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Dio: The Joker

Picture this: Kyoto Kaikan Hall, Japan, December 12, 1976.

Rainbow are in a pretty triumphant mood tonight. Touring their ecstatically reviewed second album, Rainbow Rising, they’ve just been received with hysteria by the normally sedate Japanese fans who have long adopted Ritchie Blackmore as their personal guitar god.

What’s more, after two nights of recording for a live double album, the pressure was off, which was usually when the band are at their best. Or silliest.

It all started when Tony Carey went into his keyboard solo during the epic Stargazer. Blackmore, Jimmy Bain (bass) and Cozy Powell (drums) just pulled up chairs and sat there on stage reading newspapers. Then when they all got back and the number started to bubble into motion Ronnie James Dio walked on wearing a gorilla mask, reducing the whole band to fits of hysterical laughter. That was Dio to me. A man who, behind the portentous Dungeons & Dragons lyrics and Devil’s-horn-totin’ persona, was really a fun-loving merry prankster.

I first met him 36 years ago when his band Elf were supporting Deep Purple. After years of struggle – check out his 60s Frankie Valli wannabe turn with Ronnie & The Prophets on YouTube – Dio had finally struck gold when his cocky, swaggering, good-time band Elf signed to Deep Purple’s label, Purple Records.

Blackmore, who always checked out his support acts (ask Def Leppard, Girlschool, AC/DC, to name a few) was immediately impressed by Dio’s vocal power and command of the audience. Dio was, without a doubt, the catalyst that convinced Blackmore to leave Purple and form Rainbow.

In March 1974 I had the thrill of watching Rainbow as they recorded their first album, at Musicland studios in Munich, while the rest of Purple, who had no clue what was going on, lodged in the hotel above.

Loyally, Dio insisted that all the members of Elf were featured on the album. I was also given the hefty responsibility of taking the original album artwork by David Willardson back from Germany to the band’s office in London.

Originally Ronald James Padovana, Ronnie took the surname of Mafia mobster Johnny Dio. It was a move that almost ended his showbiz career – and indeed his life.

“Elf were playing a rough old New Jersey bar when the manager came up to me,” he told me on that trip to Japan. “He said: ‘Are you related to Johnny Dio?’ I said: ‘Sure, he’s my uncle.’ The guy said: ‘Wow, that’s great. Johnny’s a good friend of mine. I’ll give him a call and tell him you’re here!’ I thought: ‘Holy shit! What do I do now?’