The metal world lost one of its greatest voices, and one of its nicest guys, on Sunday morning, when legendary singer Ronnie James Dio died of stomach cancer at 67. After swatting away Internet rumors earlier that day, Dio’s wife and manager, Wendy Dio, finally delivered the news herself: “Today my heart is broken, Ronnie passed away at 7:45 a.m. 16th May. Many, many friends and family were able to say their private good-byes before he peacefully passed away. Ronnie knew how much he was loved by all. We so appreciate the love and support that you have all given us. Please give us a few days of privacy to deal with this terrible loss. Please know he loved you all and his music will live on forever.”
Dio’s musical career spanned six decades, beginning with the single “Lover/Conquest” by Ronnie and the Redcaps, released in 1958, when he was 16. He spent years on the East Coast club circuit, changing the band’s name to Ronnie Dio and the Prophets along the way and, as he told me in a Voice interview last August, playing a few originals and “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.”
After the Prophets disbanded, Dio formed Elf, a blues/country-rock act that made three studio albums, in the process attracting the attention of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who’d just left Deep Purple. Blackmore recruited all the members of Elf save guitarist Steve Edwards to back him on his first solo disc, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. As the band Rainbow took shape, though, only Dio stuck around, recording and touring with Blackmore for two more studio albums–1976’s Rising and 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll–and the live On Stage. During that time, Dio’s persona began to take shape, as Blackmore’s baroque, classical-influenced take on hard rock perfectly matched Dio’s mythical, fantasy-themed lyrics. Songs like “Man on the Silver Mountain,” “Stargazer,” and “Gates of Babylon” dealt in overblown heroic imagery aimed straight at the limbic systems of adolescent boys, and his theatrical performance style made the seriously undersized Dio seem eight feet tall. Somewhere along the line, he began pointing the two-fingered “malocchio”–an Italian gesture meant to ward off the evil eye–at the audience, and heavy metal’s iconic gesture, “throwing the horns,” was born.
After leaving Rainbow, Dio got a gig that surprised many at the time, but proved to be a brilliant move: He was recruited to replace Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath. On 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules, he reshaped the band in his own image, shifting their focus from the working-class rage and medieval Christianity of the Ozzy-era albums (when bassist Geezer Butler was the band’s lyricist) to his own preferred brand of larger-than-life mumbo-jumbo. “None of the songs end with, ‘OK, and now we’re going to die,'” said Dio of his lyrical POV. “My manner is always to let people know that someone out there feels the same, and luckily I’ve got a stage to speak for them.” The music also became faster and more metallic than bluesy, with tracks like “Neon Knights” and “Mob Rules” incorporating the crunch of Judas Priest and other bands that had followed in Sabbath’s footsteps.
Dio left Sabbath after the 1983 double album Live Evil and quickly formed his own group. Dio the band released three terrific albums in a row: 1983’s Holy Diver, 1984’s The Last in Line, and 1985’s Sacred Heart all combined over-the-top heroic-fantasy lyrics with anthemic metal riffs and some shockingly catchy hooks. (Try getting the synth line from “Rainbow in the Dark” out of your head once you hear it.) Dio’s ’80s concerts were state-of-the-art showbiz extravaganzas: On his 1985-86 tour, the stage featured a gigantic robot dragon with laser eyes. As his solo career began to fade in the early ’90s, he reunited with Black Sabbath for the underrated Dehumanizer, but it didn’t last. They went their separate ways until 2006, when Heaven and Hell was born.
Heaven and Hell was Black Sabbath as it had existed on Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, and Dehumanizer, the name change indicating that they would only be playing that material, not revisiting “Paranoid,” “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” or any of the Ozzy-era material. This proved to be a deal metalheads the world over were happy to take, as the band’s tours were rapturously received, and their 2009 studio album, The Devil You Know, was one of last year’s best metal releases. Dio’s final show was with Heaven and Hell at the House of Blues in Atlantic City on August 29, 2009. Even in his sixties, he could still hit the notes he hit 30 years earlier. And offstage, Dio was renowned among journalists and fans alike as a genuinely kind-hearted and friendly man who answered all the questions anybody wanted to ask and never refused a request for a photo.
Those looking to dig into Ronnie James Dio’s astonishing body of work can get a quick start with 2003’s Stand Up and Shout: The Dio Anthology, a two-CD set that includes Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Dio material. The Black Sabbath compilation The Dio Years, released in 2007, has only four tracks in common with Stand Up, so you’ll need that, too. If you decide afterward that you need all his Rainbow and Black Sabbath material, and the first four or five Dio albums… well, you’ll get no argument from me.