Black Sabbath aren’t just one of the founding bands of heavy metal—they’re also a landmark group in the history of English rock. So how did their early-’80s lineup come to include two Italian guys from New York?
Born in New Hampshire but soon relocated and raised upstate in Cortland, New York, Ronnie James Dio had been fronting bands (Ronnie and the Red Caps, Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, etc.) since the ’50s. “When you start, you do cover material, and whatever happened to be around, we did it,” he recalls by phone from his home in California. “We did a lot of blues, a lot of r&b material very popular back East—people like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers, James Brown, those kinds of people. You did what was put in front of you.”
Dio moved with the times, of course, drifting toward a heavy blues-rock sound influenced by Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Eventually, he and his band Elf were hired to back newly ex-Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. After three studio albums and a live disc with Blackmore’s group Rainbow, Dio walked away and, in 1980, was hired to front Black Sabbath after Ozzy Osbourne’s dismissal. Over the course of only two studio albums and a double-live disc, he completely reshaped the band in his own image. Whereas Osbourne sang lyrics (mostly written by bassist Geezer Butler) that dealt with war, drug addiction, and an almost medievally primitive Christianity, Dio’s more operatic style was better suited to mythopoetic hyperbole. Behind him, the band grew faster and more melodically complex, exchanging the pounding Tony Iommi riffs and bluesy throb of the ’70s for a pumped-up, arena-ready sound that let them compete with relative upstarts like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn-based drummer Vinny Appice was working his way up the industry ladder. Having grown up watching his older brother Carmine play with Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, a teenaged Vinny began hanging around the Record Plant studio in Manhattan and drumming for a funk-rock band. He popped up on some mid-’70s John Lennon sessions and spent several years backing Rick Derringer. Like Dio, though, he was drawn to heavier material: “I did listen to Black Sabbath, though not that much,” he recalls. “I listened to Blue Cheer, Hendrix, Zeppelin. I used to put the turntable on at 16 and say, ‘Listen to how heavy that is.’ ” He hears a direct connection between that sound and the metal of today: “Now, there’s all these detuned guitars, with five-string basses and stuff.”
In 1980, Appice got two phone calls within a month of each other. The first was an offer to join Ozzy Osbourne’s band; after consulting with Carmine about Ozzy (“I asked my brother, ‘Isn’t he crazy?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty crazy’ “), he said no. The second was a gig filling in for Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, whose alcoholism had worsened after Osbourne’s departure and Dio’s entrance, ultimately forcing his longtime bandmates to fire him. “We had like three rehearsals, and then we had to go play Hawaii, which was a big stadium gig,” Appice laughs. “And Tony and Geezer had never played with another drummer other than Bill Ward. So it was an interesting situation there, you know?”
Only two years later, Dio left after disputes over the live album Live Evil. He felt his vocals were too low in the mix, and the album art minimized his role in the group. He asked Appice to come with him, and they set about forming the band Dio. “I decided, ‘I know Ronnie, we communicate pretty well, we’re both from the same part of the country, we’re both Italian, this’ll be fun,'” the drummer recalls. In 1992, of course, both men returned for Sabbath’s Dehumanizer album and tour. Now, under the name Heaven & Hell (a decision made not—as some might suspect—at Sharon Osbourne’s insistence that they avoid the “Black Sabbath” moniker entirely, but to indicate that the Dio-era material is the focus; don’t expect to hear “Paranoid” or “War Pigs” live), they’ve recorded a doomy, raging new album, The Devil You Know, and are playing before rapturous crowds.
Somewhat ironically, given how fundamentally Dio altered the band’s sound back in 1980, The Devil You Know is closer kin to Paranoid or Master of Reality than Dio-era Sabbath landmarks Heaven and Hell or Mob Rules. “I think you can hear phrases that have a little more blues, which is what Tony’s influences were in the beginning,” Dio says. “So, yeah, it harks back to the earlier things they did. It certainly wasn’t a conscious effort by anyone—we just happen to write what we write. This is who we are, this is what you get.”
There may be time to truly revisit the sound of Black Sabbath circa 1980, though—Dio seems to believe Heaven & Hell may have another album in them. He’s making no promises, though: “We’ve tried to take this very slowly. Having had a history of not lasting terribly long at different junctures in our career, we feel like if we don’t make too many plans for the future, everything will be a lot better.”
In a similar spirit of keeping things light, Appice couldn’t resist pranking his bandmates at the initial reunion. “I told [Ronnie’s wife/manager] Wendy Dio, ‘I just gotta tell you this, I gained a lot of weight, man. I had to get a special stool made for the drums.’ So I arrive at Tony’s house, and they were all in the other room, and they kinda peeked around the corner to see what I looked like, and I’d actually lost weight. They were like, ‘Aah, you bastard!’ “
Heaven & Hell play the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden August 25