In a genre that loves its iconic figures, Ronnie James Dio was one of the biggest. To put it simply, he was the definitive voice of heavy metal, the finest example of however diminutive your physical appearance, if you’ve got that rare combination of vocal power, range, and intangible presence, you can come across as larger than life. Dio might have stood barely 5’ 4”, always dwarfed when flanked by his bandmates, but when he sung, this “little gnome of a man”, as Henry Rollins once condescendingly put it, was the biggest person in the room. He was a dignified showman onstage, projecting a commanding presence like no other, singing in a powerful roar that earned him the nickname “leather lungs”, engaging audiences from the front row to the far reaches of stadiums, and providing metal with one of its most ubiquitous symbols: the devil horn salute. When he passed away in the early hours of Sunday, May 16 at the age of 67, the entire metal world, and rock ‘n’ roll for that matter, suffered an irreplaceable loss.
What people tend to gloss over, though, is just how long a musical career Ronald James Padavona had. Born in New Hampshire but raised in Upstate New York, his first professional musical forays were in rockabilly and doo wop during his late teens, releasing a trio of singles with Ronnie & the Redcaps, including the likeable ballad “An Angel is Missing” in 1960. Under the moniker Ronnie Dio & the Prophets, the band went on to release a series of singles between 1962 and 1967 (and one album, 1963’s Dio at Domino’s) that stuck to the tried-and-true Brill Building rock ‘n’ roll formula, derivative yet well-orchestrated slices of teenage melodrama, highlighted by the lush pop of “Walking in Different Circles”. Formed in 1967, the Electric Elves started combining driving, hard-edged rock and Beatles-derived psychedelia with that early-‘60s pop element, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Dio’s musical career would take a significant turn.
Renamed Elf, and with Dio handling bass as well as vocal duties, the band started to focus more on a blues-based sound, eventually attracting the attention of Deep Purple’s Roger Glover and Ian Paice, who produced the very good debut album Elf in 1972. More straight-up Southern blues rock than the nascent heavy metal that was blowing up at the time, you can hear glimpses of Dio’s growing vocal power atop the searing guitar riffs and boogie-woogie piano on tracks like “Gambler, Gambler” and the fiery “Hoochie Koochie Lady”, as well as his penchant towards the theatrical on “Never More”, a song that anticipates the direction Dio would head in a couple years later.
Dio’s first significant impact on heavy metal was when he was recruited by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore to sing for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 1974. Far more classically based than the heavy blues and soul that Deep Purple had taken on with vocalists Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale, it freed up Dio to explore lyrical themes centering more on fantasy and medieval tales. It was here, at the ripe old age of 32, where Dio found his true calling. 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow featured such staples as “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” and the contagious groove of “Man on the Silver Mountain”, but it was on 1976’s Rising where Dio and Blackmore knocked one out of the park. A landmark of heavy metal’s second wave in the mid-‘70s alongside Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny, Rising has the band - renamed Rainbow - sounding incendiary, creating a flamboyant, epic style that had never been done before. Blackmore and Dio complement each other perfectly, whether on the furious shred-fest “Tarot Woman”, the rampaging “A Light in the Black”, or the gorgeous, dramatic “Stargazer”.
Dio would record one more album with Rainbow (1978’s spirited Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll), but he would make his second major impact in 1980 when Black Sabbath made the highly controversial decision to hire him as the replacement for the fired Ozzy Osbourne. Dio’s flamboyant persona was a massive change from Osbourne’s everyman persona, and to the surprise of many, it was exactly what the flagging band needed. Matching the energy of the youthful New Wave of British Heavy Metal step for step, the 1980 classic Heaven and Hell remains one of Black Sabbath’s best-selling albums, thanks in large part to Dio’s presence. He takes the reins on songs like “Neon Knights” and “Die Young”, leading the way masterfully, yet at the same time he proves he can act as a foil for guitarist Tony Iommi as well as he did with Blackmore, exemplified by “Children of the Sea”, “Lonely is the Word”, and the song that would become his calling card, “Heaven and Hell”. The outstanding Mob Rules would follow a year later, but Dio’s Sabbath sojourn would end abruptly in 1982.
Featuring Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice, Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain, and young guitar phenom Vivian Campbell, Dio’s eponymously named band would dominate the 1980s, touring the arena circuit with performances that played up his fantasy themes to the hilt, including slaying a dragon onstage at one point. Musically Dio had never sounded as aggressive as he did with this band. 1983’s classic Holy Diver might have been led by the breakthrough single “Rainbow in the Dark” (complete with one of the silliest synth lines you will ever hear), but the album is best remembered for such ferocious tracks as “Stand Up and Shout”, the dynamic “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, and the phenomenal title track. Less consistent but selling just as strongly, 1984’s The Last in Line continued the band’s momentum thanks to standouts like the fiery anthem “We Rock”, the stately title track, and the multifaceted “Egypt (The Chains Are On)”.
With members coming and going, Dio the band would go on to put out a total of ten studio albums over the course of 21 years, each subsequent release never groundbreaking but consistently good (1987’s Dream Evil a fine example). However, Ronnie James Dio’s most significant contributions to heavy music over the last 18 years were once again with his Black Sabbath mates. 1992’s very underrated Dehumanizer was only a brief reunion of Black Sabbath Mk. III, but it was a very strong statement. By far the angriest, darkest performance on record in Dio’s long career, his approach is menacing, doing away with nuance in favor of a blunt approach, growling forebodingly on the towering “After All (The Dead)” and emitting an unrelenting snarl on “TV Crimes”, but it’s on the standout “I” where listeners can hear the same magic the foursome conjured in 1981.
The group would reform again in 2007 to great acclaim. Dubbed Heaven and Hell to avoid any hassles from the overtly litigious Osbourne family (though known to all of us as Sabbath), the foursome sounded rejuvenated on their reunion tours, to the point hwere the chemistry was too good to be simply a one-off. After a trio of very good new songs for the compilation The Best of Black Sabbath: The Dio Years, the band focused on a proper full-length release, and although The Devil You Know lacked consistency, it sold very well, Dio’s first top ten debut in the US in ages. And at the very least, it did give us his last masterpiece in the spectacular ““Bible Black”. All of Dio’s trademarks are there: lyrics that toy with the idea of light versus dark, soft, soulful intros exploding into powerful verses, his vocal range still outstanding.
This past November it was announced that Ronnie James Dio had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, his wife and manager Wendy sounding optimistic throughout his treatment, saying in one press release, “After he kills this dragon, Ronnie will be back on stage, where he belongs, doing what he loves best, performing for his fans.” Metal fans love to think of their heroes as being practically immortal. So many metal bands and musicians have shown astonishing longevity, continuing to make relevant music into their 50s and 60s, and the ever personable Dio always seemed like one of the ageless ones. Sadly, that was not to be. On May 4, 2010, Heaven and Hell abruptly cancelled their summer tour, and in the early morning of May 16, the unthinkable happened as he succumbed to his illness. “Today my heart is broken,” Wendy said in a heartbreaking Facebook message. “Many, many friends and family were able to say their private good-byes before he peacefully passed away. Ronnie knew how much he was loved by all. We so appreciate the love and support that you have all given us. Please give us a few days of privacy to deal with this terrible loss. Please know he loved you all and his music will live on forever.”
The tributes have been flooding in all during this Sunday afternoon and evening, from fans and peers alike, but best of all, Dio’s music will be cranked in honor of the man all over the world this week, this month, as we all lose ourselves in his world of rainbows, circles, rings, dragons, and kings. He was our guide, the provider of that light in the black, and we’ll continue to follow after his passing, horns proudly held high.
Heaven and Hell