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Black Sabbath: The Dio Years



‘MY FULL professional name is Ronnie James Dio,’ says Ronnie James Dio, his voice as unmistakable as ever, even down a late-night, long-distance telephone line between London and LA. ‘And they knew that. And yet if you take a look at the album sleeve, it credits me as Ronnie Dio. No ‘James’ in there. And that’s just not right…’

It’s the summer of 1988, some six years after Ronnie has split with Black Sabbath, and five since the release of the record in question, a posthumous concert set titled ‘Live Evil’. Those six years have proven kinder to the singer than his former band mates. Black Sabbath have been through four more vocalists, two drummers and two bass players. Their line-up is changing with such regularity that when Kerrang! Magazine runs a story in its 1st April issue that Tom Jones has joined as their new singer, many of their readers believe it. Ronnie meanwhile has his own band, four successful albums and the kind of creative control that most musicians dream of. And yet the manner in which he had parted from Black Sabbath clearly still cuts him to the quick. 

 ‘They said that I was sneaking back into the studio late at night and turning up my vocals. Now I just would not do that. And then when the record comes out, after I’ve left the band, I see the sleeve, and…’ His voice tails off into the night, his frustration evident. 

In a way it was fitting that Dio should leave Black Sabbath in a spat over the music. Ozzy Osbourne may have departed in nightmare blizzards of booze and drugs that almost cost him his sanity; Ronnie had refocused the band on music, had helped to realign them as a sleek 1980s rock act and offered them a strong alternative identity. Then he was gone but there was a sense, even then, that Black Sabbath, for Ronnie James Dio, was somehow unfinished business.

*

THE THREE years that had rescued and reshaped Black Sabbath began with a chance meeting between guitarist Tony Iommi and Dio at rock n roll dive the Rainbow on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 1979. ‘It must have been fate,’ Dio said, ‘because we connected so instantly.’ Both men were lost, after a fashion. It was no secret that Black Sabbath were looking for a singer after their messy split with Ozzy Osbourne almost a year before. It was also true that Dio was without a gig after leaving Rainbow, although he had begun to assemble his own band. But the leap of faith that looks so easy to take in retrospect, was anything but. Dio and Sabbath were hardly an obvious fit. Ronnie was a pugnacious East Coaster, born Ronald Padavona in Cortland, New York. Even his stage name was a clue to the depth of his self-belief: Dio is Italian for God, although Ronnie claimed to have simply pinched it from a NYC Goodfella called Johnny Dio. 

Unlike his more famous contemporaries Ian Gillan, Robert Plant and David Coverdale, Dio was not the lion-maned, golden god front man who had guys worshipping him and women falling at his feet. He was small in stature, Italian in looks and not given to the rock n roll lifestyle. What set him apart was his voice, a disproportionately powerful, wonderfully flexible tool that was singularly his. Ronnie punched way above his weight, and he needed to. 

Deep Purple’s guitarist Ritchie Blackmore first heard him sing when Dio’s band Elf supported Purple. ‘I left (Deep Purple) because I’d met up with Ronnie Dio, and he was so easy to work with,’ said Blackmore in 1983. ‘He was originally just going to do one track of a solo LP, but we ended up doing the whole LP in three weeks, which I was very excited about.’ That one LP turned into two, then three. The band Blackmore formed with Ronnie, Rainbow, cut the highly regarded ‘Rising’ in 1976. With its combination of epic pomp rock and Dio’s flights of fancy, it made Ronnie’s reputation. What’s more, he was never cowed by the moody Blackmore, and even told him that the band’s first record, already landed with the ponderous title ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’, should in fact have been called ‘Richie Blackmore and Ronnie James Dio’s Rainbow’ instead. Ronnie, it appeared, never lacked ego. ‘I knew I had something when I sang,’ he said. ‘Unlike learning to play an instrument, it just seemed to be something that was there immediately – a gift.’

*

VOCALLY Ronnie might not have been the obvious choice for Black Sabbath, but his background qualified him almost uniquely for the role. By joining Rainbow, he was effectively asked to measure up to Ian Gillan and David Coverdale in what was Ritchie Blackmore’s first post-Deep Purple project, and he had stepped up effortlessly. He also forged a genuinely creative writing partnership with a guitarist who was responsible for some of rock music’s essential back-catalogue. Now, instead of standing next to the guy who wrote ‘Smoke On The Water’ and ‘Speed King’, he was next to the guy who wrote ‘Paranoid’ and ‘War Pigs’. 

Both roles required self-belief and a healthy dollop of ego. Dio also had a talent for collaboration. He was skilful enough to help both Blackmore and Iommi retain the essence of their playing whilst moving them in a new and unique direction. A man less certain of his own identity would not have been able to pull off the trick. Both vocally and lyrically, Dio was as recognisable as his partners. 

After a series of follow-up phone calls with Iommi, Dio arrived to the guitarist’s house in Los Angeles for a low-key, getting-to-know-you jam. In that first session together, they wrote ‘Children Of The Sea’, a song that blended their talents right away. ‘Tony had this great riff he played me but nothing to go with it,’ remembered Ronnie. ‘I said, ‘Gimme a minute’ and went into the corner and started writing down the words. Then we recorded it. When we played it back it was obvious to both of us, we really had something here.’ As Iommi recalled: ‘it was exciting and challenging because we were doing things that quite frankly would have been beyond us with Ozzy. He wasn’t that sort of singer.’ 

The future was far from clear-cut though. Bassist Geezer Butler was going through a divorce, and in the early stages of writing, Geoff Nicholls, a friend of Iommi’s, laid down bass lines. ‘In the end though’ said Tony, ‘Geezer sorted himself out and Geoff stayed with us to play keyboards’. Dio suggested one other addition before the real work began, the producer Martin Birch. ‘We recorded very fast,’ said Tony. ‘We’d been used to taking longer and longer with things getting out of hand, but this time it was a joy to be in the studio. We all knew that the album was something very special… Sure, there was a definite concern about the fans. But we had so much confidence in the strength of what we had, our belief was that we’d ride through any criticism.’

They called the record ‘Heaven and Hell’, after a long lyric Ronnie had written about the highs and lows of being a musician. It was recorded at Criteria in Miami and Studio Ferber in Paris, and released April 25 1981. ‘If I was asked to name one album that I’m really proud of in my career, that would be it,’ Ronnie told Planet Rock’s Mick Wall this year. ‘Of course, there have been others I’ve loved equally, but there were so many elements to that – from travelling the world to record different parts of it, to how pleased we all were with the music on it, to the huge success it had – that make ‘Heaven And Hell’ special for me.’

*

DIO had encountered plenty of personality types in Rainbow – Blackmore was the archetypal egocentric lead guitar player, Jimmy Bain the epitome of the hard-living bass man, Cozy Powell a diamond geezer behind the drums – but little could have prepared him for Black Sabbath’s drummer Bill Ward. Problems with booze and drugs were par for the course in Sabbath, but Ward brought a sense of particularly English eccentricity, too. When the ‘Heaven And Hell’ tour began, he began summoning the band’s PR after each gig, dictating long and rambling press releases on his performance and instructing him to ‘get that out on the news wires tonight’. 

His brilliance as a drummer was never in question, he had a wristy, jazzy flair that set him apart from every biff-bang merchant on the market, but the loss of both of his parents, the gruelling tour and his intake of alcohol and drugs asked too much of him. Yet even his departure wasn’t without humour. Ronnie answered the phone in his hotel room one day, and found Bill on the other end of the line.

‘I’m off then Ron’.

‘That’s nice Bill, where are you going?’

‘No, I’m off mate. I’m at the airport now…’

Exit Bill and enter, at short notice, Vinny Appice, the younger brother of the more established sticksman Carmine. Vinny’s look fitted well; he wasn’t too pretty but he was no wizened session man either, and his entrance to the band was nothing less than heroic. Used to travelling light, his entire kit fitted into the back of a car, which meant it was less than imposing when mounted upon Sabbath’s enormous drum-riser. Appice gamely climbed the riser for his first show, at the Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, and perched behind his kit staring at his hastily written crib notes for each unfamiliar song. As the gig began, the weather took a turn for the worse and rain began driving into his face, propelled by a howling wind. Soon, the only note left stuck to his drum kit read, ‘this one speeds up at the end’. 

Appice survived, and soon the band were grooved again. ‘Heaven And Hell’ had been well received by the rock press and more importantly, the fans took to it immediately. It became Sabbath’s best-selling record since 1975’s ‘Sabotage’, and its success meant that the tour was selling out wherever they went. By the time they arrived in the UK for a series of dates that climaxed at the iconic Hammersmith Odeon, Sabbath and Ronnie had really found their range. The acid test was the reception the fans gave the band’s older tunes, songs that they had only ever heard Ozzy sing. 

The show began with just Iommi, Butler and Appice - now with a suitably expanded kit - onstage, and Tony sounding the chords to ‘War Pigs’. Dio skipped on last, making his devil horn sign and relishing the chance to open up his pipes on the song’s famous first line, ‘Generals gathered in their masses’. By confronting the band’s past full on, the new Sabbath banished the elephant in the room. Dio’s choice of the Ozzy material was judicious. He picked songs that allowed him to show his range; ‘NIB’ from the debut album, ‘Iron Man’ from ‘Paranoid’, ‘Sweet Leaf’ and ‘Children of the Grave’ from ‘Master of Reality’. He had to sing ‘Paranoid’, of course, and if the band rather charged through it, then they could be forgiven. The newer material sat well with the old, too. ‘Children of the Sea’ was a swirling fantasy, ‘Neon Knights’ and ‘Die Young’ simply thunderous, and they played an extended, doomy version of ‘Heaven And Hell’ that effectively bridged the two eras of the band, and which was rapturously received. 

*

AS OZZY’S star rose again with a couple of blisteringly good solo albums, and as Dio grew comfortable in his own new skin, an entertaining slanging match began. Ozzy’s stage show soon incorporated a circus dwarf called Ronnie. Dio retorted that Ozzy ‘couldn’t carry a tune in a suitcase’. Yet in a strange way, each owed something of their success to their differences. Ronnie was able to reposition Black Sabbath far from Ozzy’s shadow, while Ozzy was free to capitalise on his reputation for rock n roll madness without a doppelganger trying to cover the same territory in his old band. 

Soon Sabbath were in the studio again for the follow-up to ‘Heaven And Hell’. ‘The Mob Rules’, released in 1981, was another strong record; Iommi’s gift for memorable riffs as heavy as ready-mix concrete remained intact. ‘Voodoo’ had a boiling guitar hook, ‘Sign Of The Southern Cross’ was as weighty as ‘Heaven And Hell’ and ‘Country Girl’ hit a demonically catchy groove. 

There were however, subtle shifts in the dynamics of the musicians’ relationships. ‘Ronnie came into the band and he was doing whatever we told him, basically because he wanted the gig,’ Tony said some years later. ‘The next album was a little different.’ After completing another hard tour, the band began mixing tapes for what they hoped would be a celebratory double-live album. In the studio, though, splits became apparent. 
‘That all got out of hand,’ remembered Tony. ‘Over a period of weeks, I was seeing the engineer beginning to look worse and worse. I wondered what was going on. I asked him one day if he was all right. He said, "I can’t stand it anymore. You guys are going home after doing a mix and then Ronnie is wanting to come in and do his own mix. I don’t know what to do’. We tried to ban him from the studio. It got pretty bad.’

SO Ronnie left, and founded that solo band three years later than he’d planned. Dio were an immediate success. He found an Irish guitarist named Vivian Campbell and recorded ‘Holy Diver’, an album that sits with Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’ as the creative highpoints of his career. 

Black Sabbath were neither as single-minded or as easily resurrected. A drunken night in the pub led to Ian Gillan joining for an album and tour most remembered for Spinal Tap-style farce. Iommi’s planned solo record ‘Seventh Star’ was issued as a Black Sabbath album and featured Glenn Hughes, another ex-Deep Purple man, on vocals. Then the line up changes came thick and fast. David Donato, Tony ‘The Cat’ Martin and Ray Gillen all sang for varying periods and with varying success, and touring and recording musicians included drummers Eric Spitz, Terry Chimes and Cozy Powell and well-travelled bass players Bob Daisley and Neil Murray. Geezer even joined Ozzy Osbourne’s solo band for a while. 

While Sabbath slumped through a dreary decade, Dio the band became subject to the law of diminishing returns too. Their later albums were formulaic, and their fan base was trimmed by successive trends for hair metal and grunge music. In August 1990, when Ronnie invited Geezer to join Dio onstage in Minneapolis for a crowd-pleasing blast through ‘Neon Knights’, both sides were in need of a break. Within months, Tony and Vinny were back as well, and the line-up that had recorded ‘Mob Rules’ in 1981, cut ‘Dehumaniser’, a dark and angry record, a decade later. Despite one outstanding song, ‘I’, the ‘Dehumaniser’ vibes were never good. Dio almost quit after recording his vocals and Tony ‘The Cat’ Martin was recalled to lay down an alternative version. Ultimately Dio stayed on and gave live audiences a Sabbath line-up that they could believe in again. 

Old rivalries soon scuppered things, though. Tony suggested that they accept an offer to open for Ozzy Osbourne in Costa Mesa, an idea so unpopular with Ronnie that he left immediately. Sabbath played the shows with Judas Priest’s Rob Halford on vocals, and they were joined by Ozzy onstage for the second of them, a gig that became widely bootlegged. ‘I went there (to Sabbath) twice and it didn’t happen the second time,’ said Ronnie ruefully, some years on. ‘I don’t want to be involved in that anymore’.

*

IT WOULD be another five years before Black Sabbath and Ozzy reunited fully. That reunion, which has continued semi-permanently since, has restored the band’s legacy and allowed them to be properly acclaimed for their achievements. A second reunion with Ronnie and Vinny – this time as Heaven And Hell - is doing the same for the band’s Dio years. The combination of Ozzy touring a new solo album, Ronnie taking a break from the apparently indefatigable Dio, an excellent compilation album of the ‘Heaven And Hell’ and ‘Dehumaniser’ years that includes three newly-recorded songs, and Bill Ward deciding to take a break from touring meant that the timing was perfect. 

‘We’d done a lot of great stuff with Dio, and we thought it would be nice to go out under a Heaven and Hell banner so there’d be no confusion,’ says Tony of the current tour. ‘If we’d gone out as Black Sabbath, they’d have expected to hear ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Iron Man’. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we’d been playing them for ten years with Ozzy. We last went out with Ronnie and Vinny quite a while ago, and it wasn’t the right time then. But this time certainly is’.

 ‘It feels like coming full circle,’ Ronnie agrees. ‘To be in one world famous band is more than most musicians can ever dream. To be in two is almost being greedy. I consider myself extremely fortunate.’

Black Sabbath The Dio Years UK shows, coming up in November, will be more than just a blast from the past. As their fine new live album ‘Live At Radio City Music Hall’ confirms, the band’s Dio years and the Iommi-Butler-Dio-Appice line-up have a legacy of their own, and it’s one worth celebrating. Remarkably, Ronnie is sixty-five this year, too. The fact that his voice is still a strong and moving instrument is testament to a life of consummate professionalism. Sure he’s small. Of course he has an ego. But he has carved an epic career on his own terms. ‘You know what,’ says Iommi, in tribute, ‘His voice just blows me away. It just amazes me every time you hear him. He doesn’t warm up or anything; it’s just, bang!’ Simple as that.

Jon Hotten
November 2007

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