A Look Back at Savatage’s Criss Oliva

By Andrew Catania

A skilled composer, a master player and a penman that inscribed magical lyrics through his excellent penmanship – Criss Oliva is a name that will forever shine on the music sphere for his invaluable contributions that uplifted the stature of his genre and has casted an eternal impact on the rock, metal as well as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Born on 3rd April 1963, young Criss moved with his family to settle in Florida, en-route California. During their stay in California, Criss started developing an affinity towards music, particularly for guitars and decided to pursue the passion even after settling in Florida. He spent his entire childhood listening to and learning the intricacies of a variety of music.

He was particularly impressed by the works of Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker. He also started to test his fingers on the chords. This initial self-taught approach towards making up his licks and lyrics later turned out to be of an immense benefit when he delved headlong into the professional music domain.

After some years of learning, practices, jamming on different techniques, Criss Oliva and his older brother Jon Oliva joined hands and laid the foundation of Avatar, in 1978. After two years of jams and performances, the Criss-Jon duo offered Steve Wacholz to join Avatar. The duo turned into a trio, and the combination of talents proved to be just the right move that propelled Avatar into the legend-making discourse.

The trio staged some impressive performances in music clubs in Tampa and Clearwater areas for many years and was later joined by Keith Collins in `1981. Avatar had now become a four-member band, after a year, released their first EP in 1982. However, before the release, the band decided to change their name to Savatage – a term created from the combination of Avatar.

There was no looking back for the band after the release of their first EP. The very next year, the band released a full-fledged album titled Sirens in 1983. The success of the album enthralled the fandom, and the uproar of applauds fuelled the band so much that they issued another album the Dungeons Are Calling in 1985, with Par Records.

The records created waves in their time and gained a tremendous applause from the audience and critics alike for their large variance of musical styles. Savatage was ruling the limelight, well on their path to obtaining a legendary status. In 1985, the band parted ways with Par Records and landed in an association with Atlantic Records in 1985.

With Atlantic Records, the band released six more albums, consistently extending and building a sound profile. Aside from that, Savatage was also being approached by renowned musicians and producers. They collaborated with Paul O’Neil in 1987 and also went on a full-fledged musical tour with the acclaimed metal band Megadeth the same year. Criss was also offered by Dave Mustaine to join Megadeth, replacing Jeff Young.

Criss turned down the offer and continued playing for Savatage. On the unfortunate night of 17th October 1993, Criss Oliva lost his life in a car accident. Savatage was never the same. However, the legacy that he has left behind will always keep him alive, through his finest works for the generations to come.

3 thoughts on “A Look Back at Savatage’s Criss Oliva”

  1. Criss was incredible and completely overlooked during the time he played. Can’t imagine what he would have been able to create if not taken by someone else’s irresponsible and reckless actions. RIP Criss.

  2. So glad to see an article on Criss. Savatage remains my favorite band, and I will always wonder to what heights they could have risen, had they not lost this brilliant young musician to a stupid, useless drunken driver.

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