Marsha Zazula, Co-Founder of Metallica’s Early Label, Megaforce Records, Dies at 68

Marsha Zazula
Courtesy Megaforce Records

UPDATED: Megaforce Records co-founder Marsha Zazula — who launched the iconic label, which released the first albums from Metallica, Anthrax and many others, with her husband Jon in 1982 — died Saturday in her Florida home, a rep for the label confirms to Variety. The cause of death was cancer; she was 68.

“The world of music owes a debt of gratitude to Marsha Zazula, who along with her husband Jon gave birth to some of the most musically significant artists,” the label said in a statement. “Marsha was one of a kind, and taught the world to be fiercely independent. Megaforce and our artists will never forget her. In our hearts she will always be a guiding force.”

“We will love you to eternity,” her family wrote. “Rest in peace with our love.” Jon, her husband of 41 years, wrote: “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 extend of losing everything in order to make those dreams come true. She was a mother and mentor to many, and a role model as a woman breaking the glass ceiling in an industry run by men. She had balls, beauty, brains and vision.” She is survived by Jon; three daughters, Danielle Zazula, Rikki Zazula and Blaire Brewer; a sister, Hedy Tehrani; and five grandchildren.

Born in Brooklyn, Marsha was a guiding and stabilizing presence at a company — which also included Crazed Management — whose artists were often as unruly as their music. Along with Metallica (whose first two albums the label released), Anthrax, Testament, former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, Ministry, King’s X, Overkill and Raven were among the company’s biggest acts. “Jonny and Marsha,” nearly always side-by-side, were a friendly and familiar presence at metal concerts and events during the era.

Metallica paid tribute to Marsha on Instagram Sunday posting a recent photo of founding members James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich with the Zazulas and early Megaforce publicist Maria Ferrero, captioned, “Rest In Peace, Marsha. Thank you for everything.”

Later on Sunday, Ulrich followed with a statement of his own: “Marsha was an incredibly selfless matriarch who had an enormous impact on my life and the lives of countless others. I will forever be grateful to her, Jonny and the entire Megaforce family for taking a chance on a gang of misfits and outsiders like ourselves and for helping connect us to a larger and like-minded audience.”

On Monday, Hetfield wrote: “Marsha Z is the Metal Matriarch of the East Coast. She was our mother when I had none. She made great sacrifices for Metallica to grow. Thank you Marsha — love and positive energy to the Zazula family.”

A graduate of Lehman College, Marsha told Variety last year how her degree in child psychology helped her to keep the business, its artists and her notoriously unruly husband on a relatively even keel.

“We all know that musicians have a little bit of mental impairment,” she laughed. “I used it a lot with Jon, too.”

The Zazulas’ metal dynasty began in the early 1980s as a small independent record store called Rock and Roll Heaven, located at the Route 18 flea market in East Brunswick, New Jersey. The couple originally intended to focus on artists such as John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. But it was Marsha who decided to focus on selling rare import copies of albums from burgeoning “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” acts such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and other rising European bands, and stocked the store with like-minded publications such as Kerrang and Sounds. The couple began promoting shows — including an early show with the early metal band Anvil — in the area.

The Zazulas’ reputation grew and before long, a demo from a San Francisco-based band called Metallica found its way to them. Realizing the group was, as Jon put it, “lightning in a bottle,” the couple brought the quartet to their home in New Jersey and created Megaforce Records to launch the group. Metallica’s debut album, “Kill ‘Em All,” was released in July of 1983, effectively launching the thrash metal movement.

While the label lost Metallica to Elektra Records in 1984, shortly after releasing the group’s second album, “Ride the Lightning,” Megaforce remained a powerful force in heavy metal throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, releasing albums by the above artists and many others via distribution deals with Atlantic, Island, Caroline and other labels. The label varied its roster during the 1990s and continues to this day.

Jon Zazula chronicled much of the label’s history in his book, “Heavy Tales: The Metal, The Music, The Madness,” talking of how he met a “sweet girl named Marsha” and how their personalities created to a successful marriage and a long-running business partnership.

“She was great at assisting others through her patience,” Jon wrote. “Her ability to communicate [prevented] many problems at that time. People spoke differently to Marsha than they did to me, and that is what kept things going.  Marsha was like a mother confessor … She doused fires between me and bands, me and partners, me and the world. I felt like I was a bull in a china shop knocking everything around, and Marsha was right there making sure nothing got broke or knocked off the shelf.”

Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick tells Variety that Marsha was a nurturing mother figure for many of the label’s artists, especially ones whose families may have disapproved of their career choices.

“She kept things balanced,” Skolnick says. “She was this steady hand, a calming force, during these intense moments — and there were intense moments! Jonny and Marsha were really a team; she was there for every decision. Jonny, bless him, was the stereotypical hot-headed, East Coast label executive — patience and calm may not have been his strong suits — and she balanced him out.” Testament singer Chuck Billy added, “I had never met anyone like Marsha or Jonny; we had not just a professional relationship but a great friendship. She was no  bullshitter, always told it like it was. Being in the world we live in, she was outnumbered by men, but you’d never know it.”

Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante remembers her as being involved with everything from album artwork decisions to helping manage crises when the artists were on the road. “I never really saw Marsha freak out,” he says. “She was always kind of mellow.” The group’s Scott Ian wrote on Sunday: “Marsha was an integral part of our career and a force to be reckoned with – knocking down (with Jon) whatever doors stood in our way in those early days. We were like a family, a big head-banging metal family and we took care of each other.”

Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, lead vocalist of Overkill, remembers Zazula as the “heart” of Megaforce. 
”She gave the entire structure the feeling of a family. That’s why it succeeded and why it was special, and why I loved being part of it.”

The label also launched the careers of many executives who are still working in the industry, including Ferrero, Megaforce’s first employee, now of Adrenaline PR. “Marsha was the grand dame of metal, who had style, class and an open heart, and who rallied for all of us misfits, starting with Metallica — and the rest is history,” she said.

Missi Callazzo, who started as an intern in 1989 and ended up taking over the label, said “Marsha and Jon gave me my start in the business while I was still in college. It was always inspiring to work with Marsha and she really mentored me in the music industry. I still quote her to this day.”