Cozy Powell blazed through life like a comet, firing up every band he played with before moving on through the rock firmament, leaving a glittering trail in his wake.
Although he died tragically in a car crash in 1998 he remains one of rock’s most influential drummers, whose history intertwines with many of the biggest bands of his generation, if not of all time.
He is one of just a handful of drummers to have had their own hit singles, and his distinctive sound – huge and powerful but always warm and musical – is instantly recognisable.
Jeff Beck, who recruited Powell in 1970, recalls his big break clearly.
I said to my assistant: “Whose is that flash-bastard kit over there?”
"I was auditioning for drummers and I was late. When I finally arrived there were 15 drum kits set up and one double kit in red glitter," Beck told Classic Rock magazine.
"I said to my assistant: “Whose is that flash-bastard kit over there?” And she pointed and said: “He’s the guy you want.”
"I said: “Let me hear him first and then we’ll go from there.” Cozy and I played for about a minute and you could see all the other drummers packing up their kits.
"We struck up a friendship from that time on. His idol was John Bonham, and I guess he was my John Bonham."
Born in Cirencester, Colin Powell (born Flooks) took his nickname from the great jazz drummer Cozy Cole, who played with Cab Calloway and Benny Carter. Cole scored a hit record of his own, with the instrumental track ‘Topsy’ in 1958. It was an auspicious name but one that would take a lot to live up to.
Powell didn’t let his namesake down. He started playing the drums in the school ensemble at the age of 12, but was kicked out for being too loud.
Undeterred, he was soon gigging three or four nights a week with local bands. The late nights meant Cozy was invariably tardy for school and he was politely but firmly asked to leave. He got a job just long enough to buy his first kit, then packed his bags and headed to Germany where, despite being only 16, he found work playing the club circuit with a band called The Sorcerers.
It was a hard grind, performing for hours every night and sleeping four to a room, but it gave him the chance to sharpen his chops and learn his craft.
In 1968, after three years of slogging around German nightclubs, Powell returned to his native soil and kept busy playing in a series of groups, often with other members of The Sorcerers.
After performing with Tony Joe White at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, Cozy was offered the drum stool in the Jeff Beck Group, a highly coveted spot that raised his profile considerably. They cut two albums, Rough And Ready and The Jeff Beck Group, before Beck broke up the band.
Powell turned to doing session work for producer Mickie Most’s RAK Records label. After playing on numerous tracks for artists including Hot Chocolate and Donovan, Most convinced Powell to record a single showcasing his prodigious drumming, the result of which saw Cozy’s solo debut ‘Dance With The Devil’ get all the way up to Number Three in the UK singles chart.
Powell’s appearance on Top Of The Pops made him a household name, and he released two follow-up singles, ‘The Man In Black’, (Number 18 in May 1974), and ‘Na Na Na’ (Number 10 in August 1974).
Over the Rainbow
In 1975 Powell took a break from the drums to spend several months indulging his other great passion, motor racing, competing on the British circuit before accepting an offer to join Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple band, Rainbow, following another nailed audition (above). Cozy’s first recording with the group, Rising, reached Number Six in the UK album charts and still resonates with modern drummers.
In Rainbow, Powell developed his trademark live solo, performed to the accompaniment of the ‘1812 Overture’ and all the pyrotechnics that health and safety would allow. He played on three more Rainbow albums – On Stage, Long Live Rock’n’Roll and Down To Earth, which included the hit single ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ – and in 1979 Cozy released his first album as a solo artist, Over The Top, featuring Cream’s Jack Bruce on bass and Gary Moore on guitar.
Tracks like the aptly titled ‘Killer’ showed Powell in full flow, battering his tom toms over a double bass drum groove. Powell left Rainbow and joined the Michael Schenker Group, where he stayed for two years before joining Whitesnake, with whom he recorded ‘Slide It In’.
“I’m a huge fan of Cozy Powell, as a human being and as a drummer,” says Tommy Aldridge, who, like Powell, was a pioneer of double bass drumming in rock. “Cozy was one of the few drummers, one of my few contemporaries, that I actually considered a friend.
"When I was working with Ozzy and we were supporting Whitesnake in Europe I got to know Cozy, and got to hang out with him.” Tommy later took over the drum stool in Whitesnake and found himself playing the songs he’d heard Powell perform when they were on the road together. “To have the opportunity to play some of those tunes that I heard him play, the real deal, night after night, was a real blessing.”
After the success of Over The Top, Powell released two more solo records, 1981’s Tilt and 1983’s Octopus. The latter featured a new incarnation of Powell’s solo in which he let rip over the rousing score from the movie 633 Squadron, a wartime adventure about an RAF squadron assigned to take out a Nazi rocket fuel factory.
Cozy’s bombastic solo moved up a gear again when he became one third of Emerson, Lake and Powell. Their one album (released in 1986) and accompanying tour featured an arrangement of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, The Bringer Of War’, which gave Cozy room to cut loose, surrounded by more fireworks than a Guy Fawkes celebration.
The late ’80s saw Powell return to session work, playing on Warlock’s Triumph And Agony with songstress Doro Pesch, Cinderella’s Long Cold Winter and Gary Moore’s After The War. Despite the fact that Moore and Cozy had worked together on Cozy’s solo material, their collaboration was not a happy one.
Moore’s previous record, Wild Frontier, featured drum machines, which were anathema to Powell and, when they began rehearsals for a tour, Powell had to explain to Moore that some of the parts on Wild Frontier could not be replicated by a human being. He left before Moore hit both the road and the roof.
If every drum fill has to be the same every night, there’s no fun in that for me
Adding another legendary band to his resume, Cozy joined Black Sabbath, co-producing Headless Cross with Tony Iommi. Back in a band again after several years as a hired hand, Powell told Metal Hammer magazine: “People say I keep moving around; I move around session-wise, but then again, I think a lot of drummers do.
"It’s great to be part of a band; had the Gary Moore tour happened, it just would have been, ‘Do this, do that,’ and there’s not a lot of satisfaction in doing that after a while. I don’t mind doing it in the studio, but on stage you have to be able to play the way you feel best.
"If every drum fill has to be the same every night, there’s no fun in that for me.”
Sidelined from Sabbath
Sadly, Powell’s involvement with Sabbath was interrupted in 1991 when he was injured while horse riding. With Ronnie James Dio back in the fold, Sabbath brought Vinny Appice in to record Dehumanizer, leaving a disgruntled Cozy on the sidelines.
“I was kicked out of the band because a horse fell on top of me and I couldn’t play for six months,” he said. “I was disappointed in Tony’s choices, and especially because he didn’t want to wait for me to recover.”
Like Powell, Appice would be in and out of the band’s ever-changing line-up for years to come. When he returned as part of Heaven And Hell, Appice paid tribute to Powell: “On those tracks that are on the CD The Dio Years, I used Cozy Powell’s drums,” explains Appice.
I used Cozy Powell’s drums
“I thought that was cool. Cozy and Tony were mates and I said, ‘Great!’ I tuned them up a little bit, played them a little bit and started recording. I kept his spirit alive on the recording.”
After leaving Sabbath for the second time in 1996, Powell played on three albums with Brian May, as well records with Peter Green, Yngwie Malmsteen and Judas Priest’s Glenn Tipton,
On 5 April, 1998, Powell was driving on the M4 in the rain, talking to his girlfriend on his mobile phone. His black Saab 9000 Turbo suffered a puncture while Powell was doing 104 mph and spun out of control. Powell was killed in the crash, falling victim to his love of speed and ending the career of one of rock’s most charismatic figures.
Gone, but never forgotten, Cozy continues to inspire drummers as he did John Tempesta during the recording of the track ‘Meat’ for Tony Iommi’s solo record. “There’s one fill that’s a triplet fill,” says Tempesta. “It’s pretty much a tribute to Cozy, very similar to his style. Tony Iommi turned around and smiled. He loved that!”