Alongside his wife and Megaforce co-founder Marsha Zazula, who died last January, Zazula was instrumental in launching the burgeoning thrash-metal subgenre that exploded into the culture in the mid-to-early 1980s. Through Megaforce, the couple put out early records by pivotal bands including Anthrax, Testament, Overkill and future mainstream superstars Metallica, whose first two albums — triple-platinum Kill ‘Em All and six-times platinum Ride the Lightning — were released by the label in the first half of the decade.
“The world of rock and metal would not be what it is today without Jon Zazula,” wrote Megaforce Records in a tweet on Tuesday announcing his death. “Jon’s love of music and musicians was unwavering. A giant was lost today. Rest In Peace Jon.”
Known as “Jonny Z” to his friends, Zazula grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s, when — contrary to the music that would come to define his career — he counted himself as an aficionado of opera and classical music, the Grateful Dead and jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
In 1981, shortly after marrying Marsha, Zazula began selling vinyl imports and picture discs out of a flea market located along Route 18 in New Jersey. The couple quickly became known among local metalheads, including future Megaforce artists like Overkill lead singer Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante, for carrying rare finds from across the Atlantic. The successful venture eventually led them to open a brick-and-mortar shop, Rock n’ Roll Heaven, in Clark, New Jersey.
“They would bring in all this vinyl that was just un-gettable in the States, unless you knew somebody overseas,” says Ellsworth. “Whether it be the early Raven stuff and the new wave of British heavy metal,” including bands like Tygers of Pan Tang and Venom, he continues, “They came on the scene locally and set the bar.”
The Zazulas’ future began to reveal itself after a customer brought Metallica’s demo cassette No Life ‘Til Leather by the store and insisted Jon play it on the spot. Struck by their sound, Zazula set about trying to get the band signed but was turned down by every record label he approached. Undaunted, the Zazulas took matters into their own hands, launching Megaforce Records in 1982. They released Kill ‘Em All on the imprint in July 1983.
Through their business at the flea market, the Zazulas had become deeply attuned to the undercurrents bubbling up in metal at the time, and they proved smart and savvy enough to harness it. “They completely threw a net over it all and captured what was happening,” says Benante, who last spoke with Zazula on Saturday and remained close with him over the years.
In the wake of Kill ‘Em All’s release, Metallica toured relentlessly and scored important opening gigs for bands like Raven and Twisted Sister with the help of Zazula, who sent them $1,500 to help cover touring costs. Though its commercial impact wasn’t immediate, it became a landmark record that is now often cited as the first thrash-metal album released in the U.S., influencing generations of bands to follow.
Metallica decamped for Elektra Records in 1984, but Megaforce’s successful run with the band allowed the label to grow its roster and sign distribution deals with Atlantic and Island Records, providing a major-label gateway for its artists. In that way, Megaforce became an important bridge to the mainstream for the thrash metal subgenre as a whole.
“All the bands that were metal like us were on independent labels,” says Testament lead singer Chuck Billy, who launched the management company Breaking Bands with the Zazulas and former Megaforce publicist Maria Ferrero in 2014. “Megaforce was independent, but they had that major connection, and that was a big step.”
Megaforce’s horizons expanded a bit over the years, with the Zazulas signing more mainstream hard rock acts like King’s X, Mind Funk and original KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley. At one point, the label even attempted to launch a classical imprint, though that didn’t ultimately pan out (as Jon recounted to Billboard in a 2019 interview). That kind of drastic shift may seem radical, but it’s just the sort of outside-the-box thinking Jon is remembered for by those who knew him.
“If Jonny had 10 ideas, maybe seven of them were just crazy, but then the three were really good,” says Benante.
While Jon brought the fire and the business savvy, the Zazulas’ relationship was a deeply complementary one, with Marsha holding down some of the more artistic aspects of running the label while reining in some of her husband’s wilder ideas. “That was the cool thing about their relationship,” says Ellsworth, “was that it doesn’t work without both of them.”
Because of their deeply intertwined history in business and in life, it’s difficult to consider the Zazulas in isolation – and it was likely the same for Jon following the death of his wife just 12 months ago. “No man can ask for a partner like Marsha Zazula, someone who would stand by your side, support you, and believe in you to the extent of losing everything in order to make those dreams come true,” he said in a statement to Billboard at the time, before praising his late wife as “a woman breaking the glass ceiling in an industry ran by men.”
In 1995, the Zazulas spun off a full-service sister company, MRI, which helped pioneer a business model that gave artists more control over how they were managed and how their music was distributed. In 2001, the Zazulas departed Megaforce, selling their stake to the label’s former radio director, Missi Callazzo. In 2019, Jon resurfaced publicly with the autobiography Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As Lived by Jon Zazula, which recounted the label’s pioneering history.
“Once I started working with music, I knew all the answers,” Jon told Billboard while promoting the book. “It was like a jigsaw puzzle, and I kept finding the right pieces.”