I first heard Ronnie James Dio when I was 15. Walking home from school, a mate and I were talking about guitarists. My friend said he liked Van Halen and I asked him if he’d ever heard anything by Ritchie Blackmore. He hadn’t, but the next afternoon he went to the library and borrowed a cassette of the first Rainbow album, then proceeded to tell me how awesome the solo was in “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves”. I dubbed a copy using a big double-cassette deck, but it wasn’t the guitar playing that most struck me because I was already familiar with Blackmore from Deep Purple. It was the powerful, rich, deep and soulful voice. It was perfect. It was as if heavy metal had been invented for this bloke to sing it. And if you believe in fate, that’s altogether possible.
For the last four decades of his life, Ronnie James Dio was one of the pre-eminent craftsmen of heavy metal music, introducing tropes that have remained basic elements of the form to the present day and giving the world the two-fingered “horns up” salute. Not only a gifted singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who was conversant with bass, drums, keyboards and various brass and woodwinds, he was also extremely generous with his time when it came to his multitude of fans. Even Vivian Campbell, who had a bitter falling out with Dio in the mid-80s, praised the singer for the lengths he would go to sign autographs and make his fans feel special. After he died, almost seven full pages of tributes were posted by fellow musicians on Blabbermouth.net. There really was no one like him.
Ronald James Padavona was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on July 10, 1942 and soon moved to Cortland, New York. By his early teens he had already played the trumpet on some locally-produced rockabilly singles. His professional career began in 1957 when he joined the Vegas Kings on bass guitar, before long becoming the band’s singer when the vocalist departed and the name changed to Ronnie and the Redcaps. With guitarist Nick Pantas, Dio played with various line-ups and under several different names until 1967, naming himself after mobster Johnny Dio in 1961. He was already becoming an influence on other local musicians like Eric Bloom from Lost and Found, who would later go on to front Blue Oyster Cult. By 1967 Ronnie Dio and the Prophets had gone as far as they could and the early rumblings of heavy rock inspired Dio and Pantas to form the Electric Elves. After Pantas was killed while on tour in early 1970, the band became known as Elf and thanks to a fateful association with Deep Purple as their first choice of US touring partners, Ronnie James Dio was now on his way to becoming a hard rock superstar.
Three Elf albums, all produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover, gave the band a reasonable profile but it was his contribution to Glover’s rock opera The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast which led to international exposure when one of the songs he sang on, “Love is All”, became a minor hit in the UK. At almost the same time, Dio was working on songs with Ritchie Blackmore for a Blackmore solo album. Also featuring three other members of Elf, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow was released in 1975. The cover art – a guitar-castle surrounded by clouds and surmounted by a rainbow – established the musical and lyrical feel of the album, one that would become familiar to Dio’s millions of fans from that time forward. Dio made three more albums with Rainbow, two studio LPs and a double live outing (On Stage, with its goddamn 15-minute version of “Catch the Rainbow”) before departing due to Blackmore’s resolve to take a commercial rock direction.
He wasn’t idle long, first guesting on a Kerry Livgren solo album and then revitalising the career of one of the greatest bands of all. Black Sabbath was on the verge of disbanding when Dio came along and completely re-energised them, creating one of the very best heavy metal records of all time: Heaven and Hell. The new singer changed the dynamic of the band, which did two more albums, Mob Rules and the double-live Live Evil set. It was during this period that he started using the corna to connect with fans the way Ozzy Osbourne had used the peace sign. Other artists had used this before in performance — including Gene Simmons and Jinx Dawson of the 70s occult rock act Coven — but Dio employed it so often that it eventually became part of his identity, and its connection to witchcraft meant that metal fans quickly embraced it. By the time he left Black Sabbath in 1982, taking drummer Vinny Appice with him, the devil-horn salute had become entrenched in heavy metal culture.
After more than seven years playing in other people’s bands, Dio formed a new band of his own in late 1982 with Appice, Jimmy Bain from Rainbow and Rough Cutt guitarist Jake E Lee. Lee left almost immediately however to replace Brad Gillis in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, and his place was taken by Vivian Campbell from the Belfast band Sweet Savage.
Dio, the band, issued Holy Diver on May 25, 1983. The album’s impact and success was remarkable, as was the style, with many of the songs having a significantly more accessible aspect than anything Dio had done previously. “Rainbow in the Dark” was a US Top 20 hit and the album is still regarded as one of the best examples of pure heavy metal from the 1980s. Dio was able to successfully repeat the formula with the follow-up before incorporating more pop-like melodies and sounds into their albums as the 80s wore on. In the meantime, inspired by an idea from Campbell and Bain, Dio orchestrated Hear N Aid in 1985 to be heavy rock’s answer to Band Aid and USA for Africa. An allegiance of 40 artists from the hard rock sphere including members of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P., Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Journey, Dokken and even Spinal Tap, the group recorded the almost 8-minute track “Stars” to raise funds for charities assisting with famine relief in Africa. While record label wrangling delayed its release for six months, “Stars” went on to raise over $1 million.
Even though Dio’s fortunes fluctuated in the 1990s, his one-off reunion with Black Sabbath for Dehumanizer was well-received and his eponymously-named band’s albums continued to attract a following. He continued supporting charitable causes, most prominently the Children of the Night, an organisation chaired by his wife to help rescue children from prostitution. Dio had planned to use the song “Throw Away Children” as a fund-raiser for the charity along “Stars” lines but the idea never came to fruit. His personal recorded output slowed during the 00s, but his legacy was recognised more than ever. The Holy Dio tribute album appeared in 2000, he had a street named after him in Cortland, NY, Tenacious D and Jorn Lande wrote songs about him and he was even parodied on South Park. On January 17, 2007, Dio was inducted into the Rock Walk of Fame in Hollywood. One month previously, the reunited 1981 line-up of Black Sabbath had announced they would be touring under the name Heaven & Hell.
The union re-energised the careers of everyone involved and was so successful they decided to continue, producing last year’s The Devil You Know, perhaps the darkest and heaviest album any of them had ever released. Dio was apparently still quite healthy at the time, but his lyrics and the overall tone of the album almost seemed to presage the news of six months later. Dio still harboured ambitions to one day record two sequels to his Magica album, and Heaven & Hell had already announced plans for an album and tour in 2010. Alas, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer on November 29, 2009 and despite months of aggressive treatment, he finally died in a Texas hospital on May 16, 2010. 1500 people crammed into the Hall of Liberty at Forest Lawn in Hollywood on May 30 to pay tribute; hundreds more crowded outside, watching the service on a live screen. Ronnie James Dio appeared on more than 60 recordings in his lifetime; with all singles included, the total is likely several hundred. Along with the various incarnations of his own bands, Rainbow, Sabbath and Heaven and Hell, his voice could be heard on albums from artists including David Coverdale, Kerry Livgren, Rough Cutt, Deep Purple, Ian Gillan, Queensryche, Tenacious D, Girlschool, Heaven, Eddie Ojeda and even Pat Boone. His influence can be heard in thousands more.