For many, many fans of heavy metal, hard rock, and rock 'n' roll in general, May 16th, 2010 has been a day of immense sadness and loss, as one of our own, the great Ronnie James Dio, lost his battle with stomach cancer at the age of 67. As I sit here at my laptop this evening, mourning the death of one of my beloved heroes, I thought it would be to important to channel my emotions and take a look at how Ronnie influenced and affected my life, as a way for me to give tribute to one of the greatest singers of all time.
My introduction to Ronnie James Dio started sometime in the late 1970's, as I was a young teenager just starting to become acquainted with hard rock and heavy metal music. A close friend of mine had gotten me a copy of Black Sabbath's Paranoid album, and my world was forever changed. The dark, doomy vibe of that record led me to their self-titled first album, as well as Masters of Reality, Volume 4, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I was also a huge Deep Purple fan, so when I found out that Ritchie Blackmore had actually left Purple and formed Rainbow (remember, there was no internet back then, so news travelled pretty damn slow), I was keen to check that band out as well. Enter, an album called Rising…
Little did I know, that right about this time, Ozzy Osbourne was jettisoned out of Black Sabbath, and Rainbow's singer, Ronnie James Dio, had decided he and Blackmore could no longer work together, paving the way for Dio to join forces with Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward and produce two classic albums, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. Both of these albums to this day remain staples of my listening repertoire, and consistently rate very highly on most metal fan's favorite's lists. My first experience seeing Ronnie and the boys in concert was at the Meadowland Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey (then called the Brendan Byrne Arena) in the middle of the Mob Rules tour in 1982 (August 22nd to be exact)-a truly eye opening experience for this then 16 year old heavy metal fan. Poor openers Johnnie Van Zandt Band didn't know what hit them, as they were booed off the stage after just 20 minutes. The heavy drinking, raucous Sabbath fans were charged up and wanting to see their heroes, lighting crosses on fire, smashing bottles, and giving the now famous 'horn' sign in anticipation of the emergence of Black Sabbath to the stage. I can remember being totally transfixed by the power and energy of the band, and especially of this diminutive little Italian singer with the crazy hair and the HUGE voice-man, could this guy sing!!
Of course, at that point in time, for me, as much as I loved Sabbath with Ozzy, the Dio-led version of the band was what really did it for me. Then, when I found out that Ozzy was doing a live album with his band (Speak of the Devil) that was to feature all Sabbath songs, I was immediately prepared to boycott the Oz-man altogether and side with my boys, as they were getting ready to release Live Evil. I can remember picking up the double LP Live Evil set, and reveling in how great Dio sang the old Ozzy tunes, and thinking "who really needs Ozzy anyway, Dio is OBVIOUSLY the man!", when lo and behold, it was announced in the magazines (Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Hammer, Kerrang), that Sabbath had imploded, and Ronnie and drummer Vinnie Appice were no longer in the band. I was heartbroken.
Fast forward a few months, and the news that Ronnie and Vinnie had started up a new band, appropriately enough, called Dio, with young Irish guitarist Vivian Campbell and former Rainbow/Wild Horses bassist Jimmy Bain. Their 1983 debut Holy Diver was one of the most popular albums among young metalheads that year, and certainly one of my favorites. Between that release and 1987's Dream Evil, I'd made sure to check out Dio and his band every chance I got, initially in smaller venues like The Mid Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, NY, to large arena's like The Meadowlands in New Jersey and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Dio's 'horn' salute was now the official heavy metal hand gesture, and Ronnie was finally considered one of greats of the genre.
The early 1990's weren't so great for the singer though, as some of the Dio band albums were pretty spotty and lacked the big sales of the earlier releases, prompting Ronnie and the Sabbath lads to get back together for Dehuminizer in 1992, which was well received and led to a tour, but it all fell apart once again, leading Dio to once again take up where he left off with his own band. I kind of lost touch with his material for a few years, as albums such as Strange Highways, Angry Machines, and Magica, failed to ignite with that same spark as Holy Diver, Last In Line, and Sacred Heart. Some strong material, and Ronnie sounded great as always, but there was definitely something missing.
That something was Iommi, Butler, and Appice. Fast forward to 2007, and the boys decided to give it a go once again, spurred on by the release of Black Sabbath: The Dio Years, this time around as 'Heaven and Hell', which eventually led to the album The Devil You Know, as well as a live album & DVD of the ensuing tour. The band was back, a bit older, but better than ever.
Of course, all this leads us up to 2009, where it was announced that Ronnie was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Though the singer was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, apparently he was not improving well enough for the band to undertake the 2010 summer tour that they had planned, to that was scrapped. Dio took a sudden turn for the worst and left us on the morning of May 16th, 2010.
Though we are all feeling a great sense of sadness and loss today, it's most important that we all celebrate the life of Ronnie James Dio, and especially his music. There hasn't been a time in the last 30 years that "Man on a Silver Mountain", "Kill the King", "Catch the Rainbow", or "Stargazer" , all from his time in Rainbow, that any of those songs haven't failed to captivate me. Or, numbers like "Heaven and Hell", "Children of the Sea", "I", "Neon Knights", "Die Young", "Mob Rules", "Voodoo", or "Falling Off the Edge of the World", from his legendary time with Black Sabbath, timeless classics that remain as powerful today as they did when we first heard them. Hell, I can even listen to his early stuff with Elf, and a smile comes across my face, and most of his albums with Dio (especially the earlier ones) contain so many memorable rockers. Let's face it, how many of us grew up on "Rainbow in the Dark", "Stand Up and Shout", "Last in Line", 'Don't Talk to Strangers", "Holy Diver", "Rock 'n' Roll Children", and "We Rock"? I'll bet most of us spent the majority of our 'heavy metal' upbringings banging our heads, playing air guitar, and singing to these very songs.
So, to Ronnie James Dio, I thank you for all the great music and the memories. You were a big part of my childhood, and have continued to be an important influence as I've matured into adulthood. The music you created with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio, and Heaven and Hell is unforgettable, and will forever hold a special place in my heart. There will never be another like you, and you will forever be in my Heavy Metal Hall of Fame as the true Embassador of all that is 'Metal'. Your music has touched millions, and will continue to live on and bring joy to generations of rockers for many years to come. Rest in peace dear Ronnie, rest in peace…