By Martin Popoff
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL LOST A GIANT AMONG MEN last year when Cortland, New York’s own Ronald James Padavona succumbed to stomach cancer May 16, 2010. After a life of fullness that touched people far beyond the unassailable musical legacy, Ronnie lived well into a realm of kindness, consideration and gallantry most people don’t expect from the most luminous of rock stars.
Luminous doesn’t begin to describe Ronnie James Dio’s contribution to rock, although, champion of the underdog that he was, I think Ronnie would be mischievously amused that not everyone got it, not everyone was aware, given that Ronnie defiantly operated within the realm of heavy metal, refusing to make gestures to crossing over that would have likely raised his profile ten-fold.
But the history of how Ronnie got to front Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio and finally Heaven & Hell is astonishing in its color and in its breadth. In fact Ronnie began life as a bass player and then teen crooner in the late ‘50s, first with the Vegas Kings, then Ronnie And The Rumblers, then Ronnie And The Redcaps, then Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, showing up on a number of highly collectible 7” releases before the hippie movement set in with Ronnie re-emerging as front man for The Electric Elves.
The Electric Elves soon became Elf, who signed on with Purple Records/MGM after Elf had toured with Deep Purple, who found that they liked the band’s music and got along well with them, bassist Roger Glover soon to be credited as Elf’s producer. Elf was a big step up in Ronnie’s career, the band recording three albums, becoming known as a dependable, rootsy rock ‘n’ roll band distinguishable by their well above average singer, a fact of life noted by one Ritchie Blackmore, who was growing frustrated with the funk ‘n’ blues musical direction of Purple to the point of wanting to leave the band and get back to the mystical metal that was at that point still very much part of his being.
It is also at this point that Ronnie’s fame and fortune and musical legacy take flight, for Ritchie would take over all of Elf except their guitarist and form Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. A record later, the band name would be truncated to Rainbow and the immense classic known as “Rising” would be born.
It is also at this point that Ronnie meets Wendy Dio, wife and manager of Ronnie and his remarkable career until the end. As fate would have it, 35 years later it has fallen upon Wendy, along with her long loyal team at Niji Entertainment, to uphold Ronnie’s legacy, a task she has quickly embarked upon with characteristic enthusiasm and energy.
“I met Ronnie in 1975, at The Rainbow,” recalls Wendy. “And we were introduced by Ritchie Blackmore, who I’d known for several years; I knew him and his wife. They invited me to a party they were having that night. Ritchie had just formed Rainbow, and that’s how I was introduced to Ronnie. And Ritchie… Ronnie had the utmost respect for him as a musician. He learned a lot of things, what to do and what not to do, from Ritchie — I think they had a very good musical career together.”
Indeed they did, and through classics such as “A Light in the Black,” “Man on the Silver Mountain” and “Tarot Woman,” this was the first time we really got to see Ronnie’s furtive imagination at work, Dio creating netherworlds of wizards, castles, dragons and magic that would influence the literary end of heavy metal music from his first sessions with Ritchie forward to the present day.
“Ronnie had a very different way of writing,” reflects Wendy. “He didn’t want to write love songs; he wanted to write about people’s experiences, dreams, hopes, their hopes for the future. I thought they were great songs, and it’s something that can never be repeated again. They were just incredible songs – ‘Stargazer,’ ‘Gates of Babylon,’ ‘Catch the Rainbow’ – all such great songs. Ronnie read mostly science fiction and magical mystical books — read a book a day. And he always wrote his songs watching sports. He was very heavily influenced by the classics of Bach and Beethoven, and of course Deep Purple, obviously Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and in terms of new bands that were coming out at that time, probably Aerosmith and later Iron Maiden.”
The rise of Maiden and the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal corresponds with Ronnie taking a next major career move on up the ladder of metal significance. By this point, Ronnie had been instrumental in establishing Rainbow’s career, and certainly in cementing their fine reputation as it stands today, having been singer and lyricist for the aforementioned “Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow” (1975), “Rising” (1976), “On Stage” (1977) and finally “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 1978.
“He was fired by Ritchie, because he didn’t write more commercial songs,” says Wendy bluntly, Ritchie moving on to Graham Bonnet and finally Joe Lynn Turner, who indeed helped take Rainbow in a more radio-friendly direction, near unrecognizable from the stormy epic metal Ritchie and Ronnie had created together. “We’d been living in Connecticut and we decided to come back to Los Angeles where we knew more people. I knew Sharon Arden at the time, before she was Osbourne, and we were talking on the phone, and she invited Ronnie up to meet the Sabbath guys. Her father, Don Arden, was managing at the time.”
Shortly thereafter Arden handed the reigns over to Blue Oyster Cult manager Sandy Pearlman, and the new Black Sabbath — Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and Ronnie — set about recording the “Heaven And Hell” album, which Ronnie, to his dying day, considered his greatest work, and specific within the record, the immense, anthemic, philosophical title track. The band encountered instant success, no small part due to the fact that there was basically no objection from the fan base to Ronnie taking over for Ozzy, Ronnie having built up a large measure of love and respect through his work with Rainbow. Indeed, as well, a new generation of fans spurred on by England’s spreading New Wave of British Heavy Metal were open-minded and ready for something fresh from one of the old guard. Ronnie-with-Sabbath was precisely the potent potion these punters were all too happy to order up.
“They were great friends,” muses Wendy, remembering those days. “And they were always incredible musicians — legends. I was very good friends with Gloria Butler, Geezer Butler’s wife, and those early days were a lot of fun. It was all new for us. For the first time in our lives, Ronnie and I had some money. We had no money in Rainbow. But we had suddenly got money, and it was nice, and we bought our first house and we enjoyed the life.”
“Musically, Ronnie really enjoyed working with Sabbath,” continues Wendy, “because now he could go darker, he could explore more. Him and Tony had a fantastic relationship writing-wise; and the rest of the band playing-wise. They were musical geniuses, all of them. Heaven And Hell was written and recorded down in Miami at the Bee Gees’ place, and that was a whole new experience for us. The songs, I thought were absolutely phenomenal. The band wasn’t sure about them until they came out, because they’re never really sure. When the band writes something, they’re never really sure (laughs) whereas people who are more on the outside can listen to them and go wow, that’s incredible. ‘Mob Rules,’ the song, was originally written for the movie Heavy Metal; we’d gone to England, where the version for the Heavy Metal movie was recorded in the Beatles’ house. That was an incredible adventure and those were happy times. I think the third album, the live album, was not happy; by that time, there were a lot of problems going on.”
Asked whether Sabbath were concerned at the explosive success of Ozzy as a solo artist through those years, Wendy says, “No, no, I don’t think so; I think it’s apples and oranges — totally different bands. I mean, Black Sabbath with Ozzy was a great band; they were innovators of heavy metal. But Ozzy was a great showman. Ronnie was an incredible musician and singer. I don’t think it’s a true comparison.”
This version of Black Sabbath lasted for the aforementioned “Heaven And Hell” album (1980), “Mob Rules” (1981 — Vinny Appice replaced Bill Ward on drums) — and the double “Live Evil” (1982), before acrimony set in and Ronnie moved onto his own band, simply called Dio, Ronnie soon to create a couple more unanimously lauded classic heavy metal albums with yet a third act, namely 1983’s “Holy Diver” and 1984’s “The Last In Line.”
“The Dio band years was new for us, because Ronnie could do whatever he wanted now,” remembers Wendy, who started managing Ronnie’s career at this point, in 1983. “Although it was quite frightening too, because that was a big responsibility for him. And in the beginning, although we had some money, we didn’t have a lot of money. We actually took a big huge mortgage out, a second mortgage out on our home, to start the tour off with (laughs), and to make sure that we could have the same things that we had enjoyed in Sabbath. It was a new and exciting time — the band was on fire. We didn’t expect Holy Diver to jump out of the box the way it did, but it did, and it was incredible. It was an incredible ride.”
“It has to be ‘Holy Diver,’ of course, because of its success,” responds Wendy, asked as to her personal favorites from the long and distinguished Dio catalogue. “’Holy Diver’ was a great song, as was ‘Rainbow in the Dark’; ‘The Last in Line’ is one of my favorite songs as well, and then Sacred Heart was an incredible stage show, because in the ‘80s, that’s when it was getting more spectacular. We had an 18-foot fire-breathing dragon and we had the lasers – it was like Disneyland. As it went on into the ‘90s, all the record companies, all the big labels dropped everybody. I was now managing the band of course, and I had to go out and find independents, which I was terrified of, but I went over to Europe and talked to a lot of different people, and found out that actually independents were better than the majors (laughs). You have much more control and you don’t sell your soul to them. So those are some of my experiences. But we had a lot of fun; my whole time, my whole journey with Ronnie was a beautiful experience.”
And who were Wendy’s best friends from the Dio camp? “Well, Vinny Appice of course. Simon Wright was Ronnie’s really, really close friend. Rudy Sarzo was a doll. Craig Goldy is a good friend, Scott Warren, the keyboard player, has been with Ronnie for 17 years, even making it into Heaven & Hell. On ‘Lock Up the Wolves,’ we had the young new Rowan Robertson on guitar who was 17 years old. That was an experience but those were good times as well. Musically speaking, my least favorite album was ‘Angry Machines,’ because I felt that Ronnie had taken a turn that he was being pushed into, to become more industrial. His fans didn’t like it that much, and I’m glad he decided to change and go back to the usual way of writing.”
In 1992, Ronnie embarked upon his second of three collaborations with the Sabbath guys, a partnership that did not last long, merely one album, the controversial Mack-produced “Dehumanizer.” Dio had remained a big draw through 1985’s “Sacred Heart” and 1987’s “Dream Evil,” but the band had begun to run out of gas with 1990’s “Lock Up The Wolves.”
“A lot of negotiations,” is how Wendy remembers the Dehumanizer era. “A lot of legalities, a lot of negotiations, a lot of mistrust of everybody. I think it just kind of happened. It’s a great album — I think it’s the most overlooked album of the Sabbath albums with Ronnie on them. But it was mistrust from everyone because of what had gone down before, the breakup, the first time.”
Post-Dehumanizer, in addition to assorted live releases and compilations, Dio produced fully five more studio albums, “Strange Highways” (1994), the aforementioned “Angry Machines” (1996), “Magica” (2000), “Killing The Dragon” (2002) and “Master Of The Moon” (2004), before setting upon what was to be his final — and triumphant — music journey, a third, and by all accounts joyous, reunion with the Sabbath guys, this time under a new name, Heaven & Hell.
“Tony’s management called me originally to ask Ronnie if he would work together with Tony on one of Tony’s solo albums,” explains Wendy, on how the ball got rolling. “We were quite happy with the Dio situation and it didn’t come to pass. And then they called again, talking about a situation of possibly getting together Tony and Ronnie and calling it something else. At that point, it wasn’t a Black Sabbath Heaven & Hell situation and still nothing came to pass. And then the record company called and said they were going to put out Black Sabbath – The Dio Years, and was there any unwritten material in the vault anywhere? And I said no, there isn’t. And at that point Ronnie goes, ‘Well, then maybe we should write something.’ So it was only going to be a one-off, and Ronnie and Tony got together and they were going to write two songs but ended up writing three songs, and then at that point, we were talking with Gloria Butler and Geezer, and then Bill came into the situation, but it didn’t work out with Bill. He didn’t want to tour, and I don’t know what — musical problems. And then I called Vinny, and then Vinny came back into the fold.”
Heaven & Hell exploded out of the gates. Not only were there exhaustive world tours and festival dates, but the band saw the release of the aforementioned compilation, with three new tracks, a new live album, an archival live album, a box set, and the penultimate, a new studio album in 2009 called “The Devil You Know.” And now after Ronnie’s tragic demise, there’s been a live CD and DVD set called “Neon Nights: 30 Years Of Heaven & Hell – Live in Europe.” All told, it’s a stunning amount of output for four aging warhorses, each with their own ailments, the man with the golden voice stricken with the worst, a cancer that, unbeknownst to him, he was already fighting, in order to the bring the show to his adoring throngs night after night.
As we’ve discussed, Wendy is vowing to make sure Ronnie’s huge legacy will not soon be forgotten. First up is the already issued gorgeous digipak live archival Dio album entitled “Dio At Donington UK: Live 1983 & 1987.” “This is something that Ronnie and I wanted to do,” explains Wendy. “We wanted to form our own label, and we had started to do this before Ronnie got sick. We had gone through different tapes, and we said well this sounds pretty good, and it was a BBC recording of ‘83 and ‘87. And so he took it down to Wyn Davis, his engineer, who does his masters and stuff, and so they remastered it. Ronnie was very happy with it, and I had called BBC for permission, as you have to, as it was the original tapes. It wasn’t bootleg or anything — it was original tapes from BBC. And so then Ronnie got sick, and we put it on hold. But I wanted it to come out because I knew it was something that was dear to Ronnie’s heart. He was actually effectively the producer on it, and unfortunately he didn’t see the finished package.”
Even more intriguing to Ronnie’s fans will be the long-rumored autobiography that Ronnie had been working on for years. Explains Wendy, “Ronnie had written — was writing — a book, right up until a couple of days before he passed, an autobiography, and he finished about three-quarters of it. What he would do is handwrite everything and then he would send it over to me and my assistant would type it up. That’s how we worked. So we read chapter by chapter, until the last months, of course. And I had already gotten an agent for him. So they want me to finish it, and I will finish it, and it will come out in 2012. I haven’t actually gone back and read the last part, because it’s too soon for me to do that — the memories are too precious. But I will do it.”
Beyond the book, which undoubtedly will prove to be Ronnie’s most personal final gift to his fans, there promises to be more music issued of an archival nature. Until then, there is no better way to thank Ronnie for what he’s given us than to make a donation to Ronnie’s Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund, which can be found at the official Dio site, www.ronniejamesdio.com.
These versions of an early Dio 7″ single were recorded by the band Ronnie Dio & The Prophets in the early 1960s, and are popular with collectors:
1. “Mr. Misery”/ “Our Year” (Swan) 4165, 1963
Vinyl is valued at $80, as near mint. White label promo releases tend to be a bit higher value at auction.
2. “Che Tristezza Senza TE”(Mr. Misery)/”Our Year” (Derby) DB 5084, 1963
Sold for $1225 in 2009
An Italian pressing from the original recording on Swan Records. “Mr. Misery” sung in Italian, “Our Year” sung in English.
3. “Mr. Misery”/ “Our Year” (Stateside) 45-ESS.21, 1964
Sold for $499 in 2008 [shown above]
Ronnie Dio and The Prophets had nine singles and, reportedly this “Made in India” 45 is one of only three copies known to exist.
Sources: popsike and GM Record Database
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