“The emotion of Clapton, the feel of Joe Perry, and the dexterity of Eddie Van Halen”: Criss Oliva was one of heavy music’s most electrifying guitar players – and then a drunk driver took his life

Musicians Johnny Lee Middleton (L) and Criss Oliva (R) (1963-1993) of Savatage pose for a portrait on August 8, 1991 in New York City, New York.
(Image credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

This article was originally published in Guitar World, April 2009, to mark the 15th anniversary of the passing of Criss Olivia. Oliva died on October 17, 1993. Only 30 years old at the time of his death, he continues to leave his imprint, not only through his legacy of music but also through the guitarists he inspired.

This past winter holiday season, more than a million people across America attended concerts by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the pyro-loving symphonic rock group that mixes hard rock with classical music and holiday carols. As always, several items at the group’s merchandise stand featured the image of a white Charvel guitar draped in roses, but TSO’s concerts are not the first place this symbol has appeared. In fact, TSO appropriated it – along with several of the group’s members, and even its signature song, Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 – from the band that spawned TSO in unlikely fashion a dozen years ago.

That band was Savatage, and the Charvel guitar – which first appeared on the back cover of that group’s 1991 album, Streets – belonged to its late founding guitarist, Criss Oliva. The tale of how a long-running cult metal act begat TSO is a story unto itself, for without Savatage there would be no TSO, and without Oliva, there would be neither band.

Although Savatage continued to record until 2001 and never officially disbanded, they were at their most creative while Oliva was their lead guitarist. His distinctive, self-taught style of playing – marked by gargantuan but catchy riffs, crisp and driving rhythms and poignant, emotive guitar solos – was flashy yet simultaneously tasteful. His fans included peers such as Dave Mustaine, who once tried to recruit Oliva for Megadeth, and Alex Skolnick.

“[Criss] had the fluidity of guys like George Lynch and Warren DeMartini, but with an aggressive, melodic conviction that fit Savatage perfectly,” Skolnick says. “His solos had a flash that would have worked with any popular ’80s hard rock band, but his rhythms had an intensity and crunch that were reminiscent of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and this gave his playing a dark, melodic flavor.”

“Criss’ guitar playing was phenomenal,” adds David Ellefson, Megadeth’s bassist from 1983 to 2002. “You could hear his classical roots and appreciate his knowledge and grasp of modal dexterity that was such a huge signature of his work. He was a trailblazer in metal guitar the way Randy Rhoads was before him.”

Although Savatage were officially founded in 1983, their roots go back to the mid-’70s, when Criss and his brother Jon first began making music together. Criss started out on bass, but after discovering Michael Schenker and Ritchie Blackmore, he switched to guitar.

Soon after, the Oliva family moved to Tampa, Florida, where Jon and Criss formed a three-piece band called Tower with bassist Tony Ciulla, who later became manager for Marilyn Manson. With Jon on drums and vocals, Criss on guitar and Ciulla on bass, Tower started out playing covers by the likes of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Rush, acts whose guitarists heavily influenced Criss. Eventually, Jon stepped out from behind the kit to become a frontman and the group changed its name to Avatar.

Over the next two years (and following several lineup changes), the band started to write original material and began to earn a solid following in the Tampa Bay area after it released a three-track seven-inch on local indie Par Records.

Reviews and sales were encouraging, so Par asked the group to cut a full album. Two days before the record went to press, the band learned that another act was already using the moniker Avatar. By combining the name with the word “savage,” the Oliva brothers came up with “Savatage”.

The band’s 1983 full-length debut, Sirens, was a landmark recording that mixed classic hard rock and metal with elements of thrash and speed metal, genres that were then in their infancy. The album is frequently cited as one of the foundations of both power metal and progressive metal and helped spawn Tampa’s prolific music scene. (Florida death-metallers Six Feet Under demonstrated Savatage’s local impact by covering the Sirens track Holocaust on its 2000 release Graveyard Classics.) It was also the first heavy metal album recorded at the now legendary Morrisound Studios, which soon became an in-demand destination for renowned metal bands.

Jason Flom, then an A&R rep for Atlantic Records, heard Sirens and was impressed. He flew to Tampa to see Savatage perform. “The place was crowded, and the kids were going nuts,” recalls Flom, who is currently president of Lava Records. “[Criss] was a great guitar player. He had a very unique style, and he was really, really talented.” 

Flom subsequently brokered a deal to free the group from its recording contract with Par, an arrangement that required the group to give the label one more release, the 1984 EP The Dungeons Are Calling. Two of its songs – the title track and City Beneath the Surface – would provide the opening one-two punch at Savatage concerts for years to come.

For the band’s 1985 Atlantic debut, Power of the Night, the label paired Savatage with producer Max Norman, then well-known for his work on Ozzy Osbourne’s solo albums. The resulting record was more refined than Savatage’s two independent releases, but songs like the title track, Washed Out and Skull Session retained the band’s razor-sharp edge and aptly showcased Oliva’s dexterity as a guitarist. 

The most commercial-sounding track on the album was the tongue-in-cheek Hard For Love, but it failed to make commercial headway. Atlantic had tried to persuade Savatage to change the title to the more radio-friendly Hot For Love, but the group refused.

Shortly after completing their first American tour, Savatage began work on their next album, this time at a recording studio in London, with new bassist Johnny Lee Middleton in tow. The resulting Fight for the Rock is widely seen as the weakest album in the group’s catalog, the result of a tight recording budget, the band’s inexperience and poor advice from its managers. Despite the record’s flaws, Criss’ talents shone through, particularly on heavier tracks like Red Light Paradise, Hyde and The Edge of Midnight.

On the Fight for the Rock tour, Savatage supported Motörhead in Europe and opened for Ted Nugent in America, but like Power of the Night, the album failed to yield a hit. The band’s days with Atlantic seemed numbered until A&R rep Flom asked his acquaintance Paul O’Neill to see if he could help the group. O’Neill had worked at Leber-Krebs, a management company that had handled Aerosmith, AC/DC and Def Leppard, among others, and he had recently become a full-time producer. 

Following Flom’s example, O’Neill went to Florida to see Savatage perform live. He was instantly taken with the band, in particular Criss Oliva. “Criss had a feel that was staggering and a sound that was unbelievable,” O’Neill says. “I simply had never heard a better guitar player.”

Soon, O’Neill began collaborating with Savatage on what became 1987’s Hall of the Mountain King. The record was widely revered and asserted Savatage as a significant force in the metal scene.

Atlantic was relieved when its sales far outpaced those of the band’s previous releases. The title track is likely Savatage’s best-known song, but other Mountain King tracks featured riffs that were equally memorable. Some of Criss’ finest lead work on the album included the riveting ride-out in 24 Hours Ago and the band’s first full-fledged instrumental, an interpretation of Norwegian classical composer Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King titled Prelude to Madness.

In addition to producing Hall of the Mountain King, O’Neill co-wrote much of the album’s material with the Oliva brothers, a process that would be repeated on the band’s subsequent albums. In their first writing session, O’Neill discovered that his initial assessment of Criss’ talent was accurate.

“Criss could play anything you could imagine,” he says. “He could work a solo around a vocal without stepping on it, and he was one of the few guitarists who knew how to convey the emotion of the human voice with a guitar. He was a combination of the angst of Duane Allman on Layla, the excitement of Jimmy Page, the emotion of Eric Clapton, the raw feel of Joe Perry and the dexterity of [Eddie] Van Halen or [Allan] Holdsworth.”

Shortly after the release of Mountain King, Savatage received its biggest break yet when Dio asked the band to open an extensive American arena tour, with Megadeth in the support slot. Ellefson recalls watching Oliva perform nightly. “At the end of 24 Hours Ago, Criss played this bitchin’ diminished lick. Every night, I would stop everything I was doing and listen for him to play. It was my favorite lick of the entire tour, the lick I’ll always remember him for.”

Though the exposure it provided was invaluable, the three-month Dio tour took its toll on Savatage and, in particular, Jon, who spent a month in rehab after returning from the road. Save for a handful of one-offs, Savatage didn’t tour again for another 18 months.

Upon returning to America, Savatage reunited with O’Neill to put the finishing touches on a new record titled Gutter Ballet. The name was taken from a musical O’Neill had written years earlier, a manuscript of which Criss found by accident in the producer’s New York City home during a break from the studio.

The Olivas were so fond of both the title and the storyline about a rock star’s rise and fall that they appropriated the musical’s name and recorded one of its songs, the dramatic power ballad When the Crowds Are Gone. The track was the biggest musical risk Savatage had yet taken, and the album marked the group’s move toward progressive metal.

Years after its release, Trivium guitarist Corey Beaulieu – who was just six years old when Gutter Ballet was released – would discover its appeal. “The record has great songs and memorable hooks, and for a young kid just getting into guitar, Criss’ playing was just plain awesome,” Beaulieu says. “His playing was very smooth, and he had a great legato technique. Besides being a great shredder, he had a great melodic feel to his playing.”

The album was followed by the Rulin’ Gutter tour, which featured more than 100 dates and was Savatage’s most extensive yet. After supporting King Diamond in Europe, the band returned to America to play between Testament and Nuclear Assault on a lengthy domestic trek.

Criss became friends with Testament’s lead guitarist, Skolnick, but the two were already fans of one another. In fact, Skolnick says Criss’ performance on the title track from Sirens – which the guitarist says he first heard while in high school – played a significant role in his musical development.

“Criss inspired me to use octaves in metal riffs and solos, and Sirens is a great example of that,” he says. “Criss sounded very good on that album, but it was no comparison to where he took his playing a few years later. In fact, when I heard Gutter Ballet, I wasn’t even sure it was the same guy at first—his playing had grown by leaps and bounds.”

Rhythm guitarist Chris Caffery, who first performed with Savatage during the Dio tour, became an official member of the band during the Gutter cycle. Over time, he even appropriated some of Criss’ preferences, including his use of stainless-steel guitar picks. “They gave an edge to the speed of his picking because of the sharp point on the picking side and the material,” Caffery says.

For the follow-up to Gutter Ballet, Savatage returned to O’Neill’s musical for inspiration and spent nine months tracking their most ambitious album yet, a rock opera titled Streets. The recording bore little resemblance to the Savatage that released Sirens eight years prior, but it showcased just how broad Criss’ palette had grown – the slow build of the riveting solo in Ghost In The Ruins, the fierce and undeniable riffs of Agony And Ecstasy and Sammy and Tex, and the triumphant Believe, in which he used counterpoint to stirring effect.

While Jon feels that Streets is Savatage’s artistic pinnacle, it was a commercial setback for the band. Just days prior to its release, Nirvana issued their breakthrough, Nevermind. Its success ushered in grunge and altered the landscape of guitar-based rock for years. On the road for Streets, Savatage struggled financially and were forced to cancel the latter part of the album’s tour.

Adding to their problems, Jon was regularly losing his voice in concert, the result of a lack of formal training and nonstop vocal abuse over a three-year period. This, combined with the group’s inability to score a hit single, convinced him that he was holding Savatage back, and he stepped down as their vocalist.

Criss initially pondered making an instrumental album but soon decided to resume working on a new Savatage record with O’Neill and Jon, who continued to serve in a cowriting role. Together, they selected Zachary Stevens as Jon’s replacement and began recording what would become 1993’s Edge of Thorns.

Soon after the album was released, drummer Steve Wacholz left the band, leaving Criss as the last remaining original member of Savatage when they embarked on the first tour of the Edge of Thorns cycle, a European trek supporting Overkill.

By now, Savatage’s music had much more in common with classic hard rock bands of the ’70s than the metal acts of the early ’80s, but the songs on Edge of Thorns were still undeniably guitar-driven. Lights Out and Conversation Piece contained Criss’ trademark riffing, while the breathtaking ride-out to He Carves His Stone proved that he could shred better than ever. Jon feels the album is his brother’s best work. “I think he felt a lot of pressure and really worked hard to excel and take the focus away from me not being there.”

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the grunge-dominated airwaves, Edge of Thorns’ title track became the band’s first radio hit, peaking at 26 on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The airplay and subsequent sales, the group’s most brisk since Hall of the Mountain King, also helped Savatage to score their biggest tour since Dio: an invitation to open for Vince Neil on his first national headlining tour since leaving Mötley Crüe.

The album’s second single was to be Savatage’s first acoustic ballad, Sleep, and Atlantic – hoping to capitalize of the recent chart success of acts like Extreme, Mr. Big and Saigon Kick, the latter two of which were also on the label – was prepping a radio campaign around the song. Indeed, it seemed as if Savatage were finally nearing mainstream success.

But the tour and Sleep campaign never took place. In the early morning hours on October 17, 1993, Criss and his wife, Dawn, were driving home from a concert near Tampa when an oncoming car struck them head-on while attempting to pass another vehicle. Dawn was hospitalized; Criss was killed instantly. The driver of the car that struck them was drunk and convicted of DUI manslaughter.

The Savatage story could have ended then and there, but against all odds, the band carried on, experienced a renaissance in the mid-’90s and found more success overseas than it had previously.

Skolnick played a major role at first, guesting on the band’s 1994 album Handful of Rain (its first following Criss’ death) and participating in the tour that followed, which saw both the addition of drummer Jeff Plate and Jon Oliva’s return as vocalist. Caffery returned next, and after Skolnick declined an offer to join the group permanently, journeyman guitarist Al Pitrelli (Alice Cooper, Megadeth) joined the fold.

Criss Oliva (1963-1993) of Savatage pose for a portrait on August 8, 1991 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Criss Oliva, August 8, 1991, in New York City. "There’s something from him that’s a part of everything we do,” his brother Jon Oliva says of TSO. (Image credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

For their next album, Dead Winter Dead, Savatage returned to the rock opera format. Among the tracks on the album was a holiday-themed instrumental called Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24. As the 1995 Christmas holiday season unfolded, several pop radio stations across the U.S. unexpectedly began playing the song. In short order, Dead Winter Dead became a hot seller and quickly sold out. Unfortunately, the supply couldn’t be replenished until after the holidays, and by then, interest in the track had waned.

To make the most of their unexpected hit, the group decided to write and record a rock opera with Christmas Eve as its centerpiece, for release the next holiday season. Fearful that fans would reject the group’s change in musical direction and its obvious attempts to capitalize on the track, O’Neill and the members of Savatage named their new venture the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 

Released in October 1996, Christmas Eve and Other Stories was, and remains, a smash success. Every TSO release – which to date include four rock operas and one home video – has gone at least Gold, something no Savatage album ever accomplished. Meanwhile, TSO’s winter tour is now the country’s most attended annual concert tour.

People like Criss made everybody around them better musicians – and people like myself a better writer – because their talent was so limitless, it drove you to push further and further

Paul O’Neill

When TSO performed publicly for the first time in 1999, four members of Savatage – Pitrelli, Caffery, Middleton and Plate – and longtime associate Bob Kinkel (who contributed additional keyboards on the band’s albums over the years, beginning with Mountain King) anchored the lineup and have continued to do so ever since. Skolnick joined them the following year, and he is now a TSO regular.

Although Criss Oliva did not play on Christmas Eve, one of his guitars did. The instrument – a blue ESP that features a painting of a gargoyle by Savatage’s longtime cover artist, Gary Smith – has appeared on every Savatage and TSO record since Criss died. “That way, there’s something from him that’s a part of everything we do,” Jon explains.

Criss’ white Charvel went on display at the world’s largest Hard Rock Cafe, located at Universal Studios Orlando, but many more see it every year on TSO merchandise. The group also recorded some Savatage covers over the years, including a track from Streets

For many, TSO continues the Savatage legacy and keeps Criss’ memory alive. “Every time I see TSO,” Ellefson says, “I always think of Criss, because Criss’ dynamic guitar-playing abilities with Savatage were really the foundation and the launch pad of everything that followed with TSO.”

O’Neill agrees. “Even to this day in TSO,” he says, “a lot of the guitar players go back to the early Savatage albums to study Criss. People like Criss made everybody around them better musicians – and people like myself a better writer – because their talent was so limitless, it drove you to push further and further.”

Originally published in Guitar World, April 2009

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