Interviewed by David Felix
Date: April 27th, 2006
[Editor's Note: This interview with Dio contains audio clips in mp3 format from the original interview. Click on the audio links to listen to them.]
When “most” people think of legends and longevity within the music industry, artists such as The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith or B.B. King immediately spring out of their mouths. But to the “true” music connoisseur, a slightly different list might emerge and consist of artists such as Paul McCartney, Elton John or James Brown. All icons in their own right and well deserving of their legendary status, but when I think of a legend in the music industry, one of the first names that springs to my mind is Ronnie James Dio.
From The Vegas Kings to Ronnie & the Prophets to Elf to Rainbow to Black Sabbath and finally to DIO, his legendary voice has been entertaining audiences for well over four decades with no sign of slowing down. Through every stride in the music industry, Ronnie has been there every step of the way... he broke down barriers, made major advances and took music in directions that even he himself couldn’t fathom.
Now, over forty years later, Ronnie is still here... happy, healthy and not ready to “pass the torch” just quite yet. Recently, Ronnie was kind enough to grant us an “audience” where we discussed his past, present and things yet to come. Here’s what he had to say...
Hi Ronnie! Let me start by saying it really is an honor to be speaking with you again. I had done a couple of interviews with you about ten years ago for another publication. I know you couldn’t possibly remember...
So... you still living in Jersey, Dave?
Wow... that is really impressive. But seriously, thank you for taking out the time to do this.
Oh it’s my pleasure.
I’d like to start things off with sort-of a timeline if that’s ok with you? I understand you were born in New Hampshire and shortly afterwards, your family moved to Cortland, NY. What was it like for you growing up?
Oh it was wonderful… it was great! It was a small town with a university where most of the students came from New York City so we got all the music first before anybody else did. We were just a little dairy town and we realized a lot of our dreams through what we heard. That’s what we wanted to be. All The guys I use to hang out with, at least, either wanted to be athletes or musicians. Some of us got too small… or stayed too small to become athletes, some of us didn’t and the rest became musicians. So it was one of those places more like “Mayberry” than anything else… it wasn’t quite that simple, I mean we didn’t have “Gomer Pyle” running around or anything like that, but it was a very easy form of living and very productive for me as a kid..
At what age did you realize you had a talent for music?
Well, I didn’t realize it probably until a little after everybody else did because I started playing at five years old. One day my father said, “You’re going to play an instrument now.” And I wanted to be a baseball player so I was like, “Sorry, I gotta go out and play now…” Well, maybe I didn’t say it exactly like that at five years old, but he insisted, “No, I want you to have some other kind of education so you choose an instrument and you can learn to play it.” And I didn’t have any idea of what instruments were all about at the time. I just turned on the radio, heard a guy with a trumpet and was like, “That one!” (Laughs) Thinking it would get me out playing ball all that much quicker. But he took me down to the music shop, got me a trumpet and the guy in the shop wanted to see if I had any talent for it. So he played something, told me to do it and I was able to repeat it almost immediately. He was shocked and was like, “Whoa… I think we got a winner here!” So from that day forth, I practiced ever day… four hours a day, every day until I was seventeen years old. Four hours every bloody day and I hated it because I wanted to play baseball and I was in a rock band too but yeah, I was about five years old when I started. And all the people that were giving me instructions at the time were always saying, “This kid’s really good!” And I, apparently, turned out to be very good but it’s not something I wanted to carry on with. [audio] I didn’t want to be a trumpet player. I didn’t want to be one person in a ninety-piece orchestra… that’s not what I wanted to do. But luckily, it lead me to what I’m doing now and without that education, I wouldn’t know anything. So my Dad did the right thing.
How supportive were your parents at the time?
Oh they’ve always been completely supportive. Anything I did was ok with them… as long as I wasn’t robbing, murdering, raping or pillaging… that sort of thing. They were always supportive because I, in turn, returned the favor. My folks are great people and being children of immigrants, it wasn’t always the easiest thing to do. But they were always able to give me what I needed… not just support but I didn’t starve; I didn’t live in a pig pen and was brought up very well. They were working class people but it was brilliant. I mean, without them, it would have been impossible to do anything. But I paid them back by doing well in school… I enjoyed school. I enjoyed learning; I LOVED learning… so I gave them what they needed. When they got that, they just supported me all the time… it was never a problem.
You grew up in an era when rock & roll was still relatively young. All around you new strides in music were taking place, The Beatles came to America and Elvis was still KING! What do you remember about people’s reaction to you and your first projects and how difficult was it to adapt to the ever changing styles of music?
Well, it was pretty easy because everything was very adventurous at that point and you could pretty much do whatever you wanted to do. But, like every other band at the time, we started by doing cover material. You had to… that’s how you got your “chops.” [audio] But we could do anything we wanted to do because “Rock” and the “Rock & Roll” audience was as young as the music itself. People, at the time, were willing to accept anything because they didn’t want to be like their parents! So it was that rebellious time which allowed you to do anything you wanted to. Acceptance was easy if you were good… good enough, anyway… and then those who weren’t good enough fell by the wayside and you joined with people who were and you ended up having something first class! It was never, never a problem at all… we were accepted right away.
What do you recall about your first experience stepping out on stage in front of a live audience?
I think I remember being really excited but really scared but then as soon as the band started playing, it all went away. The same thing that use to happen to me when I was in school and on the wrestling team. Before the match, I would just be beside myself… so nervous… but as soon as the whistle blew, BANG! Nothing! So I related to the same kind of thing and figured it’s probably good to be nervous but since that time, I haven’t gotten nervous much at all. I haven’t been in. probably, the last thirty-five years… I’m just very expectant.
One of your first big breaks came in the early 1970’s when your band Elf was opening up for Deep Purple. Ritchie Blackmore was in Deep Purple at the time and recruited you for his new project which would eventually become Rainbow. What do you remember about the experience?
I had known Roger Glover and Ian Pace because they produced our first album and then Roger, again, produced our next two so I knew the family very well. We were signed to “Purple” records, were part of the Deep Purple family and lived in London for quite a long time while we were doing that. So it was a very comfortable thing to do. When we started opening for Deep Purple, I got to know Ritchie a little bit just from going out and jamming with him and I knew that he liked what I did so when he asked me to do it, I really wasn’t all that surprised. It was a great moment, though, because I got to take the rest of my band with me as well… which was important to me and I got to learn and interact with a great musician like Ritchie.
You spent 4 years with Rainbow and then eventually you left the band due to musical differences and were almost immediately recruited by Black Sabbath as their new front man to replace Ozzy Ozbourne. How did that all come about?
Well it wasn’t quite that immediate. When I was gone from Rainbow, they carried on and I was living in Connecticut at the time. I had gone back to L.A. where I had come from because that was more of where the hub of the industry was but I really didn’t know anybody. Then, [audio] probably, about six month later, I saw Tony (Iommi) in a place called “The Rainbow” and we went up to the place where they were rehearsing. Ozzy wasn’t there at the time (Thank God!), they played me some things, I met Geezer and Bill, then they played me a song and were like, “Can you do anything with it?” And I said, “Give me a moment.” I went over, wrote some things down, came back and said, “Ok, let’s try it!” It turned out to be the song “Children of The Sea.” From that moment, Tony was like, “I don’t want to play with Ozzy anymore, I want to play with him!” So I got into the fold that way.
You had some pretty big shoes to fill at the time. Were you ever nervous about how the long time Black Sabbath fans would respond to you?
I was never nervous because my place in the band was not to be Ozzy, but to be the singer who just performed and wrote on the “Heaven and Hell” album. You can't replace a legend… you can only try to become one yourself.
You ended up recording 3 albums (initially) with Black Sabbath. “Heaven & Hell,” “The Mob Rules” and “Live Evil” which are all just about considered classics now by Sabbath fans and metal fans alike. Did you realize or think that, at the time, you were taking your first steps to becoming a legend?
My aim was never to be a legend, but to be as good inside Sabbath as I could. The strength of the “Heaven and Hell” album and those that followed propelled all of us into higher regions.
You next step was your own band… DIO. What do you remember about forming the band and recording your first album “Holy Diver”?
Finding the players in the band could have been a problem, but coupled with drummer Vinny Appice, we went to London, where I connected with an ex-band mate… bassist Jimmy Bain, who immediately hooked us up with guitarist Vivian Campbell. One rehearsal and we knew that was it! Recording was a learning experience for me as a first time producer. So having no rules, we experimented and found our own style. It was a great adventure.
“Holy Diver” was, in a lot of ways, ground-breaking and exposed you to an all new audience. Were you pleased with your success and fan base that carried over from your previous two projects?
I was extremely pleased by the instant reaction to “Holy Diver.” Good songs are good songs and the album was packed with them, but there was still a feeling of relief when we scored so quickly.
Throughout the 80’s, you released numerous albums. “Holy Diver,” “The Last In Line,” “Sacred Heart” and “Dream Evil”… just to name a few. But this was a decade which saw the birth of the PMRC and started the so-called “witch-hunts” within’ the music industry. You were labeled, by some, as anything from an excessive drug abuser to a Satan worshiper due mainly to either your name, band logo or even cover art which some viewed as simply… evil! Looking back now, how did that affect you personally and the band as a whole?
I was not personally bothered by the PMRC’s claims of evil because I knew what I had said lyrically and was secure in my own beliefs of human conduct. I think from a band perspective, we all gained from the scrutiny, and let's face it... everyone knew it was all a load of crap!
Your stage shows were a feast for the eyes. The pyrotechnics, performances and elaborate stage setups were amongst the most advanced in the industry at the time. Who came up with most of the ideas and did you ever imagine as a young performer back in the 60’s that you would be able to put on such a spectacle?
I never imagined massive productions being used by a kid from up-state NY, but it shows you how life shoves you along to places you've only dreamed of. My manager, Wendy Dio, and I always had the visions for the various stage sets, but it took some incredible production people to make those ideas become reality. They deserve the credit for the spectacles we were able to haul around the world.
Some “signature” DIO phrases or antics also started becoming more and more popular. The theme of “rainbows & magic” became more and more apparent as well as catch phrases like “LOOK OUT” in your songs and the almost trademark “devil-horns” hand gesture. How did they get started?
Everything was done very naturally. Because I'm a bit dramatic when singing, the catch phrases just rolled off the tongue and then became part of my persona. The "devil horns" gesture was from my grandmother who brought it to America via Italy. It's a very old symbol for the “evil eye” and for some reason I began using it and it too became a part of Metal lore. Thanks Grandma!
Sticking with the 80’s a little longer, despite all the problems and accusations, heavy metal thrived and the so-called “hair-bands” burst into the mainstream. Their musical content seemed to be very simple… SEX, DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL. However, your music and messages basically remained the same. You stuck with your mostly “gothic” themes which you were famous for but also you were sending out some positive messages and addressing some serious topics long before a lot of these other bands picked up on it. As the “hair-bands” started becoming more and more popular, did you find it more difficult to not only survive in the industry but also to get your message across?
I didn't find it difficult to survive during "hair-band" days because we had such a strong fan base, and that fan base allowed us to continue with our own musical preferences. The message wasn't reaching as many people perhaps, but changing our beliefs for the sake of a trend has never been a choice.
Was there ever a time where you felt discouraged or thought you might just want to hang it up?
I've never felt discouraged enough to want to give up my career. I've always believed very strongly in myself and don't like to be defeated.
Then came the 90’s. It was an era where grunge became mainstream and, basically, killed the metal industry. When you first started hearing bands like Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam or Nirvana, did you have any idea of what an impact they would have on the music industry?
I didn't really know how far the Grunge movement would go upon first hearing it, but I knew I liked a lot of it. It was different enough and good enough to develop a huge following, and of course... it did!
What did you think of those bands at the time?
I liked Nirvana very much. Kurt Cobain's voice had great harmonics in it and the “go for broke” music was very cool. Soundgarden was a slightly different animal. Brilliant songs, musician ship, and Chris Cornell! Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots... all quality stuff.
Through out the 90’s, you still put out albums, you still toured, maintained a solid fan base and survived where a lot of other bands did not. How do you explain this?
We make music for, and play constantly for, our fans. And the secret is to play for those people... not to chop and change with the latest trend. Your fans want to hear more of what they've always liked from you and not the confusion of leaping from one fad to another. Most importantly is that your product is at a constantly high level. You must set a standard and never consciously dip below it.
Ok, enough of the past… lets jump a little more into the present. I understand that you made a guest appearance on the new Queensryche release “Operation:Mindcrime II” playing the devious Dr. X! How did you get involved with that?
I’ve know Geoff for quite a long time. We don’t really see each other a lot because he lives up north and I live down south but they had toured with us on their first European tour... it must have been ’84 or ’85, somewhere around there. So I got to know them, they’re a great band and Geoff’s just such an amazing singer and we kept in contact. [audio] Then they called and proposed the “Dr. X thing to me and, as usual, I went “I’M NOT GOING TO DO THAT! I’VE GOT TOO MANY OTHER THINGS TO DO!” (Laughs)Then, of course, my manager Wendy said, “I think you should do it.” And I was like, (sigh)”All right.” Once I got involved with it, it was great. I went up to San Jose where he was recording, we did it and it was really fun to do, very easy to do and a nice blend. I wanted to do it as well because I always thought our voices would work really well together... and they did!
I’ve heard that you’ve been working on a sequel to you OWN concept album “Magica”… is there any truth to that?
Well, ya know I’m always working on that, Dave. Always! Only because if I don’t keep thinking about it, it might get passed over somehow. I don’t know whether I’ll do it this time around or not. Once again, it’s just a matter of time. We play live so much that it really becomes difficult to find the time frame to do it in. I still have it in the back of my mind, though, and a lot of the songs that are written we sometimes think, “Wow, that’d be great for “Magica.” So, our next release will either be a proper album... maybe a bit faster, up-tempo album than we did last time or, perhaps... “Magica.”
You’ve recently returned from England where you were writing with Tony Iommi. There are a lot of rumors circulating now about a possible Black Sabbath reunion. Is there any truth to that?
[audio] Oh no... this project was done for the release of a box set called “Black Sabbath, The Dio Years” and it was bantered around that it might be a good idea to add a couple of tracks which had never been done before. This, obviously, would increase the sales and interest but that’s the only project that we talked about. Anything that happens in the future is purely dependant on how it affects this band... DIO.
If not, what was it like writing with your old partner again?
It was great! It was fun... I’ve always liked Tony. He’s a good person, fun to be around, obviously a brilliant player which is always the first attraction because if you don’t like the player you’re, kind of, doomed. But it’d been ten, eleven or twelve years since I’ve seen Tony except he did come to one of our shows a couple of months ago that we had done in Birmingham. So I did get to see him for the first time then and it was just as it always was.[audio] Then, when we worked together, it was the same productive thing that we’ve always got up to. Just the two of us... me playing bass, Tony playing guitar, a drum machine in Tony’s studio... it was great! I think we both said inside to ourselves, “Damn... I forgot how good he was!”
I heard you’ll soon be appearing on the “Big Screen” in Jack Black’s upcoming release “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny” playing yourself. How did you get involved with that?
Well, he and Kyle, both from Tenacious D, had done a cameo in the video we did for a song called “Push.” So I got to meet Jack and he was telling me what a big fan he was and just before that they had released their “Dio” song on their album. So I certainly was aware of what they had done musically and, of course, I knew what Jack had done film wise. So we hit it off really well. He’s a big rock fan, a really great guy and he had told me that day that he and Kyle were writing a film and they’d like me to be in it. Now, here we are [audio] two years down the line, I got a call and Jack said, “We’re doing the film and I want you to play the part of Ronnie James Dio! And if you don’t, I’m not going to make the film.” Then he added on to it, “Well, maybe we will but it won’t be as good without you.” So that was really interesting for me. So I did that for Jack. He did me a turn, I did him one and (chuckles) it was really interesting. It’s my first film but to me it was like a giant video. Not that much different than any of the other videos I’d done because it was more of a performance piece for me.
Before you joined this project, had you ever heard his song “DIO” and what did you think of it?
People had told me that there were these guys called Tenacious D and that they had written a song called “Pass the Torch... the Dio Song” and that it was really detrimental.
They were telling me to “quit”... “Get out of the business, we’ll take it from here.” That kind of thing and I was shocked because it didn’t sound like something he would do. So I got it, I listened to it and, of course, they had gotten it completely and totally wrong. Then when I saw Jack he was like, “You’re not angry about the song are you?” And I said, “No... Why should I be?” Then he had said, “You know we only meant it as a compliment. We love what you do, pass us the torch when the time comes and we’ll carry on for you.” So I understood that but luckily I did listen to the product before I went into the project so I wouldn’t go in with an “attitude” or something like that. (Laughs)
Now you’ve got a new album out yourself, “Holy Diver Live.” This was originally recorded in 1995 at the Astoria Theater in London and was the first time you ever performed “Holy Diver” live from start to finish. What do you remember about the show?
It was actually 2006.
Really? That’s weird, I mean I’m looking at the jacket and press release right now and they both say 1995.
No, no... we’ve never done “Holy Diver” live from start to finish except for when we first started and didn’t have enough material yet. So this is the first time we did something like that... I guess it was around Christmas time so it might have been 2005. But whatever it was, it was just a few months ago. I better tell them to correct that!
So what do you remember about the experience?
[audio] Well, some other bands were doing that sort of thing. Queensryche had been doing “Operation:Mindcrime,” Deep Purple did all of the “Machine Head” album so the people who booked us in Europe thought it would be great if we could do one. They thought it would be a great package and “Holy Diver” wasn’t that difficult so... off we went! It was very special. We hadn’t done anything like that before so we wanted to capture that... both we wanted that and the record company. So after the show, it was just a matter of mixing what we had done that night. I’ve gotten pretty good at that so I’m really pleased with the way it sounds.
Are there any plans of a DVD release to follow up the CD?
Yes. The DVD is out May 29th in Europe and May 30th in the U.S. We did the whole package. Both video and sound but we wanted them to come out as separate releases.
“Holy Diver Live” has been stuck up near the top for the past couple of weeks since its release on some major CD websites. How does that make you feel, after all these years that people are still out there, buying your albums and supporting you?
[audio] Well I think it just speaks of good music. Good music will last forever... that’s why they have classic rock! Without it, we’d get buried someplace, I guess, but people don’t bury things that are good. The music from Zeppelin and Purple and Pink Floyd, etc, etc, etc and hopefully Dio as well is quite timeless just because the songs were new and original and not mock-ups of things that people had heard before. So it makes me feel good for music that has lasted... that’s what it makes me feel good for.
What do you remember specifically about the show and the experience?
Well, it was a place that we had played before which was one of the reasons we had chosen it; The Astoria in London and we knew it was a good stage size... a presidium art stage which had everything we needed to hang all the things we needed to hang. There’s a great audience there, always... you can get very close to them which is really cool and it’s also very contusive to camera work for the producer. So we had gone into it knowing that it would be done right. We had been playing for a couple of months anyway, at that point. We had done a month in Russia, spent a little time in Europe and another month in the UK so we were pretty well prepared. We only filmed and recorded the show just that night which I think speaks volumes about how good the band is and was that night. I just remember it going very, very smoothly. No hitches, no major mistakes or any kind of gap like that that I can remember... so it was very pleasant. The only bad thing about doing videos is that you become aware of the fact that you’re doing one. What I like to do is just perform for an audience. That’s my joy and when you have this little monkey on your back going, “camera! camera!” it sometimes puts you into a different place but I just try to shut it out. It’s the audience that I care about because it seems to me that if you please that audience, the camera’s going to catch anything that you do that’s cool anyway... both with you and the audience. So I just put it out of my mind but there’s always a cameraman lunging around somewhere.
Do you think there’ll be more album themed shows in the future?
I’m not sure about that, Dave. When we had released the album “Magica,” we had performed that in its entirety but we never did get a chance to capture that on film or in an audio manner... although Lord knows there must be some things hiding or lurking somewhere. But I wish we had done that one but doing more? I’m not sure. I mean if it’s as easy as it was to do the last one, sure! I’ll go for it but if it becomes a tedious chore and gets in the way of the music, I won’t. I just find that a real imposition sometimes. Filming and doing that kind of stuff is a long process of having to sit around doing nothing for a long period of time. That’s what film’s all about... waiting until you do your “ten seconds” and then you hope that that ten seconds is good. I’m sure we’ll do something before it’s all over but what and when I don’t know.
So when can we expect a new studio release?
I would think, probably, around the end of this year or at least the beginning of next year. With all the touring that we have to do, I think it’s going to be impossible for us to really concentrate on that until sometime in the fall. It’ll take three months to write it, record it, mix it... if not four or whatever it takes. So I imagine that would be the time.
As you mentioned, more and more tour dates seem to be added every day. Are there any plans for doing anything in the United States this summer?
Well, most of the summer, for us, is going to be spent in Europe or South America. So if there is anything to do, it certainly sounds to me like it would be more of a one-off than anything else. [audio] We haven’t played the States in a couple of years now and if we don’t this time, it’ll be going on three. There’s really no purpose in that. We not trying to punish ourselves or anyone else... if anyone thinks they’re being punished by not seeing us! But the market in Europe... lets be honest about it... is so much better than it is here for the kind of music that we play. We are a country built upon incredible trends and boy do we hop on top of them as soon as we can. But a lot of times, it leaves a lot of others in the dust and I think that that’s a lot of what has happened to “metal” or “hard rock” or whatever label we want to give to it. That’s just the way life is and I understand that so you go to where your strengths are and for us, that lies overseas. It’s not that we wouldn’t do well in the States and we certainly WILL play in the States but we made commitments to places that want us a lot more than others. But we will play the States again at some point... of course we will.
I have had the opportunity over the years to speak with not only yourself but also several of your past band mates. From Jeff Pilson to Geezer Butler to Rudy Sarzo and also other musicians and fans and they always have nothing but praise and respect for you and your work. You are one of the most respected musicians in the industry and, in a lot of ways; a living legend… how does that make you feel?
[audio] Well, I’ve always felt that the best thing to be is to be praised by your peers... there’s nothing better than that. Because if the people you respect; respect YOU... there is no greater compliment to me. As far as the rest of it goes, I’ve worked hard at being as good as I possibly could without thinking to myself that someday I’m going to be a legend or someday I’m going to be something bigger than life! What’s going to happen is I’m going to die and rot just like everybody else does. So that doesn’t do me any good at the end of the day. But while I’m still here, it’s wonderful to be appreciated. It really, really is but I try to let that take a back seat to what I have to do because I think if you start reading your press releases too much, you start believing them. I know very, very well what I’m about and what I can and can’t do and I’m very disappointed when I can’t do the things I want to and very elated on the other hand. So, I try to keep my own tools in perspective. I try to keep them clean and I try not to listen too much when people are like, “You wield the greatest saw! You can drill better than anyone else on the face of the Earth” because at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s true. I’m not trying to downgrade the accolades that people have given me. I mean if I didn’t get them, I would probably be a very bitter, horrible person! So I try to keep them in perspective and I think anybody and everybody who has helped nourish my career and has liked what I’ve done is a legend. If I’m a legend... then so is everybody else... all the people who put me here.
Finally, wrapping things up, you’ve been in the business for over 40 years. At this point, have all your dreams been realized and if so, what motivates you and keeps you going?
The dream that I wanted came about real early. I was good at what I did. I wanted to be able to be good at what I did... whether it had been a baseball player, singer or musician and I worked hard, had a lot of natural ability and didn’t spit upon it. [audio] I was going to be able to do this and get myself to this position or pinnacle in my career... that was always the dream that I wanted and that one certainly has come true. It absolutely has! I have been very blessed through out my career and I couldn’t ask for more than I’ve been given or I have given within that career. So, as far as those dreams coming true... yeah they have! I guess I could do a “Miss America” and tell you that “world peace” is probably the thing I’m really concerned about... and that would certainly be wonderful, but I’m a realist and I don’t think that’s gonna happen. So, any other dreams? I’ve only just wanted to be a musician and be respected for it and be a pretty good person. So those are the dreams and I think I’ve achieved most of that. They came true, for me.
Thank you so much again for taking the time to do this and I hope you get a chance to take a look at it once it’s been posted.
Thank you Dave, it was great to talk to you again too.