By Oakland L. Childers
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His bandmates didn't invite him to the induction, but let's face it: Ronnie James Dio might be the reason Black Sabbath is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. With Dio's mighty contributions, Sabbath proved it wasn't just some forgotten cult band that made four hot albums in the '70s. After Dio stepped in and saved the group from a slow demise, Sabbath was recognized as an enduring cultural institution that no longer existed strictly in the shadow of its first singer, Ozzy Osbourne.
Not an hour before news of Dio's demise broke on the black Sabbath of Sunday, May 16, Chimaira singer Mark Hunter tweeted a comment about the new Ozzy tune: "Wow. The new Ozzy single. Please retire for real this time. #throwsupinmouth." Dio's fortunes rose, fell and rose again over four decades in the spotlight, but nobody ever said anything like that about him. As hundreds of testimonies from peers and fans prove, he was one of the most respected talents and figures in the game. And nobody played the game as well as Dio did — for as long.
Dio was 67 at the time of his death, which occurred after a short struggle with stomach cancer. He'd been a recording artist for 52 years. Fifty-two.
The singer was born Ronald James Padavona. True to his time, as an Italian, he was raised Catholic and taught to play the trumpet before he became a singer. In 2002 I interviewed him for Alternative Press for a feature about vocalists. Here's how he answered a question about the worst rookie mistake he'd made to hurt his throat as a young singer.
"I don't mean to sound like a big head or anything like that, but I've never made any mistakes that way, and I'll tell you why," Dio said. "It's not because I'm Mr. Brilliant or anything, but it does help to be smart when you're doing things. I started as a trumpet player when I was five years old, and I played mainly classical music, played in orchestras a lot as I was growing up. And I just applied exactly what I did as a horn player to singing.
"It was just so easy for me, because I was pretty good as a horn player," he continued. "And all I had to do now was sing words to what I just played, breath-wise and lip-wise, as a trumpet player. And I just never had a problem. I was blessed with a good, strong voice and the trumpet training and the mind to deal with it — because that's the other part of it: You've got to be strong when you do this kind of stuff."
Dio's first record was a 1958 single with rock band Ronnie and the Red Caps. Early in the '60s, he changed his name to "Ronnie Dio" in a nod to a mobster that used the Dio handle. And in Italian, "Dio" means God. He'd move beyond his Catholic roots but stay close to other customs. His grandmother taught him to both give and ward off the evil eye by using the two-finger hand gesture known as the Malocchio traditionally — though now it's widely known as "the Devil horns." In the '80s, the gesture became the universal symbol for heavy metal and is now synonymous with the rock & roll attitude, as displayed by heshers and cheerleaders.
The Dio thing really began taking shape in the late '60s, when his band morphed into Elf. In 1975, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore recruited them to be his backing band, and Rainbow was born. Dio's apprenticeship was over, and he was now a growing rock deity. Classic-rock radio listeners have listened to "Man on the Silver Mountain," the band's first big single, at least once a day since 1975. And it sounds as good as ever.
When Blackmore and Dio began butting heads, Sabbath came calling. The first Black Sabbath record with Dio was 1980's Heaven and Hell. A year later, they delivered Mob Rules, which had one of the nastiest covers in the history of metal and music to match. To begin the title track, Dio belts out, "Close the city and tell the people that something's coming to call/Death and darkness are rushing forward to take a bite from the wall" — without overselling it. It's masterful. Everybody knows — and respects, don't get us wrong — Sabbath's Ozzy material. But among metal dudes, Dio is widely acknowledged as the definitive Sabbath singer.
After the Sabbath situation went south, Dio kept refining his vision in a helluva solo career. His self-titled band released its debut album, Holy Diver, in 1983. The band's visuals matched his swords-and-sorcery lyrics, and while Dio sang about demons, he added Murray, the horned mascot that graces his the first two Dio album covers.
With all respect to the Dio band's long career, it really peaked with 1984's The Last in Line. That record's opening track, "We Rock," interweaves rock and religion, declaring that all faiths are dedicated to the same thing. For a guy throwing up Devil horns, it was heady stuff. And it went over a lot of heads.