It looked like a big black tent. Offstage right and behind the bass bin speakers in a Stockholm arena, Ozzy Osbourne’s crew had set up a portable vocal booth. Inside the booth’s black-curtained exterior was a microphone and stand, a floor wedge monitor and an intercom to communicate directly with the sound engineer. The booth also contained a video monitor scrolling lyrics — to Osbourne’s metallic solo hits like “Crazy Train” and Black Sabbath classics like “War Pigs” — from the bottom of the screen to the top.
Two weeks earlier, Robert Mason came home to his Tempe, Arizona, apartment to find a message on his answering machine from Osbourne’s wife and hard-nosed manager, Sharon Osbourne. Sharon's message went something like, "We want to know if you’d be interested in doing live vocals on tour — backgrounds, harmonies and that kind of stuff. Call me back."
Ozzy had just released his latest album, Ozzmosis, on Oct. 24, 1995, and was touring in support of the LP. Mason, a talented singer influenced by Humble Pie's Steve Marriott, had been doing session work in Los Angeles for Grammy-winning producer Keith Olsen, who co-produced Ozzy’s 1988 disc No Rest for the Wicked. Olsen also had produced hard-rock combo Lynch Mob’s 1992 self-titled album, which featured Mason on vocals. "So apparently what happened prior to that, to the best of my knowledge, was Sharon was calling around to producers asking who would fit the bill," Mason says now. "And two or three out of the four calls she made, my name came up.”
Mason called Sharon back to let her know he wanted the job. A few weeks later, he was in Stockholm for his first soundcheck, looking at “the big black tent.” He doesn’t remember being told before then that he’d actually be doing his singing offstage.
“It never really mattered to me [whether] I was going to be onstage,” Mason says, calling from a Nashville recording session with Warrant, the L.A. pop-metal band he's sung with since 2008. “I was over the moon in every sense to be able to do that [Ozzy] gig. From the Sabbath days all the way through, Ozz has really [only] ever had four guys onstage. I would think that’s what he’s comfortable with.”
That first soundcheck, Mason sang one song with Ozzy — he can't remember for sure which one, but possibly the searing “I Don’t Know” — and then “Ozz looked over at me on stage right, put two thumbs up, and he said, ‘OK, you’re in,’ and then just walked offstage. And from then on I was gone for the next 11 months.”
At Sharon’s request, Mason’s presence on the tour was kept “pretty quiet.” “Because you know the first thing everybody would say,” Mason says. “‘Oh, Ozzy can’t sing anymore. He’s got a guy singing backstage for him.’ Which was not what was going on. It was a very organic, kind of real thing." Mason sang harmonies and "a lot of Black Sabbath stuff was double- and triple-tracked vocals, so live I did some of that."
Asked for a comment as to why Ozzy used an offstage singer at the time and if he still used offstage musicians, Sharon Osbourne replied via email through a publicist. “Why are we talking about something that happened 20 years ago? We tried it out for one leg of the tour, but it didn’t work out. By the way, Black Sabbath has had a keyboard player offstage for more than four decades. Ozzy also uses an offstage keyboard player, which is no secret to the fans, as they are credited in the tour programs and on live releases.”
Mason recalls being listed in the tour program in Japan and Europe but not in the United States. Ozzy’s offstage keyboardist back then was John Sinclair, who was stationed next to Mason’s vocal booth. The two offstage musicians developed a camaraderie over a shared fondness for automobiles and being Ozzy's “secret weapons,” Mason says.
Osbourne is hardly the only well-known rock artist to use offstage musicians, especially keyboardists. Terry Lawless has toured with Irish superstars U2 for years in that capacity, and Iron Maiden bass tech Michael Kenney also plays keyboards offstage for the metal icons. But their presence, while not necessarily a closely guarded secret — Lawless calls out his U2 connection on his website, and Kenney has occasionally appeared onstage and given interviews discussing his work with Maiden — is not something the bands like drawing attention to, either.
When L.A. Weekly emailed Lawless to request an interview regarding his offstage work for U2, he replied, “A confidentiality agreement with the band and management precludes any interviews from me at this time. Many thanks for thinking of me.” Kenney’s response: “Management doesn't want any interviews out at the moment. It's not a problem in doing it, it's just the timing.” Derek Sherinian, who in addition to playing keys onstage with artists like Billy Idol at one point did so offstage for Kiss, initially agreed to an interview but then changed his mind.
Keyboardist Brett Tuggle recently returned to his Porter Ranch home after playing 120 shows with Fleetwood Mac. Tuggle has been playing onstage with the Mac going on 19 years now. Before that, his career included eight years with then-former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, beginning on the tour supporting Roth’s first solo LP, Eat 'em and Smile in 1986.
Tuggle played most of the Eat 'em and Smile sets offstage. He’d sing the high, Michael Anthony background vocals when Roth and his virtuosic new solo band, which included guitarist Steve Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Gregg Bissonette, played Van Halen hits such as “Panama.”
“Eat 'em and Smile is not a keyboard album,” Tuggle says now. “It’s hard-driven, heavy, blazing guitar with some killer drums. When it came out, I think Dave wanted to present himself as such. ‘Here’s my new boys and here’s the lineup.’"
Offstage right, Tuggle would play his synthesizers and sing, set up near the bass and guitar techs. However, for the last few songs of the set, keyboard-heavy numbers like “Goin Crazy!” and “California Girls,” Tuggle would take his place onstage behind a lit keyboard stationed on a platform above Sheehan’s bass rig. A personal highlight of the show for him was when Roth would turn around, point up to Tuggle and bellow into the mic, “Hit it, Tugg!” This was Tuggle’s cue to begin the instantly recognizable chords from Van Halen’s keyboard-driven smash “Jump.” “And it was so freaking loud in the P.A. in an arena,” Tuggle says. “You get to be that guy.”
Switching from playing offstage to onstage within the same show required some adjustments. "It’s definitely like two different mindsets. If you’re not onstage, you’re not interacting with the audience as much in terms of a physical presence, where you can see people and people can see you — even though I approach everything I do musically the same way, which is I want to play my ass off and sing my ass off, no matter if I’m at home playing with a friend or onstage with Fleetwood Mac in front of 15,000 people.
"I always got pumped up for these [early Roth] gigs. I would do vocal and keyboard warmups. I got just excited as these guys did, except at the very beginning when we’d do our little huddle, they’d go out on the stage and I’d go over to the side and wait for my cue. It’s a little like Broadway. You’re still in the play and going to make an appearance at some point. You may not be the lead actor, but you’ve got an important role to play and you have to take it very seriously. And I always did."
Tuggle's offstage Roth gig eventually grew into a full-fledged band membership. He even got a co-writing credit on Roth's 1988 hit single, “Just Like Paradise,” off the singer's second solo album, Skyscraper. He looks back on the Roth years as easily one of his best jobs ever (the scads of backstage super-babes on the Eat 'em and Smile trek didn’t hurt).
Tuggle never did any other offstage gigs, though. “It’s like being the field goal kicker, you know? It worked out good for me, but I always sort of felt like some of these guys that were playing offstage, they should be up there. If The Rolling Stones can put their keyboard players onstage, why can’t you put your guy up there?
"Gene Simmons was not into it," he says with a laugh. "He didn’t want that guy up there.”
No, Gene Simmons did not, as Gary Corbett can tell you with a good-natured laugh. Corbett did offstage keyboards and background vocals on Kiss tours promoting late-'80s and early-'90s LPs Crazy Nights, Hot in the Shade and Revenge. Before that, his credits including co-writing Cyndi Lauper’s top-five hit “She Bop” and working with the solo band of former Foreigner singer Lou Gramm, who recommended Corbett to Kiss’ Paul Stanley. Stanley was looking for someone to play offstage keys for Kiss because Crazy Nights featured lots of synths — played in the studio by New York session man Phil Ashley, who was unavailable for the tour.
“There seemed to be a trend in the '80s that bands didn’t want the image of having a keyboard player onstage,” Corbett says, calling from his Nashville home studio. “Some people think keyboards aren’t as much of a rock instrument as a guitar. Gene Simmons is definitely of that mindset." He laughs. "At every soundcheck, if the sound man asked me, ‘Could you just give me a couple of notes,’ [Simmons] would immediately put his hands behind his back and act like he was ice skating around a rink.”
Ironically, Corbett never played Kiss’ most famous keyboard song, “Beth,” which featured on vocals the band’s original drummer, Peter Criss, who'd left the band before Corbett came onboard. On the Crazy Nights tour, the moody ballad “Reason to Live” was the song that featured synth the most. A keyboard was set up onstage for then-guitarist Bruce Kulick to play along with Corbett’s offstage keys for the first third of the song, “and then when it came to the chorus, Bruce switched to his guitar and people weren’t supposed to notice the keyboards were still playing.”
Whether a Kiss song contained keyboard parts or not, Corbett says he played on every number at every concert he ever did with the band. Instead of adding, say, piano fills, he’d double rhythm guitar parts with a gnarly, guitar-ish synth tone. “Those guys put on such a show. Gene and Paul are running around so much, and sometimes the playing takes a backseat to the show. So in order for certain parts to never stop, you reinforce Paul’s guitar parts or you're doubling the bass on certain things to fill out the bottom end.”
When Corbett started with Kiss, he was hidden offstage left behind stacks of speakers. However, a gaffe at the 1988 Monsters of Rock show put him in plain sight. “It was such a big show that they had big Diamond Vision screens on each side of the stage. So when the guys that were working the cameras on the side of the stage were roaming around and filming everything, I guess nobody told them that they weren’t supposed to be filming me. So during ‘Rock and Roll All Nite,’ I’m standing there singing and playing and having a good time. And later I found out I was on the big screens in front of, like, 60,000 people, which I don’t think made the guys very happy." (Kiss’ management did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)
After Kiss, Corbett hooked up with bluesier metal act Cinderella, playing with that band onstage up to 2011, which allowed him to better channel his Ian McLagan and Jon Lord influences. He’s also notched a couple of Grammys for his work with reggae scions Damian and Stephen Marley and is currently working on a Southern rock project that includes members of Eric Church’s band and Montgomery Gentry.
Corbett says he's been offered other offstage gigs, but turned those down, including one with Whitesnake. “I never felt weird about the offstage thing while I was doing it because it was Kiss, a huge, legendary band. I never could have envisioned [being] a keyboard player in Kiss. They knew the fans would never accept that in that band. ... They would have hated me, I think," he says with a laugh.
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Both Corbett and Robert Mason have no regrets about their offstage gigs, and both gained newfound appreciation for the stars they toured with. Says Mason of Ozzy, “When he’s well-rested and at his absolute best, he’s still a really, really good singer,” adding that the Osbournes treated him “like gold” and fondly recalling intimate moments hanging out with Ozzy in hotel rooms. Corbett, for his part, admits that he wasn’t a fan before performing with Kiss but came to admire the band’s songwriting acumen and dedication to putting on a killer show for their fans. “When it comes to that, there’s nobody better.”
Post-Ozzy, Robert Mason resumed his life as an onstage frontman, joining ’70s-tinged band Cry of Love to record that band’s funky 1997 sophomore LP, Diamonds & Debris, for Columbia Records. Mason kept mum with his new bandmates on his past offstage Ozzy gig. However, one night over drinks at a West Hollywood hotel lounge with musicians from Cry of Love and several other bands, a member of Cheap Trick hinted at the subject. Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez, who was seated at the same table and had thus far largely ignored Mason, suddenly turned to the singer wide-eyed and exclaimed, “Wait. You’re the tent guy?”