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Today at 7:30 am one of rock’s most well-known vocalists, songwriters and lyricists passed away at 67, after revealing to the world he was fighting stomach cancer last year.
Ronnie James Dio was a powerful singer, who had a voice that was huge — a cannon of power going off when he sang. As a little kid, I enjoyed Dio’s first two albums immensely, Holy Diver and The Last In Line. Growing a little older, I came to also appreciate the fine work he did a bit earlier in his career with Black Sabbath on The Mob Rules and his first record with the band, Heaven And Hell. They attacked the early Sabbath in a convincing way with Ronnie putting his own spin on the epics Ozzy had originally performed.
The classic Live Evil album was a part of my collection and regular listening, as was Rainbow. Several of the early Rainbow moments, whether Stargazer, Kill The King, Man On The Silver Mountain, Catch The Rainbow… all that stuff was important to me.
Rainbow On Stage was a classic two-LP live set that I toted along everywhere on my massive boom box, including to a Grateful Dead show in 1987 where I met a hippie from Virginia named Danny, who came over to the car I was in to invite me to party with he and his friends in their tent because he heard the cool music I was playing… Mistreated with Ronnie up front on vocals, the long, winding journey of a version from On Stage.
Formative moments in my life were intertwined with Ronnie James Dio. He was and is a soundtrack for hard rock listening sessions that is at the very least a cornerstone of metal, if not from there, a significant vocalist in rock in general. I love radio, for example, because when I was a kid, I heard this on the radio:
Cruising around rocking the Rainbow Rising with my favorite drummer in the world Cozy Powell, or blasting The Mob Rules epics like Sign Of The Southern Cross, with it’s trance-like rhythm and modern psychedelic channeling… or Falling Off The Edge Of The World, with another of the ethereal semi-acoustic, ambient intro sections Sabbath were doing quite effectively during the Dio-era.
There was Country Girl, with lyrics you could — or I did — attach to relevant romances in my own life… It proved the Dio time with Sabbath was not all wizards, dragons and intangible fantasies that so often put off Ozzy-era Sabbath fans, or just those more rooted in everyday life, than able to absorb lyrics which at times felt more akin to a verbal Dungeons And Dragons game as opposed to angst-releasing rock, like Sabbath had really been, or bluesy power rock, as Rainbow mastered in it’s best years with Ronnie.
Solo songs were equally epic, and not always because of Ronnie, yet, these epic moments were in his songs. Take, with that point, the massive guitar crescendo Vivian Campbell provides in The Last In Line, literally a show-stopping, career high for him and really Dio’s solo recorded work, as a breathtaking guitar solo extravaganza of emotional peaks.
Holy Diver’s deliverance from spooky sound effect wasteland to classic rock riff sludge… Gypsy’s redneck rock irreverence… Stand Up And Shout’s defiance. There are a lot of early/mid-80’s memories attached to this guy.
I first saw Dio in the winter/spring of 1988. Then again in 1990, both times at the Philly Spectrum, and both times sadly, after the Dio band’s prime. The ’90 show is very forgettable, with even Vinny Appice gone, though they did do a medley with some of the really old Rainbow which was nice.
In 1992, Sabbath were back together, reunited in late 1991, and releasing a record in the spring/summer of 1992, Dehumanizer. They toured starting in South America, before hitting the U.S. It had a cartoon cover that was impossible to take seriously, and while at the time name brand producer Mac did his best with creating a tasty mix, admittedly, as much as I wanted to have it grow to be classic, it was just a lot of junk floating by, which at the moment, seemed worth digesting.
Looking and listening back, it was not too important, that volley of work shot out in a super brief reunion of the Mob Rules-era Sabbath. In concert, they played a mix of Ozzy and Dio Sabbath classics, plus the new stuff.
One record, two short U.S. tours, and a nasty finale with Dio walking out on the two tacked onto the end of the tour last shows, in November 1992, with Sabbath opening for Ozzy at what he was calling his last concerts, in Costa Mesa, CA.
Rob Halford filled in for Ronnie, and the shows went on without him. Soon after, so did Sabbath, doing a poorly received additional album with Tony Martin, Cross Purposes, and then another even worse one in 1995 whose name I cannot remember. It was so sad where Sabbath had fallen. Two years later, however, they hit the Ozzy vein, and ripped it wide open over the next several years. It was rich and the Sabbath cash flowed like it hadn’t in a long time as the original band did mostly sold out U.S. arenas, sheds, and an occasional stadium over a period of tours that followed their Farewell Tour of 1999. LOL. Dio plowed on doing more solo tours during this era.
In 2007, the days of Ronnie slumming it in small time clubs with Dio, and Tony and Geezer waiting around for Sharon to tell them when they’ll work next, and Vinny touring clubs with other 80’s metal sidemen… those days were over… Heaven And Hell was born. No, not the Heaven And Hell line-up, but the Mob Rules line-up, calling itself Heaven And Hell, oddly.
They did a live record/DVD, did a studio record, a few tours, had plans for even more live stuff, and then Dio’s cancer took all that away. Over the last several years, the Mob Rules-era line-up of Sabbath stayed together longer than ever before… while not as prolific with high quality studio classics, they were able to muster up original material, do a number of dates worldwide to adoring fans who ate up hearing a set-list of exclusively Dio-era Sabbath, and work together successfully to boot. Perhaps that last part is the most enduring, positive aspect of the legacy of the now finished Heaven And Hell era of Dio’s life.
Back in the summer of 1992, I was very fortunate to get to interview Ronnie twice. These were extremely brief interviews, but, they were in-person interviews, recorded in New York and Boston. I was a college radio programmer and DJ, and Reprise records, and Leneah, I think her name was, took great care of us. August 1992 it was, and I interviewed Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler, and Tony Iommi in the China Club, next door to the Beacon Theatre in New York. Then a few days later at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, another super brief Ronnie recording. Both were among the shortest interview recordings I’ve done, unfortunately, but, they stand as actual in-person recordings of conversation with Ronnie James Dio about Black Sabbath, their 1992 reunion, the early days of Sabbath’s touring versus the realities then in 1992, some of the early influences on his sound, and a bit more.
To honor Ronnie, we’ll feature these interview clips as our June issue of the Classic Interview Player, after our current issue with Jack Johnson is up May 31. Stay tuned for a chance to go back in time with me, to the backstage interviews and club conversations with enigmatic vocalist and performer Ronnie James Dio. Two brief and rare in-person interview moments from my earliest days of interviewing artists (they were among my first handful of interviews ever), and yours to hear as part of a multimedia tribute to Ronnie that will feature video, live recordings, a photo retrospective and more.
Also check out DLTV now and watch the Vinny Appice interview from March 2010, just a couple months ago, when Heaven And Hell/Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice was my guest, and we discuss the band — and Ronnie’s health — in great detail. Watch 0n-demand now on DLTV.
Aloha, Brother Ronnie. Maximum respect.