Elf: Carolina County Ball - Album Of The Week Club review

Elf showed what Ronnie James Dio could do before he went on to do it with Rainbow, Black Sabbath and the rest

Elf: Carolina County Ball
(Image: © Purple Records)

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Elf: Carolina County Ball

Elf: Carolina County Ball

(Image credit: Purple Records)

Carolina County Ball
L.A. 59
Ain't It All Amusing
Annie New Orleans
Rocking Chair Rock 'n' Roll Blues
Do the Same Thing

Years before Ronnie James Dio blew the world away fronting Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (more of them later), he had come to the attention of Deep Purple while fronting New York State rock’n’rollers Elf, leading to his band being regularly employed as an opening act for Purple Mark II.

Dio’s extraordinary voice saw Purple’s Roger Glover and Ian Paice opt to spend a break from their hectic US touring schedule producing the self-titled Elf debut album (1972), which painted them as Cortland County’s best Rod Stewart & The Faces soundalikes. When Glover left Purple, he continued as Elf’s producer.

For their second album Carolina County Ball Glover brought the band over to the UK to record at the newly opened Manor Studios and encouraged them to expand their sound. 

With Dio and piano player Mickey Lee Soule sharing all writing duties, this they duly did. The prevalence of piano in places brings shades of Elton John (whose seminal Goodbye Yellow Brick Road double, released the year before, was surely an influence), not least on the prophetically titled Rainbow, but also Happy and Blanche.

Carolina County Ball, though, covers a wide range of styles. The title track is an initially mid-tempo boogie-woogie that also features a clarinet, brass section and ace female backing vocals. Ain’t It All Amusing and the raucous Do The Same Thing sound more like the reason Elf opened for Purple on the Mark III line-up’s Burn tour.

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Other albums released in April 1974

  • Ragged Old Flag - Johnny Cash
  • Second Helping - Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Big Fun - Miles Davis
  • Bridge of Sighs - Robin Trower
  • Standing on the Verge of Getting It On - Funkadelic
  • Okie - J.J. Cale
  • Exotic Birds and Fruit - Procol Harum
  • Hamburger Concerto - Focus
  • Houston (I'm Comin' to See You) - Glen Campbell
  • Positive Vibrations - Ten Years After
  • Road Food - The Guess Who
  • Secret Treaties - Blue Öyster Cult
  • Unconditionally Guaranteed - Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band
  • Sweet Fanny Adams - Sweet

What they said...

"A little uneven in places, Carolina County Ball is still an interesting album that not only gives an insight into the early years of Ronnie James Dio and Rainbow, but which also delivers a good, diverse set of early heavy rock n' roll. There's no doubt it is overshadowed both by what this band had done before and what they'd do post Elf, but Carolina County Ball remains a good listen." (Sea of Tranquility)

"The rollicking title track set the tone for the LP, with its saloon-ready piano (a hallmark throughout), searing electric guitars woozy honky-tonk brass, and climactic tempo shift.  This signalled a more adventurous direction for the band, as always anchored by Dio’s full-throated, confidently strutting vocals." (The Second Disc)

"In their attempts to make a better record than its predecessor, Elf had great success with Carolina County Ball. The songs here are much more complex and intellectually arousing yet retain their upbeat and catchy feel that made the debut so enjoyable. Elf’s sophomore release is without a doubt their crowning achievement, blending a vast array of influences correctly and cohesively with outstanding performances from all members involved." (Sputnuk Music)

What you said...

Mike Canoe: For those, like me, who only know Ronnie James Dio as the dark and dour doomsayer of Black Sabbath Mk II, Rainbow, and, of course, his own band Dio; his singing on this album is a revelation. I never wondered what "Happy Dio" would sound like, but it's fun hearing our diminutive but dedicated dungeon master sing a line like, "Aggravating Annie, you're getting on my fanny." We're still a long way from, "Kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams."

I've noticed a lot of reviews with a sentence like, "Imagine if Dio sang for..." Mine shall be no exception. I hear the charm and humour of southern fried rockers like Little Feat or Black Oak Arkansas. But I also hear the musical prowess and excellent backing vocals of contemporaries Uriah Heep. I imagine that those who enjoyed the James Gang pick earlier this year would find a lot to like here. The already assured and powerful vocals of Dio are just the cherry on top.

Dio's songwriting partner, keyboardist Mickey Lee Soule, is this week's Mel Galley, in that he's a fantastic musician who never made it on my radar (sonar?) before. He's the main reason, to my ears, that the songs stay bright and engaging, even on ballads like Happy or Rainbow. If he juices the ballads, he's positively rollicking on songs like Annie New Orleans and the title track.

I can hear why Ritchie Blackmore drafted 4/5 of the band to be the first lineup of Rainbow. But it must have sucked pretty hard for Steve Edwards to realise the next incarnation of the band already had a pretty good lead guitarist.

I already enjoy about half of Ronnie James Dio's vast discography. I am happy, very very happy, to have a few more albums to enjoy.

Marco LG: What many people tend to forget is that Ronnie James Dio began his career in the late 50s, releasing a series of singles throughout the 60s, some of which under his own name. I never had the good fortune to listen to any of that music, but I am reliably informed it sounded as forgettable as much of what Richie Blackmore was up to during the same years. Nevertheless, this little titbit of trivia should help putting into context the versatility that Dio displays in this album. Versatility that also allowed him during the same year to collaborate with Roger Glover on the Butterfly Ball album.

Carolina County Ball stands out for me because of the musicianship of pretty much everyone involved, the variety of styles on display and most of all the outstanding vocal performance of Ronnie. But at the same time, none of the tunes sounds original enough or memorable enough to really make of this album anything more than a throw back to Ronnie’s vocal capabilities. We have a bit of Elton John here, a bit of Rod Steward there and we even get a bit of Freddy Mercury in the middle section of Rocking Chair Rock ’N’ Roll Blues. Not bad at all as a harbinger of things to come!

My personal verdict is a 7 out of 10, for the singer and for the band who helped propelling him to the stars and beyond. Godspeed Ronnie, you truly were one of a kind.

Uli Hassinger: When I was a teen I was a big Dio fan because of the Rainbow and later Sabbath albums. I had an older friend who owned all the Elf albums so I listened to them every now and then when I was at his home. They never convinced me that that I would bought an album for my own. For about 30 years I had never listened to them again.

You can't compare the album to the heavier Dio stuff later on. The songs are strongly influenced by co-writer Soule and his classy rock'n'roll-based piano playing, with slightly bluesy and jazzy elements as well.

The songs are not bad but not breathtaking. The best moments on the album are the drum solo ending of Ain't It All Amusing and the songs Rocking Chair Rock 'N' Roll Blues and Rainbow (a visionary title).

Overall it's a solid rock'n'roll album. It's not a must-have in every collection but it's not a waste of money neither. 6/10.

Bill Griffin: I really liked this one except for Blanche, which sounded like the one they would play over the PA after the show to get everyone to leave the hall.

Gary Claydon: Another one to file in the "what did so-and-so do before they joined so-and-so?" section.

Fine vocals (of course), decent musicianship, bang average material.

A little less 'Faces' than their debut, but with added 'Elton'. I always thought the follow-up, Trying To Burn The Sun, was a better album but by the time it was released most of the members were busy helping the Man In Black record and subsequently tour the debut Rainbow long-player and Elf were consigned to history and record store bargain bins.

Worth a listen if you're interested in RJD's extensive pre-fame career or you like a mish-mash of blues rock/R&B/Southern boogie infused with honky-tonk piano. 5/10

Brian Carr: I always liked RJD, to the point of considering him one of the Mount Rushmore metal voices, but had never sought out his early band Elf, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was very surprised to hear Dio fronting a honky tonk piano band! The odd thing is, for me it worked for much of Carolina County Ball.

I found the guitar work quite tasty, so I was pretty disappointed there wasn’t more of it as the piano was definitely the dominant instrument. Happy was a cool track that featured the descending chord progression that is always ear candy for me (I’m shocked I haven’t ever sat down to figure it out).

I did feel like some of the songs overstayed their welcome, but I suppose it was 1974. One example was the drum break on Ain’t It All Amusing which worked for some reviewers but sounded like unnecessary padding to me. Album closer Blanche is horrible.

I don’t know how often I’ll pull up Carolina County Ball, but it was certainly interesting and enjoyable for the most part. Now I need to hit YouTube again to try to find video of Ronnie playing bass.

Roland Bearne: Well, this was really rather fun. In another world they may have evolved or gone further, but one thing is for certain, RJD shines beacon like, front and centre! The band are good but its so glaringly obvious that Dio was destined for so much more than boozy, bluesy bar room boogie, fun and toe-tapping though it is. There are glimmers of ideas which were further developed in early Rainbow but this is really an interesting period piece a great pick and gently entertaining but history has proven the three Elf albums to be Dio's audition pieces awaiting the ambitious ears of Mr Blackmore. Not a huge scorer in and of itself but... that voice!

Dave Hinsley: Interesting listen. Blanche sounds a bit like it could have been the inspiration for Cups And Cakes by Spinal Tap!

Cameron Gillespie: Alrighty, this was one of those oddly beautiful albums for me, it was like Elton John meets the Faces with special guest Ronnie James Dio!

To say the least this was the last thing I'd expect to hear from a Dio-fronted band. I did enjoy it though. Here we see a tiny glimpse of what was to come, Dio's voice is undeniably iconic, certainly not easily mistaken even in his early works like this!

Overall It's an album with some good quality gypsy rock! I wouldn't say it has anything that is groundbreaking, but It's something that I wouldn't mind listening to every now and then.

My favourite tracks were Happy, L.A. 59 and Ain't It All Amusing. My rating: 7/10

Alex Hayes: It's now just over a decade since the late, and extremely great, Ronnie James Dio left us all and ascended to that metaphorical gig in the sky. His greatest legacy to the world of music is a large body of recorded work that showcases his outstanding vocal talents and songwriting skills in the groups Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath (including the latter day Heaven And Hell, a version of Sabbath in all but name), and, of course, Dio itself.

Some of those albums are pretty good (Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, The Devil You Know), several of them are absolutely great (Mob Rules, The Last In Line), and at least three of them should be considered essential listening (Rising, Heaven And Hell, Holy Diver). Any fan of classic rock and metal not intimately acquainted with that remarkable trinity is seriously missing out. In fact, I'm listening to them each in turn as I write this review.

Carolina County Ball, only Ronnie's second official album and recorded with his early band Elf, possibly, at best, falls into the first of those categories. In no shape or form should it be compared to those albums listed above. It would be an unfair folly to even try. I've read comments comparing it to an Elton John LP from that period. That's a good analogy and not one that I'd have personally thought of. It's all honky-tonk piano and smoky, bar-room atmosphere. Decent songs overall, but nothing that stands out as particularly distinctive or memorable.

What is very interesting about this album though is that it's a snapshot of a younger Ronnie that's yet to find his true musical personality. There's obviously no way that the Ronnie of 1974 could have known this but, in just over a decade's time, he would be wielding a sword onstage, battling a giant dragon called Denzil, and liberally throwing out devil-horn signs to enthralled audiences worldwide. Ronnie James Dio would later thrill music fans everywhere with his own distinctive brand of theatrical, sword and sorcery themed, heavy metal. OTT maybe, but fabulous fun.

Carolina County Ball is completely devoid of the D&D-inspired shtick that would later become Ronnie's trademark. He's still great here of course. He was almost incapable of committing himself to anything less than a stellar vocal performance,. Honestly though, all it really made me want to do was go and give some of his classic later material a spin. As an album, it's an interesting listen, but is enormously overshadowed by Ronnie James Dio's later achievements.

Greg Schwepe: OK, this was a unique one to review. And for once, it’s not a big ol’ glowing review from me. 6 out of 10 this go around!

For one, I knew about Elf and Ronnie James Dio and how the core of the band ended up being in the first Rainbow lineup (before the massive “Blackmore Musician Revolving Door Process” started taking place), but I had never listened to any Elf before this. But RJD is my favourite metal vocalist and am a huge fan. Got chance to see Sabbath on Black and Blue tour with Blue Oyster Cult while promoting the Heaven And Hell album.

I did listen all the way through during my run yesterday (no “Treadmill Test” as I was actually outside!). Songs and musicianship are not bad at all. Vocals obviously very good! It kept my attention and was pretty decent. Every time a song started to veer a little from what I like, it took another turn back to “OK.” Not a horrible album by any means, just not something I’d listen to over and over. I can listen to this once and then put this Elf on a shelf, for good.

That said, I also did not compare this to anything Ronnie did in Rainbow, Black Sabbath, or Dio. Many musicians do not end up where they started musically. Part of the journey.

I found the production very good; not muddy (to me!) and instruments seemed to stand out. Then did some research and found that Roger Glover produced it. So, you had a producer with a good background. Because of the piano, I found some of the songs sounding like early Elton John. And with some of the guitar, some sounded like the Allman Brothers.

Guess the one unique thing about this is that after listening to it, I see why about half the songs on the first Rainbow album sound like this. Wonder how many songs were Elf leftovers that Ronnie took to Ritchie when they were writing the Rainbow debut? “Ritchie, I have this leftover stuff from Elf… want to give it a listen?” Hey, it could’ve happened.

Tony Bickerdike: Had a listen. Some good soft rock ballads on there. It’s a bit light on the hard rock for me but thanks for the nomination of this album, certainly worth a listen.

Brett Deighton: How good does Ronnie sound? I love the Rainbow stuff and this is right up there. Solid from start to finish, I’ll be cranking this for the rest of the week.

Darren Burris: Interesting. I liked several of those songs but a few I’m not sure worked with his voice. Pretty good but I like the dungeons and dragons stuff better. Ironic that there was a song titled Rainbow on here.

John Davidson: For anyone expecting a prototype of Rainbow or Dio’s later solo work this album may be a disappointment. It is certainly a jarring contrast both lyrically and musically with his subsequent career.

To be clear, no witch wolf women die young or fly up to a southern cross in the heavens during the making of this album, although admittedly there is a rainbow at one point.

Musically, this is largely piano-led bar-room rock’n’roll, more akin to Rod Stewart's Faces or Status Quo’s Chas'N'Dave period than anything even remotely heavy rock or metal related.

Unsurprisingly, Ronnie James Dio delivers an excellent vocal performance and shows what a talent he had before he became the voice of D&D metal in the later part fo the 70s and through the 80s. The songs are less memorable however with only a couple that stand out for me.

Ain’t it All Amusing is elevated by some fantastic drumming from Gary Driscoll and Do the Same Thing is an above average 12-bar boogie/rocker that incidentally answers the question that no-one asked… ”What would Status Quo sound like with RJD on vocals?”

Beyond those, L.A. 59 has some great phrasing and Rocking Chair... has decent enough guitar work. But as for the rest they never really rise above their bar-room band roots .

For RJD much better was to come. What's more surprising is that Gary Driscoll never really landed anywhere after Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow as (on the basis of this album) he was the most talented musician in the band. 5/10.

Final Score: 6.69⁄10 (86 votes cast, with a total score of 576)

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