heep era. Kerslake’s last songwriting credit with his long-time band appeared on this cut, from 1998’s Sonic Origami.

Lee Kerslake continued to play with Uriah Heep until early 2007, when his health had declined to the point that he was no longer able to serve as the engine that drove the high-powered outfit he’d anchored for so long. He was active in other capacities as he was able in the years that followed, with some live work, some studio work, some writing, and some nice tributes to and interviews with him peppering web and radio spaces in and around the Heep community.

I return to Kerslake’s early career with The Gods to end this post, offering a closing track below that my music-nerd statistics tell me was the seventh most-played song around our household over the period from May 2008 to December 2019. Lee Kerslake plays drums on “Lovely Anita,” as per usual, but he also wrote it and sings lead vocals on it, and it’s an extraordinary little pop-rock gem, ably displaying a sensitive facet of his creative work that’s not often celebrated. But I love it dearly, and I applaud its creator, for this and so many other works. Lee Kerslake may not be the most famous musician we’ve lost in recent years, but he was well-loved among Heepsters, and someone whose name always made me pay attention when I saw it and/or heard his work. I hope you’ll join me in lifting a glass (real or virtual) in his direction upon the time of his flying away. May Lee rest in well-deserved peace.

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