Ronnie James Dio: A Knight to Remember
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2010
From medieval imagery to devil horns, Ronnie James Dio kept metal’s classic traditions alive in his music and manner. Guitar World celebrates the life of an undersized singer blessed with a titanic voice.
Depending on when you came of age as a metal fan, your first introduction to Ronnie James Dio could have occurred at any number of musical avenues. Perhaps you first heard him in the mid Seventies as the voice of Rainbow, belting out rockers like “Man on the Silver Mountain” and “Long Live Rock ’n’ Roll” alongside guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore. Or maybe it was in the early Eighties when he was the singer for Black Sabbath, a band rejuvenated in no small part due to Dio joining its ranks prior to the making of its classic Heaven and Hell album. Possibly you came across him later in the decade, when he was fronting his own eponymously named group on such medieval-metal masterpieces as Holy Diver and The Last in Line.
For those who were turned on to metal in the Nineties or later, Dio was regarded as an elder statesman of the genre, a keeper of the flame of traditional metal mores (he was commonly credited with having popularized, if not invented, the now ubiquitous devil horns hand sign). Even more recently, he was celebrated as the man at the helm of one of music’s biggest reunions, joining with his old Sabbath mates for an album and tour as Heaven & Hell.
Which is all to say that, if you have been a fan of heavy metal for any length of time over the past four decades, you have probably been a fan of Ronnie James Dio at one point or another. With Dio’s passing on May 16, 2010, at the age of 67, after a bout with stomach cancer, the metal world lost one of its longest-running practitioners and proponents, as well as one of its greatest singers and performers. Though Dio was not a guitar player, throughout his career he worked alongside some of rock’s finest, including Blackmore and Tony Iommi, and helped to bring new six-string talent—in particular a young Vivian Campbell—to the metal public’s ears. He was also a capable bass player and gifted songwriter. “Ronnie opened me up to a whole new way of writing,” Iommi told Guitar World in 2007. “And what resulted was all these different types of songs that sounded nothing like what Sabbath had done in the past.”
The news of Dio’s death reached the public via his longtime wife and manager, Wendy, in the form of a short message posted to his official website on the morning of the 16th. And while the outpouring of emotion from fans was to be expected, what was perhaps more illustrative of Dio’s musical impact was the sheer number of rock heavyweights who felt compelled to pay tribute to the singer. Iommi called Dio “the man with the magic voice,” and said it had been “an honor to play at his side for all these years.” Slayer’s Kerry King stated that “few people have had the ability to carry a song like Dio,” and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich talked of being “inspired and influenced” by his music. Artists ranging from Alice Cooper to Pearl Jam inserted bits of Dio’s music into their live sets in the days following his passing, and dozens of musicians old and new publicly attested to his immense talent and kind character. But it was an unlikely admirer, Queen guitarist Brian May, who perhaps put it best: “In my opinion, Ronnie was one of the creators of the genre of heavy metal,” May said in a statement. “He was universally loved in the community of rock music, and will be sorely missed.”
Dio was born Ronald James Padavona on July 10, 1942, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and grew up in Cortland, a small town in upstate New York. He adopted the surname by which he would become famous in the early Sixties, inspired by Italian-American gangster Johnny Dio. By this time, his music career was already in full swing. As far back as the late Fifties, Dio had begun playing bass with a local doo-wop-style pop group, the Vegas Kings. Within a few years they had rechristened themselves Ronnie and the Redcaps, and later Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, with Dio at the helm as lead singer.
The Prophets disbanded in the late Sixties, and it was with his next band, the Electric Elves—later known as Elf—that Dio began his ascent to heavy metal stardom. Though Elf’s blues-rock sound never earned them a substantial following, they had fans in high places, in particular, Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, who with Purple drummer Ian Paice co-produced Elf’s 1972 self-titled debut. Additionally, the band was signed to Purple Records and supported Deep Purple on several tours. It was during that time that Dio’s powerful voice came to the attention of Ritchie Blackmore. When the guitarist split from Purple in 1975, he wasted no time recruiting Dio and his Elf bandmates—minus their axman—for his next project, Rainbow.
Blackmore and Dio proved to be ideal bedfellows. The guitarist, who had quit Deep Purple in objection to the band’s increased funk and soul proclivities, envisioned Rainbow as a heavier rock outfit with classical leanings. The combination of Blackmore’s heavy and majestic playing and Dio’s quasi-operatic vocals and medieval-themed lyrics resulted in a trio of classic Seventies metal albums: 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, the following year’s Rising and 1978’s Long Live Rock ’n’ Roll. While Rainbow were generally regarded as a vehicle for Blackmore’s virtuoso playing, Dio’s throaty vocals and vivid lyrical imagery were as much defining traits of the band’s music as were the guitar riffs.