Cult Heroes No. 5: Criss Oliva
This time, Malcolm Dome takes a look back at the all-too-brief career of a guitarist who stood on the verge of greatness when he was killed in a road accident. You might not be aware of Criss Oliva yet. But after Malc’s finished warbling at least you’ll know why you should care enough to check him out… Check out all of Classic Rock‘s Cult Heroes here.
There’s a guitar solo at the end of Savatage’s Streets: A Rock Opera album… no, it’s more than a guitar solo, this is something truly special, oustanding. Use any superlative you like, but no words can capture the grace, emotion and poetry of this particular piece of music. It’s in the song Believe, and the man responsible was to die two years later. He remains almost unknown outside of diehard Savatage fans. But deserves so much more. His name… Criss Oliva.
Anyone who’s ever heard what this man was capable of achieving on the guitar will agree that here was a remarkable, unique talent. Someone with an affinity for his instrument that few others can equal.
“Man, he never did get the credit he deserved,” agrees former Savatage vocalist Jon Oliva, Criss’ elder brother. “I think he was just coming into his own when he died. It’s tragic, because Savatage were just beginning to break through, Had he lived Criss would have gotten so much more attention.”
But on October 17, 1993 he was killed in a road accident just north of Tampa, Florida – at the age of just 30. And while there have been so many other musos who’ve died even younger, with him you just know that the world was robbed of a talent only just starting to flower. Wbereas others, although their deaths should never be belittled, had perhaps already artistically peaked, Criss Oliva was still a long way short of achieving his potential.
“He was so ready to make it happen,” sighs Jon. “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.”
You can still feel Jon’s pain, not only at the loss of his kid brother, but also of the way that Savatage’s steady rise was so savagely halted by a moment of motorway madness.
Criss was born on April 3, 1963 in California (although he grew up in Florida), making him three years younger than Jon. But it was thanks to the latter that he started playing guitar.
“I got a guitar for my birthday, when I was 14 years old,” recalls Oliva. “He would have been 11 at the time. Now, I went away for a weekend on a camping trip with some friends, and came back to find he’d been in the garage with my guitar and could already play Smoke On The Water! So, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just play bass and sing.’ He was a total natural, and got so good, so fast. Criss never had a lesson in his life. What he did was instinctive. But the time he was 12, Criss was the best player in the area, easily outdoing people who’d been playing for a lot longer.”
“Criss loved UFO’s Obsession album, and would play it all the time, I think it’s fair to say that Schenker’s style was a big inspiration for him.”
In 1978, the Oliva brothers started a band called Avatar, changing the name to Savatage five years later. What followed was a string of impressive proto power metal records, starting with Sirens in 1983, and The Dungeons Are Calling two years later. On these, Criss’ performances had real punch and authority. But it was to be on the next three albums that Savatage – and Criss – found their mark and niche.
Hall Of The Mountain King started it all in 1987, leaning much more into a progressive area. And such was the attention Criss was starting to get that he got an offer to join Megadeth in 1989, replacing Jeff Young.
“I appreciated the offer, but I fully believe in what I’m doing with Savatage,” he said at the time. That same year the band came back with Gutter Ballet, building on the success of the previous record. And, in 1991 out came Streets: A Rock Opera, arguably the best record Savatage ever made. Here we can truly feel what Criss could do.
“I love the solo on Believe and also Ghost In The Ruins,” says Jon. “He was really finding out what he could do with a guitar.”
One thing that makes him stand apart is that, in an era where almost every guitarist was attempting to play more notes at increasing pace, he allowed the music to breathe. There was space and tranquillity within the fire. Moreover, like all the greats, he left room to develop studio performances, so that every guitar part wasn’t a complete picture, but a work in progress, one on which he could build when onstage,
Criss was to record one more album with Savatage, 1993′s Edge Of Thorns, by which point Zak Stevens had replaced Jon Oliva. But within six months Criss was dead.
However, he continues to be an active recording artist, which might sound macabre but it is no less true, thanks to Jon’s determination to keep his flame burning.
“I had loads of cassettes in a box, each with ideas and riffs that Criss had recorded, but never used. There must have been close to 60 of them. I’ve been slowly working my way through these, and they have been incorporated into each album I’ve recorded with Jon Oliva’s Pain. Not only is that one way of keeping Criss’ memory alive, but he gets full songwriting credits.
“I’ve only got about eight cassettes left to go through now – just about enough for another album. But the other guys in the band are always keen to hear what I’ve unearthed from Criss. They love his ideas.”
The recent release of the Savatage double CD compilation, Still The Orchestra Plays, has again highlighted just what a phenomenal guitarist Criss was – even if Believe has been unbelievably left off!
“We lost an incredible person and an amazing musician,” concludes Jon. “But I guess Jimi Hendrix just needed someone up there to teach him a few things!”
Check out Criss Oliva:
Find out more at www.crissoliva.com