Of all the legendary heavy metal singers, Ronnie James Dio was the greatest of them all.
Born Ronald James Padavona on July 10, 1942 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he fronted a holy trinity of iconic bands – Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio. And while there were good times and bad in his lengthy career, the great man went out on a high. The last album he made before his death on May 16, 2010 was with Heaven & Hell – the band comprised of the same line-up that recorded the Black Sabbath album Mob Rules in 1981.
Dio was first introduced to the world stage in 1975 when he and three fellow members of the group Elf were absorbed into former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Over three studio albums, Blackmore and Dio worked in perfect harmony, creating grandiose heavy rock enriched by Dio’s fantastic tales of sword and sorcery: a style later jokingly dubbed ‘castle rock’. But in 1978, Dio was out as Blackmore remodelled Rainbow as a mainstream radio-rock act.
Within a year, Dio had joined Black Sabbath, replacing the sacked Ozzy Osbourne. It was a controversial move: Ozzy was the people’s champion, Dio dismissed by one critic as a “standard American chest-beater”. But Dio wasn’t intimidated, his masterful performance on Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell rejuvenating a band that had been dying on its arse. It didn’t last, of course. A farcical feud over the mixing of the in-concert double Live Evil led to Dio quitting Sabbath and forming a new band in his own name.
The first Dio album, Holy Diver, was released in 1983 to universal acclaim. He went on to make another nine studio albums under the Dio name, plus the Sabbath reunion album Dehumanizer in 1992, and the Heaven & Hell album The Devil You Know in 2009.
What he left behind was a mighty legacy. Here, we rank every studio album that Ronnie James Dio made, from worst to best…
20) Dio – Angry Machines (SPV/Steamhammer, 1996)
In an era when traditional heavy metal had been marginalised by alternative rock, Ronnie’s attempt to modernise the Dio sound resulted in the weakest album of his career. Produced by Ronnie himself, the album had a vaguely grungey feel in songs such as Black and Hunter Of The Heart. And while the band – guitarist Tracy Grijalva, aka Tracy G, former Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson and stalwart drummer Vinny Appice – played heavy, Ronnie’s gift for melody had deserted him. Angry Machines was a dour and dismal record, with only one song that rose above the gloom – This Is Your Life, a piano-led ballad reminiscent of vintage Queen.
19) Elf – Trying To Burn The Sun (Purple, 1975)
The third and final Elf album was much the same as the two that came before it. Dio sounded great – a star in the making. But there was only so much he could with this band’s rather formulaic blues-based heavy rock. There was boogie power in the opening track Black Swampy Water, and a strong melodic sensibility in Wonderworld and Streetwalker, whereas Prentice Wood could have been a Neil Diamond song. Sadly for guitarist Steve Edwards, he was the odd man out when Ritchie Blackmore absorbed the rest of the group into Rainbow.
18) Elf – Elf (Epic, 1972)
On this debut album, the singer used his birth name of Ronald Padavona as a gesture to his parents. After that, he would always be known as Ronnie James Dio. The album was produced by the then former Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, and featured on guitar Dave ‘Rock’ Feinstein, Dio’s cousin, who later went on to form power trio The Rods. There was a funky swing to songs such as Hoochie Koochie Lady and Sit Down Honey, but only brief flashes of the heavy rock that would become Ronnie’s trademark. What was clearly evident was that Ronnie was too good for this band.
17) Elf – Carolina County Ball (Purple, 1974)
Elf signed to Deep Purple’s vanity label for their second album, and also opened for Purple on a major UK tour. It wasn’t enough to make Carolina County Ball a hit, but the album was the best the band ever made. The title track in particular had a real groove to it, and there was a blues number with a title that proved prophetic: Rainbow.
16) Dio – Killing The Dragon (Spitfire, 2002)
Dio’s guitarist on Killing The Dragon was Doug Aldrich, who later went on to join Whitesnake and currently stars in The Dead Daisies. Alongside him were Jimmy Bain on bass and former AC/DC drummer Simon Wright, who first played with Dio on 1990’s Lock Up The Wolves. With Aldrich shredding like Vivian Campbell did on the band’s early albums, Killing The Dragon was very much in the classic Dio tradition, best illustrated in a powerful title track and the blazing, fast-paced Before The Fall. On the downside, there were fillers, such as Guilty, in which Ronnie was running on autopilot.
15) Dio – Master Of The Moon (SPV/Steamhammer, 2004)
It was the last Dio album, and the band ended as it began. Master Of The Moon had Ronnie backed by Simon Wright, Jeff Pilson and Craig Goldy, the guitarist whose debut was on 1987’s Dream Evil. There were echoes of past glories in the full-throttle opening track One More For The Road – a natural successor to We Rock – and The Man Who Would Be King, an epic with shades of Dio’s All The Fools Sailed Away and Rainbow’s Stargazer. For Dio, the band, it proved a dignified end.
14) Dio – Strange Highways (Vertigo, 1993)
Following a brief reunion with Black Sabbath, Ronnie and drummer Vinny Appice created the sixth Dio album with bassist Jeff Pilson and new guitarist Tracy G. Strange Highways had a darker vibe to previous Dio albums – a tone set by the doomy Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost and carried over into a grinding title track as doom-laden as anything that Ronnie had recorded with Sabbath.
13) Dio – Lock Up The Wolves (Vertigo, 1990)
At the turn of the 90s, Ronnie had a completely new band behind him. Following the departure of two founding members, bassist Jimmy Bain and drummer Vinny Appice, the new Dio line-up featured drummer Simon Wright, bassist Teddy Cook, keyboard player Jens Johansson and guitarist Rowan Robertson, who was just 18 at the time. Lock Up The Wolves started impressively with Wild One, a fast, up-and-at-’em number in the vein of the debut album’s Stand Up And Shout, with Robertson ripping it up like Eddie Van Halen. Another standout track was Night Music, with Ronnie in full cry. But even he struggled to lift the overlong, plodding tracks that dominated the album.
12) Dio – Magica (Spitfire, 2000)
After the mistep of Angry Machines there was another major overhaul in band personnel, with Ronnie reinstating Jimmy Bain, Craig Goldy and Simon Wright. What they created together in Magica was a heavyweight concept album and the best of Dio’s late-period works. The singer said of the album’s narrative: “Magica is the saga of Blessing, a netherworld invaded by dark forces that vaporise people into pure, evil energy. I left the ending ambivalent because evil always exists, good doesn’t always triumph and that’s the universal balance.” He related this tale in spoken word in the album’s 18-minute final track The Magica Story. The concept also inspired some great songs – notably Feed My Head and Turn To Stone – and from Ronnie a vocal performance to rank among his best.
11) Dio – Dream Evil (Vertigo, 1987)
The fourth Dio album had former Rough Cutt guitarist Craig Goldy in place of the departed Vivian Campbell. Otherwise, it was business as usual. And while Dream Evil did not match the band’s first three albums, its opening track, Night People, has a pulsating energy and a heavy atmosphere, and the ballad All The Fools Sailed Away is one of the most beautiful songs that Ronnie ever sang.
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10) Black Sabbath – Dehumanizer (IRS, 1992)
Although Heaven & Hell’s The Devil You Know was a Black Sabbath album in all but name, Dehumanizer was, officially, Ronnie’s last work with Sabbath. The making of this album was a long and rather farcical process. Before Ronnie was invited to rejoin the band by guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler, they had already begun rehearsing for the album with drummer Cozy Powell – who had starred with Ronnie in Rainbow – and singer Tony ‘The Cat’ Martin, who had featured on three previous Sabbath albums. Martin was fired, then briefly reinstated when Ronnie got cold feet, and then fired again when Ronnie committed to the project. Cozy had to pull out after suffering a broken hip in a horse-riding accident, and was replaced by Vinny Appice. As a result, Dehumanizer featured the line-up that first recorded together on the Sabs’ Mob Rules.
Produced by Reinhold Mack, famed for his work with Queen in the early 80s, the album was not as great as Heaven And Hell or Mob Rules, but two mighty tracks, Time Machine and I, were the best that Sabbath had recorded since Dio had last been in the band.
9) Dio – Sacred Heart (Vertigo, 1985)
The third Dio album was the last to feature guitarist Vivian Campbell, who went on to star briefly in Whitesnake before settling in Def Leppard. Campbell and Dio parted acrimoniously, but to the end they achieved great things together. The best tracks on Sacred Heart are genuine Dio classics: two powerful anthems in Rock’N’Roll Children and Hungry For Heaven (the latter’s riff nicked from The Who’s Baba O’Riley), plus a typically monolithic title track, all sung as only Dio can. The Scared Heart tour was Dio’s biggest stage production, in which our hero battled a giant rubber dragon to much hilarity. The press nicknamed the dragon Denzil. For Vivian Campbell, it was a joke too far.
8) Heaven & Hell – The Devil You Know (Roadrunner, 2009)
Named after the first album that Ronnie made with Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell featured the four men that had made the Sabbath albums Mob Rules and Dehumanizer: Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice. Sadly, this album turned out to be Ronnie’s last, but it would serve as a fitting epitaph and a glorious end to a storied career. In tracks such as Atom & Evil and Bible Black, the old magic was still there – the band locked into heavy grooves, and Dio weaving his spells.
7) Dio – The Last In Line (Vertigo, 1984)
Some conspiracy theorists claim that the Dio logo, when inverted, spells ‘Devil’. The jury is still out on that one. What is certain is that the eternal struggle between good and evil was a central theme in Ronnie’s lyrics since the early days of Rainbow, as illustrated by the cataclysmic title track on the second Dio album, on which he weighed opposing forces – “evil or divine”, “the Angel or the Beast” – like a man whose soul hung in the balance. The Last In Line was the band’s first million seller and a worthy follow-up to Holy Diver. From the exultant We Rock to the fantastically overblown and brilliantly titled Egypt (The Chains Are On), it’s heroic stuff.
6) Black Sabbath – Mob Rules (Vertigo, 1981)
If Dio’s second album with Black Sabbath wasn’t quite as great as the first, it remains a cult classic, as heavy in atmosphere as in sheer riff weight. Within the band, tension was building. Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler felt that Dio was trying to “take over”, a claim the singer strongly refuted. What can’t be denied is that Dio gave everything he had to this album, his commitment palpable as he roared through the bludgeoning title track and cast a dark spell over The Sign Of The Southern Cross and the creepy Voodoo. But even this wasn’t enough for Tony and Geezer. Dio was driven out in 1982. A year later, Holy Diver delivered a defiant ‘fuck you’.
5) Rainbow – Long Live Rock’N’Roll (Polydor, 1978)
The lyrics for this album’s title track proved strangely prescient. Dio sang of “writing on the wall”, and so it was. Long Live Rock’N’Roll would be Dio’s swansong for Rainbow, and he went out as he came in, throwing the horns and singing like a messenger of the gods. Gates Of Babylon was this album’s Stargazer, another of Dio’s desert-themed epic tales. Kill The King had him crying treason as Blackmore drove the band at top speed. And the title track was one of the classic rock anthems. Dio left Rainbow as an iconic figure.
4) Rainbow – Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (Polydor, 1975)
Having quit Deep Purple when they got too funky for his taste, Ritchie Blackmore styled Rainbow as a more purist heavy rock band. Dio was a perfect foil, his richly expressive voice and fantasy imagery adding a mystical aura to the ‘castle rock’ archetypes Man On The Silver Mountain, The Temple Of The King and Sixteenth Century Greensleeves, the latter featuring his finest opening couplet: “It’s only been an hour/Since he locked her in the tower.” After years of toiling in obscurity, working with Blackmore was Dio’s first golden opportunity, and he seized it as if it were the Holy Grail itself. From there, he never looked back.
3) Rainbow – Rainbow Rising (Polydor, 1976)
The magnitude of Rainbow’s second album was perfectly illustrated by Ken Kelly’s cover art: a giant fist thrusting from a raging sea to grasp a rainbow. This was heavy rock on a colossal scale, and only Ronnie James Dio had the voice to match. Displaying characteristic ruthlessness, Ritchie Blackmore had brought in powerhouse drummer Cozy Powell, bassist Jimmy Bain and keyboard player Tony Carey to replace three ex-members of Elf, but Dio survived as Blackmore’s prize asset. And as Blackmore attempted to outdo Zeppelin’s Kashmir with Stargazer – the towering centrepiece of Rainbow Rising, its neo-classical riff swelled by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra – Dio performed near-superhuman heroics to soar above the tumult. Sounds hailed Rainbow Rising as “thermo-nuclear rock’n’roll”. 40 years on, it’s power is undiminished.
2) Dio – Holy Diver (Mercury, 1983)
One of the classic heavy metal debuts, Holy Diver is a work of such bravura and bombast that Sounds magazine stated emphatically: “Ronnie James Dio has thundered back.” This was a new beginning for Ronnie, but his past was in evidence both in his choice of two former bandmates (ex Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain, ex-Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice) and in the epic feel of the music. The little fella’s masterstroke was the acquisition of 19-year-old guitarist Vivian Campbell, the man who “put the fast in Belfast”, who gave the band a vital, contemporary edge. With its electrifying opener Stand Up And Shout, its spooky title track and the majestic Rainbow In The Dark, Holy Diver was the album on which Dio, the man, was able to fully realise his own singular vision.
1) Black Sabbath – Heaven And Hell (Vertigo, 1980)
Ozzy Osbourne is, irrefutably, the definitive Black Sabbath singer, but as Ozzy himself admitted recently, “Sabbath made some great records with Ronnie Dio”. Heaven And Hell is the best of them, a masterpiece to rival the band’s seminal early 70s work. With Dio a commanding presence, Sabbath was a band reborn. The single Neon Knights was their clarion call, fast and brutally heavy, Dio hitting notes that Ozzy could only dream of. The sprawling title track proved that Tony Iommi, king of riffs, was also a brilliant lead guitarist. Children Of The Sea, the first song they wrote together, had an eerie, magical quality. And that power ran deep throughout the album, from the spine-tingling Die Young through to the monumental finale Lonely Is The World. With this album, Ronnie James Dio made Black Sabbath great again. And for all the power and glory in Rainbow Rising and Holy Diver, this was, for heavy metal’s greatest singer, his defining statement.