Ronnie James Dio
Six decades. That is the span through which Ronnie James Dio (born Ronald James Padavona) was a rock‘n’ roll professional. With his death last month on May 16, an incredible music career ended. Dio was best known for his work in heavy metal, and in fact he became a cultural icon – one often steeped in humor – for the exaggerated posturing and fantastical lyrics that are a rich part of the genre. His introduction of the “metal horns” hand sign cemented it. To be sure, Dio immersed himself in such things, but it’s interesting to note that his musical career actually took him through several rock‘n’roll genres.
In 1958, a band from upstate New York called Ronnie And The Red Caps released their first 7-inch single on a small label called Reb Records. They could be described as a doo-wop group. Ronnie James Dio was the singer of that band, and the vinyl single began his professional recording career. Dio went on to form a group called Elf that also garnered a recording deal. That band, which had their first release in the late sixties, could be best described as boogie rock. But Dio’s strong voice set the group apart from many of the hippie bands of the time, lending a power to the band that was unusual.
Elf got a big break by landing opening slots for Deep Purple, which was then one of the biggest touring shows in the world. Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore took notice of Dio’s strong vocals and energetic performances. He’d been looking for an out from Deep Purple for some time, and Blackmore decided Elf was that out. He recruited the band to be his new band (kicking out the guitarist, of course), and they became Rainbow in 1975. With Rainbow, Ronnie James recorded five albums, and in the process became a full-fledged rock star. The group had enormous success and toured the world multiple times playing their brand of jam-oriented hard rock.
Eventually, Ritchie Blackmore wanted to take Rainbow in a more commercial and less improvisational direction, and he parted ways with Dio. The timing couldn’t have been better. Over in the Black Sabbath camp, Ozzy Osbourne had been kicked out due to his drug and alcohol habits (highly ironic given the habits of the other members of the group). Dio was brought in to audition, and the chemistry was immediate. During their first session together, the song “Children Of The Sea” was written, a track that would eventually ended up on Heaven & Hell, Black Sabbath’s first release with Dio on vocals. That album is now a rock classic, considered by many to be one of the best hard rock albums ever produced.
Ronnie James has said in more than one interview that he considers his years in Black Sabbath to be his best work; that the ambiance of Black Sabbath was the best background for his vocals and lyrics. But the partnership did not last long. After two studio albums and a live release, Dio was asked to leave the band. There continue to be multiple stories as to the catalyst behind the split, but most likely there were multiple reasons on both sides (drummer Vinny Appice quit the band as well and stuck with Dio).
By this point in 1982, Dio was famous enough to take a stab at a solo band. He created DIO with former Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice and signed on an incredible young guitarist named Vivian Campbell. The result was an album called Holy Diver, and it, too, is now a classic in the world of hard rock and heavy metal.
The DIO band experienced huge success in the eighties and, despite numerous lineup changes, it was a musical entity that Ronnie James kept alive until his death. In the last few years, Dio was also involved with the band Heaven & Hell, which was essentially the Black Sabbath lineup he had been involved with sans the name (now controlled by Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, it seems). The group was hugely successful as a touring band, and this summer was supposed to be the beginning of another big tour of the world. Dio had been fighting stomach cancer, and it looked to be in remission. The tour was booked, but then suddenly cancelled. Ultimately, and sadly, the cancer beat Dio.
As mentioned earlier, Dio has become symbolic of heavy metal, including both the silly and the serious aspects. To be sure, there is plenty to laugh at, and Ronnie James, as evidenced with his work with comedian Jack Black, understood that. So, how should we think of Ronnie James Dio in death? There is no one answer of course, but I’ll share my thoughts. A good friend of mine, Dave V.H., wrote a story in which he references “getting” Dio (see www.metaljazz.com), and I think that’s key. A lot of people don’t “get” Dio, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s okay if he represents nothing but the silliness of heavy metal to you. But do note that Dio’s career arched through many rock, genres and he created music far outside the realm of metal. The key, I think, is that Dio was an sharp man and could both see and play to both sides.
When I was fifteen years old, my favorite bands in the world were Deep Purple (at that time not in existence) and Judas Priest (at their highest peak). I loved Dio, too, and Metallica and even WASP (I discover punk a little later). I took it very seriously: this was MY music, man, and I was pissed off and growing my hair long and drinking beer and pretty sure I knew everything. Now, twenty-five or so years later, the seriousness with which I identified with that music, and much of the music itself, seems slightly asinine. Surely, every generation goes through some form of this. Now, I love huge swaths of music, everything from the improvisation of jazz to trance-inducing electronica. But I still love hard rock and heavy metal, and I want to experience those fifteen-year-old feelings over and over because they were like none other.
This is what Dio understood, and what “getting” Dio is about; he offers the unabashed opportunity to relish and engulf oneself in heavy metal, but at the same time laugh about the ridiculousness of it all. That’s it in a nutshell. Ultimately, it is Dio’s gift to us. I’m certain that he was not only a fantastic singer and performer, but also a passionate and intelligent man who sincerely loved and cared about his fans around the world. The metal horns will not be forgotten. Dio will be missed.
Suggested Dio recordings and performances:
Stand Up And Shout: The Dio Anthology (2006, Rhino Records) : if you want to get just one Dio CD for your collection, this double-disc collection is it. An all-inclusive Ronnie James Dio collection, it covers everything from his early band, Elf, through his solo DIO period. All of it has been remastered a well.
Rainbow - Live In Munich 1977 DVD (2006, Eagle Rock Entertainment): This is a classic and historical Rainbow performance for a number of reasons, including the fact the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had just gotten out of jail after having been arrested for causing a riot at the previous gig. Blackmore, released hours before, arrived literally moments before the band took the stage several hours late. The entire band is inspired, as is the audience, and Ronnie James is at his very best.
Black Sabbath – Heaven & Hell (1980, Rhino Records): A classic by an rock standards, Dio swooped in (so to speak) to save Black Sabbath after Ozzy Osbourne’s exit. Dio’s voice and attitude reinvented the band without sacrificing its core identity. But don’t miss Mob Rules, either, the second Dio-era Sabbath album; it is the hidden gem of the Black Sabbath cannon.
DIO - Holy Diver (1983, Warner Brothers): Immediately following his Black Sabbath stint, Dio’s first solo album became an instant classic…like a rainbow in the dark…
DIO – Killing The Dragon (2002, Spitfire Records): A “failed” Dio album of the last decade (it didn’t sell well), it may very well be the hidden gem of the DIO cannon. Chock full of hard rock riffs and medieval-inspired lyrics, this is one to look for.
DIO – Holy Diver Live DVD (2006): This live performance DVD includes Dio’s band performing the entire Holy Diver album, plus several Rainbow and Black Sabbath pieces. An amazing show!
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