Ronnie James Dio, Metal Icon, Dies at 67
Black Sabbath, Rainbow singer had one of metal’s all-time great voices
Ronnie James Dio, whose vocals powered iconic metal bands including Black Sabbath and Rainbow, died of stomach cancer on May 16 in Los Angeles. He was 67. “To me, he’s the single greatest singer of all time,” says Metallica frontman James Hetfield. “He could do it all – the epic song and the ballad. He had a growl but clarity as well. The guy sounded like he was eight feet tall, even though he was quite the opposite.”
With songs like ‘Holy Diver,’ ‘Rainbow in the Dark,’ ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Man on the Silver Mountain,’ Dio gave metal a dark imaginary landscape packed with devils, dragons and rainbows. “In a weird way, he created a lot of the clichés that people associate with heavy-metal music,” says Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. “He saw things in kind of mystic terms, and he was able to translate them in a very earnest way.” Talking to Rolling Stone last year, Dio explained his philosophy: “Early on in my life, I decided that religion was stupid. I didn’t believe the things they told me about some guy that was crucified. What we have are two things: good and evil. There aren’t many people in between, and they’re such broad subjects to write about. I hope I’m not one of those people on their deathbed who goes, ‘God, forgive me!’”
Born Ronald James Padanova to Italian parents in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Dio began playing bass in the rockabilly band the Vegas Kings while still in high school, in 1957. He changed his last name to Dio (Italian for “God”) and formed the heavy-blues band Elf. After they opened for Deep Purple, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore became so enamoured with Dio’s powerful voice he formed a new group, Rainbow, with Dio on vocals. Their 1975 debut single, ‘Man on the Silver Mountain,’ became an FM staple.
Dio joined Black Sabbath when Ozzy Osbourne was kicked out for drug addiction. The 1980 disc Heaven and Hell – Sabbath’s first album with Dio at the helm – introduced the band to a new young audience. “That record hit me like an explosion,” says Hetfield. “Everyone was playing those songs with garage bands. ‘Neon Knights’ was like the school anthem.” On his first Sabbath tour, Dio began imitating a hand gesture his grandmother used to ward off the evil eye – a fist with the index and pinkie finger raised. It was instantly adapted by the metal community as the “devil horn” gesture. A disagreement over the mixing of the live album Live Evil caused Dio to quit Sabbath in 1982, though he returned for a brief reunion in 1992, and had toured and recorded with them as Heaven and Hell during the past three years. He formed the band Dio after leaving Sabbath for the first time and scored hits with ‘Holy Diver’ and ‘Rainbow in the Dark.’
Heaven and Hell had a tour scheduled for this summer, and even as he underwent cancer treatment, Dio believed he would be able to tour. “His legend is going to really grow in the metal community,” says Corgan. “With Dio there were no drugs, no freakouts, no car crashes, no DUI. The guy put his heart and soul into fucking metal.”