By the time Ronnie James was fronting Elf in the early 1970s he'd already had a lengthy career, as he searched for the right musical direction.
“We tried everything with Ronnie,” recalls Jim Pantas, who managed Dio from 1958 until ’72. “But nothing worked till he found a niche with heavy rock.”
In 1958 Pantas had become involved with the band known as Ronnie & The Red Caps. They’d started the previous year as The Vegas Kings, before briefly becoming Ronnie & The Rumblers, with Dio on vocals and bass. “In June 1958 I was sent to hospital with an overactive thyroid,” Pantas explains. “My brother Nick was 16 at the time, a year younger than me, and the guitarist in this band. He asked me to manage them. When I asked what a manager did he replied: ‘If I fucking knew, then I wouldn’t be asking you!’”
For the next three years or so, everyone was learning on the job. The Redcaps recorded two singles – first Lover and then a Bobby Rydell cover called An Angel Is Missing. But their big break came in 1960, when the band were offered a residency at the Airport Lounge club.
“That was up at a resort called Lake George. We auditioned for five clubs around there, and were offered 50 straight nights at this one. It made the band the best and tightest covers act in the New York area. And Ronnie was just so good. You gotta remember there were successful artists around like Dion, Freddy Cannon and Bobby Comstock who sounded great in the studio. But they couldn’t repeat this on stage. Ronnie did live what they couldn’t.”
Graduating as president of his high school in 1960, Dio continued to work towards success with The Redcaps, who changed their name to Ronnie Dio & The Prophets in 1962. The same year, the vocalist got married to his first wife Loretta, and he refused to do a tour of Sweden.
“He was committed to the wedding ring, and making his marriage a success,” says Pantas. “So while the rest of the guys went over there, he did a Dick Clark package tour of America playing trumpet for Comstock and Gene Pitney.”
However, The Prophets returned from Europe raving about a young band called The Beatles, who were to transform pop music.
“From then on, the boys were heavily into the British sound. The band supported The Searchers, and also opened for the Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall – the band’s first US show. They were on the bill to help sell tickets!”
However, still success eluded the young Dio. He played trumpet on the 1963 hit My Boyfriend’s Back by The Angels, and even recorded a song called The Way Of Love with a 70-piece orchestra; the song would be a huge hit for Cher in ’71.
“Ronnie got such prestigious slots as opening for Sammy Davis Jnr in 1966. But however we tried to position him, it didn’t come off.”
In 1968 Ronnie Dio & The Prophets fell apart after a road accident killed Nick Pantas and put Dio, his guitar-playing cousin David ‘Rock’ Feinstein and keyboard player Doug Thaler (future manager of Mötley Crüe) in hospital. Within a year, Dio and Feinstein had got together the Electric Elves, who became Elf – and history was about to unfold.
“By 72, Ronnie had become fascinated with Deep Purple. And that’s when we parted,” explains Pantas. “That wasn’t a music I understood, or wanted to understand. But I look back on those early years and recall how dedicated he and the boys were to their music. They didn’t take drugs, hardly ever drank, but were so into their playing and focused on doing what it took to be successful.”
How does Pantas sum up Dio’s influence?
“Nobody else inspired so many vocalists and musicians to go back into the basement or garage and keep on practising. Because his standards were always so high.”
THE 14 SONGS THAT DEFINED RONNIE JAMES DIO
DON’T TAKE YOUR LOVE FROM ME - DIO AT DOMINO’S, 1963
An early example of the man’s range and depth. This comes from the only Ronnie & The Prophets album, recorded live at a restaurant! While not particularly hard rock, Dio’s voice is clearly showing the potential later realised.
GAMBLER GAMBLER - ELF, 1972
From the debut Elf album, featuring the line-up that would effectively become the first incarnation of Rainbow. Dio had just discovered the power of Deep Purple: you can hear him finally slotting into the niche that would define his career.
TEMPLE OF THE KING - RITCHIE BLACKMORE’S RAINBOW, 1975
Just to prove that not everything Dio did in Rainbow was hugely overblown, this was a much more sedate, almost balladic song, with Dio proving his ability to croon in a medieval manner. This totally suited the song’s timbre.
STARGAZER - RISING, 1976
The definition of epic metal, it really is Dio-era Rainbow in their pomp. A soaring song of mystery and magic, some quite astonishing musical prowess and, above all else, a titanic vocal performance. This track is operatic in its grandeur.
LADY OF THE LAKE - LONG LIVE ROCK’N’ROLL, 1978
While many believe that Ritchie Blackmore and Ronnie Dio fell out because the former wanted Rainbow to take a more commercial direction, this song showcases Ronnie’s capacity for dealing with something bordering on pop, albeit with rock sensibilities intact.
HEAVEN AND HELL - HEAVEN AND HELL, 1980
As with so many albums involving Ronnie Dio, there are so many choices from Heaven And Hell. But the title track is the one that underlines what Dio brought to Sabbath. It has a majesty, with the vocals augmenting some inspired musicianship.
VOODOO - MOB RULES, 1981
If the Heaven And Hell album allowed Sabbath to break into a symphonic area, then Mob Rules was a heavier album. And nothing is better than this driving song, enhanced by Dio’s ability to let rip while having total control.
HOLY DIVER - HOLY DIVER, 1983
The haunting, atmospheric build-up sets the mood, before the song opens up and allows Ronnie Dio to take flight, showing that there still is nobody better at writing almost mythic lyrics with a pointed message, and bringing these to life.
WE ROCK - THE LAST IN LINE, 1984
The title says it all. With horns flashing and raised fists, Dio the band bonded with the audience on this racing anthem. Ronnie puts the colour and vitality into what is at heart a very simple song.
ROCK’N’ROLL CHILDREN - SACRED HEART, 1985
Only Dio can possibly imbue these lyrics with the sort of sincerity and artistry that makes them a work of literature. You can hear him living, breathing, feeling every word, inviting you into the song. This is a performance of pure vocal theatre.
STARS - HEAR ‘N AID, 1986
It was Ronnie who put together a stellar cast of peers for this charity single, aimed at raising funds for the fight against famine in Ethiopia. In essence, this could have been a Dio song, and it’s the man himself who outclasses everyone who took part.
ALL THE FOOLS SAILED AWAY - DREAM EVIL, 1987
It says much for Ronnie that whenever a song is mentioned on which he appears, the first thing you think of are the vocals. So often, it was he who raised the track to the heights. This is a fine example. Try to imagine it without his voice at its heart. Impossible, isn’t it?
BIBLE BLACK - THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, 2009
When Heaven And Hell came tearing out of the traps, many wondered if they would be able to cut it in the studio on a new album. We needn’t have worried; they produced a slab of cutting-edge metal. And Dio’s vocals (particularly on this track) were peerless.
ELECTRA - MAGICA II, 2009
The last studio recording to feature Ronnie James Dio, this was recorded just before he was diagnosed with cancer. But everything that made Dio untouchable is still very much in place. It proves that he was still the best metal singer around.