Dio's Lost Decade: Recovering the 1960s Career of Ronnie James Dio*

Presented at the 39th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Music
Little Rock, Arkansas
March 7, 2013

Glenn T. Pillsbury
California State University, Stanislaus

For me, and many other teenage heavy metal fans in 1983, the career of American heavy metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio didn't begin until we had first heard the hit single by a new band called, appropriately enough, Dio. That song, “Rainbow in the Dark,” was released in October of ‘83 as the second single from the Holy Diver album, which had been released in May. The song eventually reached #14 on Billboard’s Top Tracks rock chart. Indeed, the mid-tempo metal of “Rainbow in the Dark,” featuring a classic example of an uncomplicated Aeolian chord progression on the guitar and bass, Dio’s strong tenor vocals singing mysterious, fantasy-tinged lyrics, and augmented by that opening synthesizer figure, fit nicely within the burgeoning market for commercialized metal that truly exploded in 1983 and 1984. In addition to Holy Diver and Dio’s next album, The Last in Line, this two-year period featured significant releases by several important metal bands, from Def Leppard (Pyromania) to Mötley Crüe (Shout At the Devil), Twisted Sister (Stay Hungry), and Iron Maiden (Powerslave), among many others, as well as the first releases by Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax, three of the so-called “big four” of thrash metal.

Moreover, with its three most significant founding groups from the 1970s by this time either defunct (Led Zeppelin), irrelevant (Black Sabbath) or otherwise successful but in an older demographic (the reunited Deep Purple), heavy metal in the 1980s became inextricably youth-oriented. What we didn’t know then was that Dio, the singer, was playing the game against musicians 15-20 years younger than he was and who were much closer in age to metal’s prime audience. However, blessed with a youthful countenance, a full head of naturally black hair, and the good sense to adapt his visual image to changing trends, Dio – who had been born in 1942 – had little trouble fitting right in. In fact, when Holy Diver was released in May of ‘83, launching the most significant 25-plus years of his career, Dio was just shy of his 41st birthday. Dio died in 2010 at the age of 67.

My purpose in this presentation is twofold. First, I want to explore aspects of Dio’s metal career for what it can tell us about the career he put together beginning in the late 1950s until the early 1970s, during his own twenties and early thirties. For, while Dio’s career from 1975 through 1982 — the years immediately prior to the Dio band when he served first as the founding vocalist of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and then as Ozzy Osbourne’s replacement in Black Sabbath — was certainly not obscure, especially to my friends who had older brothers, Dio preferred his later audiences to believe those seven years constituted the vast majority of his professional career before the Dio band. How Dio presented his own history reveals a complex network of identity, commemoration, and musical practice whereby that pre-Rainbow career is repackaged, carried forward, and always remained present in subtle ways in later years. In the second part, I want to provide evidence of the sophistication of Dio’s 60s career. On one level, doing so allows us a kaleidoscopic glimpse at the popular music landscape of the 1960s through the lens of a single musician. At the same time, I will be shedding light on the kind of self-fashioning Dio performed in those years through music. In doing so, I will try to reveal what Dio would rather have remained hidden.

* * * * * *

Beginning in 1983, in his duties as the undisputed focal point of his new band, Dio engaged publicly with the memory of his own musical history in three ways. First, by using medleys and interpolations of music from the Rainbow years (1975-1978) during Dio concerts, as well as developing on-stage patter which hinted at the existence of a far more lengthy career than the Rainbow-Black Sabbath starting point would suggest. Second, along those lines, in interviews Dio remembered his pre-Rainbow musical activities, which had actually begun way back in 1957, by collapsing them entirely into a single undifferentiated experience represented by the group Elf, a group that Dio didn’t co-found until the fall of 1967. Dio’s third strategy regarding his own musical history was the most pragmatic: at some point he simply began lying about his age in order to situate himself more convincingly alongside some of his post-Elf band mates, like Blackmore (b. 1945), and later Tony Iommi (b. 1948) and Geezer Butler (b. 1949) from Black Sabbath.

Dio used concerts of the Dio band to both showcase material written by the band as well as to serve essentially as recitals of his own rock career. With three Rainbow albums and two Black Sabbath albums to draw from as the Dio band was building its own song catalog, early set lists were especially marked by musical memory. The group’s performance at the Monsters of Rock festival on August 20, 1983 near Castle Donington in England is a useful primer for how Dio mixed together music and for how he framed the older music in the context of the band’s newer material. After opening with two songs from Holy Diver, the set continued with “Children of the Sea” from Dio’s first album with Black Sabbath in 1980. This was followed by two more Holy Diver songs, “Rainbow in the Dark” and the song “Holy Diver”. At this point Dio uses a short excerpt of the 1976 Rainbow song “Stargazer” as a bridge between Vinnie Appice’s drum solo and Vivian Campbell’s guitar solo,1 all of which leads to an 11-minute version of “Heaven and Hell,” another of Dio’s Black Sabbath songs.

The Monsters of Rock set concluded with a rendition of Rainbow’s most well known song, “Man On a Silver Mountain” from the first Rainbow album. However, during the drawn-out vocal cadenza in the middle of the live version of the song, Dio interpolates about 45 seconds of a yet another Rainbow song, “Starstruck,” before eventually reprising the chorus from “Man On a Silver Mountain” and ending the set. In this example, Dio uses the interpolation of “Starstruck” to inject a carefully ambiguous moment of memory into the 1983 show.

The seeming abruptness of the band’s cut-off and the tone of Dio's response ("Wow! It's been a long time since I've done that one...thanks for remembering it!") make it seem like "Starstruck" was a spontaneous insertion. It is relatively unexpected, as the sudden appearance of the up-tempo boogie of "Starstruck" and its lyrics about an obsessed female fan of Ritchie Blackmore make for a fairly jarring contrast with the atmospheric moment in "Man On a Silver Mountain." "Starstruck" also sounds "old," with its underlying shuffle groove at odds with the squarer rhythms that characterized metal in the eighties. So, when Dio claims "it's been a long time" since he's “done that one," we're inclined to think "Starstruck" is much older than it really was, and that Dio's short performance of it here comes from a much earlier part of his career. Of course, "Starstruck" wasn't terribly old in 1983, as it had been released on Rainbow's second album, Rising, in 1976. Indeed, the interpolation of "Starstruck" into the middle of "Man On a Silver Mountain" was actually a feature of many Rainbow shows beginning around 1977.2 Doubtless some fans in 1983 understood the “Starstruck” interpolation one way – as a performance of an old song called “Starstruck” – while others, having seen Rainbow during Dio’s time as vocalist, may have recognized the interpolation itself as the key. Thus, both the question of what is being remembered and who is supposed to remember it make for a powerful ambiguity that allows Dio to manage his history in the context of his new band.

Complementing these musical memorials, Dio’s stage patter at the start of his metal career reflected a historical bent, and one that hinted at a much longer career. Above all, and quite unlike other metal singers at the time, Dio refrains from coming off as an aggressive in-your-face metal performer, choosing instead to present himself as something of a humble entertainer who would occasionally pat himself on the back for having a successful career. Moreover, when introducing a song, Dio almost always uses a reserved or conversational talking voice. His introductions are deferential – he typically phrased it as “we should like to do a song for you…” – and he’s always appreciative and complimentary toward the audience.3 Indeed, the first thing he says to the Donington crowd in 1983 is, “The greatest privilege in the world for us is to play for you for the first time.” Likewise, his introduction to “Rainbow in the Dark” in November ’83 during an appearance on The Rock Palace television show is similarly self-effacing in a charmingly awkward way.

Dio’s memory of his musical activities before Rainbow was subject to a wide variety of elaboration over the years. However, the primary storyline he put forth was to talk about the group Elf, which existed under a few different names over the course of its lifetime beginning in the fall of 1967 until the first part of 1975. Elf is mostly remembered today as a historical footnote in the history of Rainbow. Famously, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who was by the end of ‘74 looking for a way out of Deep Purple, hired four of the musicians in Elf (including vocalist Dio) to record the first Rainbow album in the spring of ’75.4 Soon enough, though, the three former-Elf members not named “Dio” were either fired or quit before the group ever played live.5 Rainbow eventually launched its live history in November 1975 with Dio as the sole remaining connection to Elf. And so, from the time he became part of Rainbow, Dio faced questions about that group and the transition from Elf to Rainbow. Here he is in 1976, in an interview with Circus, after being asked whether he considers himself a musician or a songwriter (an admittedly odd question):

Well, in Elf, the only band I can relate to because I had never been in another band aside from Elf, I was a bass player as well as a singer.6

18 years later, in 1994, reflecting on the first Elf album (released in August 1972) Dio struck a more wistful tone, lamenting the loss of the shared dream he had had with his Elf bandmates before Rainbow:

We're from a tiny little hometown [Cortland, NY] and we grew up with the same dream.It was the beginning for me. It was the band that led me to this point, it's the band that Ritchie Blackmore heard and loved when we played with them. And from this band he asked me to do the Rainbow thing with him.7

In the same interview, Dio also comments on the appearance of "Ronald Padavona," his real name, on the back cover of the album, saying, “I did that for my folks. I thought maybe they'd like to see their name on a record sometime.”

These examples are, in their own ways, subtle and not-so-subtle elisions of a great deal of musical history. For instance, Dio had already used his last name on recordings well before the first Elf album — in the songwriting credit on four singles going back as far as 1958. Dio’s nostalgia, too, for the band and the bandmates who all “grew up with the same dream” ignores the fact that Dio had arguably already “grown up” as a person and as a professional musician in the years before 1967 and with an almost entirely different cadre of bandmates than the line-ups which ultimately made the three Elf albums. And, moreover, the idea that Dio had “never been in another band aside from Elf”, while not technically a lie, grossly simplifies the flow of his professional musical career. Simply put, the Elf saga could not have been as successful as it was were it not for the “school of rock” Dio had put himself through in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s.

All of these elisions and conflations were given perhaps the most ironclad support when, probably during his time with Black Sabbath, Dio began to lie about his age. Though born in ‘42, in later years he would only admit to being born in 1949. While celebrities from many artistic areas have shaved off a year or two or maybe three for short-term reasons but then would give in and laugh at themselves when caught, Dio not only shaved off a whopping seven years, but also never apparently gave in, never came clean. Here he is in 1997 when prompted by an interviewer with “Often pondered, yet so elusive is your year of birth:”

Well, I was born in ’49, and I never told anybody anything other than that. The thing is that I started so young…that I probably flow through a lot of people who are the same age as I am, and have done more than they have…8

Clever Dio: it might be true that you’ve never told anybody anything other than 1949, but 1949 was also not the truth. Nevertheless, Dio was onto something: 1949 makes the possibility of a significant professional career before Elf less easy to believe. It’s a conundrum that captured the attention of at least one rock journalist, in this case, Simon Robinson, as he wrote liner notes to a 1991 compilation of the second and third Elf albums:

Dio's recording career began as far back as 1958 with a single for a local label. Incidentally, if his birthdate really is July 10, 1948 [sic] as his biography states, he was just ten when he cut this disc.9

So, what was Dio hiding, and why was he hiding it? Musically, Dio was hiding a lost decade’s worth of music that had no sonic resemblance to the heavy metal he was becoming known for in the early 80s. It also lacked a way to be heard as any sort of thread leading up to the metal years of the Dio band or within the early history of metal more generally. Here, for example, is the song “Carolina County Ball,” the title track to the second Elf album, released in April of 1974. The prominence of Mickey Lee Soule’s upright piano would make this music instantly incompatible with the guitar-driven sound of metal. Combined with other characteristics, such as the mellow swing feel, the lyrics about a distinctly rural good time, and the unexpected Dixieland flavors, the sound and theme of “Carolina County Ball” is a good representation of the themes Elf’s music often explored.

A few years prior to the recording of the Elf albums, at the end of 1960s when the group was still called the Elves, the song “She’s Not the Same” from 1969 shows Dio using a clear, polished vocal timbre and backed by cinematic sounding strings and harpsichord.

But it was the music Dio was a part of from 1961 through 1967 as leader of Ronnie Dio and the Prophets that would seem most in need of being hidden from the audience of a future metal star. Jim Pantas, Dio’s manager at the time, recalled in 2010 that “[we] tried everything with Ronnie…[but] however we tried to position him, it didn’t come off.”10 Indeed, during those years, and despite playing in a stable band, Dio tried on a variety of musical costumes from across the contemporary pop music landscape, all in an apparent effort to land a career as a solo pop recording artist. Back-to-back, the costume changes can sound jarring to our ears, as on the A-side and B-side of 1965’s “Smilin’ By Day (Cryin’ By Night)” single. The A-side features clear shades of a hard-driving Help-era John Lennon song ( ) while the B-side’s “Dear Darlin” takes us to mid-60s Nashville as Dio tries his hand at a contemporary Countrypolitan sound, complete with honky-tonk piano and boom-chuck guitar strumming.

Born of Italian heritage (his grandfather immigrated in 1909), Dio had the appropriate roots to become an Americanized Italian teen idol akin to Fabian, Bobby Darin, and Frankie Avalon, though Ronald Padavona opted for a fanciful stage name instead of an Anglicized one. Dio and his management no doubt sensed an opening because of his background and they succeeded in getting one single released on Philadelphia’s famous Swan records in November 1963. Swan was one of the most important labels for the teen idol phenomenon in the early 1960s.

That song was “Mr. Misery,” a tune written by Dio (though credited under his real name) that tells the story of a dejected young man trying to find love amid a sea of happy couples. Billboard rated “Mr. Misery” as a four-star single in its edition of December 7, 1963, meaning it had high sales potential. Over a gentle shuffle beat by drummer Tommy Rogers, bassist Dio and guitarists Nick Pantas and Dick Bottoff move through relatively diatonic chords in D major. Here’s a sense of it. As if to underscore the sense of desolation, the song’s AABA’ form lacks a chorus that might give a sense of hope, and the mood of the verses is only altered by a brief shift to G major in the B section. Notably, the song sprinkles one of the era’s characteristic pathos-inducing tools, the minor IV chord, at strategic points, such as the first instance of the word “misery” that in the above excerpt,11 but then repeatedly during the fade-out, in the phrase “poor lonely Mr. Misery” where “poor” is accented with a prominent G minor chord.

In an attempt to make the connection between American pop music and teen idol stardom complete, Dio recorded new Italian lyrics to the original “Mr. Misery” melody and backing music for release in 1964 on the Italian label Derby. Indeed, as musicologist Paolo Prato has noted, there existed in Italy, especially in the 1960s and beginning around the time of “Mr. Misery” a cover-song process of appropriation and interpretation by Italian singers of Anglo-American pop music, though in this case the same singer did both the original and a reinterpretation.12 Dio and his management hired a lyricist to write the new lyrics and the song was transformed into “Che Tristeza Senza Te,” or “What Sadness Without You.” A quick scan of the new lyrics reveals that what had been Mr. Misery’s plaintive tale of woe has apparently become a celebration of finding the very love that he’d been longing for.

In addition to the recordings, the professional nature of Dio’s career at this point was demonstrated by the Prophets’ live performance schedule. Frequently engaged at casinos, hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs in the greater Upstate New York area, sometimes for multi-date residencies, the Prophets were also occasional performers on multi-artist tours such as the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars and the Gene Pitney Shower of Stars. Fraternity parties were also consistent moneymakers for the group, as, according to my conversation with Dick Bottoff, they could work upwards of six parties during the big “house party” weekends at universities like Cornell, where in 1966 they had apparently been voted the number-one favorite group to play those events. Performing with the Prophets was apparently Dio’s sole source of income even though his bandmates usually worked a day job.

However, the group’s live set was also separate, aesthetically, from the recordings made under their name. As you’ve heard in the examples presented here, the recordings often featured lush string arrangements, female backing vocals, and various keyboards – none of which could be replicated by the Prophets' three guitars and drums. Moreover, the later incarnations of The Elves and Elf, even as they began recording more original material for singles, still lived and worked within the notion that a good band was a hit with audiences based on the variety of their repertoire and the success of its interpretation of other groups’ songs.

* * * * * *

In this opening presentation of a much larger project, I’ve tried to tease out some significant threads in the career of Ronnie James Dio that can shed light on the complex relationship between the production of music and the way it is a lived, transient experience. It was never Dio’s plan, while leading the Prophets, to someday wind up singing in front of tens of thousands of metal maniacs in front of an old castle in merry olde England. So, the “shock” of hearing Dio’s 60s music after knowing him as one of the foremost proponents of powerful heavy metal is due mostly to the way the popular music landscape (both in terms of industry and artistry) changed around him during the span of his life. In the end, then, it has been important to carefully roll back those changes and force ourselves to get a glimpse of the eras in which Dio lived and worked for all the messy reality that they were.

 


Notes

* The author is grateful to Dick Bottoff, Tommy Rogers, and Mickey Lee Soule for their willingness to share their memories and insights about their time making music with Ronnie. This research also relied on the extensive archival materials provided by www.rainbowfanclan.com and those made available by Tapio Keihänen at www.dio.net. [return]

  1. “Stargazer” begins with a famous drum introduction, which makes its use at the end of a formal drum solo appropriate.  Though recorded for Rainbow’s second album, Rising (1976), “Stargazer” (and it’s accompanying second part, “A Light in the Black”) was actually written sometime in the summer or fall of 1975 as it was performed on Rainbow’s earliest tours beginning in November of that year.   For the recording, drummer Cozy Powell (1947-1998) greatly expanded the simple drum roll that originally began the song into a tour de force display of double-kick led virtuosity.  It was this expanded version that Appice played at the end of his solo at the Monsters of Rock performance. [return]
  2. Jim Farber, “Ritchie Blackmore: King of the Castle,” Record Mirror, June 11, 1977. [return]
  3. A good counterexample to Dio’s style of interaction would be Dee Snyder (b. 1959), lead singer of Twisted Sister. Like the Dio band, Twisted Sister made its major festival debut at the 1983 Monsters of Rock festival. Snyder, though, had built his career and reputation on exactly the kind of confrontational approach that Dio avoided. Dressed over the years in outrageous costumes of ripped cloth, quasi-androgynous face makeup, and with a large mane of curly dirty blonde hair, Snyder’s vocal mannerisms between songs tended toward shouting and vigorous exhortation of the audience, and he was not above hurling insults at individual members or sections of the crowd he believed to be behaving too passively. Indeed, Snyder writes in his autobiography that during Twisted Sister’s early years, he would occasionally leap into the crowd to physically confront an audience member who he felt was disrespecting him or the band’s performance. [return]
  4. Initially Blackmore had wanted Deep Purple to record a cover of “Black Sheep of the Family,” a song made famous by the short-lived British progressive rock group Quartermass in 1970. When the other members refused, Blackmore approached Dio and Elf drummer Gary Driscoll, as well as a keyboard player and a cellist, to record the song in December 1974, as well as another song, “Sixteenth-Century Greensleeves,” which Blackmore and Dio had written. While these recordings were never released commercially, the collaboration with the Elf musicians (especially Dio) went so well that Blackmore extended the relationship to include a full album’s worth of material, and it was at that point, in February 1975, that Elf bassist Craig Gruber and keyboardist Mickey Lee Soule were brought into the project. The new lineup re-recorded the original two songs for the full album. The word “Rainbow” was included in the band’s name as a reference to the famous Rainbow Bar & Grill in West Hollywood, CA. [return]
  5. First to be fired was bassist Craig Gruber, who was replaced by Jimmy Bain.  There is some confusion about whether drummer Gary Driscoll was fired next or whether keyboardist Mickey Lee Soule quit next before Driscoll was fired.  Interviews with Blackmore in the British press in the fall of 1975 speak of a delay in launching Rainbow’s first tour because of the need to hire and rehearse with a new drummer (Blackmore eventually settled on Cozy Powell).  However, Soule remembers that he was the last of the Elf members to go, choosing to quit rather than be fired (see David Wilson, “Mickey Lee Soule,” KAOS2000 Magazine, Summer 2002, http://www.kaos2000.net/interviews/mickeyleesoule/).  American keyboardist Tony Carey replaced Soule. [return]
  6. Scott Cohen, “Nearer My Dio to Thee,” Circus, August 10, 1976. [return]
  7. “Ronnie James Dio - Brutally Honest Tour Bus Interview 1994, part 2 of 4,” YouTube video, 9:40, posted by “Diopriest2,” Feb 22, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L01b7_Wm5n4. [return]
  8. Alain M. Gaudrault, "On the Mend: An Interview with Ronnie James Dio," Chronicles of Chaos, March 16, 1997, http://www.chroniclesofchaos.com/articles/chats/1-92_dio.aspx. [return]
  9. Simon Robinson, liner notes to Ronnie James Dio: The Elf Albums, Elf, The Connoisseur Collection VSOP CD 167, CD, 1991. [return]
  10. Malcolm Dome, “The Early Years,” Classic Rock, Summer 2010: 46. [return]
  11. The first instance is actually somewhat ambiguous as Dio’s bass line descends down to E underneath the guitar’s G minor, making the overall harmony something of a diminished II chord. [return]
  12. Paolo Prato, “Selling Italy By the Sound: Cross-Cultural Interchanges Through Cover Records,” Popular Music Vol. 26 No. 3, (2007): 441-462. [return]