Before starting a metal label, Jon grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s loving opera and classical music, and later the Grateful Dead and jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Once he heard Metallica, though, his focus -- both personally and professionally -- became the burgeoning metal underground. He offered to manage the band, and sent it $1,500 to open for Venom and Twisted Sister on a string of East Coast dates. In 1984, Metallica left Megaforce for Elektra. “That could have been it,” remembers Jon. Instead, he grew the label’s roster and the following year signed distribution deals with Atlantic and Island Records, spanning five and six years, respectively.
By the late ’80s, Megaforce had signed thrash acts like Testament, Overkill, S.O.D., Vio-Lence and Anthrax, the lattermost of which the Zazulas became especially close with. “Marsha and I almost got divorced over using keyboards on the band’s [1985 song] ‘Armed and Dangerous,’ ” recalls Jon. “We fought for five hours!” Jon signed broader hard rock acts, too, like King’s X, Mind Funk and original KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley. Before retiring in 2001, he even tried to launch a classical imprint. “What was I thinking?” he wonders now.
Megaforce’s string of mid-’80s thrash metal hits surpassed the Zazulas’ expectations -- and in 1995, the label spun off a full-service sister company, MRI, that helped pioneer a business model giving artists more control in how they were managed and had their music distributed. Megaforce and MRI artists continue to be successful today: Anthrax has landed three albums in the top five of Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart, with its 2016 release, For All Kings, reaching No. 1.
The Zazulas left Megaforce in 2001, selling their stake in the label to its former radio director, Missi Callazzo. “It only made sense that Missi would be the one with the keys to the kingdom,” says Jon. By 2009, MRI had acquired acclaimed blues/jazz label Palmetto Records; more recently, the company has distributed releases by Björk, The Black Crowes, Living Colour and Third Eye Blind. “My vision for the future [of Megaforce and MRI] is the same as it has always been,” says Callazzo. “Work with the best artists -- regardless of the genre.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Billboard.