Ronnie James Dio--for many, the greatest heavy metal singer of them all--was this writer's very first interviewee. We met in London in 1986 when Ronnie was promoting his band Dio's third album, Sacred Heart. I was then a nervous 18-year-old, on assignment for Sounds magazine, and Ronnie could not have been more patient, warm and easy-going with me. Before we parted, he signed a photo with a favourite catchphrase: "To Paul, We Rock!" He understood.
A star of three iconic bands--Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio--Ronnie was legendarily tiny (officially: 5'4"). But in inverse proportion to his physical stature was that mighty voice, described last month in a tribute from former Rainbow leader Ritchie Blackmore as "unique and wonderful".
Born Ronald James Padavona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on July 10, 1942, Dio began his lengthy career in music as a teenager in the late '50s. He played trumpet and then bass in his earliest, rockabilly-influenced bands before graduating to lead vocalist of Ronnie & The Red Caps, later renamed Ronnie Dio & The Prophets. When the latter disbanded in 1967, Dio formed the Electric Elves, subsequently shortened to Elf, with whom he recorded three albums and toured the UK in 1974 as opening act for Deep Purple.
It was on this tour that the singer caught the ear of Purple's guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who had grown disenchanted with his band's funk-influenced direction. Blackmore enlisted Dio and three other members of Elf to record a solo album, but by the time that album--titled Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow--was released in 1975, the guitarist had quit Purple to launch his new Dio-fronted band, Rainbow.
Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow was the album that introduced Ronnie James Dio to the world stage: his powerful and richly expressive voice the perfect foil for Blackmore's guitar heroics. And although Blackmore quickly replaced the other band members, Dio remained his prize asset and chief artistic collaborator. Second album Rainbow Rising--dubbed "thermonuclear rock'n'roll" by Sounds--is a masterpiece of grandiose heavy metal, Dio's fantastic tales of sword and sorcery inspiring the epithet 'castle rock'. The follow-up, 1978's Long Live Rock 'N' Roll, was similarly monolithic. But when Blackmore reinvented Rainbow as a mainstream hard rock act, Dio was fired.
His next move could not have been more controversial. Replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, Dio faced a backlash from press and fans alike. But Dio's debut with Sabbath, 1980's Heaven And Hell album, rejuvenated the band and is now considered a genuine heavy metal classic. Likewise the following year's Mob Rules. Even Ozzy would admit, many years later, "Sabbath made some great records with Ronnie." But Dio's tenure in Black Sabbath would be brief. A farcical feud over the mixing of the live album Live Evil led to Dio quitting Sabbath and forming a new band in his own name.
The first Dio album, 1983's Holy Diver, is perhaps his defining work: as one reviewer commented, you could almost feel Dio's chest swelling as he sings the album's epic title track. Ten more Dio albums would follow, all of them true to the man's singular vision. But across the years, the pull of Black Sabbath remained strong. In 1991 he rejoined the Sabs for the Dehumanizer album, and in 2006, the band reformed again under the name Heaven & Hell. In 2009, Heaven & Hell released a new studio album, The Devil You Know. It was to be the last recording by Ronnie James Dio released in his lifetime.
On November 25, 2009, his wife and manager Wendy Dio released a statement confirming that Ronnie had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Initially, his response to treatment was encouraging, and Heaven & Hell announced concert dates for summer 2010. But on May 4, those dates were cancelled. And on May 16 came the announcement from Wendy Dio that her husband had died. "His music," she said, "will live on forever."
Among the tributes from fellow musicians and fans was this from Metallica's Lars Ulrich: "Ronnie, your voice impacted and empowered me, your music inspired and influenced me, and your kindness touched and moved me. Thank you."
Ronnie James Dio, the little man with the big voice, will be remembered as a true legend of heavy metal. It was he, above all others, who popularized the faux-Satanic forked-fingered salute known to metal fans as "throwing the horns". But above all, he was the voice of some of the greatest metal songs of all time: "Man On The Silver Mountain," "Stargazer," "Long Live Rock 'N' Roll," "Neon Knights," "Heaven And Hell," "Holy Diver," "Stand Up And Shout," "The Last In Line"... and, of course, "We Rock."