The Early Days of Judas Priest: Formation and Tragedy

Formed in 1969 amidst the gritty backdrop of Birmingham, England, Judas Priest's early days were marred by tragedy and lineup changes, leading up to the significant moment in 1973 when vocalist Rob Halford joined. This shift not only marked a new beginning for the band but also set the stage for their ascent as heavy metal icons.

The early lineup of Judas Priest with Ian Hill, K. K. Downing, Chris Campbell, and Allan Atkins, standing outdoors. They are looking intently towards the distance, set against a backdrop of leafless trees, reflecting the somber beginnings of the band. Each member has a distinct hairstyle from long straight to afro, and they are dressed in classic rock fashion of the era.
Ian Hill, K. K. Downing, Chris Campbell and Allan Atkins
Key Takeaways
  • Judas Priest, formed in 1969 in Birmingham, faced early lineup changes and the suicide of guitarist John Perry.
  • The band’s name, Judas Priest, was inspired by a Bob Dylan song.
  • Rob Halford’s addition in 1973 marked a pivotal shift, elevating their future success.

The Early Years and a Fateful Beginning

Judas Priest, a band that would become synonymous with the evolution of heavy metal, was formed in 1969 in Birmingham, England. The original lineup comprised Al Atkins on lead vocals, Brian “Bruno” Stapenhill wielding the bass, John Perry on guitar, and John “Fezza” Partridge on the drums. This ensemble, though initially filled with promise, soon faced a tragic setback.

Just a few months into their journey, the band was deeply shaken by the suicide of guitarist John Perry. This tragic event profoundly impacted the remaining members. United in their grief, they resolved to continue the band in Perry’s memory, a decision that would shape the course of their musical careers.

In the wake of tragedy, the founding members of Judas Priest resolved to persevere, setting a foundation for their future legacy.

In the somber weeks following Perry’s funeral, the band embarked on the search for a new guitarist to fill the void he had left. Among the young musicians who auditioned was K.K. Downing, who would later become a pivotal figure in Judas Priest. However, at that time, the band felt Downing lacked the necessary experience and instead opted for Ernest Chataway, a well-regarded guitarist from the Birmingham music scene. Chataway was not only recognized for his guitar prowess but also for his association with the band Earth, which would later transform into the iconic Black Sabbath.

The band’s connection to Black Sabbath played an indirect role in the christening of their own name. Inspired by Downing’s mention of Earth’s evolution into Black Sabbath, the members of Judas Priest sought a name that was equally impactful and memorable, setting the stage for their own unique identity.

Choosing a Name

The journey to find a unique identity for the band culminated with the selection of their name, “Judas Priest,” a decision influenced by various artistic sources. The inspiration for the name came from an unexpected place – a Bob Dylan song. Bassist Bruno Stapenhill was influenced by Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” from the album “John Wesley Harding.” He suggested this name to his bandmates, who unanimously agreed that it would be both memorable and striking, perfectly encapsulating the essence of their music.

The task of officially registering the band’s name fell to their original manager, David Corke. He ensured that “Judas Priest” was formally recognized, marking a pivotal moment in the band’s early history. This name remained a constant even through significant changes in the band’s lineup. One of the most notable changes was the addition of Rob Halford as the vocalist in 1973, which occurred just a year before the release of their debut album “Rocka Rolla.”

Struggles and the Arrival of Rob Halford

Judas Priest’s journey in the late 1960s and early 1970s was marked by both promise and challenges. The band recorded a two-song demo featuring “Good Time Woman” and “We’ll Stay Together.” This initial effort led to securing a three-album deal with the Immediate label in late 1969. However, the label’s subsequent closure before any album could be recorded resulted in the band’s split in 1970.

Al Atkins, in pursuit of a new musical direction, joined the heavy rock band Freight, which included future Judas Priest members K.K. Downing on guitars, Ian Hill on bass, and drummer John Ellis. They adopted the name Judas Priest, and their first performance under this banner took place on March 6, 1971.

The early days of Judas Priest were a time of change and adaptation, culminating in the significant arrival of Rob Halford as the lead vocalist.

Ellis departed later that year, replaced by Alan Moore. During this period, their performances featured covers of bands like Hendrix and Quatermass, alongside original songs such as “Never Satisfied,” “Winter,” and “Caviar and Meths.” They also recorded a 45 rpm demo for Zella Records in July 1971, featuring “Mind Conception” and “Holy is the Man.”

The lineup saw further changes when Alan Moore left and was replaced by “Chris Congo” Campbell. Under the new management of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, Judas Priest continued to evolve. Al Atkins, facing financial pressures and family responsibilities, played his last gigs with the band in December 1972.

Subsequently, Campbell departed, paving the way for drummer John Hinch and vocalist Rob Halford from Hiroshima to join the band. Halford was introduced to Judas Priest’s bassist and co-founder Ian Hill by his sister Sue, who was dating Hill. Halford, then managing a men’s clothing store, brought a new dimension to Judas Priest as the lead singer, along with drummer John Hinch.

Their first show together in May 1973 at the Townhouse in Wellington marked a significant turning point for Judas Priest. This performance showcased Rob Halford’s iconic vocals for the first time. Interestingly, a recording of this show was released in 2019 on the compilation “Downer-Rock Asylum” by Audio Archives, offering fans a rare glimpse into the band’s early days with Halford and Hinch. This period signified a crucial phase in the band’s history, laying the foundation for their future success and Halford’s emergence as a metal icon.