Ronnie James Dio
Rock vocal legend
Published in PM February 2008
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
We catch up with Ronnie James Dio, one of metal's greatest ever vocal performers, as he traverses the world once again with the Heaven And Hell band.
For a grandfather in his mid-60s, Ronnie James Dio is nothing short of phenomenal. When most people get to his age, they'll probably be spending most evenings glued to the box or leafing through a large-print novel; not belting out big metal tunes to 10,000 leather-bedecked headbangers at Wembley arena. Heaven And Hell, who consist of the original Dio-era Black Sabbath line-up, are giving Ronnie ample opportunity to show the rock world he's still at the very top of his game.
"From a performance standpoint, I'm at my best right now," says Ronnie, as I chew the fat with him over the phone. "I've just gotten better instead of worse, like most people do. Barring a cold or flu, I can do this non-stop at a pretty high level."
Ronnie has been performing live since the late-1950s, when he formed his first band at high school. Since then, he's headed up a number of highly influential rock bands, including Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his own Dio band. Throughout his career, he always believed he'd still be treading the boards and wowing the crowds when he got to this stage.
"I never thought about why it should be any different," Ronnie explains. "You start at one point and dream about getting to this point. Because I insisted on doing it at this level, I've been able to do it at this level. It's what I expect now. You have to work hard and that's what I did, so I think I deserve this!"
Dio's foray into the world of music began at a very early age. He started playing the trumpet when he was five years old, and as a kid went on to play in classical orchestras. However, everything was to change the night he saw his first live rock & roll band.
"Music was never that far from me," says Ronnie, "but hearing rock & roll in a live situation was, 'I have to have a band instantly'! That same day I found some musicians and formed a band. I was a little bit more studied at that time, but just hearing the naturalness of rock music blew me away and was something I just needed to do!"
But for a while at least, Ronnie continued to blast out rock & roll on his little treasured horn.
"I played the trumpet for about the first year in that band and then was enlisted as the singer as well," recalls Ronnie. "The only thing you couldn't do was blow the horn and sing at the same time, which was a bit of a drag, but I graduated from there to playing bass and singing, and that's the instrument I stayed with throughout the rest of it. A lot of it was pure learning experience; teaching myself how to play the instrument and interacting in a rock band with guitar and drums. That was the beginning and the most important part of it."
The first Ronnie Dio vocal record came out in 1959 — 'An Angel Is Missing' by Ronnie and The Redcaps. It was when the band changed their name to Ronnie Dio and The Prophets in 1961 that Ronnie began using the stage name of Dio (the Italian word for 'God'). He thought the surname he was born with, Padavona, was not memorable enough for a successful rock & roll singer.
"In the early days, if your name was too long and too difficult to pronounce, it made a lot more sense to have something that was a little bit more graspable," says Ronnie. "My heritage is Italian and I wanted to retain that Italian heritage, so I took the name Dio, which I got from a famous mafia guy in Florida. I didn't do it for that reason, but it just happened to be to the point. I became Ronnie James Dio after the first Rainbow album, which was when Ritchie (Blackmore) said, 'What's your middle name?' I told him and he said, 'Would you mind using your whole name? It's pretty cool!' And I said, 'Ritchie, OK, whatever you want mate!'"
Born with a voice
Ronnie has a very powerful, distinctive and almost operatic vocal style. He claims it was a voice he was born with, which was further nurtured and enhanced by both his trumpet playing and the records he was exposed to in his Italian migrant home.
"Learning to play the trumpet is the same technique as singing," says Ronnie. "You have to have good technique or you'll blow yourself out, so I applied the same thing to a singing style. As a kid, I listened to a lot of opera in my home, and I think hearing those great tenors really influenced me. So, I put all those things together — all of my past experiences listening to opera, playing the horn, adapting the horn technique to vocal technique — and those are the reasons that I'm able to do what I do today."
Ronnie is also very proud of the fact that he developed his vocal style in his own unique way, without the potentially negative influence of any voice teacher.
"I always felt that it was important to keep your own naturalness, and so I refused lessons very early on," Ronnie explains. "For me, it was a learning process just getting out there and doing it. That's how you develop your style. And being in copy bands — because that's the way you start, of course — you had to try and be as good as some of the great people who were making the music that you were covering."
Ronnie has a lot of advice to offer up-and-coming musicians, particularly singers. And with the experiences he's had and the successes he's enjoyed across a staggering five decades of live performance, it's advice to live by.
"This is where technique is so important," says Ronnie. "You don't sing from your throat, you sing from your diaphragm. The air has to pass up over those vocal cords, and if you're not doing it properly, if you don't give it enough air, then you're just gonna destroy yourself! You have to find out what your limits are, instead of straining for everything and trying to be above what you can do. Remain above your own capabilities and then develop the strength of those capabilities. Smoking is very important not to do; exercise is a good thing to do. Again, I'm so impressed with technique — it's always held me in good stead. And if you do those things, I just don't think you can go wrong!"
Another factor that Ronnie feels is paramount to being a successful singer, or indeed a musician full stop, is to be careful whose advice you take and wary of what the motives of apparent flattermongers really are.
"When you start to get compliments, it's like the case of a young athlete," Ronnie claims. "When someone finds a kid who's 12 years old, who seems to have exceptional talent and is gonna be a footballer. They start to get looked after and tended to, because people see success written all over them. That's when you find the bad managers and hangers-on. If you believe too much of that, you're going to fall down, because most of the time they're saying it for their own benefit and not yours. I only ever listen to the people that I respect!"
Luckily, nerves are something that Ronnie has never really had a problem with, at least when it comes to his vocal performances anyway.
"Singing has never been a problem for me," says Ronnie. "I don't ever remember being nervous, to tell you the truth. It's just always been something that I've done really well. But it's OK to be nervous sometimes. The adrenaline pumps, especially before a show. I'm just so happy doing it all the time. I love to perform. I love to sing live, because that's where I think you prove how good you are, or how bad you are I think if there were nerves it was, 'Are we going to be good as a unit?'"
One of the live performance lows for Ronnie came with the first gig by Rainbow in Montreal. Ritchie Blackmore had recently left Deep Purple, and he recruited Ronnie and the other members of Elf to form his new band, Rainbow. The band had suitably impressed Ritchie during a recent tour on which Elf had supported Deep Purple. That first night, with great expectation on their shoulders, things didn't go swimmingly.
"It was absolutely horrible," remembers Ronnie. "We didn't have that many people there in this huge auditorium. And we were just so not in tune with each other — not just from a tonal aspect, but what we were doing together. It just seemed to fall apart to me. Ritchie was very nervous, because he'd just come from Purple, and this was something that was bearing his name and he wanted it to be good enough. That first one was a fiasco, but the rest were great after that!"
The gig that Ronnie James Dio will never forget was the first one he ever did with his high school band. Since then, he's been driven by his own demands for excellent live performance — not just for himself, but for all those he's playing with.
"All the bands that have played with me have been great and most performances have been wonderful, but I still think the first one was absolutely the best," says Ronnie. "We played at a YMCA in my hometown (Cortland, New York). That was the very first show I ever did with a band and it was just brilliant. The first performance usually has all your friends around in the audience and around your side. They can't wait for you to do well and it's a real rush when you've got them around you. I refuse to be in a band that's not gonna have the same attitude.
The reason why a lot of musicians chop and change a lot is because you're always trying to get the cream all together. It's a hard road to do that, because it means sometimes you have to dismiss people from a band, or you don't play with them anymore, or you go someplace else. It's all down to what you have to do within life. I've dealt with it as it comes along."
Theatre of dreams
The presence and interactive approach Ronnie takes to live performance are also key factors in his success. At quite an early age, he learned the importance of fusing a positive and energetic on-stage persona with a supportive knockout stage set — the impact of powerful theatre.
"Stage presentation has always been important to me," Ronnie explains. "I think I learned that through seeing Alice Cooper's first show, when I was stunned by the theatrics that were there. It makes the music come more alive, if you don't let theatrics get in the way, if you can look back at them and go, 'Wow! That's a cool effect isn't it? That's my effect!' From a subliminal standpoint, what looks good can do nothing but make the show always better."
Ronnie's on-stage persona just developed naturally from what he liked to see from rock singers when he was part of an audience.
"Early on, I realised that being someone in the audience, I didn't wanna be someone that was screamed and yelled at," says Ronnie. "I wanted to be talked to like an equal, but still be able to look up to that person and say, 'Wow! That was special!' I think that's what helped a lot. Not yelling at an audience and swearing at them, and those kinds of things — I don't think that's proper for an entertainer, because I just think it's insulting to an audience — but being that natural person on stage and being very theatrical anyway, to try and explain the songs not only by singing them, but gesturing with them as well."
As every self-respecting vocalist should know only too well, the equipment you choose to use on stage can make or break you.
"From a singer's perspective, your monitors are your lifeline — that's the only thing you've got to get over the volume of the guitars, the drums and the bass. I think not having all that stuff when you first start out helps you learn how to deal with all of the situations, especially where you can't hear yourself. Experience is a wonderful thing from that standpoint, and now that I can have anything that I want, I make sure that I always have the same thing [Ronnie's preference is Britannia Row or PRG monitors with 12-inch speakers]. I don't use in-ear monitors. I don't want things stuck in my ear that make it sound like a recording, because it's not a recording, it's a live performance!
I use a Shure Beta 58. I love the response that it gets. I was not using a wireless mic for a long time, because I didn't like what they did — they always seemed to cut the high end. Since that time, Shure (who is my sponsor) have redesigned the capsules in my mic. So I get basically the same sound with a lead as I get with a wireless, which is wonderful for me, because sometimes it gets hard to drag that lead around. Now that I'm using wireless, it gives me so much more freedom. Shure have done a great job for me with what I'm using."
Ronnie James Dio is now back performing across the world with the classic Dio-era Black Sabbath line-up, consisting of Ronnie, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and drummer Vinny Appice. The reason they are being billed as Heaven and Hell and not Black Sabbath is due to the fact that the Iommi, Butler, Ward, Osbourne version of the band are still touring under the Black Sabbath moniker, albeit sporadically. Ronnie actually finds that the band have a lot more freedom and less pressure than they did when plying their trade in the late-'70s and '80s.
"We don't have to compete anymore," says Ronnie. "Early on, you don't compete with each other, but there is competition there someplace, trying to compete with other bands or competing with your last album, and competing because you know you've got to do another album. All of these things you have to do keep putting pressure upon you. Now that pressure isn't there anymore.
We decided to stop touring in November, which meant there was an end to something. It meant we could carry on with the rest of our lives, and if we were going to do something else, that would naturally come. And that has actually happened; we're going to do another album together and probably tour again much later next year. It's just so good now and so enjoyable playing all the time, and there is no competition and there is no pressure anywhere!"
It's easy to imagine Ronnie James Dio still screeching out his dark mystical poetry to the adoring Sabbath masses 10 years from now, 70-something years old, 'Devil's Horns' thrust to the sky. However, Ronnie never likes to plan things too far in advance. He's more than happy just taking each day, appreciating what he's still achieving around 50 years since he first performed on a stage.
"If we plan our lives out that way, then it's probably not gonna come to the best of ends," says Ronnie. "I've always been someone who believes that all the things I've done in my life are the things I'd absolutely do again, because they were meant to be to get from point A to point B. You can't whinge and moan about what's happened to you. You just carry on in the straightest line you can and believe that you're gonna succeed. That's what I've always done." 0
Horny Devil: the origin of the 'other' two-fingered salute
The part of Ronnie James Dio's stage show that he is perhaps most famed for is the legendary 'Devil's Horns' salute, made by raising the index finger and little finger of your hand whilst keeping the two middle fingers and thumb curled into a fist. Anybody who has ever been to a rock concert will recognise this sign straight away as the symbol of appreciation hoisted aloft by seas of eager gig-goers. Although he does not claim to have invented the sign, Ronnie does happily accept responsibility for spreading the symbol throughout the heavy rock world, although it is much more widespread than just the rock arena these days.
"I think people have given me the inventor's role and that's certainly not true," says Ronnie. "I'm sure that it was a superstitious sign tens of thousands of years ago. I first got it from my grandmother. She would always use that sign to ward off the evil eye, and when I asked her about it and she told me, I thought it was really cool and really interesting.
For some reason, that particular gesture came back to me when I started performing. I noticed myself doing it a few times with Rainbow, which even I thought was different. Then, of course, with Sabbath I used it so much I became the guy known for it and I guess I'll take the accolades for that one. But, again, it's just a matter of repetition. I certainly didn't invent it. And now it doesn't matter which concert you see — if you go to Britney Spears, you'll see it as well. So, I don't know if it's become too diluted. But the one thing about it is it has become a symbol of something, and it's better than it being the evil eye. At least if nothing else ever happens in my life, I can certainly put that one on my headstone!"
Published in PM February 2008
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