When news spread across the Internet on Saturday that legendary heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio had succumbed to his battle with stomach cancer, I scoured every news website I could think, hoping to find solid confirmation of the event. I was not about to take the rumors at face value without some fact-checking, especially given Dio is a musician whom I quite enjoy. Sure enough, metal news site Blabbermouth.net soon gained confirmation from Dio’s wife Wendy that the performer was in fact still alive, albeit not in the best of shape. Unfortunately, that respite turned out to be short-lived: when I turned on my computer on Sunday, Dio spouse was now his widow, sadly informing the world of the singer’s passing.
Ronnie James Dio’s career spanned nearly a half-century, really hitting its stride when the singer hooked up with former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore to front the prog-tinged ‘70s metal band Rainbow. From there, Dio parlayed his tenure with Rainbow into a fantastic two-album spell fronting metal pioneers Black Sabbath in the early 1980s, as well as a successful solo career that yielded grandiose fantasy-tinged metal anthems such as “Holy Diver” and “Rainbow in the Dark”. While old school metal’s stock waxed and waned as the 20th century came to a close, Dio held fast to his indomitable image—one rooted in larger-than-life medieval virtue and dark magic that were reduced to cheesy metal clichés in weaker hands—and was rewarded for it by being elevated to the top level of metal icons as the 2000s rolled around.
Dio is far more than just the guy who reputedly invented the metal “devil horns” hand signal. Even after my teenage interest in metal waned and I devoted myself primarily to consuming post-punk and alt-rock, I still maintained a healthy respect for Dio’s work. That’s because Dio’s power as a performer could not be denied. Skinny and diminutive, Dio possessed an outsized, commanding voice that was tailor-made for metal. Regal yet passionate, Dio always sang even his most fantastic lyrics with the utter conviction befitting a master storyteller. And that, ultimately, is what Dio was: a consummate showman from whom only the grandest tales were suitable. Few performers can sell sword-and-sorcery metal with the drama and vigor it deserves. But Dio was king, able to silence skeptics one powerful bellow at a time. Dio was proud to provide the masses with escapist fantasy, and even to his dying days still held out hope that he could continue touring with the Sabbath lineup he fronted (since rechristened Heaven & Hell).
Despite the awe live footage of Dio always instills me with, I never saw him in concert. My brother did get to see Heaven & Hell play a few years back, and brought me back a tour t-shirt. Looking at the shirt now and at footage on YouTube, I now desperately wish I had gone along with him. One thing I can say now is this: while the performer may be gone, Dio’s myth and mystique can only grow stronger.