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On Sunday, May 16, 2010, Ronnie James Dio – lead singer of such influential and successful bands as Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath (aka Heaven & Hell) and his own outfit Dio, passed away after a six month battle with stomach cancer.
I’m not ashamed to say that I openly wept when I heard this news, and there aren’t too many occasions I’ve felt so moved to tears – other than family, I can only think of John Lennon & Frank Zappa’s deaths.
One only needs to look for a moment at social networking websites such as Facebook to gain a measure of this man, who was quite small in physical stature, but who possessed an amazingly rich and powerful set of pipes on him. The moment the news of his passing was confirmed (false rumours had been bouncing around for half a day or more before the actual event), a plethora of tribute pages and remembrance pages sprung up almost instantly, and thousands from around the world have “shared” clips of music from throughout his long and massively influential career. Rockstars like Lars Ulrich and “regular” people alike have posted eulogies to Ronnie, and as at today – 3 days after his death – his official Facebook fan page has over 380,000 members.
Born Ronald James Padavona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 10, 1942, Ronnie James Dio was working professionally considerably earlier than many of his future hard rock and heavy metal contempories. As a child he learnt trumpet and French horn – the breathing techniques for which he credits with developing his extraordinarily powerful vocal capabilities - and joined The Vegas Kings as bass player whilst still at Cortland City School. From there the band morphed into Ronnie and the Rumblers, then Ronnie and the Red Caps, and released some 7” singles.
After a year or so at college studying pharmacy, he dropped out, changed his name to Dio (after mafia boss Johnny Dio), and the band adopted the name Ronnie & The Prophets around 1961. These guys released more singles and one album before disbanding in 1967.
By this time Dio had been a professional musician for a full decade, and it was time to step up a gear. He & Prophets guitarist Nick Pantas formed a new band, The Electric Elves, later renamed Elf in 1969. Elf recorded 3 albums and toured The States extensively, supporting – among others – Deep Purple, where he was noticed by mercurial guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who later enlisted most of the band to become his first post-Deep Purple project – Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.
From there Dio joined Black Sabbath, before striking out on his own with the band Dio, whose first album “Holy Diver” is perhaps his defining moment. Finally he was in charge of his own destiny, he was in the right place in the musical landscape at exactly the right time, and he served up one of the classic albums of all time.
He continued to work with a succession of talented musicians in Dio for the rest of his life, as well as reuniting with Black Sabbath briefly in 1992, then again for a longer tenure as Heaven & Hell from 2006 until he fell ill last year and all tour dates were cancelled.
Along the way Ronnie James Dio has been inducted into the Guitar Centre Rock Walk of Fame in Hollwood, CA; steered the Live Aid charity project Hear n’ Aid; guested on albums by artists as diverse as Kenny Livgren, Queensryche, Tenacious D, Pat Boone, Ian Gillan and Girlschool; was inducted into the Cortland, NY hall of fame; had a street named after him in Cortland, NY (Dio Way); and greatly popularised the use of the “Horns Up” or “Devil Horns” hand sign, which he claims was used by his Grandmother to ward off (or bestow upon someone) the “Evil Eye” (“Malocchio”); and received countless awards for his music.
When Kevin DuBrow of Quiet Riot died in 2007 it inspired me to embark on a “Rock Pilgrimage” of America. I wanted to see many of the bands I grew up with before their leading lights passed away, and I wanted along the way to visit some of the pivotal scenes of rock and roll history.
Ronnie’s passing reinforces more than ever that NOW is the only time to do this. The men and women who made the soundtracks of our lives are heroes to thousands, even millions, but they are still mere mortals and cancer is the great leveller of our times.
The live venues, the recording studios, the rehearsal spaces and ramshackle addresses where hard and heavy rock history was made are vanishing one by one as developers send in the bulldozers: this may be our last chance to see these historical sites, and to hear the bands we love before time takes our heroes from us.
Ronnie James Dio may have been a gentle, humble & unassuming family man offstage, but he was a giant of metal and a truly inspirational character. Throughout a career stretching over 6 decades he showed a dignity and humility not only in his performances, but in his private life. Not for Ronnie the rock star merry-go-round of stints in rehab, brawls and arrests – apart from a couple of low key verbal feuds, his record is surprisingly spotless and unprovocative.
The Rockpit's thoughts go out to his dedicated wife and manager Wendy, and adopted son Dan, to all Ronnie’s family and friends, and to all who, like us, were touched by this great man’s work and saddened by his passing.
Thank you Ronnie, for the music – it will, like your memory – live forever.
Wednesday 19th May, 2010
Postscript - Wendy Dio has asked that “in lieu of sending flowers, please make a donation to the Ronnie James Dio "STAND UP AND SHOUT CANCER FUND." You can send your check [sic] or money order to the Niji Entertainment Group, 12400 Ventura Blvd. #624, Studio City, CA, 91604.”
A comprehensive discography of Ronnie’s work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronnie_James_Dio_discography
The official Ronnie James Dio Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/OfficialRonnieJamesDio
Ronnie’s official website: http://www.ronniejamesdio.com/