John Nicholas Oliva...
...was born in the Bronx, New York on July 22, 1960. He was one of four children (Jo Ann, Tony and Christopher being the others). It was at a very early age that he got interested in music. According to a Conversation Piece interview, Jon states the following:
"My dad is a piano player, and we always had a piano in the house, so I started messing around with that. I was probably like 11 or 12. I was very impatient, so I kind of blew that by. There were [also] guitars around the house. It was just a gradual thing - a little bit of everything here and there. We bought a bass, because we had guitars, piano and drums - the one thing we didn't have was a bass. So we went out and bought this shitty, teardrop-shaped, green bass, probably the ugliest bass in the whole world. It had black nylon strings - it was really awful. The strings [were] like six inches off the fretboard, but we had a bass, and I started dabbling with that. It was just a little bit of everything at one time."
It was when the Oliva family made the move to California when Jon was a teenager that he started to become serious about music. The Oliva family remained in California for four years before moving to Dunedin, Florida in 1976.
Together with his brother Criss, they played their first public performance at a block party. Jon remembers the event well.
"We played all the Kiss songs we could play. We played like 20 Kiss songs-- like every song off the first three Kiss albums. Then we played two Black Sabbath songs, "Iron Man" and "War Pigs;" two Deep Purple songs, "Smoke On The Water" (of course... everybody played that) and "Space Truckin';" and then we played "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" by ZZ Top. I remember getting electrocuted, holding a guitar and touching a microphone at the same time, and I got zapped pretty good. I remember driving up there in my parents' station wagon with all the gear falling out of the window. Criss was playing bass at that gig. He played bass when we started playing in a band for real-- he played bass and I played guitar. Gradually, as we started getting a little bit older, he just got better at guitar than I was, so we switched, and I played bass."
In 1977, shortly after he got kicked out of high school, Jon found himself in need of a job. He answered an ad in a local music paper from a band that advertised playing five nights a week. This was just what he was looking for. Soon he found himself as an 18-year-old kid making over $400 a week. The band, known as Metropolis, featured Jon on guitar and keyboards. They played mostly cover songs from bands like Bad Company, Kiss and Alice Cooper.
In 1978, Metropolis went into the studio and recorded a 45, a record with one track on each side. The songs, "Take Off With The Crowd" and "Let's Get Rowdy," would be Jon's first experience recording in a studio. The 45's were sold at gigs played throughout Florida. Playing bars in areas such as Tampa, Ft. Myers and Ft. Lauderdale helped Jon gain a lot of experience performing live in front of an audience. In late 1978, Metropolis came to an end when Jon "got tired of doing the bar thing." At this point, Jon and his brother Criss realized they wanted to do something on their own.
For a short time, Jon and Criss went their separate ways. Criss was involved with his own project called Tower, while Jon got involved with a group called Alien. He was very excited about this project because he was finally involved with a band that was into writing its own music. Because of conflicts with other Tower members due to writing styles, Criss eventually hooked up with the band, which changed its name to Avatar.
Avatar in its earliest form was a five-member band led by Jon (drums/vocals) and Criss (guitar). Jon recalls it being a "kick-ass band" because it had the best equipment of any other band in Florida. Criss and Jon started receiving a lot of attention on the local music scene. This eventually caused the band to start drifting apart from what Jon claims could have been jealousy from the other three members.
Criss and Jon were once again by themselves when the band 's members decided to go their separate ways. They both got regular jobs and would meet up together late in the day at a place called "The Pit" to practice and write songs. "The Pit" was also used as rehearsal space by a band that included a drummer named Steve Wacholz. Wacholz was very familiar with the Oliva brothers, who he first met 1977. He saw Criss play at alocal high school and was blown away. Very soon after, he auditioned for Jon's band, Alien. When he got to the audition, Wacholz recognized Criss and Jon as part of the band who had impressed him so much at the high school show.
Steve auditioned for Jon, and although he made the mistake of playing "'Rock and Roll' on the ride cymbal instead of the hi-hat," it went well and he began to rehearse with Alien. Other drummers came and went, and Steve continued to hang around, and even when he wasn't playing with the Oliva's and their bands, he would go out to see their shows. Steve would eventually join Jon and Criss to form a new version of Avatar.
Jon, who was playing bass at the time, decided he would prefer to front the band and not have to be restricted by a guitar. As a result, Avatar was in the market for a bassist, a number of whom came and soon left for various reasons. The band rented their PA system from a guy named Keith Collins, a guitarist playing in a band called Solar. He agreed to play bass for the Olivas, so he joined Avatar in 1981.
Later that year, WYNF, a local radio station in the area, was looking for local talent to put on an album. They held a contest with the prize being a spot on the LP. Hundreds of bands sent in tapes, and hundreds of them were disappointed when it was Avatar who opened not one, but both sides of the record (known as The Pirate Album). The songs, "Rock Me" and "Minus Love," were included on the album, and in support the band got a huge amount of airplay from the radio station and played several shows sponsored by WYNF.
Around this time, Jon's writing was starting to take a different turn. The boy-wants-girl lyrics of earlier songs like the ones that appeared on the WYNF album began to mutate into retellings of strange dreams and nightmares he was having. And as things began to change with the music, they also changed for the band. Avatar was approached by Dan Johnson of Par Records. Together, they recorded and distributed approximately 1000 copies of the City Beneath the Surface 45. Shortly after, Dan Johnson put up another $3,000 and Avatar was back in the studio working on a full-length album. This recording session lasted all of two days and saw them come up with 15 songs, which would be split up into two different albums. The night before the first, Sirens, was to go to the presses, the Olivas got a phone call from Johnson. Jon recalls the night:
"We changed our name the night before the record was to go to press. (Dan) called... I think it was around 11 o'clock at night, (with) me, my wife, Criss and his wife sitting around the kitchen table playing cards. We're sitting there and all of a sudden I get a phone call and the guy says, 'Listen, we have a problem. There's a band in Europe called Avatar and there gonna sue you if you guys release the album. You need to change the name, and you need to do it right now cause we're gonna make the record tomorrow.'
"So we were like, 'Great.' So, we had to sit there. We wrote out Avatar on a big piece of poster paper... and Criss said, 'Put a big S (like Kiss) in front of Avatar,' and it was like, 'SAVATAR.' I was like, 'That sounds like a really bad dinosaur,' but we liked the way it looked. So then finally, out of nowhere, I don't remember who it was-- it might have been Criss' wife or my wife-- somebody said, 'Take the R out and put a GE,' and we did, and it was 'SAVATAGE.' I was like, 'That was cool,' not 'SA-VA-TAGE,' but 'SAVATAGE,' like 'SAVA' for Savage and 'TAGE' for mystical or whatever. From that moment on we were Savatage."
Sirens was officially released under the new name of Savatage. Because of the album's great reviews from all over the world, the band was asked to open for Atlantic Records band Zebra at a showcase at the Mahaffey Theatre. Robert Zemsky heard Savatage play at that show and told the band he had to introduce them to his friend at Atlantic, Jason Flom. Flom asked Savatage to do a show for him, and he flew in from New York to see the band. He was blown away-- he'd never seen kids banging their heads up against the stage-- and was mesmerized by the whole show. He immediately got money from Atlantic to fly Rick Derringer down to Morrisound Studios to record with the band.
Par agreed to release Savatage from its contract so they could record with Atlantic, but not before it released The Dungeons Are Calling to finish out the deal. Atlantic fixed up the Derringer tapes and in late '83 finally signed Savatage with Robert Zemsky as their manager. In November of '84, the band went to Bearsville Studios to record Power of the Night with noted producer Max Norman.
During the 1985 "Monsters of the Universe" tour, the band made the first of many line-up changes. Because of musical differences, bassist Keith Collins was replaced by another Florida native, Johnny Lee Middleton. They found Johnny in a band called Lefty, and he joined Savatage just in time to go to London with the band to record Fight for the Rock. The album was recorded in late '85-early '86 at Triden Studios on St. Anne's Court. They (Johnny, Steve, Criss and Jon, their wives, Jon's baby Nicholas and the band's guitar tech) had a rough Christmas, having to be in London during the holidays and living together in a flat on Baker Street. The way Jon tells it, the managers weren't completely trustworthy, either, which made things more difficult for the band and the recording process.
The album's material consisted of things Jon had originally written for a solo project. Some of it was meant for other artists to record, but eventually the managers decided they wanted Savatage to record it on Fight for the Rock. Jon was never really pleased with the way the album was mixed, but he still considers it good music. In a Conversation Piece interview, he says the following:
"I always liked 'Day After Day,' and I really liked the way we did that. 'Wishing Well' was one of the manager's ideas, because somebody at the record label, it was his favorite song. We did it as kind of kissing ass, but I even like the way [it] came out."
Even if he didn't think the album was appropriate for Savatage during that stage of its career, Jon regards it as a good musical and learning experience.
After that album's tour, Jon was contacted by producer/writer Paul O'Neill, who came aboard to help the band with its next album. It was Paul who came up with the idea of using Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" as the basis for a song. Jon says the band was unsure about it at first, but once they started working on it, he really liked the idea and knew it was going to be big.
It was also during the Hall of the Mountain King era that the band ventured into the world of music videos. Jon wasn't impressed with the video recorded for "24 Hours Ago," but he did like the way the one for the album's title track turned out, because according to him, "That one was done right." The band had a bigger budget, and went to Howe Caverns with a script written by Paul to film it. Even though he isn't a fan of music videos in general, Jon was impressed with what they did for "Hall of the Mountain King."
Savatage went out on the road again, this time with Dio and Megadeth. Jon and Megadeth's Dave Mustaine got into all kinds of trouble on this tour. They went out drinking one night, and Dave insisted he could drink Jon under the table. Instead, he came back pale white, and they had to get a doctor for Dave because he had alcohol poisoning. Another night, Jon was on a chair on top of a hotel room bed with a lampshade on his head when Dave managed to upset him. Dave picked up a phone and threw it at Jon, who in return grabbed the whimpering Dave and body-slammed him. Dave left crying, and Savatage was not allowed to play the next night. Things got out of control, Jon remembers.
"The drugs and the drinking was just all over the place. I just got totally out of hand, and totally uncontrollable. That's why the tour ended-- because they had to send me to drug rehab. I started hanging out with Dave Mustaine on a 24-hour basis, which wasn't healthy for either one of us. It just got to the point where we had to stop, because I was uncontrollable. We left the tour, and I went to rehab."
After rehab, the recording of Gutter Ballet began. Many of the songs on the album Jon came up with while in rehab, including "Thorazine Shuffle" and "Mentally Yours." The song "Gutter Ballet" was one of the last to be recorded. Manager Jon Goldwater gave Jon some tickets to see "The Phantom of the Opera," and Jon was fascinated with it. Inspired, he went into the studio on his way home from the theatre, sat down and created the music for "Gutter Ballet" on the piano. Until then, there had been two working titles for the album: "Hounds of Zaroff" and "Temptation Revelation." Jon liked the idea of calling it "Temptation Revelation" but after "Gutter Ballet" was written, he knew it was logical to change it.
After the success of Gutter Ballet, the band knew it would have to do something big to top it. While at the home of Paul O'Neill, Criss found a copy of a project Paul wrote back in 1979. Criss was amazed at the concept and suggested it to be the next Savatage release. Because the band had an abundance of material and even continued writing while in the studio recording, the album took about nine months to finish. Jon's contributions to the album, aside from writing, playing keyboards and singing, included drumming on several songs, including "Jesus Saves" and "Can You Hear Me Now." Streets was finally released in 1991, but only 16 of the originally-planned 26 tracks were used. Streets also features what Jon claims to be his "favorite song in the whole wide world, except for 'Hey Jude,'" "Tonight He Grins Again."
Citing that he reached his musical peak with the release of Streets, Jon officially stepped down as lead singer for Savatage following the end of the album's tour in 1992. By stepping aside as lead singer, it allowed Jon more time to focus on other projects that were in development around that time, including "Romanov" and Doctor Butcher. Jon still remained a very important part of Savatage during the Edge of Thorns writing and recording processes, and helped select new singer Zak Stevens. Jon wrote and played on every song on the album, as well as being its co-producer with Paul O'Neill.
In 1993, around the time Edge of Thorns was released, former Savatage member Chris Caffery (who played on Gutter Ballet and toured with Savatage in support of Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet) started hanging around again. Chris approached Jon about writing some songs together. Jon remembers it well:
"At first I was going to write songs with him. It was never really going to be a band. Dr. Butcher was never a band anyway. We just started writing songs together in my spare time. We started coming up with stuff that I really liked... I was having fun again cause there was no pressure from record company people. It was like a big release for me. At the time I was a very angry person. Edge of Thorns was doing good, getting a lot of radio play, and I felt kind of hurt-- as soon as I walked away, a song I wrote was entering the top 100. I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was happy, but kind of hurt 'cause I felt maybe I was the one who was holding things back for so long. So I had a lot of mixed emotions. I started reading articles that said I left Savatage cause I couldn't sing anymore, and that lit a fire under my ass. I kinda took offense to that... so I figured, 'I'll fuckin show them.'"
Chris and Jon decided to turn their project into an album titled Doctor Butcher. Along with drummer John Osborn, the three went into the studio and made the album for about $8,000. "It was just me, Chris and Osborn, " Jon says. "We were just doing it for fun... then people started turning it into a band, but it never was that. Brian (Gregory) was just there for pictures. He never played on the record." Dr. Butcher did a couple of shows in Tampa area in 1993. One of these shows included an appearance by Criss Oliva who came up and played "Sirens" with them.
During this same era, Jon, Paul and Bob Kinkel (who has been involved with Savatage family in several different capacities since 1987) put their talents together to work on yet another project. "Romanov," written by Paul O'Neill, is a Broadway-type theatrical play about the last days of the ill-fated ruling family of Russia. Jon, Bob and Paul composed the music for this still unreleased production. It is currently in the hands of the Pace Theatrical Group and has gone through several rewrites. Rumors continue to swirl year after year about its release, but it has been pushed back several times.
On October 17, 1993, the Savatage family suffered a tragic loss. Criss Oliva was headed to the rock festival "Livestock" held near Zephyr Hills, Florida, north of Tampa. Early in the morning, going down a two-lane highway, a drunk driver tried to pass a semi-trailer truck, but instead hit Criss and his wife Dawn's car. Criss was killed instantly; Dawn has since recovered at home in Florida from her critical injuries.
Following a very brief layoff, with several band members' futures up in the air, Jon returned to the studio to work on what would be the band's next release, Handful of Rain. Performing solo for much of the album's recording, Jon pulled off playing keyboards, drums, bass and rhythm guitar for much of the album. The album was released in 1994 and included a very touching tribute to the late Criss Oliva, in the form of a song titled "Alone You Breathe." Following the album's release was a full world tour which culminated on November 13, 1994, in Tokyo, Japan. This performance was recorded for a future Savatage live CD and home video called Japan Live '94. It featured the return of Jon on vocals (on a duet of "Gutter Ballet" with Zak) for the first time on a Savatage album since the release of Streets.
It wasn't until 1995, though, that Jon decided to officially return to Savatage full time. Adding the dual-guitar attack of Chris Caffery (also returning to Savatage officially for the first time since 1990) and Al Pitrelli, the band returned to the rock opera format, recording Dead Winter Dead (1996), The Wake of Magellan (1997/1998) and Poets And Madmen (2001).
Dead Winter Dead spawned the multi-format hit single, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12-24," a track which topped radio charts across the country, and led to the creation of a side project known as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is yet another offshoot Savatage project headed up by Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel. Other key members include Savatage members Al Pitrelli, Jeff Plate, Johnny Lee Middleton, Chris Caffery and Zak Stevens. TSO also includes a revolving cast of Broadway musicians and various other vocalists. The concept style used by Savatage continues to evolve with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their first release, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, originally issued in 1996, was certified gold by the RIAA in 1998. The follow-up release, The Christmas Attic (1998), was on an even stronger pace then Christmas Eve. After the third release, titled Beethoven's Last Night (2000), another Christmas album is in progress, to be released in 2004 (during the writing of this chapter).