Yes, Ronnie James Dio really did sing War Pigs years before he joined Black Sabbath

Elf group shot
Elf in 1972, with Ronnie James Dio far left (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images )

In late 1982, Black Sabbath launch their Live Evil album. Released in part due to Tony Iommi's frustration with Ozzy Osbourne's Speak of the Devil – a live album consisting entirely of Sabbath songs that beat it to the stores by a couple of weeks – it features recordings taken from the band's Mob Rules tour.

Side two, track two: it's the classic War Pigs, with Iommi's iconic two-chord riff backed by a rhythm section that swings in a way most rhythm sections simply don't. Out front, Ronnie James Dio tackles Ozzy's vocal part with his usual mix of drama and full-blooded commitment. 

Dio has been here before. Before Sabbath. Before Rainbow. Back in 1972, his then-band Elf feature War Pigs as part of their set. And there's a recording of them playing the song a full decade before the release of Live Evil.    

Alt

Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ronnie James Dio moves to Cortland, 20 miles the north-west, when he's a child. Cortland is where he serves his musical apprenticeship, in bands like the Vegas Kings, Ronnie And The Redcaps, Ronnie And The Rumblers, and Ronnie Dio And The Prophets. The Prophets' live album Dio At Domino's is recorded locally. 

In early 1972, Elf – previously The Elves, previously Electric Elves – play at show at The Bank venue in Cortland. And among the original songs are a bunch of cover versions: Jethro Tull's Cross-Eyed Mary and Aqualung, Rod Stewart's An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down, Led Zeppelin's Black Dog, Humble Pie's Four Day Creep, Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O' Riley by The Who, and yes, a climactic War Pigs.

Elf give War Pigs the full 10 minute minute treatment. It's a little meek when compared with the Live Evil version, but the important parts are in place. Dio's voice is a little thinner than the rich bellow we're familiar with, but it's unmistakably RJD. And, to be honest, the extended instrumental meandering that fills up a good part of the middle section section is more entertaining than the Vinny Appice drum solo that turns the final two minutes of the 1982 recording into something of an endurance test.

The Cortland recording of War Pigs has been available on the widely-bootlegged album Elf: War Pigs ‘72 for decades, frequently packaged alongside half a dozen studio recordings of original material recorded by The Elves. And in 2011, a year after Dio's death, his widow Wendy assembled some of the highlights and released And Before Elf... There Were Elves. 

Sadly, War Pigs was not on the tracklist. It's officially unreleased to this day, but it remains a somewhat spooky, oddly prescient piece of rock'n'roll history. 

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.