Remembering Metal Legend Ronnie James Dio
When Wendy Dio, manager and wife of metal legend Ronnie James Ronnie James Dio, confirmed at 3PM EST on May 16 that her husband had died of stomach cancer, the news was especially shocking.
Dio had been diagnosed with the condition less than six months earlier, and on May 4, after his current group, Heaven & Hell, canceled all of its summer tour dates so he could continue receiving treatment, he issued a statement that read, “This setback could be devastating, but we will not let it be. With your continued love and support, we will carry on and thrive. There will be other tours, more music, more life and much more magic.”
That it seemed as if Dio’s health was improving wasn’t the only reason why his death on Saturday morning was so surprising. The diminutive singer with the larger-than-life attitude had dealt with major setbacks before and always prevailed. He had been in and out of Black Sabbath twice before reuniting with Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Vinny Appice again in Heaven & Hell and rising back to the top of the metal heap. And before that, he had clashed egos with Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, struggled with the lineup for his own band, Dio, and wrangled with two indie labels that went under, Spitfire and Sanctuary, and still come out on top. Cancer, it seemed, would be but a hiccup for the man with iron lungs.
In the history of metal, there are good singers and then there are legends – vocalists who are identifiable within the first note of a song. Dio’s operatic vibrato was unmistakable and extremely versatile. His was a voice that could sooth like a soul crooner one minute and roar like vengeful tyrant the next. Even when he was embellishing tunes with melodic interjections like “all right,” “yeah” or “ooooohh-oooohhhh,” he loomed high above most vocalists of his era – even though he stood at just about five-feet-four-inches tall.
Dio was a commanding presence, matching his majestic vocals with theatrical hand and arm gestures, and introducing the now ubiquitous “devil horns” to the heavy metal masses in the early ’80s. While he was a mysterious presence onstage, Dio was always articulate and gracious to the crowd. Some members of the music industry have called him stubborn and controlling, but in interviews he was dignified and polite. In addition, Dio always took the high road, rarely speaking poorly of his peers or adversaries regardless of what they said about him. And he never seemed to seethe with rage or wallow in self-pity when band members left him or circumstances – like the dawn of grunge – set his career temporarily adrift.
He started in the music business in 1957 playing bass and trumpet in the band the Vegas Kings, which he formed with several musicians from Cortland, N.Y. He later said that the breathing techniques he learned playing trumpet as a boy enabled him to sing naturally without any vocal training. The Vegas Kings changed their name to Ronnie and the Rumblers, then in 1958 they became Ronnie and the Redcaps. They released two singles, neither of which featured Dio on lead vocals. Then in 1961 they changed their name again, this time to Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. The band released several singles and an album, but failed to create much of a buzz. They broke up in 1967, at which point Dio formed the band Electric Elves with Prophets guitarist Nick Pantas.
The first real tragedy in Dio’s professional life (he always kept his private life to himself) occurred when the band got into a terrible automobile accident that killed Pantas. The band continued, changing its name to the Elves, then simply Elf. In 1972 they landed a record deal with Epic for their self-titled record, which was produced by Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice. Elf released two more full-lengths on different labels. In additional to originals, they played various covers, including Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs” and Jethro Tull‘s ‘Aqualung.’
Glover, who invited Elf to open for Deep Purple on various dates, asked Dio to sing on his solo album ‘The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.’ Impressed by Dio’s vocal skills and dramatic delivery, ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore asked him to join him his new band, Rainbow, and in 1974 Elf disbanded.
On paper, Rainbow seemed like the ultimate hard rock supergroup, and a fortuitous vehicle for Dio – and at first that was the case. While Blackmore had a reputation for being tyrannical and firing members left and right, he appreciated Dio’s talent and professionalism, and worked with him for three studio albums: ‘1975’s ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow,’ 1976’s ‘Rainbow Rising’ and 1978’s ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll.’
The albums featured lyrical themes of swords and sorcery and dragon slaying that fit Dio’s melodramatic voice and flair for drama. But when Blackmore suddenly decided to change direction and make music that was far more commercial, Dio decided to leave to continue his quest for heavy music. While his years in Rainbow clearly helped his career, he has said they weren’t the most enjoyable. “I went through the Ritchie Blackmore school of music [as a member of Rainbow], and, if you survive that one all right, you become hardened enough to deal with anything,” he told me during an interview for ‘Revolver’ magazine in 2006. “Nothing intimidates me now.”
Soon after leaving Rainbow, Sharon Osbourne introduced Dio to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, and it wasn’t long before Black Sabbath fired Ozzy Osbourne — who was so dependent on drugs and alcohol that he could no longer sing or make it to rehearsals — and invited Dio to join the band. As significant as Dio’s work was with Rainbow, he provided the catalyst for Black Sabbath, allowing them to pick up the pieces and thrive again after the downward slump they encountered with hit-and-miss albums like 1976’s ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and 1988’s ‘Never Say Die.’ Rainbow was a good vehicle for Dio, but with Sabbath he could flex his imagination even further, penning lyrics that delved into the occult and the dark side of the human psyche.
“With Sabbath I seem to have this leash that’s been taken off me, and I can write as weird as I want to,” Dio told me during a 2008 interview for ‘Revolver.’ “I do like to do things with a little bit of a sense of humor, but a dark, dark sense of humor.”
The title track of Black Sabbath’s 1980 album ‘Heaven and Hell’ became an instant classic, even at nearly seven minutes.
Black Sabbath’s follow-up a year later, ‘The Mob Rules,’ was also loud, heavy and musically diverse, shifting from the raucous inferno of the title track – which was used in the adult animated film ‘Heavy Metal’ – to the ominous, string-saturated acoustic guitar and acrobatic vocal intro of ‘Falling Off the End of the World.’
In the early ’80s, all was well with Dio and Black Sabbath sonically, but behind the scenes the band members were indulging in the spoils of the industry, and the substance abuse and alcohol consumption was making them irrational. They bumped heads and waged ego battles and pissing contests that led the band to fire Dio while they were working on their 1982 concert album, ‘Live Evil,’ which no one in the band was happy with. There were sound bleeds from the monitors and each member was fighting to have his tracks boosted in the mix. It got to the point where Dio and Vinny Appice would show up to work on their parts, then when they left, Iommi and Butler would work on theirs. By the end of the session, Black Sabbath had fired both Dio and Appice.
So, Dio and Appice started their own group, Dio, in 1982, bringing back Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain and hiring young Irish guitar whiz Vivian Campbell. Released at the height of the metal renaissance, 1983’s ‘Holy Diver’ delivered the right mix of commercial melody, rhythmic force and guitar firepower. With his lyrics filled with references to “rainbows” and “dragons,” Dio was like a hybrid of Rainbow’s fantasy rock and Black Sabbath’s dark mysticism, and the band thrived for several albums, releasing visually compelling videos and filling their stage performances with eye candy, including lasers, a neon-lit guitar, a glow-in-the-dark whip and a giant dragon’s head that breathed smoke and surfaced from above the drum kit.
The 1984 follow-up to ‘Holy Diver,’ ‘The Last in Line,’ was even more successful and was certified Gold two months after its release. On February 3, 1987 it became Dio’s first Platinum album. At the height of his commercial success, Dio noticed that hardly any metal musicians participated in Live Aid on the U.S.A. for Africa’s single ‘We Are the World.’ So he and his bandmates co-wrote the song ‘Stars’ and invited 40 artists from the metal community to come to A&M Records Studio in Hollywood and record the track for charity.
The session featured lead vocals by Dio, Rob Halford, Queensyryche‘s Geoff Tate, Rough Cutt‘s Paul Shortino, Quiet Riot‘s Kevin DuBrow, Dokken‘s Don Dokken, Y&T‘s Dave Meniketti and Blue Oyster Cult‘s Eric Bloom. Members of Iron Maiden, Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, Night Ranger, W.A.S.P., Vanilla Fudge, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ted Nugent, Giuffria and Spinal Tap also contributed to the project, which was released as a seven-inch single and on an album with additional live tracks from Accept, Motörhead, Rush, Kiss, Dio and Scorpions, and studio recordings by Y&T and Jimi Hendrix. Hear N’ Aid came out Jan. 1, 1986 and raised more than 1million dollars to combat starvation in Africa.
‘Stars’ may have displayed Dio at his most visible and magnanimous, but the good vibes didn’t last forever, and by the next year Dio was facing some of the frustrations that come from being a frontman. 1985’s ‘Sacred Heart’ was the last Dio record to feature Campbell, who claims he was a contract player but wanted to be a full-time member, and that he was promised that after he played on three discs he would be invited into the fold. When that didn’t happen, he left in a huff and eventually joined Def Leppard. Dio replaced Campbell with Craig Goldy for 1987’s ‘Dream Evil,’ another consistent if somewhat predictable album.
Personality conflicts led to other shake-ups. Appice, Bain and keyboardist Claude Schnell all left Dio in 1989, and over his next six albums, Dio went through numerous players including guitarists Rowan Robertson, Tracy G. and Doug Aldritch, and bassists Jeff Pilson, Larry Dennison, Bain and Rudy Sarzo.
Further complications within the Dio camp arose when Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler bumped into Dio at a show in 1991 and asked if he wanted to return to Black Sabbath. The result was ‘Dehumanizer,’ a fast, abrasive and angry record with fewer mainstream melodies than past Dio-Sabbath albums. Dio said the sessions were filled with strife and frustration but called the album one of his favorite Sabbath discs. “I think it’s one of the heaviest albums I’ve ever heard,” he told me during the Revolver interview. “I think it’s so underrated.”
The band toured for ‘Dehumanizer’ with Testament, Prong, Exodus and others. In the middle of the dates, Ozzy Osbourne announced his retirement and asked the original Black Sabbath to open for him for the last two shows of the 1992 No More Tours run in New Mexico. Incensed, Dio quit the band after a Nov. 13 concert in Oakland, Calif. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford filled in for Dio for the final two performances before the Sabbath shows with Ozzy, and Dio returned to his solo work.
Five more solo albums with various lineups followed, the last of which was 2004’s ‘Masters of the Moon.’ Then in 1996, while Ozzy Osbourne was working on solo material, Rhino Records decided to release an album of the material Black Sabbath recorded with Dio. The label wanted bonus cuts, but the band had nothing left over to offer, so they got together with Dio to write some new songs for the compilation. The sessions were productive and the band exited with three new songs, ‘Shadow of the Wind,’ ‘Ear in the Wall’ and ‘The Devil Cried.’
The band members enjoyed working together so much that they agreed to launch a tour to support the album. All the time that had passed since ‘Dehumanizer’ served the dissipate any lingering animosities, and the musicians had a great time touring the globe with a set of classics and a couple of the new songs.
When they returned from the tour, they were still in fine spirits, so they got together to write and record a full-length Heaven & Hell album, ‘The Devil You Know,’ which sounded like a mélange of everything they had done together in the past, minus the friction. Another successful tour followed and Heaven & Hell were preparing to enter the studio to record their second full-length album when Dio was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
In a statement, a grief-stricken Tony Iommi said, “Ronnie loved what he did, making music and performing on stage. He loved his fans so much. He was a kind man and would put himself out to help others. I can honestly say it’s truly been an honor to play at his side for all these years. His music will live on forever. The man with the magic voice is a star amongst stars, a true professional. I’ll miss you so much, my dear friend.”