The music made by Ronnie James Dio—who fought off stomach cancer for six months before succumbing over the weekend at age 67—has provided me with much guilt-free pleasure for the better part of my life, and I don’t know that I’ve ever written a word about it, or him. I wish to remedy that now, and have asked several of my colleagues to join me in the effort. – Rob Smith
I was certainly aware of Dio as a kid, from a couple different angles. First of all, beginning around age 13, I watched MTV every waking hour that I wasn’t at school, church, the mall, or the dinner table, and thus was exposed to such Eighties Dio videos as “Rainbow in the Dark,” “The Last in Line,” and “Holy Diver.” They were, for the most part, ridiculous; “Holy Diver,” in particular, played up its stereotypical heavy metal sword-and-sorcery storyline so absurdly, even a Dungeons and Dragons fan would have blushed. I was drawn to the music, though, and to the voice—not your typical screamy, Robert Plant-like falsetto (all the rage in commercial metal at the time), but a full, deep, vibrato-swirled tenor, almost operatic in range and strength. My interest was piqued.
My interest was also piqued by the fact that the hypercritical hypocrites who ran my parochial school did their damnedest to convince us all that Dio was a servant of Satan, and they went to laughable extremes to do so. He had, after all, been the frontman for Black Sabbath; he was often photographed flashing the “devil sign” (or the “Maloik,” a superstitious gesture of protection he learned from his grandmother); his album covers bore imagery of the occult; and if you flipped the “Dio” logo upside-down, it spelled “devil.”
Eventually, in spite (or maybe because) of my dalliance with Satanic forces, I made it to college, and rediscovered Dio’s voice when my partner on my freshman-year metal radio show cued up Sabbath’s “Sign of the Southern Cross,” the epic track from Mob Rules. Dio’s partnership with Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward (later Vinny Appice) was perhaps the most fruitful of his life, producing two classic hard rock records (Heaven and Hell and the aforementioned Mob Rules), a third near-classic (1992’s Dehumanizer), and fourth (last year’s The Devil You Know) that, while largely disappointing, still showed signs of renewed strength and bade well for a future that never quite came to pass.
Dio’s solo career was wide and varied, though never straying far from the dark themes or heavy rock that was his stock in trade. Front-loaded with landmark metal records like Holy Diver, The Last in Line, and Sacred Heart, Dio’s work flew under the radar after the early-Nineties blast of grunge sent popular metal acts sprawling. Yet albums like Lock up the Wolves (recorded with 18-year-old guitarist Rowan Robertson), Magica, and his final two studio albums, 2002’s Killing the Dragon and 2004’s Master of the Moon, all came at the listener with dark vibe and boundless energy intact.
I’ve never heard a Dio album that sounded listless or deflated. Yes, he embraced the ridiculousness of the genre and its most absurd imagery—dragons, wizards, swords, crucifixions, evil, monsters, etc.—but if the listener was willing to suspend his or her disbelief for the length of a given album, they were treated to quite the spectacle. And it wasn’t all witchcraft and talismans; tracks like “Throw Away Children,” “Dying in America,” and “Living the Lie” gave voice to very real, very modern concerns. These records also had a blunt sonic punch that was undeniable; Dio’s bands were populated with virtuosos, all playing in the service of that astounding voice.
To think that, before his illness, this 67-year-old man could still command audiences of thousands to raise their own voices in song or exuberance belies the idea that hard rock is strictly a young person’s game. From his earliest recordings in Elf and Rainbow, through the Sabbath and solo periods, all the way to the reunion that was Heaven and Hell, Ronnie James Dio gave us music, gave us an outlet for our frustrations, and gave us pleasure, without the least shred of guilt. May he rest in peace and play on forever. – RS
You don’t have to like metal to appreciate the voice that was Ronnie James Dio. Back in the 1970s he had the unenviable task of replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath. He was the original voice of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and in later years would front his own outfit Dio as well as reunite with the Sabbath line-up that produced Mob Rules, this time under the banner of Heaven & Hell, not coincidentally the title of his first Sabbath outing.
You know all that stuff already. You also know his metal voice, the snarl in the sound, the bark and the bite, but he was equally capable of smooth, ballad-ready crooning. That was the carrot on the stick, used often to fantastic effect on the openings of songs, then when the distortion pedal got pressed, the gallop of drum and bass charged forward and Dio whipped you over the head with that same stick. His dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) delivery can be heard in those that followed, particularly Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden. If pressed, I think Dickinson would very proudly admit the lessons he learned at the School of Ronnie James Dio.
Cancer is a horrible thing. It is sometimes murderously aggressive, merciless, giving back no taken ground. It is sometimes evil and coy, retreating the field, leaving the combatant feeling like the conqueror for a brief period of time. Then it returns to finish the job. For a lucky few, the battle is decisively won and, so we thought, surely, if anyone had the immortal fire in them to take on the demon and win, it was Dio. We take a deep breath, sigh that resigned sigh, and linger on the knowledge that such a mighty voice belonged to a flesh-and-blood human as we all are. It hardly seems possible.
Born July 10th, 1942 as Ronald James Padavona. The announcement of his stomach cancer came on November 25th, 2009. The day of his passing is May 16th, 2010, but his effect on popular music and popular culture has no date. For as long as rock fans of every classification throw up his hand gesture, a modified “hang-ten” in the shape of devil horns, and whip their unshorn manes of hair to a heavy, thundering rhythm, Dio has a place in the crowd. That’s a legacy even cancer can’t erase. – Dw. Dunphy
I racked up quite a few Dio stories during 10 years of working in metal radio. My first opportunity to meet the man came during the late ’90s at an Iron Maiden show where Dio was in the opening slot. My friend Chris asked me if I would be interested in going back to say hi to Ronnie. A quick “yes” was my answer, without hesitation. Honestly though, I was a bit nervous at the prospects of meeting such a legend, because I really didn’t know enough personally about Dio to know if the experience would be a disappointment.
I had no reason to worry, because Ronnie ended up being one of the most down-to-earth people that I’ve met, something that stands to this day. He greeted us like old friends, and what followed was a relaxed period of conversation with the three of us. The key word is “conversation,” and believe me, that’s a rare thing in these meet-and-greet situations.
At this point in the ’90s, Ronnie was doing quite a few opening slots on various metal package tours, and booking Dio on these tours made good sense on a couple of levels. Although he was an obvious added draw for tickets, he also brought a ridiculous amount of catalog to the table as well. These sets from Ronnie were the ultimate “power hour” – 45 to 60 minutes of metal chestnuts from Ronnie’s time with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and, of course, the Dio catalog itself.
Around this same time, I was making up for lost time with my own discovery of the Dio-era Black Sabbath catalog. Confession: I’ve never really been a big Black Sabbath fan, so I really hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the Black Sabbath catalog, regardless of who the singer was behind the microphone. Enter the Heaven and Hell album – OH MY GOD. The title track was a revelation to me – I instantly understood those that had a preference for the Dio years, and I was newly inducted as a member of that tribe. Thanks to a friend’s gift of Black Sabbath remasters that he had received on promo, the Mob Rules and Live Evil (a classic no matter how live it is or is not) albums were quickly added to my arsenal. “You’ve never heard the Heaven and Hell album, and you do a metal show?” was the aghast reply from my friend, that put all of this education into motion.
Digging around the radio station archives, I found that we had several live Dio radio shows from King Biscuit, and this 22-minute run through “Heaven & Hell” which led into “The Last In Line,” before slamming back into “Heaven & Hell.” Godly. Can we play 22 minutes of live Dio on the radio? You’re damn right, we can.
From this point, I had joined the ranks of those that were Dio fans for life – buying all of the albums, attending all of the shows, culminating with the most excellent reunion of Dio and Black Sabbath – sure, they called it Heaven & Hell for legal reasons, but we all knew it properly as Black Sabbath. Well into his 60s, Dio remained an unbelievable vocal power, and these reunion shows (and the eventual album that came with it) were an unbelievable gift – one final gift from the kind soul named Ronnie James Dio. – Matt Wardlaw
My enduring memory of Ronnie James Dio won’t be the diminutive singer dressed in ridiculous – even by ‘80s Heavy Metal standards – medieval garb. It won’t be related to his solo work or his time with Rainbow; even though those are no less worthy of remembering. Rather, my thoughts will always find their way to the 2007 Heaven & Hell show that reaffirmed my belief in the power of Heavy Metal, and cemented Dio – and the rest of the reinvigorated Sabbath lineup – as the proper kings of the land. Even at 64, Dio was easily able to command the audience, stalking the stage with an air of nobility befitting the moment. That night I left the show feeling as if I was lucky to have witnessed the band at their best, performing the classic tracks that continue to shape the Metal genre. That night is what I will reminisce on when listening to those records. Godspeed, Ronnie. We’ll all throw the “Maloik” to ward off any evil in your path home. – Michael Parr
Our Bootleg City crew has dug deep into their spacious, climate-controlled vault to bring us two vintage boots of Dio’s band, Elf. The first is a 1972 soundboard recording of a show in Courtland, NY. Lots of cover material here, but you can hear, even at this juncture, the strength of Dio’s voice, as he wraps it around staples from the Who, Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and, yes, even Black Sabbath.
The second is a set of six demos from the same year, probably from an acetate recording. Again, the material is different from the Dio we’re used to, but that voice just shines through.
Many thanks to Matthew Boles for the contribution — one day, sir, we shall clink glasses in honor of the man. – RS
Elf Live 1972
1 Give Me A Chance
4 Drown Me In The River
5 Simple Man
6 Won’t Get Fooled Again/ Baba O’ Riley
7 Pisces Apple Lady
8 Dirty Dollar Bill
9 Buckingham Blues
10 So Long
11 You Shook Me / Rock’s Boogie
12 War Pigs
Elf – Demos