Ronnie James Dio: A Knight to Remember
Dio cut a striking figure onstage as well. His theatrical, exaggerated performance style, coupled with his appearance—he stood just five-feet-four and had wild and wiry locks sprouting from his head, giving him a gnomish, fantastical look—helped to transform him into a larger-than-life icon to a new generation of metal fans. His fervent devotion to a style that some in the press took to labeling “castle rock” eventually led to his being fired by Blackmore when the guitarist opted to take Rainbow in a more pop-rock direction.
Dio, for his part, merely left behind one British guitar icon for another equally renowned: Tony Iommi. In 1979, the singer replaced Ozzy Osbourne as the frontman in Black Sabbath. Though the band’s fortunes had been in decline for several years, Sabbath found new life with Dio. On their first album together, 1980’s Heaven and Hell, the band adopted a heavier, more modern sound befitting the new decade, best evidenced on the charging leadoff track, “Neon Knights.” This development was in no small part due to Dio’s presence, as he and Iommi were the primary songwriters for the majority of the album. “We hadn’t really done too much uptempo stuff with Ozzy,” Iommi told Guitar World. “But it was something that appealed to Ronnie, and also something he was very good at. A song like ‘Neon Knights’ could have only come together at that time.”
The following year’s Mob Rules was another strong outing, but Dio and Iommi’s relationship soon soured. During the mixing of 1982’s concert document, Live Evil, Iommi and Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler accused Dio and drummer Vinny Appice of sneaking into the recording studio to raise their respective vocal and drum parts on the tracks. “That was a real kick in the nuts,” Dio told Guitar World in 2007. “That’s the last thing I would ever do, but [Iommi and Butler] believed people who were lying to them. So the writing was on the wall. There was no need to try to continue on.”
Dio, along with Appice, was fired from the band, and though both would return to Black Sabbath for 1992’s Dehumanizer, the singer spent the majority of the next two decades building his own brand. With his solo band, simply named Dio, he fully indulged his taste for sword-and-sorcery-style metal. Dio became known for over-the-top live shows and bombastic conceptual music videos, such as the clip for 1983’s “Holy Diver,” which presents the diminutive frontman, outfitted in animal pelts and wielding a sword practically the size of his body, roaming an ancient cathedral and slaying all sorts of nefarious characters. “I enjoy writing about medieval themes because you can take incredible liberties and let your imagination run wild,” Dio told Guitar World in 2002. “I don’t write love songs.”
If Dio exhibited a certain dramatic grandness in his music and visuals, he also demonstrated a knack for consistently bringing dazzling guitarists into his fold. His first guitar recruit when forming his solo band in 1982 was Jake E. Lee, at the time a largely unknown player with Rough Cutt, who later rocketed to fame with Ozzy Osbourne. They worked together for only a short time before the relationship fizzled. Lee claimed that Dio asked him to simplify his guitar parts so as not to compete with his vocals. Whether or not it’s true, Dio’s next discovery, a young Irish guitarist named Vivian Campbell, was given plenty of space in which to shine. “Viv was absolutely perfect,” Dio told Guitar World. “He took chances and played with incredible speed.”
Campbell’s fret-burning work on Dio’s 1983 debut, Holy Diver, contributed in large part to the enduring appeal of tracks like “Rainbow in the Dark,” “Stand Up and Shout” and the title song. He remained with the band for two more albums, 1984’s The Last in Line and 1985’s Sacred Heart, before departing, like others before him, under acrimonious circumstances. In a 2009 interview with Guitar World, Campbell chalked up their differences partly to age. During his tenure with the band, Dio, then in his forties, had twice as many years on the young guitarist. “We were from different generations, different cultures,” Campbell said. “I just didn’t have anything in common with him.”
Despite having butted heads with many of his guitarists, Dio was a much beloved figure and regarded as one of the warmest and most genuine in metal, as scores of peers and fans have attested in the weeks since his passing. Geezer Butler said in a statement, “I can truly say I’ve never known anyone to have such loyal, loving friends, fans, and family as Ronnie. He really was a special person, blessed with a unique voice and presence.” If anything, Dio’s disagreements with bandmates, in particular during his solo years, was often credited to his reputation as a taskmaster, a charge to which Dio partly admitted in a 2003 interview with Rhino.com: “I’m a rather impatient person,” he said of his musical process. “I kind of see through things right away and say, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ ”
Regardless, the fact remains that throughout his years fronting Dio, the singer offered a shining spotlight to numerous talented guitarists, including Campbell, Craig Goldy, Rowan Robertson, Tracy G and current Whitesnake member Doug Aldrich, who in 2002 spoke with Guitar World about his experiences recording that year’s Killing the Dragon album. “One of the things that shocked me right away about Ronnie was how into the music he is,” Aldrich said. “While we were recording he would notice everything, every note I played.” Perhaps this, in fact, was what Vivian Campbell had meant when he told Guitar World that playing with Dio “was like being in a band with your dad.”
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