R.I.P. Metal Legend, Metal Gentleman Ronnie James Dio, 1942-2010

May 17, 2010 at 12:20 am

(Editor's note: D.X. Ferris is a frequent RFT contributor and the author of the 33 1/3 book on Slayer's Reign in Blood. He was kind enough to write this obituary yesterday.)

Ronnie James Dio, R.I.P.
Ronnie James Dio, R.I.P.

His band mates 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 was 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 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."

Strong he was. And a natural. Seriously, how does an American football fan who grew up in upstate New York step into Ozzy Osbourne's shoes and elevate every aspect of the British band? Sabbath's lyrics became darker, the song subjects rougher and deeper. Suddenly, the group was competitive with a wave of rising bands like Iron Maiden. With Dio out front, Sabbath was blacker. No wonder. He was no rookie. When he joined Sabbath, he had more than two decades under his belt.

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.