With the death of Ronnie James Dio on May 16, 2010, rock music lost an iconic figure. The man whose mighty voice lit up the music of Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio and Heaven And Hell was truly a unique talent: a vocalist of immense power, expression and innate melodic flair, an elegant lyricist, and a storyteller of rich imagination.
There is magic in the words and voice of Ronnie James Dio.
Music was central to his life from an early age. Although he never received any formal vocal training, as a child he mastered French horn and trumpet, to which he later attributed the breathing control pivotal to his singing power. He played bass guitar in his first professional group, The Vegas Kings, a rockabilly outfit formed in 1957 and based in New York State. But it didn’t take him long to answer his true calling.
By the end of 1958, he was lead singer of a new-look band, Ronnie & The Red Caps, later renamed Ronnie Dio & The Prophets after Ronnie had adopted a stage name appropriated from mobster Johnny Dio. Success did not come quickly. As the rock era dawned in the 60s, Dio toiled in obscurity as leader of the Electric Elves, subsequently shortened to Elf. But in the early 70s came the break that he had longed for, when Deep Purple’s Roger Glover and Ian Paice saw potential in Elf and elected to produce the band’s self-titled debut album.
And from there, a strong connection was formed between the two bands – a connection that led Dio to the man who would transform his career and change his life. Ritchie Blackmore, Deep Purple’s moody guitar hero, took a shine to Elf – and especially their singer – when the two bands toured together between 1972 and 1974.
And when Blackmore chose to make a solo record, having openly voiced his displeasure over Purple’s funk-influenced albums Burn and Stormbringer, he enlisted Dio and the other members of Elf, minus guitarist Steve Edwards. That album, titled Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, was released in 1975 shortly after the guitarist quit Deep Purple. And it was immediately apparent that Blackmore had found the perfect foil in Dio, a singer whose voice and imagery were ideally suited to Blackmore’s baroque taste.
Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow was the album on which Ronnie James Dio came of age. After all the lean years before and with Elf, this was Ronnie’s golden opportunity, and he responded with a performance of complete authority. The album’s opening track, Man On The Silver Mountain, set the template for so much to come: an epic, mystical tale rendered in a voice that soared and thundered. And Dio proved equally adept on the album’s gentler songs, the poetic Catch The Rainbow, and The Temple Of The King, perhaps the most beautiful and elegiac song he ever recorded.
What followed was one of rock’s all-time classic albums, establishing this new band – now simply named Rainbow – as a major force, and confirming Dio as a singer of unrivalled power. Released in June 1976, Rainbow Rising is the model of what aficionados like to call ‘castle rock’: heroic, fantasy-themed, progressive heavy metal built to a monolithic scale, and most potently illustrated by Stargazer, the album’s vast quasi-symphonic centrepiece. Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton, then writing for Sounds, summed up Rising perfectly, describing it as ‘thermonuclear rock’n’roll’.
How to top that? Ronnie almost did on Rainbow’s third studio album Long Live Rock’N’Roll with the track Gates Of Babylon, another Stargazer-sized set-piece. But that record, best known for its anthemic title track, was to be Dio’s swansong for Rainbow, Blackmore replacing him with dapper Englishman Graham Bonnet as he pursued a more radio-friendly direction.
It was hard on Ronnie, being out of a job after just four years with Rainbow. But within a year he would be courted by another world-famous rock band – and this would present him with the greatest challenge of his career. When announced as the new singer in Black Sabbath – succeeding the much-loved Ozzy Osbourne – Dio faced hostility from the media and from hardcore Sabbath fans.
To further complicate the issue, Dio was an American joining a quintessentially British band. But Dio’s debut with Sabbath, 1980’s Heaven And Hell, silenced his critics. In Sounds, Peter Makowski stated: ‘Ronnie James Dio has injected a whole new energy into the group… Just sit back, turn it up and feel your brain implode.’
Simply put, Dio made Black Sabbath great again. His gift for melody, and his poetic sensibility, brought a lyrical quality to Sabbath’s music and inspired Tony Iommi in particular, whose lead guitar work on the album’s phenomenal title track is the best he has ever played. And crucially, Dio could also handle the really heavy stuff, as he proved emphatically on Neon Knights, arguably the heaviest of all Sabs songs. Nobody has ever sung a heavy metal song better than Ronnie did with Neon Knights.
He would make another great album with Sabbath, Mob Rules, released in 1981. But as so often happens, a combination of heavy touring and personality clashes led to a split in 1982 amid rumours that the rival parties had been tampering with the mix of the live-in-concert album Live Evil.
Many years later, Ronnie would dismiss these stories as “bullshit”, but on the cover of Live Evil there was a small detail that spoke volumes of the animosity between Sabbath and Dio: the singer was billed not as Ronnie James Dio but as plain Ronnie Dio. It was a cheap shot to which Ronnie reacted by forming a new band under his own name, a band whose first album would blow Sabbath out of the water.
Holy Diver, released in June 1983, is one of the great heavy metal debuts. The band Ronnie put together featured two familiar faces – former Rainbow colleague Jimmy Bain on bass, and fellow Sabbath fugitive Vinny Appice on drums – plus a relatively unknown and inexperienced guitarist in 19 year-old Vivian Campbell, previously of Irish band Sweet Savage. But they made a tight unit: Bain and Appice rock solid, Campbell flashy and fiery. And with Ronnie now undisputed group leader for the first time since Elf, Holy Diver was the album on which his singular artistic vision was finally realised.
It’s a record packed with classic songs, not just Dio classics but genre-defining heavy metal classics: Stand Up And Shout, Holy Diver, Rainbow In The Dark, Don’t Talk To Strangers. By comparison, Sabbath’s Born Again, featuring Dio’s surprise replacement Ian Gillan, was widely regarded as a joke, even before Spinal Tap lampooned the Sabs’ Stonehenge stage set.
Throughout the 80s, Dio – the man and the band – maintained a large and loyal following. Band members came and went, beginning with Vivian Campbell, who went on to Whitesnake and then Def Leppard. In ’86 Ronnie organised Hear ’N Aid, heavy metal’s answer to Band Aid, a charity project for African famine relief that produced a hit single, Stars, written by Ronnie and sung by a hairy ensemble cast featuring members of Mötley Crüe, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
And if no subsequent Dio album ever matched Holy Diver, Ronnie continued to deliver great songs (We Rock, The Last In Line, Sacred Heart, Rock’N’Roll Children) and spectacular live shows. (Nobody who saw Ronnie battling Dean The Dragon on stage could ever forget the experience!)
Then, in the early 90s, came an astonishing volte-face. Ronnie rejoined Black Sabbath. It didn’t last. They made a half-decent album, Dehumanizer, but when Sabbath were invited to support Ozzy on what was billed as the Double-O’s farewell tour, Ronnie pulled out and Rob Halford of Judas Priest acted as stand-in.
Ronnie re-launched Dio in 1994, and in the next 10 years the band recorded five albums with varying line-ups. But for Ronnie, Black Sabbath was unfinished business, and in 2007 he reunited with Iommi, Appice and bassist Geezer Butler as Heaven And Hell. This would prove to be Ronnie James Dio’s last hurrah.
Initially, Ronnie had intended to reform Dio after Heaven And Hell’s world tour, but such was the success of that tour, and so strong was the vibe in the band after recording three new tracks for the Black Sabbath compilation The Dio Years, it was decided that Heaven And Hell would record a brand new album. That album, The Devil You Know, was released to widespread acclaim in 2009. It would be the last of Ronnie’s recordings released in his lifetime.
The death of Ronnie James Dio has had a profound effect both on those who knew him and those who simply loved his music. For this writer, there are many memories to cherish. Ronnie was the first rock star I interviewed as a professional journalist, back in 1985, when he was promoting Dio’s Sacred Heart album. It was a huge thrill for me to meet him. Since 1980 – when I unwrapped a Christmas present from my brother, a cassette of Heaven And Hell – I have been a Ronnie James Dio fan. I first saw Ronnie on stage with Dio at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1984, on The Last In Line tour. And across the years I’ve seen Ronnie play so many great shows: at Birmingham NEC with that bloody dragon, at London’s Astoria performing the whole of Holy Diver, and the last time, at Brighton Centre with Heaven And Hell.
My last interview with Ronnie was just a couple of years ago, when he was in London with Heaven And Hell. What I remember most of all was the warmth of the rapport between him and Tony, Geezer and Vinny. I asked Ronnie about a phrase he used many times in his lyrics, a phrase that had become akin to a trademark: ‘Look out!’ He’d used it in Holy Diver, in Rainbow In The Dark, and a record-breaking five times in Sabbath’s Children Of The Sea.
He smiled. “It’s funny. Whenever I play in Phoenix, this one guy is always there, and every time I’m going to sing it he holds up sign that says ‘Look Out!’ I take it as a compliment!” He was right: it is a compliment.
When I had a leaving party after 10 years working for Kerrang!, the invitations featured a photo of Ronnie with a stuffed eagle and the headline: Look Out! It was a tribute to the man who, for me, best epitomises the spirit of heavy metal. In a 2009 issue of Classic Rock, I stated: ‘Of all the legendary heavy metal singers, Ronnie James Dio is the greatest.’
And there are many, all over the world, who share that opinion. I recall a drunken night with friends in Brighton when the conversation inevitably turned to heavy metal, and, specifically, singers – at which point one friend threatened to walk out of the pub unless we all agreed that Ronnie James Dio is the No.1 metal singer of all time. We agreed, the friend stayed. Rob Halford was voted No.2.
Ronnie James Dio sang so many great songs: Man On The Silver Mountain, Sixteenth Century Greensleeves, The Temple Of The King, Stargazer, Tarot Woman, Starstruck, Kill The King, Long Live Rock’N’Roll, Neon Knights, Children Of The Sea, Heaven And Hell, Die Young, Stand Up And Shout, Holy Diver, Rainbow In The Dark, The Last In Line, We Rock. But if there is one song, above all others, with a lyric that best captures the essence of Ronnie James Dio, it is Sacred Heart: ‘Whenever we dream, that’s when we fly.’ He dared to dream, and he flew high.
Rest in peace, Ronnie.
This tribute appeared in Classic Rock 147, in June 2010.