Ronnie James Dio is more than an icon. He is among the most articulate and exhaustive representatives the metal community has ever had. See, even now, some four years after his death, you still think of the man in the present tense. A measure of his continuing impact.
“If you wanted to introduce aliens to what metal stands for, then you’d pick Ronnie as the man to convince them it’s got a lot going for it,” said the late Deep Purple keyboard master Jon Lord. And it’s hard to argue with that sentiment.
Born in New Hampshire to parents of Italian descent, Ronald Padavona listened to a lot of opera when growing up, but it was in 1957 that he got the rock’n’roll bug and formed his first band, the Vegas Kings. He was a bassist at the time, but quickly switched to vocals, as he strived to find the right style to suit his voice.
His first official single, with the band that started to make his name, The Red Caps, was released in 1958. Titled Conquest, it arrived at a time when Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Chuck Berry still ruled the charts.
“I got into rock’n’roll through the radio,” Dio would recall in 1988. “It was an escape from reality, but like so many others, it inspired me to try my luck in a band.”
By 1960, he’d changed his name to Ronnie Dio – allegedly inspired by the Italian-American gangster Johnny Dio – but despite releasing a succession of singles under different band names, nothing appeared to be working for the young singer.
“I always knew something was wrong,” he later admitted. “But when Elf arrived, I found my home in heavy music.”
Originally formed as The Electric Elves in 1967, the band became Elf in 1972 when they released their first album. Self-titled, it was produced by Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, and drummer Ian Paice, and kickstarted Dio’s journey into heavy metal history.
“You knew that while the band were good, it was Ronnie who was outstanding,” Roger recalled with admiration years later. “Elf were doing a lot of touring opening up for Deep Purple in the States, and they were getting bigger. It appeared this lot would be the next big thing out of America.”
Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case; they recorded just two more albums, including the celebrated 1975 Trying To Burn The Sun, before Ritchie Blackmore took a major hand in the future of Dio’s career.
“We were on tour, when on a day off Ritchie’s guitar tech knocked on my hotel room door,” recalled Dio. “He said the man would like me to sing on a track he was gonna record away from Purple.”
The song in question was Black Sheep Of The Family, a cover version that Ritchie had failed to convince the rest of Purple to go along with. But what was intended as a one-off session with Dio and the rest of Elf (inevitably minus guitarist Steve Edwards) would ultimately turn into Rainbow. There was an obvious magic here from the start. Dio and Ritchie, together with a revolving cast of huge talents, worked on three studio albums and one live release. And it was 1976’s Rising, the band’s second offering, that proved the first of a number of true classics to feature the great vocalist’s name.
“I knew we had something special at the time,”
Dio said 10 years later. “But did I know it would stand up? You hoped that would be the case, however you can only see this retrospectively. I’m grateful so many people rate the album.”
However, Ritchie Blackmore’s steady drift towards a more commercial approach was at odds with Dio’s own penchant for a more romantic, gothic style of lyrical imagery.
“I love writing about fantasy,” Dio mused. “To me, this reflects the epic quality of our music. While there is a place for realism, it doesn’t allow me as much scope for allegory as I can get through my accepted style.”
Things came to a head after the recording of 1978’s Long Live Rock ’N’ Roll album. Itself successful, this only fuelled Ritchie’s desire to streamline the band.
“We just agreed to differ,” Dio remembers, while keyboard player Don Airey (who had just been brought into the lineup) has a vivid memory of his first day in rehearsal:
“I walked in as Ronnie was walking out. When I asked what had happened, I was told ‘He’s just quit the band.’ I was so looking forward to working with him, but it wasn’t to be.”
Over the subsequent years, Dio remained diplomatic about his relationship with the guitarist who gave him his big break:
“I have nothing but the highest respect for him, and if the chance came to work with Ritchie again,then I’d be delighted. My door is always open.”
The end of his tenure with Rainbow brought a fresh challenge for Ronnie Dio, who had now firmly established himself as one of the great singers on the heavy rock scene. Black Sabbath were floundering after firing Ozzy, but a chance meeting with Tony Iommi in late 1979 at the conveniently named Rainbow Bar And Grill in West Hollywood altered Ronnie’s life. He was asked to join Sabbath. And we all know what followed.
“None of us had any money,” Dio said of those early Sabbath days. “But what we did have was a real belief. I know what I can do, and was convinced I could help to take Sabbath in a different direction. The other guys were on the same wavelength.”
“We wrote Children Of The Sea on the first day, and it flowed from there,” laughed a still-amazed Tony several years later. “Ronnie was exactly what we needed.”
Heaven And Hell was released in 1980 and has since become, quite rightly, regarded as amongst the greatest metal albums of all time. A year later, the heavier Mob Rules proved this was no flash in the pan. By this time, Dio had made another bit of metal history by trademarking the devil’s horns gesture, which has since become the signature sign of metalheads across generations.
“Ozzy used the peace sign, so I wanted something different,” recalled Dio. “I remember my grandmother used this sign to ward off evil; I thought it would work in the context of Sabbath. But I had no idea it would catch on.”
But, following the release of Live Evil in 82, Dio left the band because of interminable arguments appearing during certain production cycles.“It was a misunderstanding,” Tony has said since.
“The studio engineer was telling us that Ronnie would come in and turn up his vocals when we weren’t there. And he told Ronnie that Geezer Butler and I were turning up our instruments in his absence. The result was confusion and anger.”
“I got a call from Geezer, who told me I was sacked,” admitted Dio. “But in a way that was so positive, because it meant I was free at last to do things my way.”
However, the new band was starting from ground zero, as Dio revealed later on.
“I wasn’t even thinking about doing anything outside of Black Sabbath, until I got the call from Geezer,” revealed Ronnie. “I certainly wasn’t holding back any songs from the band, that’s not my way. So, when Vinny Appice [drums] and I got together, I quickly wrote two songs – Holy Diver and Don’t Talk To Strangers.”
Not a bad start. With bassist Jimmy Bain and then unknown guitarist Vivian Campbell completing the line-up, the band took the name of Dio.
“It wasn’t an ego thing on my part,” insisted the frontman. “I had a certain reputation, and it just made sense.”
_Holy Diver _came out in 1983 and made a huge impact in the UK and the States, where Dio’s stature with Rainbow and Sabbath stood him in good stead. This was the third iconic album he had blessed in a mere smattering of years, and his reputation grew steadily as 1984’s The Last In Line and 85’s Sacred Heart cemented Dio’s place as one of the elite hard rock bands on the planet. Ronnie even found time to put together the Hear ’n Aid project to raise funds through the metal community for the starving in Africa. While such endeavours were testament to the man’s character, it was his band that remained his chief focus over the following decade or so, with Dio’s lineup shifting a few times to keep the band’s creative output fresh and interesting.
In 1992, Dio returned to the Sabbath fold for the Dehumanizer album, as the band showed they had the rigour and vision to update their sound without losing their innate place in history. However, while the album was well-received, Dio’s reunion with his Sabbath chums came crashing down when the band agreed to support Ozzy at the Costa Mesa Amphitheater in California later the same year.
“I have no problem with Ozzy,” Dio remarked at the time. “But I just feel that it’s beneath a band of this stature to support their former singer. It shows a lack of self-respect, and I wouldn’t be part of this.”
Sabbath did the set with Rob Halford on vocals, and the reunion was back in the dumper. As for Dio, he returned to his own band, putting together a new line-up which was altogether more rooted in the realism of the era.
“It was a different Dio at that time,” insists keyboardist Scott Warren. “It was cool. And intense. It was the 1990s. Things had changed I remember thinking, ‘This is biker music.’”
“Every night, Ronnie would come up to each of us individually and say, ‘Have a good gig’,” sighs bassist Jeff Pilson. “That was the measure of the man. He cared about people, and wanted you to feel part of everything. I don’t think I have ever had so much fun working with anyone. Each night was a pleasure.”
Dio continued to enjoy a lengthy stint with his main band, with five studios albums released to generally positive acclaim between 1993-2004. After that, however, there was to be yet another twist in the tale, when Dio regrouped with Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, together with Vinny Appice (who had been a part of the Dio-era Sabbath line-ups, as well as a crucial member of Dio’s solo band). They avoided any diplomatic fallout with the Ozzy camp by taking the name Heaven & Hell, touring to huge acclaim and releasing the album The Devil You Know in 2009 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. But it was all stopped in its tracks when Ronnie was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2009. Tragically, despite all the hopes and prayers around the world, Ronnie James Dio passed away on May 16, 2010. The tears and tributes to him at the High Voltage Festival two months later in London underlined what a massive loss he was to the metal community, and how much he was loved by hundreds of thousands of fans across generations and continents.
“Ronnie Dio can’t be replaced,” Anthrax’s Scott Ian said shortly after he died. “He was unique. As long as Ronnie’s music is played, he’ll be in our minds.”
Now, some of the greatest names in metal are paying homage to the man, and in doing so raising funds for the Stand Up & Shout Cancer Trust, set up in his memory. From Metallica to Anthrax, Motörhead to the Scorpions, and Halestorm to Killswitch Engage, there are a plethora of major metal mavens who’ve lent their considerable talents to make this album come to fruition. They perform songs from Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio, yet again emphasising the insurmountable debt we all owe this most treasured and unique of metal singers.
And while he may have been born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, his heart was certainly won over by metal’s homeland.
“Ronnie loved the English way of life,” opined Tony Iommi in 2010 of the man’s penchant for his would-be adopted country. “He enjoyed a beer and a curry, and even took things so far as to have his house in LA built like a castle!”
Above all else, though, and as loved as he was across every country his music touched, Ronnie James Dio himself always knew his worth. “I never underestimate my talent,” he said during one of the last interviews he gave before his death. “But nor do I overestimate it. I believe if you get that balance right, then you’ll have a healthy perspective on your place in music.”
At the time, Dio hinted that he could see an end to his performing days, but not to his involvement in music. When it was suggested to him that he might retire if he dropped even a small distance from his exacting standards, even if nobody else could detect it, he responded:
“Maybe there is some truth in there. I would never like to be one of those singers who carries on long past the point at which they can deliver. It’s a shame when a legend is diminished, and while I would never put myself into the category of ‘legend’, I can’t ever see myself disappointing fans who have paid good money.
“But the one thing I will never lose is my love of music. I still enjoy coming across young talent, and helping to guide them if I can.”
The breadth and depth of the classic songs on Dio:This Is Your Life proves that, more than anything else, Ronnie Dio’s life is defined by the music he has left us. And that’s an enduring epitaph.
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 255.
ROCK ‘N ROLL CHILDREN
“I heard that they were putting together this tribute album and they were trying to get hold of me and I was like, ‘Dude, I have to be on that record!’. When it looked like it was going to be difficult to get either of my bands together to do it, I was just like, ‘Fuck it’ and I put a band together myself, just me and some of my buds. I was that desperate to be involved. I was lucky enough to meet Ronnie on a few occasions, in fact I can remember the first time… It was at an awards ceremony and we were both nominated for the best vocalist award, which, to me, was an honour just to be in the same category as him. He won and I was so stoked, then I was being interviewed later on and he walks in to say ‘Hi.’ If you watch the video you can see on my face I’m just totally awestruck by the guy. The thing that most impressed me about Ronnie onstage was that he just made it look so effortless, so natural. The Dio era was my favourite time of his because it’s when he stepped out on his own. He wasn’t a member of Rainbow or Sabbath, he was just Ronnie. The guy’s a legend.”
“I first saw Dio in 85 or 86. I didn’t meet him then, but it was the first time that I saw him. I went to his show somewhere in Germany, and we were standing on the sound desk, because I’m small! I tell you, I haven’t had this kind of experience before or after. I got chills, I couldn’t stand up, it was unbelievable. The sound blew me away, and really, I was so fascinated. I thought it was the greatest, most mindblowing thing I have ever seen. I was deeply, deeply impressed. I met Ronnie later on tour in 87 – he was playing pool, and we talked and he said, ‘We’re so happy you’re on tour with us. If there’s ever a problem, don’t go to the manager, don’t go to the tour manager, don’t go to my assistant. Just come straight to me.’ He was always very kind and lovely. We developed a great friendship.”
“Ronnie was a human being who had time for all people – those he worked with and his family. But more importantly, he devoted a lot of his aftershow time to his fans, and would listen to them tell their stories of how their lives had been touched by his work, and he never, ever forgot a fan’s name. He was an amazing one-of-a-kind artist, who gave his love and life and art to the heavy metal genre. I first met Ronnie in the fall of 1973, when he fronted his upstate New York Band, Elf. They were opening for my band at the time, Deep Purple. I remember being backstage when Elf started playing, and I heard this thunderous super-lung voice echoing around the arena, so I went onto the stage to see and hear what was calling me. I was immediately turned on to something, someone, who I had not heard before, and that was a thrill for me. He was a master at his craft and soon, before our eyes, he would become heavy metal’s greatest vocalist. Ronnie was so believable in his realm, singing of dragons, dark lords and distant oceans that carried us all away. We knew we were not alone, because Ronnie was our formidable rider in the eye of the sky, who would lead us back to our safe land. Ronnie, my brother, I want to thank you for all the hours, days and years that we spent together, and on behalf of your loving fans – we believed we’d catch the Rainbow… See you again, dear heart.”
“I’m so pleased with how this album came out, everyone involved has just been a pleasure to work with. I know Ronnie would have been so humbled and so proud with these incredible artists paying homage to him. When you have Metallica saying ‘We can’t pick one song – we have to do a medley of four!’… well, he’d have been honoured. I’ve so many wonderful memories of Ronnie, we had 30-plus years together and we were so happy. It’s hard to pick out one specific memory, but the early days when he was starting out was an exciting time and he was so happy to get back together with Sabbath and rebuild those bridges at the end of his life. That was fitting. I think people loved Ronnie because they could relate to him, he never changed, he stood for what he believed in and never wanted to let people down. He was always delighted to speak to his fans, as I said, he was a humble man, a genuine man. He always gave everything, even towards the end when he was suffering with these stomach pains, which he thought was just indigestion, he never gave less than everything he had. I just hope this album raises a lot of money for cancer research and carries on the memory of Ronnie and keeps his legacy alive.”