Christopher "Criss" Michael Oliva (April 3, 1963 - October 17, 1993) was born in Pompton Plains, NJ. He was the lead guitarist in, and co-founder of, the band Savatage. Criss was the youngest of four children, the next eldest being brother Jon Oliva, with whom he formed the band.
Criss and his brother Jon formed their first band together, Avatar, in 1978, from the ashes of their former bands Tower and Alien respectively. In 1980, the duo met up with Steve Wacholz and jammed in a shack behind the Oliva home that was dubbed "The Pit" by the band. They also gave Steve a nickname that would follow him through out his career: "Doctor Hardware Killdrums", often shortened to just "Doc", which referred to Steve's hard playing style.
Criss, Jon and Steve played Tampa (where they had moved with their family in the late-70s) and Clearwater area clubs for many years. In 1981, Keith Collins joined them to relieve Jon of bass guitar duties. In 1982, the band released an E.P. on Par Records. In 1983, "Avatar" were forced to change their name due to copyright issues. Combining the words "Savage" and "Avatar", Criss and his wife Dawn came up with Savatage. Savatage released their first two albums, Sirens in 1983 and The Dungeons Are Calling in 1985, again on Par Records, exhibiting a variety of musical styles.
In 1984, Criss married Dawn Hoppert, his girlfriend since his time in middle school at Philippe Park near Safety Harbor, FL. Meanwhile, Savatage continued to flourish, releasing 6 further albums after signing with Atlantic Records in 1985. This was considered the "Golden Age" of Savatage, particularly when the band collaborated with producer Paul O'Neill for the first time in 1987's Hall of the Mountain King. Criss's unique playing style won him many fans, including Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, with whom Savatage toured in 1987 in support of Hall of the Mountain King. When Mustaine was left without a guitarist in 1989 after the departure of Jeff Young, Criss was one of the first guitarists he asked to fill the vacant position. Criss declined the offer and continued with his brother and Savatage. That role of the second guitarist in Megadeth eventually went to Marty Friedman. Savatage continued with the release of Gutter Ballet in 1989, which Jon Oliva wrote some parts of whilst recovering in rehab.
Savatage toured relentlessly, with Criss winning critical acclaim. His biggest dream was for Savatage's 1991 album Streets: A Rock Opera to achieve platinum status. Streets was Savatage's biggest mainstream success, and Criss enjoyed the exploitation the record gave the band, allowing new fans to be found for their music. Savatage was rocked however by the sudden departures of Jon Oliva and Steve "Doc" Wacholz in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Replacements were eventually chosen in Zachary "Zak" Stevens for Jon on lead vocals and Jeff Plate for Doc on drums, and Savatage continued, releasing Edge of Thorns in 1993. The front cover of Edge of Thorns is a painting by artist Gary Smith of Criss's wife, Dawn. The face in the trees is supposed to be Jon Oliva, though producer Paul O'Neill disputes that despite its publication in a Criss Oliva interview from 1993. Gary was also responsible for all of Criss's airbrushed guitars.
On October 17, 1993, at around 3:30a.m., Criss and his wife Dawn were driving north on Highway 301 on his way to the Fourth Annual Livestock Festival held in Zephyrhills, Florida, just north of Tampa. An oncoming car crossed the median and struck Criss' 1982 Mazda RX-7 head-on, killing him instantly. His wife Dawn was rushed to Tampa General Hospital with massive injuries. Dawn underwent reconstructive surgery and was traumatized emotionally by the loss of her beloved husband. The driver of the car that struck Criss's car was found to have a record of drunk driving and said to have a blood alcohol level of .294 (the legal limit in Florida is .08).
Criss's grave can be seen at Curlew Memorial Gardens which is two miles north of Clearwater just off of US 19 on Curlew Rd. On October 17 every year, it is the site of much grief from many Savatage fans, remembering the great life that was lost on that day in 1993. A special memorial concert took place on November 23, 1993 with the surviving members of Savatage, including elder brother Jon, who returned for one night only, performing a special set. No guitarist played with the band that night, instead opting to leave a white Stratocaster with roses going up the neck which resembled the back cover of the 'Streets' album in the spot where Criss used to stand. The loss of their lead guitarist nearly signaled the end of Savatage, but during the earlier years the Oliva brothers made an agreement that if one of them were to pass away, the other should continue the band in memory of the other (although some ex-members of the band contest that story). Subsequently, Jon chose to continue the band.
When asked for a comment about Criss, his father said "He lived for that guitar" referring to his love of the guitar. "I would go over to his home for a visit and no matter what he was doing, on the phone, eating dinner, Criss would always have a guitar in his hands."
Dawn Oliva died on January 10, 2005
Criss played Jackson Guitars and Charvel Guitars. His favorite guitar was a Jackson Soloist (originally an ESP -he airbrushed over the logo- ) with a maple fretboard, reversed headstock, a Bartolini single coil and humbucker pickup, and a transparent blue finish and a Gargoyle painted on it, called the "Gargoyle Guitar".
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