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Saluting Ronnie James Dio, metal’s uncool godfather

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A little over three minutes into “Temple Doors,” the opening track from the debut album by Philadelphia doom metal band Crypt Sermon, frontman Brooks Wilson sings the seemingly nonsensical phrase “fool, fool.” The words float there, isolated, between the song’s first chorus and second verse, and they don’t appear again. The phrase doesn’t add any apparent meaning to the lyrical narrative, but for those who are acquainted with the work of Ronnie James Dio, it’s extremely revealing.

The origin of “fool, fool” is Black Sabbath’s “Heaven And Hell,” one of the precious few Dio-led tracks that has ascended to classic-rock radio-staple status. Like so many of his best lyrics, this one is comforting in its near meaninglessness. Dio was a master of heavy-metal poetry, uncannily capable of spinning mixed metaphors, clichés, and references to dragons into mantras that would be sung in unison by tens of thousands of his long-haired pupils.


Even so, hearing “fool, fool” invoked by a new—and relatively cool—band in 2015 comes as a surprise. Dio hasn’t enjoyed the same deification as the metal gods of his generation, especially among young people. (It’s not unusual to hear a teenaged or twentysomething metalhead say they’re only into the Ozzy Osbourne-fronted Sabbath records.) Motörhead, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest remain sacred cows, more or less, but Dio’s career highlights are partly to blame for bringing Dungeons & Dragons imagery to the metal mainstream, inadvertently inspiring countless half-baked power-metal projects. Fair or not, that’s tarnished his legacy. It’s a little premature to suggest that a name-check by a band on Dark Descent means Dio’s critical reputation is undergoing a renaissance, but it’s nice to think it might.

Dio’s path to metal stardom will never be replicated. Born Ronald James Padavona in 1942 to Italian American parents in New Hampshire, Dio started playing rock ’n’ roll in its mid-’50s infancy, first as a trumpet player and then as a singer and bassist. He played with a laundry list of mostly forgotten acts from the ’50s to the mid-’70s: The Vegas Kings, Ronnie & The Rumblers, Ronnie & The Red Caps, Ronnie Dio & The Prophets, The Electric Elves, The Elves, and finally Elf, whose stints opening for Deep Purple on tour exposed him to heavier rock music and finally put him on stage in front of big audiences. Those gigs represented the first major turning point in his career, as they led to the formation of Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s next project, Rainbow. Dio was invited to sing for the new band, and in 1975, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow reached #11 on the U.K. charts. For Dio, the record launched one of the greatest individual decades any metal performer has ever enjoyed.


From 1975 to 1984, Dio sang on the following studio albums: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, and Long Live Rock ’N’ Roll by Rainbow; Heaven & Hell and Mob Rules by Black Sabbath; and the solo records Holy Diver and The Last In Line. If none of those records are quite perfect, they’re all within spitting distance. Yet that run is rarely cited alongside metal’s other legendary hot streaks like Metallica’s first four, Sabbath’s first six, or Maiden’s first seven. If the looming fifth anniversary of Dio’s death from stomach cancer on May 16 gives erstwhile skeptics an excuse to revisit his discography, this is where they should look first. The run is the beating heart of the Dio mythology, and reveals a man uniquely suited to channeling the epic regality and high camp of metal’s heyday, hitting his stride and then doubling down on every triumph.

The three Rainbow full-lengths that Dio provides vocals for are masterworks of hard-rock pomposity, even if they aren’t exactly metal in the modern sense. “Man On The Silver Mountain,” another track that’s found its way into heavy rotation on FM classic-rock stations, leads off Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow with a simple, stomping riff. When Dio’s voice comes in, the stakes change entirely. He seems to be conjuring his lines from somewhere deep within his soul, deeper than most rock vocalists at that time seemed willing (or capable) of reaching. That’s especially remarkable given the song’s lyrics, which are vaguely religious, fantastical, and, essentially, nonsense. The chorus gives us a few perfectly Dio turns of phrase: “Come down with fire / Lift my spirit higher / Someone’s screaming my name / Come and make me holy again / I’m the man on the silver mountain.” It’s not clear which man or which mountain the lyrics are referring to. What’s clear is that when Dio sings those words in that order, it sounds awesome.

Rising and Long Live Rock ’N’ Roll would see Dio soar even higher. “Stargazer,” an eight-and-a-half minute epic from the former record, is the pinnacle of the Rainbow experience, and it’s indelibly stamped with Dio’s powerful personality. For the last several minutes of the song, Blackmore just locks in and repeats the main riff while a string section reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” doubles it, essentially providing a blank canvas for Dio to sing over. He delivers, providing enough variations on the chorus (“Where is your star? / Is it far?”) to keep things interesting while continuously ratcheting up the song’s intensity. “Stargazer” remains a heavy-metal classic, one that’s been covered regularly by Dio acolytes. Unfortunately for Dio’s place in the critical discourse, the most high-profile of those bands include prog-wank specialists Dream Theater, Viking-cosplay dorks Týr, and the frilly-shirted Jorn Lande side project Mundanus Imperium. The pattern of Dio becoming underrated partly because of the bands he influenced begins with Rainbow, which to this day has never quite assumed its rightful place in the early heavy-metal firmament alongside Sabbath, Priest, and Purple.

By the time Sabbath enlisted Dio to replace Ozzy Osbourne, a lot of people had already written off the metal founders as has-beens. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! were cocaine-drenched fiascos, uneven at best and unworthy of the Sabbath discography at worst. The sessions for the next album began in Beverly Hills with the original foursome—Ozzy, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward—but nothing was getting done, and the band realized they had to boot Ozzy or break up. Iommi had been familiar with Dio’s work from his Rainbow days, though the other members hadn’t heard him sing.


The album that finally resulted from the lineup turmoil—Butler also left during the sessions, though he returned before recording finished—was Heaven & Hell. Dio’s presence as a lyricist and driving songwriting force revitalized the rest of Black Sabbath. Iommi’s riffs and solos, previously rooted almost entirely in the blues, began to incorporate the neoclassicism that Dio learned from Blackmore in Rainbow. The songs began to shift between high-tempo (for Sabbath) blasts and moody, atmospheric passages. And, of course, Dio’s fantasy lyrics were a departure from Butler’s tales of war, women, and drugs. Despite the album’s commercial success, the change in direction led to an exodus of old fans. The Dio era is still a point of contention among Sabbath fans, though a string of successful reunion tours from 2007 to 2009 under the name Heaven & Hell renewed interest in his records with the band. (And the follow-up to Heaven & Hell, Mob Rules, was nearly as strong, though a thin production job marred it somewhat.)

After Mob Rules, it was clear that Dio’s idiosyncrasies were too big to be contained by other people’s bands forever. Holy Diver, the first album credited simply to Dio, remains the purest expression of his personality and his most-loved record. It works so well because it takes everything uncool about Dio and proudly flaunts it. The main riff to the hit single, “Rainbow In The Dark,” is played on a wimpy Casio keyboard. Dio turns in some of the strongest vocal performances of his career, and uses them to deliver lines like, “In the palace of the virgin lies the chalice of the soul” and, “Between the velvet lies, there’s a truth as hard as steel.” The album cover gave metal a new mascot in the priest-dunking demon Murray, and Dio’s goofy devil-horns hand sign, his most defining contribution to metal culture, became ubiquitous. The Last In Line matched Holy Diver in almost every regard, and its Egypt-themed stage show set the bar for metal-concert-production value excess, non-Iron Maiden division.


It’s fitting that Dio’s most flamboyantly unhip era has had the most profound impact on his legacy. His biggest pop-culture moments of the last decade have come in places on the far margins of the critical discourse. It’s the Dio of Holy Diver and The Last In Line who breaks out of a poster on the bedroom door of a young Jack Black in the gloriously juvenile Tenacious D And The Pick Of Destiny. It’s “Rainbow In The Dark” that lent its name to NYC’s recently defunct DJ night for gay metal fans, a group that sadly remains marginalized, despite the widespread acceptance of Rob Halford’s sexuality. Metalcore crew Killswitch Engage even saw their played-straight cover of “Holy Diver” hit Billboard’s mainstream rock singles chart in 2007.

For whatever reason, none of that has quite coalesced in a widespread renewed interest in Dio’s music. While his catalog could still eventually get the critical rehabilitation it deserves, it’s all right if that day never comes. In life, Dio flew the flag for all the dorky things metalheads love about metal, and in death, he’s a martyr for those same things.