Why Ronnie James Dio was the bravest musician in metal

On the anniversary of his death, we reflect on the legacy of heavy metal hero Ronnie James Dio

Why Ronnie James Dio was the bravest musician in metal
Phil Alexander

“Ronnie has been diagnosed with the early stages of stomach cancer. We are starting treatment immediately. After he kills this dragon, Ronnie will be back on stage, where he belongs, doing what he loves best – performing for his fans.”

So read part of the statement issued by Wendy Dio, Ronnie’s wife and manager, announcing her husband’s illness to the world in November 2009.

While the subject matter was serious, the mere mention of a dragon was a knowing wink to the man’s own self-deprecating sense of humour. It also nodded to elements in Ronnie’s own illustrious past: his unabashed sword-and-sorcery lyricism, his slightly daft onstage prop (aka Denzel The Dragon, as seen in the 1985 Sacred Heart video), and the title track of Dio’s 2002 album, Killing The Dragon itself.

Having been diagnosed with stage four cancer, Ronnie began to undergo a course of chemotherapy immediately and at first the prognosis was good. Bass player Geezer Butler, his current bandmate in Heaven & Hell with whom Ronnie had first played in Black Sabbath in 1979, was among the friends that visited Dio in hospital at the time.

Five months after Wendy’s statement and during his final public appearance at the Revolver Golden Gods ceremony on April 8, 2010, in Los Angeles, Ronnie spoke to the media and explained in frank terms just how hard he found the treatment.

“I never realised what a difficult thing it was to go through. I find it very difficult to eat,” said the 67 year-old, before quipping. “But I don’t like to eat anyway, so I guess that’s okay.”

Once again, his humour masked the gravity of the situation and a few weeks later, on May 16, Ronnie passed away. Those that knew him well – his bandmate Tony Iommi among them - confirmed that he faced his illness with positivity and bravery until the end.

In many respects, those two traits define Ronnie James Dio as a person and as a performer – a man who, during the course of five decades, was responsible for some of the greatest hard rock vocal performances of all-time.

His rich singing style harks back to his youth. Born Ronald James Padavona into an Italian-American family 1942 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ronnie’s formal musical training began at the age of five when he began playing trumpet. In later life, he would attribute his vocal ability and delivery to the breath control he’d developed while playing that instrument. Key too was the indelible influence of opera singer Mario Lanza, whose own performances were imbued with obvious melodrama.

A studious individual from a working class background, Ronnie’s work ethic was ingrained from an early age. “Without hard work you don’t get anything that lasts for a period of time,” he later remarked, recalling that his upbringing had left him grounded.

“I was taught by parents that it was a lot easier to get things out of people by being good to them rather than being terrible to them,” he added, explaining his positive outlook on life.

At university, he majored in pharmacology while simultaneously kickstarting his career in rock’n’roll. His first recorded appearance came in 1958 with Ronnie And The Red Caps and he adopted his more familiar stage name soon after.

Dio’s roots in ‘50s and ‘60s rock and soul would serve him well, but vocal approach developed significantly when his band, The Elves, embraced psychedelic music and hard rock.

Changing their name to Elf at the dawn of the ‘70s, they signed to Purple Records – the label set up by Ronnie’s favourite band, Deep Purple, and with whom they toured in 1974. “To us, a band from upstate New York, that was our big break,” said Ronnie years later. It was also the start of Dio’s own love affair with the UK and Europe as a whole. “Hard rock and metal are a way of life here,” he confirmed in an interview in 2016. “It’s always been that way.”

It was also during that tour that Dio first befriended Ritchie Blackmore – Purple’s mercurial guitar player. Opting to dress all in black, Blackmore presented himself as an overtly misanthropic character. “I don’t like people anyway, they’re too suspicious. To me, they’re guilty before proven innocent,” proclaimed Ritchie at the time during an interview with Cameron Crowe that ran in Rolling Stone. “I’m having a great time as a moody bastard,” he added.

Undaunted by Blackmore’s attempts to intimidate those around him, Ronnie often diffused the guitarist’s black moods with humour. Equally, Blackmore was aware that in Dio, he’d found a singer whose style was genuinely unique.

When Ritchie quit Purple in 1975, he brought in Elf as his backing band to record an album, enlisting Ronnie as his singer in the process. During a drunken night out at LA’s Rainbow Bar And Grill, Dio and Blackmore came up with a new name for the group, inspired by the sign that hung above the door.

Their partnership in Rainbow would last for a run of three classic albums: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (1975), Rising (1976) and Long Live Rock’n’Roll (1978). From their debut album onwards, Rainbow’s sound was defined by a combination of Blackmore’s classically influenced riffs and Dio’s soaring-yet-earthy vocal style. Nowhere was the latter more evident than on Rising’s defining tune, Stargazer.

In many respects, Dio’s time in Rainbow cemented his place in the hard rock firmament. His escapist lyricism complemented Blackmore’s epic view of music, although both were capable of delivering direct pieces of blistering hard rock – a point borne out by the ferocious Kill The King with which Rainbow would often open their set. The tune’s proto-thrash approach was underlined when Metallica covered Kill The King in 2014 as part of a medley that appeared on This Is Your Life, the Dio tribute album that also featured contributions by Halestorm, Motörhead, Tenacious D and Killswitch Engage.

When Dio’s relationship with Blackmore soured, the pair parted company with no little acrimony and, in 1979, Ronnie joined Black Sabbath.

For the second time in the space of four years, Ronnie also found himself teaming up with yet another guitar player who suffered fools lightly. And once again, his relationship with Sabbath’s Tony Iommi would see the pair collaborate on yet another classic set of songs.

“With Tony I found a simpatico person to write with. I’ve been very lucky to write with Ritchie Blackmore and Tony,” reflected Ronnie, years later with his customary good grace.

Dio also described his period in Sabbath as “probably my favourite time of all”, his appearance on both the Heaven And Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981) albums providing Sabbath with a new sound and a new lease of life.

Both albums are chock-full of classic songs, Ronnie moving beyond sheer escapism on a number of tunes, the ecological themes of Heaven And Hell’s Children Of The Sea providing a good example. “I think a lot of people missed what that song was about, though,” he reflected years later with a shrug.

From a fans’ perspective, Ronnie also faced the unenviable task of replacing much-loved original Sabbs frontman Ozzy Osbourne. He did so by adding his own distinct personality to Sabbath, both in terms of the songwriting as well as onstage where his flashing of the horns replaced Ozzy’s peace signs, and passed on into wider rock culture.

For the most part, he also refused to slag off his predecessor, with one memorable exception. “Ozzy Osbourne is a moron. He couldn’t carry a tune around in a suitcase!” he thundered in 1981 following a slagging match that played itself out in the press.

Shortly after that, in 1982 Dio would leave Sabbath following disagreements that occurred during the mixing of a live album, Live Evil, at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. Accounts differ as to what happened, but they involve drugs, rampant egos, and attempts for all parties to mix their own version of the album…

Following his departure from Sabbath, Ronnie would form a band under his own name and released Holy Diver in May 1983. Littered with a mix of fantasy-based themes and defiant lyricism, Dio shrugged off various critical barbs concerning his songwriting. “I really don’t care what people think,” he said at the time. “I have my own view of what I’m doing.”

Another classic melodic metal set, musically speaking Holy Diver deliberately drew Dio’s work with both Rainbow and Sabbath and sold accordingly. The album nestled in at Number 5 in the Kerrang! Kritics’ Poll in December of that year, and would go gold in the U.S. very soon afterwards, underlining that Dio has now established himself on his own terms. The next few years would act as confirmation of that fact with a string of albums that included the platinum-selling The Last In Line (1984), Sacred Heart (1985) and Dream Evil (1987).

At the dawn of the ‘90s Dio would also return to collaborate with Black Sabbath, first on the Dehumaniser in 1992 and, then, as a member of Heaven & Hell, the band he formed with Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi and drummer Vinny Appice in 2006.

He was playing with Heaven & Hell when he received his diagnosis in 2009. Initially, his treatment seemed to work and the prognosis was good. When the cancer spread to his liver, however, it became obvious that his condition was terminal.

Dio’s death on May 16, 2010, was met with tributes from across the rock world. Taking to Metallica.com, Lars Ulrich detailed the time he’d seen both Elf and Rainbow play live in his youth.

"Ronnie, your voice impacted and empowered me, your music inspired and influenced me, and your kindness touched and moved me. Thank you,” said the Metallica drummer.

“Ronnie sang like he lived - all out, from the heart, with so much honesty and joy,” added Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. “He was a great man with a smile and a handshake for fans and peers alike. He spoke his mind and stood his ground for decades. I will miss him dearly."

Killswitch Engage – who scored a U.S. hit with their 2006 cover of Holy Diver – issued a band statement, stating: “He is truly a musician's musician; a model for the new school to aspire towards.”

And now, over a decade on from his death, there is indeed a new generation of musicians and of fans out there – some of whom are just beginning to discover the man and his music. Regardless of whether you’re just getting into him, or whether you’re a long-time fan of his work, today is the day to celebrate one of the greatest singers of all-time.

Long live rock’n’roll! Long live Ronnie James Dio!

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