Sunday Old School: Ronnie James Dio
Band Photo: Black Sabbath (?)
Since my first “real” news posting had to do with the unfortunate news of Ronnie James Dio's stomach cancer, I thought it might make some karmic sense if my first Sunday Old School posting had something to do with the the remarkable frontman.
I suspect a lot of people my age (36 years young) are like me in that the first time they ever heard of Dio was in seeing the phrase “OZZY RULES! DIO DROOLS!” scrawled on a wooden desk in junior high or high school. That's naturally a reference to the fact that Dio had replaced Ozzy Osbourne as the singer for Black Sabbath, following Ozzy's firing in 1979.
Dio would serve as Sabbath's lead vocalist on the seminal albums “Heaven & Hell,” “Mob Rules” and “Live Evil” before parting ways with Sabbath until 1991 when he rejoined the band for “Dehumanizer.” Another parting of the ways lasted until 2006, when his version of Sabbath reformed under the moniker Heaven & Hell and recorded new tracks for a greatest hits CD, as well as “Live from Radio City Music Hall” in 2007, and a new studio album, “The Devil You Know” in 2009.
Beginning with 1983's “Holy Diver,” he racked up plenty of album sales and accolades with his own band, Dio.
But there's an important chapter of Dio's professional career that seems to get at best a cursory glance among a lot of metalheads I know, which is unfortunate, because it seems to me to be very much a transformative time for one of metal's most powerful vocalists.
I am, of course, talking about his time in Rainbow, the post-Deep Purple band formed by guitar-god Ritchie Blackmore in the mid-1970s.
Blackmore had departed Deep Purple after arguments about the more “funky” direction that singer David Coverdale and bassist Glenn Hughes were taking the band in. In search of a new singer and band, he didn't have to look far.
Elf, which featured Dio on vocals, had been touring as a supporting act for Deep Purple. Blackmore essentially grafted himself into the band, renaming it and collaborating with Dio to write the tracks for the appropriately named “Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow.”
The song most everyone remembers from that 1975 album is “Man on the Silver Mountain,” with its son-of-“Smoke on the Water” riff and powerful delivery by Dio declaring himself a medieval metal prophet. It's become such a staple in the Dio arsenal that it's easy to forget how much of a milestone it is for the singer. Compare the supernatural lyrics with the somewhat more pedestrian (if equally well-performed) lyrics of tracks like Elf's “Carolina County Ball,” and you'll see what I mean.
That's hardly the only great one, though. The album also features “16th Century Greensleeves,” which would seem to be a precursor to Blackmore's later career, as well as the superb Quartermass cover “Black Sheep of the Family.”
By Rainbow's next album, 1976's “Rising,” Blackmore had fired everyone but Dio from the band and, if you ask me, the replacement keyboardist, Tony Carey and bassist Jimmy Bain (who'd later play with Dio in the 1980s) aren't completely up to snuff. It's this incarnation of Rainbow's weakest album, though tracks like the opener, “Tarot Woman” and the huge 8-minute closer “Stargazer” still hold up well.
The band had a return to glory with 1978's “Long Live Rock 'n' Roll,” which featured bass contributions from future Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath bassist Bob Daisley. The disc, which does feature some of the medieval and experimental sounds featured on the previous two studio albums (a live album, “On Stage,” was released in 1977), there's a surprising amount of pure blues-rock stomp this go-round, especially on the title track. “L.A. Connection” reminds me a bit of the bluesier side of the Doors, while “Sensitive to Light” is just a good-time rocker of the finest sort. Meanwhile, the darker lyrical themes Dio would go on to explore in Sabbath are on full display in the creepy Middle Eastern-sounding “Gates of Babylon.” The album's finest hour, though, comes with the speedy “Kill the King.”
Dio left the band in 1979 following a dispute with Blackmore over the guitarist's desire to take the band in a more “commercial” direction, which he ultimately did with vocalists like Joe Lynn Turner and Graham Bonnet.
If you ask me, though, the Dio era is a golden era for Rainbow, as well as the moment that one of metal's finest discovered his true voice and calling. As I and other metal fans await news of the ailing singer's condition, I take some measure of comfort in his “Man on the Silver Mountain” declaration that “You'll never stop me burning.”
May it be so.
Carolina County Ball (with Elf)
Man on the Silver Mountain
Kill the King
Gates of Babylon
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