What Rock’n’Roll Taught Ronnie James Dio

Metal legend Ronnie James Dio died yesterday (May 16) after losing his battle with stomach cancer. In this interview, which took place in June 2009, he looks back on his remarkable career.

The music industry is killing music.
I don’t really hear much music these days that grabs me. I think there are a lot of reasons for this but the overriding one is that there aren’t as many opportunities for a band to get good, or experiment or start the next wave of something. When we started doing this, there were more places you could make mistakes and hone your craft away from everyone. So much music is homogenized by digital tools that everyone has on their laptops too. You can have a huge success with your first album but if you don’t with the second album, you can be gone. So many bands are throwaway now – it’s like, “oh this isn’t working; next!”


When opportunity knocks, don’t think twice
I never planned to join Black Sabbath – it just happened. It was back in 1979 when they were celebrating their 10th anniversary. Even at that point, I thought they’d been together for 100 years. I met Tony (Iommi, Sabbath guitarist) at a bar in LA, we went back to the house Black Sabbath were working in and he asked me if I wanted to see the studio. So I went in, Tony started playing me something and said ‘can you do anything with this?’ I went off in a corner for about ten minutes, added some things and we wrote ‘Children Of The Sea’. It was so easy and that very night, Tony said, ‘That’s it, we’re gonna fire Ozzy and we want you to sing.’

The first show I played with them was in front of 105,000 at the Coliseum in LA. I didn’t feel any pressure to replace Ozzy because I’m sensible enough to know that I’m not Ozzy but I think Ozzy was very, very hurt at being turfed out like that. I actually saw him at the same bar a month later and he was very civil – but somebody told me he was looking for a knife to kill me! He always seemed to like me more when I was out of the band.

Drummers are fair game for pranks – up to a point
Bill Ward (Sabbath’s first drummer) is one of the nicest, caring people I’ve ever met in my life but when I started in Sabbath, he was in a different place. He was drinking heavily and it affected him- although not when he was playing. He never played loaded. But the rest of the time, it could be a problem.

Tony particularly liked to take advantage of him when he was like that. One time when were mixing ‘Heaven And Hell’, Tony grabbed one of those alcohol containers for cleaning tape heads and said, ‘let me pour this on your leg Bill and set you on fire’. Bill just said ‘no, no, don’t do that’ but Tony lit a match and up he went! He really didn’t put much fluid on him but the flames were everywhere and Bill just kind of sat there. Possibly more in shock than anything. He had some really bad burns and we had to take him to hospital. Tony definitely didn’t mean to cause him that much injury.

‘Holy Diver’ is the metal tune that will not die
For some reason, that album and the song (which Dio released through his solo project Dio in 1983) really hit a chord with people. Killswitch Engage did a version of it and I saw them do it at a festival recently where the reaction to their version was wonderful. But it’s not something that gets resurrected every once in a while, it’s just always there. I guess it’s because good songs always work. What usually happens when people in bands meet me for the first time and they’re fans is that they’ll sing (adopts a self-mocking high pitched voice) “Hoooly Diiiiiver” at me! It happens all the time and it’s very touching.


If South Park come calling, don’t be snotty about it
At first, when I heard South Park wanted to use ‘Holy Diver’, I was like ‘no way! You’re gonna completely destroy me, I’ll be so embarrassed to see it.’ But they said they wouldn’t because they were big fans and they didn’t. They were very kind to me- not so much the drummer- but very kind to me! [Dio was depicted playing at an elementary school dance with a monkey on drums in an early episode – South Park Ed].


Plus, if you want to be an icon of some kind, you have to be in an episode of South Park. But what made more of an impact on my profile was being in Tenacious D: The Pick Of Destiny. If I go somewhere and there’s a kid with his mom or something, he’ll always say something like ‘it’s that guy from The Pick Of Destiny’. That film was definitely made more people aware of me, but not necessarily as a singer.


The only guitarists that really matter are Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore
All the players I’ve played with since then have been influenced by them. Tony’s a great riff writer and he’s become a great soloist over time. He’s more from the axe-handle school- he’ll wrench it around and get strange sounds. Whereas Ritchie (who played with Dio in dad-metal legends Rainbow) was more thoughtful, he got inside the chords and knew what they were about. He thought orchestrally and he was so fluid with melody and solo ideas- he took them into places I couldn’t believe.


Did You Know?
-Dio is widely credited for introducing the two-fingered devil horn salute into metal but sadly, didn’t think to patent it.
-Dio’s most recent band was Heaven And Hell, essentially a reunited and renamed version of Black Sabbath circa 1980 featuring Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler on bass and Vinny Appice on drums.
-When Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, he frequently got given the middle finger by angry fans while on stage during their first tour of North America.

Words: Hardeep Phull

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