‘He was for the downtrodden’: remembering Ronnie James Dio, the most decent man in rock

Ronnie James Dio at home in Los Angeles, 1987 - Getty
Ronnie James Dio at home in Los Angeles, 1987 - Getty

Prior to the start of the British premiere of the documentary film Dio: Dreamers Never Die, on a Monday night in September, bowls of tissues were placed on the bar of the Curzon cinema in Soho. Bound in black vinyl, each parcel was adorned with a photographic image of the late heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio, whose life the film celebrates. Confused, I asked one of the event’s organisers to explain. “Oh,” I was told, “it’s so people can have a good cry at the end.”

Directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton, the film is certainly a poignant creation, not least when the apparently indefatigable 68-year old was at last silenced by stomach cancer in 2010. His death came 52 years after the release of Conquest, by Ronnie and the Red Caps, the single with which the teenager born Ronald James Padavona made his recording debut. Forget about Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer – Dio was a contemporary of Jerry Lee Lewis. As one of Dreamers Never Dies many talking heads notes, “He was singing before the Beatles. How is that possible?”

He was singing before the advent of heavy metal, too. In the lobby of the Curzon, the genre’s creator, Tony Iommi, with whom Ronnie James Dio appeared as a member of Black Sabbath and, towards the end of his life, Heaven & Hell, is on hand to reminisce about times that were not always smooth. Despite critical and commercial success, Sabbath’s second incarnation broke apart as a result of Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler being cranked out of their craniums on cocaine. Not their singer, though. Asked to nominate a special memory, the guitarist’s answer speaks to the sense of wholesomeness that pervades Dreamers Never Die.

“When we were doing Heaven & Hell [the Black Sabbath LP from 1980], we stayed at Barry Gibb’s house [in Miami] for about… I don’t know how many months,” he tells me. “Ronnie used to cook a lot, so I have this image of him standing at the oven with his shorts on making his pasta for everyone. Meatballs and God knows what else.”

Ronnie James Dio first met Tony Iommi at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the famous and infamous rock-biz hangout on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Invited to join Black Sabbath following the sacking of Ozzy Osbourne (not to mention his own departure from Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow) the singer had his doubts about whether the fit was right. “I don’t know if I love this music,” he told his wife Wendy. “We have $800 left in the bank,” she replied. “Believe me, you love this music.”

Seated at a table in the cinema’s subterranean bar, 44-years later Wendy Dio is Dreamers Never Die’s executive producer. Her husband’s manager from 1982, she retains the no-nonsense air of one who was required to make her mark in an era when the transatlantic music industry was ruled by American men easily affronted by the prospect of doing business with a platinum-blonde thirtysomething from Epping. Certainly, a cheeky question about what it was she fancied about Ronnie James Dio phases her not at all.

“I was invited to go to a party up in the Hollywood Hills at Ritchie’s House,” she says. (Ritchie is, of course, Ritchie Blackmore.) “Ronnie was following me around and Ritchie said to me, ‘He likes you’. Too short for me. That’s what I said, ‘Too short for me’. But we talked and we chatted and at six in the morning we went for breakfast at Denny’s… and then we went for a drive to Malibu. After that I saw him for a couple of weeks, during which time I think I fell in love with his brain.”

Pleasingly, Dreamers Never Die portrays its subject as an intelligent and serious man. In a film packed with fascinating details – the now ubiquitous “devil horns” hand sign popularised by Dio was handed down from his grandmother, for example – the revelation that “life began when I saw my first book” is a welcome inclusion. Dio's commercial peak, after all, coincided with a period in time in which it was acceptable to believe, and to say out loud, that people who made and listened to heavy metal were stupid.

'He was singing before The Beatles': Ronnie James Dio in the 1950s - Courtesy of Wendy Dio
'He was singing before The Beatles': Ronnie James Dio in the 1950s - Courtesy of Wendy Dio

More than this, though, the film is a portrait of an unstoppable force. Never mind being a dreamer, the man was a doer, too. After launching his own band, Dio, in 1982, he and Wendy re-mortgaged their home in order to fund the recording of his debut album, Holy Diver, and its subsequent world tour. When the LP racked up more than two million sales, creative single-mindedness joined forces with autonomous financial muscle. Agitations for a more equitable share of the profits from wunderkind Vivian Campbell led to the guitarist getting the sack. “It was Ronnie’s band,” Wendy Dio explains with a steeliness that could intimidate even Sharon Osbourne.

By time I first saw Dio, on the Sacred Heart Tour in 1986, this determination to plough his own furrow had (to my 15-year old eyes at least) rendered the whole thing stale. Sitting in the bleachers at the Birmingham NEC, the sight of a 43-year old man doing battle with a fiberglass dragon for what seemed like three or four months left me bored and dismissive. Driven to distraction by a set sagging with flabby solo spots for drums, guitar and keyboards, I guess I knew that I was only passing through on my journey to an untameable new variant spearheaded by Metallica and Slayer. At once, and forever, "heavy metal" became, simply, "metal".

It got worse. By the time Nirvana upended the tables in 1991, it looked as if the game might be up for Ronnie James Dio. In what for me is Dreamers Never Die’s most devastating moment, the American DJ Eddie Trunk recalls one of the programmers at the east coast radio station WDHA handing him a box filled with CDs he was no longer allowed to play on the air. Alongside fraudulent rubbish from the likes of Poison and Warrant, this musical revolution had made victims of honourable artists whose only crime was to appear at once out of step with the earthquake weather. “Dio was in the box,” Trunk says.

Ronnie with his wife Wendy - Courtesy of Wendy Dio
Ronnie with his wife Wendy - Courtesy of Wendy Dio

It’s even possible that I bear my share of culpability for this. Age 22, as a writer for a long-forgotten rock magazine, Ronnie James Dio became the first artist to appear in a feature I’d created in which notable music-makers were asked a series of deliberately provocative questions purposely designed to impugn their relevance. Come the day itself, however, I was so deep into second thoughts that I considered praying that he wouldn’t show up. Certainly, I was keenly aware that a man who had been in the game for more twice as long as I’d been alive was well within his rights to knock me out cold. Instead, he remains one of the kindest and most decent people I’ve ever interviewed.

It seems obvious now that I was missing a point. Because while I’m not sure if I quite endorse an opinion expressed in Dreamers Never Die that Dio “was a messenger for people who lived ordinary lives”, I am willing to consider the notion that his deeply passionate but entirely sexless performances gave true outsiders a sense of genuine inclusion.

Speaking to his widow, I made the point that while her late husband was mocked for his lack of height – and likely still would be were he alive today – it would (rightly) be considered bad form to make mention of, let alone poke fun at, the physical form of the noticeably heavyset man who had just left her table. A strange distinction, no?

Ronnie James Dio in 1970 - Getty
Ronnie James Dio in 1970 - Getty

“But that guy is exactly Ronnie’s fan,” she answered. “That is Ronnie’s fan. And those are people he cared about, because other people don’t care about them… He was for the downtrodden. That was his whole life, making somebody feel good themselves.” In other words, forget what you might have heard about the death of musical tribes. When all else is gone, metal will remain. What’s more, I can easily imagine that it always will.

Certainly, Ronnie James Dio stuck it out. With a voice that was the equal of Joe Cocker or John Fogerty, the singer’s appearance in the Jack Black and Kyle Gass comedy film Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny, from 2006, revivified a career that had been in retreat for more than a decade. When it came to recording a song for the soundtrack album, after blowing out three high-end microphones, the singer produced a mic he’d brought from home that just happened to be the only piece of equipment on the market capable of preventing his vocal takes from driving the studio’s needles into the red.

Best of all is the footage in Dreamers Never Die from the final tours with Heaven & Hell. Once more reunited with Iommi, Butler and drummer Vinny Appice, in his final month on the road Ronnie James Dio was at last returned to the kinds of venues – the Greek Theatre in LA, Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver – ideally suited to broadcasting his stunning voice to the people in the nosebleeds. After so much decline, everything seemed perfect. And maybe it would have been had the singer not been bent double in pain before and after each and every performance.

“Towards the end, he used to come to me and say that he had these pains in his stomach,” says Tony Iommi, himself a cancer survivor. “He’d asked me for some Tums, so I’d give him some Tums. But I told him that he ought to get that checked out. But of course it was too late by the time he did.”

Dio: Dreamers Never Die will play in cinemas across the country on October 2