Ronnie James Dio is the most underrated singer-songwriter of all time

The late, great heavy metal god recorded 20 albums, multiple side projects, and played hundreds of shows.  From “Heaven and Hell” to “Holy Diver,” Dio wrote  hard rock classics for four different bands, and yet he’s not even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his supreme talent remains rarely acknowledged outside of metal circles.  It’s time to change all that.

Discussions of the best singer-songwriters of all time, those who both write and perform their own music, generally include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Dolly Parton; more contemporary artists might include Prince or Michael Jackson.  Regardless, there is one artist completely missing from the discussion.  A supreme talent never mentioned in this rarified air, but who should clearly be near the very top of any list in my opinion:  The late, great Ronnie James Dio, perhaps better known as the often unheralded second front man for Black Sabbath, the first lead singer for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and founder of his own band, Dio.

My first encounter with Ronnie James Dio was in middle school, after the release of his 1987 album, Dream Evil.  At that point in his career, Dio had fully embraced the heavy metal frontman role, belting out epic tracks variously inspired by Christian mythology, the occult, dreams, and immortality.  His voice was a veritable weapon, practiced, well-honed, and undeniably powerful.  He could alternate in an instant between belting out effortless screams and growls that rise out of the underlying music and softer, thicker tones, like liquid mercury flowing with the slower tracks, a part of the melody itself.  Dream Evil was Dio’s fourth solo album; by then, he had perfected the heavy metal genre, distilling it down in track after track as he would continue to do for another twenty years.  Shortly after it’s release, he celebrated his 45 birthday. This was retirement age for a rock star in that generation, but he showed no signs of losing a step or slowing down.  He still had a reputation for sounding even better live than recorded, remaining an oddly captivating performer, short, balding, yet with an elvish charm and an infectious enthusiasm.  He would go on to release six more solo albums, two additional outings reunited with Black Sabbath, and several more tours to perform both old and new live.

The Dream Evil cassette and CD had a sparse inside jacket.  In bold letters, it noted “All Lyrics and Melodies by Ronnie James Dio,” and contained the lyrics for one track on the album, one of my personal favorites, “All the Fools Sailed Away.”  The song itself is peak Dio, part ballad, part in-your-face heavy metal complete with screaming guitar and a hypnotic keyboard solo, along with sharp, singular lyrics that hover just at the edge of actually making sense, as if there truly were magic in the air.  It starts out soft and slow, the melody rising and falling before Dio sings in a perfectly accompanying slight falsetto, “There’s perfect harmony, In the rising and the falling of the sea, And as we sail along, I never fail to be astounded by, The things we’ll do for promises, And a song.”  Of course, a heavy metal classic can’t remain soft for long, and after taking a brief pause while the word “song” lingers, the song itself kicks in, literally and figuratively, a full band, thick riff, pounding, rhythmic drums, keyboards, and just as suddenly the falsetto changes to a belting scream.  “We are the innocent, We are the damned, We were caught in the middle of the madness, Hunted by the lion and the lamb.”

The lyrics hint at an epic story, an exodus and perhaps a return, the suffering of an undefined race adrift in an undefined realm.  They bring “fantasy” and “pain,” offering one great chance for a miracle “or we will disappear never to be seen again.”  The “fools” from the title are somewhere in the mix, or at least they were before they sailed away, leaving nothing more to say.  There is also evil, as there usually is in heavy metal.  Someone, who will “take your diamonds, and then give you steel, You’ll be caught in the middle of the madness, Just lost like them, part of all the pain they feel.”  Somewhere, there is also beauty, but perhaps beauty too pure to be of any value.  “They say you’re beautiful and they’ll always let you in, but doors are never open to the child without a trace of sin.”

No, it doesn’t make much lyrical sense in its totality.  This isn’t the character and story driven songwriting of Bruce Springsteen at his best, but that’s not the point.  Heavy metal at its best is a kaleidoscope of imagery, blending the light and the dark, the mythic and the magical, crafting a musical space where everything is possible and entire worlds and souls are at stake, ringing with the music itself, figurative magic actually drifting in the very air, slightly beyond your grasp.  Few, if any, could do it better than Ronnie James Dio and my young self was completely hooked, becoming an ardent fan for life, of Dio and the entire genre.

This was before the era of the internet and the ability to stream any song you wanted at any time, however.  Listening to Dream Evil, I had no idea what else was out there, except what I could glean from my older brothers.  There was no Dio radio and true heavy metal has rarely gotten much play on public FM.  You had to go out and find it for yourself, which wasn’t necessarily easy to do before you could drive.  I’d learn over time that Dream Evil was considered a good, but not great album by Dio standards, an above average effort, though not the best of his work by far despite it’s unique sentimental value to me personally.  His first two solo outings, Holy Diver and Last in Line, were far more celebrated for good reason, producing what in Dio terms constituted his two biggest hits, the title track “Holy Diver” and “Rainbow in the Dark,” anchored by an extremely catchy keyboard melody.

Holy Diver itself was a shot in the arm for heavy metal, a seminal album that helped define a genre, providing a template for how to write a metal masterpiece, one that would be used by bands for years to come.  Released on May 25, 1983, it was his first after a successful stint with Black Sabbath, featuring a combination of musicians, both old and new.  Vinnie Appice pounded the drums after playing with Dio in Black Sabbath.  Jimmy Bain took up bass, an alum from Dio’s Rainbow days with Ritchie Blackmore.  There was an all new voice on guitar, however, the young gun Vivian Campbell, fresh from Ireland and the forefront of the new wave of British heavy metal.  Eduardo Rivadavia from AllMusic said “aside from Ronnie’s unquestionably stellar songwriting, Holy Diver’s stunning quality and consistency owed much to his carefully chosen bandmates, including powerhouse drummer and fellow [Black] Sabbath survivor Vinny Appice, veteran bassist Jimmy Bain, and a phenomenal find in young Irish guitarist Vivian Campbell, whose tastefully pyrotechnic leads helped make this the definitive Dio lineup. Holy Diver remains the undisputed highlight of Dio’s career…and, indeed, one of the finest pure heavy metal albums of the 1980s.” The Canadian reviewer Martin Popoff claimed with album is “quintessential traditional metal,” and Ronnie James Dio “almost single-handedly reinventing gothic hard rock for the ‘80s, incorporating strong melodic hooks and more than the genre’s usual share of velvety, classical-based pyrotechnics.”

Dio had experimented with fantasy and gothic themes before in Black Sabbath, “Children of the Sea,” “Heaven and Hell,” and “Neon Knights,” and with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, “Man on the Silver Mountain” and “Stargazer,” and even with his first band, Elf.  He had grown up on a steady diet of Sir Walter Scott, Arthurian legends, and science fiction.  As Dio himself described it, “When I became a songwriter, I thought what better thing to do than do what no one else is doing…to tell fantasy tales. Smartest thing I ever did.”  Holy Diver, however, was the first time he had full creative control and the necessary experience to really take advantage of it.  The rock historian Ian Christe describes the change as, “Dio simplified his stories substantially for a younger heavy metal audience. The 1983 debut Holy Diver, by his band Dio, reduced lush moral landscapes to simple good-versus-evil conflicts, using the lyrical duality of ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ and ‘Holy Diver’ to raise questions about deceit and hypocrisy in romance and religion. In the sharp contrasts of Dio’s imagery, there was always a built-in contradiction that fed adolescent revolt: a black side to every white light, and a hidden secret behind every loud proclamation of truth. In a similar way, Dio’s music balanced torrents of rage with brief acoustic interludes.”

Holy Diver also marked the debut of Dio’s “mascot,” the demonic figure Murray, who would appear on most future album covers.  In classic metal style, similar to Iron Maiden’s Eddie the Head, Murray is huge, rising from behind some mountains in the background, caught between a moonlight night and a bloody sky.  He has horns rising from the side of his head and glowing red eyes, his left hand is in the “metal horns” sign that Dio was used in concert to great effect.  In his right hand, Murray swings a massive chain in the air, stretching over the mountains and down to a raging sea.  The chain is broken by the time it reaches the foreground, where a priest is drowning close up, bound by the broken chain.  Some claimed the image was sacrilegious, but Dio responded that appearances are misleading, claiming the priest could just as easily be drowning the devil and people shouldn’t judge a “book by its cover.”

Holy Diver remains a remarkable milestone in Ronnie James Dio’s career, transforming him into a bonafide metal great often compared to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, two other vocalists on the short list of greatest heavy metal singers of all time.  At the same time, it also represented a conscious stylistic choice on his part.  Unlike many aspiring musicians heading into their breakthrough album, Dio was in his early 40’s, a seasoned and experienced professional, not some teen or twenty something with ridiculous pipes, desperate for a break and with something to prove.  This was the genre he was choosing to work in and make his mark on, complete with all of the trappings including a mascot.  In other words, he knew precisely what he was doing and how to do it, but his true musical roots were much more diverse.

Ronnie James Dio was born Ronald James Padavona on July 10, 1942.  His Italian-American parents were from Cortland, NY, but his father was serving in the army during World War II and he was born in Portsmouth, NH.  The family soon relocated back to New York where the future Ronnie James grew up on a steady diet of opera music, including the American tenor, Mario Lanza.  He first learned to play the trumpet and participated in scholastic music programs through college.  He formed his first band, the Vegas Kings in high school where he played bass guitar and was supposedly offered a scholarship to Juliard that he turned down to pursue a career in rock music.  Somehow, he ended up at the University of Buffalo studying pharmacology for a few years, but never graduated.  He first used the name “Dio” in 1960 and continued toying with various versions of The Vegas Kings including a stint as Ronnie and the Red Caps, then Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, and then ultimately Elf in 1967 technically The Electric Elves.

Elf was where Dio first came to the attention of the music industry, and where we see the true extent of his genius outside heavy metal.  Though Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were defining hard rock and early heavy metal at the time, Elf is incredibly eclectic and diverse, more Southern Rock like Lyndard Skynard and Allman Brothers Band than what would come later.  Their self-titled album was released in 1972, featuring tracks like “Hoochie Koochie Lady,” “Dixie Lee Junction,” and “Gambler Gambler” that could easily fit in on any Southern Rock classic collection.  One thing is apparent:  Dio’s voice is transcendent.  Before he adopted the tones and style appropriate to heavy metal, he displayed an astonishing range, from blues to almost a twang, but all of it with a deep power and resonance.

For example, Ultimate Classic Rock and Culture includes Elf’s debut on their 61 most overlooked first albums, writing “before he cemented his legacy as a metal god, Dio dipped his toes in the hard-rock waters with Elf, his late-‘60s holdover formerly known as the Electric Elves and the Elves. Elf’s eponymous 1972 LP is a thrilling blast of barroom boogie rock, full of rollicking piano and bluesy guitar solos more in line with the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd than Sabbath. Dio’s unmistakable voice is as powerful as ever, pushed front and center, thanks to punchy production by Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and bassist Roger Glover.”  Elf produced two more albums in the same vein, Caroline County Ball and Trying to Burn the World.  If you have any doubts about Dio’s vocal greatness and range check out “Happy” and “Rocking Chair Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues” from Carolina County Ball.  It’s overwhelmingly clear that Dio could’ve just as easily remained in Southern Rock and been a giant in that genre had he chosen to.

It was not to be, however:  Elf would ultimately introduce Dio to Ritchie Blackmore and most of the band would be folded into the first iteration of Rainbow, where Dio makes some of his initial forays into true metal.  Their first album, Rainbow, was released in 1975 and “Man on the Silver Mountain” in particular is classic Dio, “Someone’s screaming my name, Come and make me holy again, I’m the man on the silver mountain.”  Rising was released a year later and “Stargazer” further solidified Dio’s burgeoning metal chops, combining an epic feel and mythological imagery including wizards, slaves, whips, and chains.  Dio himself said it was written from the point of view of a “slave in Egyptian times,” about a wizard who was obsessed with the ability to fly.  The Wizard forces his slaves to build a tower for that purpose, “In the heat and rain, with whips and chains, Just to see him fly, too many died,” but when he ascends the tower, he crashes to the earth, “no sound as he falls instead of rising, Time standing still, then there’s blood on the sand.”  Rainbow’s third effort, Long Live Rock and Roll continued to refine Dio as a metal singer with “Gates of Babylon” and “Kill the King,” but amid these nascent metal tracks are more traditional rock numbers without Dio’s distinctive metal scream, for example “Starstruck” and “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll” itself.  Great songs, but more suited to a straight rocker than a metal mogul.

Dio would officially complete the transition to heavy metal with a pair of Black Sabbath albums, replacing fellow metal-god Ozzy Osbourne.  The rest as they say is history until his untimely death from stomach cancer on May 16, 2010.  He was almost 68 years old, but was still rocking having united once again with Black Sabbath before his death, recording and touring under the name Heaven and Hell taken from one of their most famous tracks.  Incredibly for an aging screamer, Dio remained at the peak of his powers.  What he’d lost in range, he more than made up for in effortless power, screaming and singing like a man half his age.  They recorded three songs as part of a compilation album and then a complete album, The Devil You Know.  For my money, it’s the best heavy metal album of the century so far, combining Dio’s signature singing and lyrics with a far more refined Tony Iommi on guitar.  Metal Hammer honored it the wth a 2010 Golden Gods Award for Best Album and Martin Popoff described Dio’s vocals as performed with “thespian enunciation” and “passion.”  In the live performances that followed, it took a couple of songs for Dio to warm up, but there was no doubt he still had it.

To this day, despite a five decade career spanning some 20 albums, Dio is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, much less on the short list of greatest singer-songwriters.  It’s time to change that and give the elvish sage of heavy metal his proper due as one of the greats of all time.


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