Thirty years ago, Night Ranger were transformed from an opening act to a headliner with the release of their album Midnight Madness. The 1983 record became a smash hit within months of its October release, thanks to tracks like “Sister Christian,” “(You Can Still) Rock in America” and “When You Close Your Eyes.”
For Night Ranger guitarist and founding member Brad Gillis, the time between then and now seems like a lifetime. Over the years, in addition to recording and touring with Night Ranger, Gillis has released solo albums and written hundreds of songs for the ESPN network.
Although his greatest fame came with Night Ranger, Gillis is also remembered for replacing Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band immediately after Rhoads’ death while on tour with Ozzy in 1982. At the time, Night Ranger were still unknowns, whereas Osbourne was a star. Eventually, Gillis would be forced to choose between staying with Ozzy or continuing with Night Ranger.
Guitar World recently caught up with Gillis to talk with him about Midnight Madness, his tenure with Ozzy and his and Night Ranger’s forthcoming albums.
GUITAR WORLD: What do you remember most about the Midnight Madness period?
I remember being out on tour opening for bands like ZZ Top, 38 Special and Cheap Trick and then suddenly finding ourselves headlining. What was really exciting about that period for me was when we headlined in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in late ’83, ’84. I remember pulling into their coliseum and the marquee said “Night Ranger / Sold Out.” It was our first sold-out coliseum. The best thing of all is that I’m still with the same band and we’re still writing music and touring.
The band is also working on a new album. What can you tell us about it?
I brought in a lot of heavier guitar riffs for this album. It will be a much heavier album than our last one [2011’s Somewhere in California]. We’re getting back to the basic groove from our first album [1982’s Dawn Patrol] and songs like “Can’t Find Me a Thrill,” which was more straight-ahead rock.
It’s also been 30 years since you took over guitar duties with Ozzy Osbourne after Randy Rhoads died in a small-airplane crash. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of his death?
I had just seen Ozzy at Day on the Green a few months before Randy died. People were touting Randy as the next Eddie Van Halen, so I went to see the show, and he just blew me away. I was driving down the road when I heard the news that there was a plane crash and Randy was killed. I remember pulling over in my truck and just thinking how easily things could be lost.
How did you get the gig with Ozzy?
When Night Ranger got together in 1980, we didn’t want to go out and play much until we had a major release and could come out with a bang. So in the interim, I started a band called the Alameda All Stars. We would play local clubs in the area and always included a few Ozzy tunes in our set.
Shortly after Randy died, someone came to the club and saw me play and told me that he would try to get me an audition with Ozzy. I remember thinking “Yeah, right!” but the man turned out to be Preston Thrall, who was Pat Thrall’s brother. [Pat Thrall had played with drummer Tommy Aldridge in the Pat Travers band, and Aldridge was on tour with Osbourne when Rhoads died, hence the connection.] Preston told Pat, Pat told Tommy, and Tommy told Sharon [Osbourne, née Arden]. Sure enough, a few days later, I got a phone call at eight in the morning, and the woman on the other end said, “Hello, Bradley? This is Sharon Arden. I’m Ozzy Osbourne’s manager, and we’d like to fly you to New York for an audition.”
At first, I thought it was a joke, but then she put Ozzy on the phone and he asked me to write down 18 songs that he wanted me to learn. They wanted to fly me out on Tuesday, so I basically had two days to learn all of those songs. I told him that I’d need some time, but I really wanted to do it. Ozzy was working with Bernie Tormé as an interim player and he told me to come out and he’d take me on the road with them. So I watched a few of their shows and then spent four 12-hour days learning all that I could.
I remember we were in Binghamton, New York, when I told Sharon that I was ready. I was nervous, because I had never played with the band before. In fact, all I did was play seven songs during the soundcheck that night, and Ozzy never even showed up for it! [laughs] But I went out there and played that night and did well, except for when we got to “Revelation (Mother Earth).” I came into the fast part a little too early and Ozzy shot me the look of death. I was able to regain my composure and spot in the song and was fine for the rest of the set. But the one thing I’ll never forget happened the next night: Sharon took me aside and said, “Bradley, you’re doing a great job. But tonight…don’t f--- up!” [laughs]
What influenced your decision to stay with Night Ranger instead of going with Ozzy?
Although we had done a lot of shows and recorded Speak of the Devil [Osbourne’s double-live album from the tour, featuring Gillis on guitar], I didn’t feel like it was the best fit for me. [Osbourne bassist] Rudy Sarzo’s band, Quiet Riot, had recently gotten a record deal, and he left at around that same time. Night Ranger landed a record deal too. So I rolled the dice and decided to go with Night Ranger. What’s interesting, though, is that we released Dawn Patrol in ’82 and during that same week Ozzy released Speak of the Devil.
What can you tell us about your upcoming solo record?
I’m 14 songs deep right now. I’ve been taking my time on it, but I’m to the point now where I’m going to have some guest singers come in and hopefully have it finished sometime later this year or early next. It seems that I release a solo record every 10 to 12 years, so I think it’s about time.
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James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.