In celebration of the life of the greatest heavy metal singer of all time, here are five of his greatest contributions.
Hands down Ronnie James Dio’s greatest performance on record, “Stargazer” is the perfect encapsulation of his vocal style. Atop a furious blues groove courtesy Ritchie Blackmore, bassist Jimmy Bain, and drummer Cozy Powell, he spins a yarn about a wizard attempting to reach a metaphorical “star” by having his followers/slaves build a tower. The end of the first verse immediately shifts into an exotic riff reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, but far more flamboyant, Dio’s voice soaring as the faithless masses question, “Where is your star? / Is it far, is it far, is it far?”, hitting dramatic heights during the chorus, singing, “We built a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / But don’t know why / Now where do we go?” The song gradually builds to a majestic climax with Dio in full flight during the last two minutes, his masterful vamping and improvising expressing astonishment (“I see a rainbow rising”), doubt (“Give me back my will”), and joy (“I’m going home”) as the song fades out gracefully.
Black Sabbath, “Heaven and Hell”
“It’s a big epic kind of song—something that you didn’t hear from Sabbath before—with a lot of melody in it and a lot of wonderful choral and orchestral changes inside of it. I think right away that divorced us from what had come before.” (Holy Hell: The Making of Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell, by Adem Tepdelen, Precious Metal, edited by Albert Mudrian, Da Capo Press, July 2009)
“I was always afraid as a kid of the nuns, the big penguins who were going to smack you in the head with a ruler, which is what they always did anyway, or the fact that if you do something wrong you’re going to go to hell and you’ve got to suffer terribly. I thought, Gimme a break here, what’s going on? So that’s why for me the whole world for me is heaven and hell. That song is about that, the fact that in my mind we live in heaven, we live in hell. God and the devil are inherent in each of us, and it’s our choice to make. You could take the road to good or take the road to bad.” (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, directed by Sam Dunn and Scott McFayden, Warner Home Video, May 2006)
Dio, “Holy Diver”
“‘Holy Diver’ is, I guess, some form of religious song. It’s about a saviour figure, like Christ, who is on another planet and has done the same as we know: God supposedly sacrificing his son for the sins of others. At this particular point, this Christ figure had done all that on this other world and now is going to another world to do the same thing, which could have been earth; it could have been anything. But the point was, the people in this first world were saying, ‘Don’t go down there…You’re going to do down there and you’re never going to come back again.’ It’s whole point was, gee, aren’t people selfish? They just got through being saved by someone who died for their sins and now everything is OK in their world. But you won’t let him go, because you’re afraid that he won’t always be there for you. What about other people in the universe?” (The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time, by Martin Popoff, ECW Press, October 2002)
Black Sabbath, “The Sign of the Southern Cross”
“I love that song; I think it’s a great song. That’s a song everybody mentions when you talk about [Mob Rules. I’ve always loved that title. When I was a trumpet player when I was a little kid, there was a song called ‘The Southern Cross’. And I did a little research into it. The Southern Cross is very Australian-related as well. But I loved the idea of the Southern Cross. So when it came time to write a track, we needed something that was going to be a little more Heaven and Hell-ish, and that was the title we put to it. And I remember it was a lot of fun to write.” (The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time, by Martin Popoff, ECW Press, October 2002)
Rainbow, “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Over the years Ronnie James Dio has sung his share of rock anthems, from “Turn on the Night”, to “We Rock”, to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Children”, but the title track from Rainbow’s 1978 album is arguably the best of the lot. From the opening salvo of, “Rock ‘n’ roll!” Dio sells it like no other singer can. Yet despite the exuberant riffing by Blackmore, this is far from your usual trite party tune, as Dio’s unique phrasing and melody casts a shadow over the proceedings, as if warning us to have our fun now, because there’s some serious doom about to go down.