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Trollheart 01-22-2022 08:05 PM

Broken Rainbow: The Rise and Fall of Ronnie James Dio
Broken Rainbow
A Tribute to the Life and Work of Ronnie James Dio
(July 10 1942 - May 16 2010)

The chances are, if you call yourself any sort of a metal fan at all, your path has crossed that of one Ronald James Padavona, better known as Ronnie James Dio. From Rainbow to Black Sabbath and on into his own band, Dio, Ronnie carved out a path to glory through the highest echelons of heavy metal, working with, and earning the respect of, giants like Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, Cozy Powell and Richie Blackmore, and gaining a huge following, which seemed to transfer with him as he went from band to band. He was a tireless campaigner for several worthy causes, including the Children of the Night, an organisation which attempts to save children from falling into prostitution, and he had a huge regard for the dispossessed and the lost.

Originally written in 2012, one year after I had returned to the forum, this was my tribute to a man who certainly left his indelible mark on metal and who is sadly missed, nearly twelve years gone now. In this special feature I will be looking at his long and varied career, from his start in Elf through his association with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, into the eventual and perhaps inevitable formation of his own band. Ronnie never wrote or sang on any chart-topping singles, and to the masses outside of heavy metal and rock he may be virtually unknown, but to those who knew and loved his music, the man was indeed what his assumed surname translates as, a true god of rock and roll.

Part I: Dio Rising

Ronnie was born in Portsmouth but soon moved to New York, and remained in America for most of the rest of his life. He originally played the trumpet and French horn, but even in his early bands a natural ability to sing - which he apparently attributes to the special kind of breath control it's necessary to learn in order to play the French horn - was evident, and he soon took over vocals in his first band, which went through many namechanges but eventually settled on Ronnie and the Prophets. This was back in 1961, and that band lasted till 1967, when he disbanded it and with their former guitarist, Nick Pantas, formed the Electric Elves, later shortening the name to Elf in 1969. For all intents and purposes, this is where, musically, we pick up the story.

Elf - Elf - 1972 (MGM)
Although Ronnie's heavy metal roots would not really show until he joined Rainbow, his first “real” band, Elf, does display his love of rock and roll. Heavy in its way, but more in a Creedence/Zep way than a Deep Purple/Sabs way, their debut album, self-titled, certainly rocks, and you can hear from the very off the powerful set of pipes that were to set the world of heavy metal alight for over forty years. Elf put out three albums over their eight year incarnation, one of which was a live effort.

Although they were in fact together since 1967, after Ronnie disbanded his previous band, Ronnie and the Prophets, they began life as The Electric Elves and only changed their name to Elf in 1969, on which name they put out their debut three years later. So in a real, recording sense, Elf only lasted from 1972 to 1975, when Ronnie joined Rainbow: three years, and so that much more impressive that they released three albums within that time. Their debut was produced by Ian Paice and Roger Glover from Deep Purple, who were so impressed with the band that they had them open for them on their tour, giving Elf a lot more exposure than they could ever have hoped for at that time.

For a debut, it's a pretty damn fine album, with tracks like the opener “Hoochie Coochie Woman” and the ballad-that-metamorphoses-into-a-slowburner-blues “Never More” standing out in particular. The keyboard work of Mickey Lee Soule stands out, but it is of course the vocals of Ronnie - who at the time was going under his given name of Padavona, and who, on this album only, also plays bass - which really catches the attention and hints at a star in the making. There's a certain sense of a heavier Bob Seger to “I'm Comin' Back For You”, with some fine piano playing from Soule, but it's the epic southern boogie of “Dixie Lee Junction” that becomes the album's standout, a powerful slice of rock and blues with some great time changes.

Carolina County Ball - Elf - 1974 (MGM)
1974 saw the release of Elf's second album, Carolina County Ball, a somewhat less heavy album than the debut, with more of an emphasis on the blues side of their music. Tracks like the title, relying heavily on a brass section presumably created on Soule's keyboards and the riotous joy of “LA 59” still make the album very listenable, and if nothing else it's notable for the first time I can see that Ronnie's love affair/obsession with rainbows begins, with the seventh track titled simply “Rainbow”. Though, to be fair, the premise for using this title is pretty shaky, and the song certainly does not live up to its promise.

By this point, Elf had brought a dedicated bass player on board, so Ronnie was able to concentrate on his singing duties, also sharing the writing of all the songs with Soule. Although the tracks in general are good - not great: I far prefer the debut - there are those that let it down, like the overlong and quite whiny and boring, perhaps misnomer “Happy”, and the flat, lifeless closer, “Blanche”. At this point destiny was calling anyway, Ritchie Blackmore deciding he'd just about had enough of Deep Purple and thinking of starting his own band, which would eventually absorb not just Dio but most of the remaining, ahem, elves.

Trying To Burn the Sun - Elf - 1975 (MGM)
The pointy-eared ones returned to their rockin' roots for their third, and as it turned out, final album, one year later. Much heavier than the very disappointing Carolina County Ball, their swansong, Trying To Burn the Sun even had Elf experimenting with strings and orchestration when they employed the Mountain Fjord Orchestra on the track “When She Smiles”, a sort of Beatles/Beach Boys hybrid.

The writing was, however, on the wall. During the recording of this album, Elf were also working with Ritchie Blackmore on his first solo album, which would in fact become Rainbow's debut. After the album was released though, everyone bar Dio was fired by Blackmore, and thus ended the association of Ronnie with his band, as he became an integral part of Rainbow, not only singing but also co-writing most of the band's songs, and bringing his own style and flair to them.

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - Rainbow - 1975 (Polydor)
From the off, Ronnie was more than just a vocalist or writer. He helped Blackmore shape his vision of his new band along lines both were happy with. Ronnie had always been interested in medieval times, but his last band hadn't really allowed him any scope in this area. Blackmore, coming off of Deep Purple's flirtation with fantasy themes, was more willing to explore this side of things and so together they composed “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves”, “Man On the Silver Mountain” and “The Temple of the King”. The album also afforded Dio his chance to stretch his lyrical muscles on the beautiful ballad, “Catch the Rainbow”, which would become a later standard.

It was clear that the partnership was a winning one, and Ronnie remained with Rainbow through what would perhaps be termed as their classic years, recording two more albums which are highly praised among the fans. Indeed, after Dio left the band, they took a much more commercial, almost pop turn, admittedly gaining their biggest hit singles with the likes of “I Surrender” and “Since You Been Gone”, but the fantasy, mythic and symphonic rock element left with Dio.

Rising - Rainbow - 1976 (Polydor)
I've already reviewed this album at length, so let me just state that it was and is a classic Rainbow album, perhaps the classic Rainbow album, and served to showcase two consummate professionals and experts working at the very top of their game, with Dio shining on powerful vocal performances on the likes of “Tarot Woman” and “Do You Close Your Eyes”, while the double-epic that took up the second side of the album (ask yer da!), “Stargazer” and “A Light in the Black”, were together perhaps one of the most ambitious projects any heavy metal band had undertaken up to then. With a total running time of over sixteen minutes, they tell the tale of a man taken, with many others, to a strange land where they are forced to build a tower in the desert, a ladder up which an enigmatic sorcerer intends to scale to Heaven itself. He fails, and falls, and the second part is the story of the man's journey home.

While “A Light in the Black” was seldom performed live, “Stargazer”, which could stand on its own perfectly well, became a tried and trusted favourite with fans, but more importantly, showed Ronnie firmly stamping his authority on the music, carving out his own idea of what they should sound like, and laying the groundwork for the path he would follow through his long career. Many people will tell you that Rainbow just wasn't the same after Ronnie left, and they're right: the band really changed its sound, and a lot of the fantasy elements were lost from albums such as Difficult to Cure, Bent Out of Shape and Down to Earth.

On Stage - Rainbow - 1977 (Polydor)

Something of an anachronism and certainly a disappointment to the growing legions of fans who had sprung up after Rising, this live album is notable for its exclusion of virtually anything from that album except for the rather tame “Starstruck”, and instead plunders most of Blackmore's first album, ignoring later-to-be-classics like “Stargazer” and “Tarot Woman”. One of the album's four sides is in fact given over to a thirteen-minute nonsense of one of Blackmore's old Deep Purple songs, with another taken up entirely by “Catch the Rainbow”. Why Rising, released the previous year to critical acclaim, was so badly served on this album is beyond me. It's almost as if Blackmore was trying to completely ignore it.

Long Live Rock'n'Roll - Rainbow - 1978 (Polydor)

The last Rainbow album, then, to feature Ronnie, this 1978 effort is characterised by his signature lyrical themes, in tracks that would later become Rainbow classics, such as “Kill the King” and the title track, and one which Ronnie would adopt and play at his own live performances, the eastern-influenced “Gates of Babylon”. It also features what would become a staple of Dio's work, the appearance of a rainbow, either in the song title or lyric, and here we have the closer called “Rainbow Eyes”. This, in fact, would resurface on his second solo album, in the lyric to “Egypt (The Chains Are On)”, when he would sing ”They were frightening in the darkness/ They had rainbows in their eyes!”

In the same way that Rising featured an orchestra playing on “Stargazer”, the Bavarian String Ensemble contributes to “Gates of Babylon”, and there are both cello and viola in “Rainbow Eyes”, a beautiful little minstrel-style ballad that closes the album and gives more space to Ronnie's love of the middle ages. There are some very heavy tracks on it though, and it pushes more away from the overt progressive rock of Rising towards a more out-and-out rock idea, which would in the end be watered down by Blackmore as he sought to take the band in a more commercial direction, a position Ronnie disagreed with and which would see his leaving Rainbow after this.

It might well have been Blackmore's close-mindedness that led to Ronnie's departure from Rainbow, although it's more widely accepted that he left due to being unhappy with the more commercial direction Blackmore was pushing the band towards, and they parted company in 1979, as a new decade hovered on the horizon, and a new phase of the musical career of Ronnie James Dio was about to begin.

Plankton 01-24-2022 09:18 AM

The solo in Gates of Babylon called to me like a snake charmer. It was my first inkling at wanting to become a guitar player. Ozzy/Randy's Mr Crowley pushed me over the edge, but if it wasn't for watching Rainbow play GOB on Don Kirshner's I wouldn't have been on that edge in the first place.

Trollheart 03-02-2022 08:54 PM

Part II: At the End of the Rainbow

Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath - 1980 (Vertigo)

The next port of call was Black Sabbath, who had parted company with Ozzy Osbourne and with whom Ronnie recorded one of their most successful albums, Heaven and Hell, which again pulled in his love of classical, mythological and medieval themes to create a heavy prog-rock/metal album which still stands today as the favourite of many Sabbath fans. From the opening powerdrive of “Neon Nights”, you can hear Ronnie in fine voice and sounding happier than he's been for a while. He wrote the lyrics to all the songs on this album - of which there are only eight - collaborating on the music with the rest of the band. There are some real classics on the album, including the title track, “Die Young” and “Children of the Sea”, the latter being one of two ballads on the album, not complete rarities for Sabbath but certainly not the norm. Ronnie's influence helped pull them away from the overtly dark tag they had struggled with over their career to then, although the lyrics still mention gods, devils, Heaven and of course Hell, but they're treated in a more abstract, less literal way, almost more as concepts than reality.

One of Dio's strengths seems to have been that he could subtly change the sound of any band he joined, without actually ruining the image or the ethos of the band. He slotted in well to Black Sabbath, and is still many people's choice of vocalist for that band. Less screechy than Ozzy, more disciplined both in his voice and his work, and with a considerably smaller ego to feed than Ian Gillan, it's a shame really that he only lasted the two albums with them. But then of course if he had stayed, perhaps he would never have started his own band. Ronnie also brought the sense of the epic to Sabbath that had characterised his work with Rainbow with tracks like “Stargazer” and “Gates of Babylon”; Sabbath had not exactly been averse to the odd long song prior to his arrival, but Ronnie definitely brought a more prog-rock feel to the band.

Mob Rules - Black Sabbath - 1981 (Vertigo)

Released only a year after the successful “rebirth” of Black Sabbath, Mob Rules would be the last studio album on which Ronnie would feature, for now. It's a faster, snappier album than Heaven and Hell, with much shorter songs, even though it does contain the epic “Sign of the Southern Cross”, almost eight minutes long, and two five-minute closers in the fast and powerful “Falling Off the Edge of the World”, and “Over and Over”, a grinding, slowburning rock cruncher. You can see on this album, and the previous, how Dio was honing and perfecting both his writing talent and his vocal ability, something that would serve him well when he finally decided to strike out on his own.

Live Evil - Black Sabbath - 1982 (Vertigo)

The last actual Black Sabbath album to feature Ronnie (until his brief return in 1992), this was a recording of the Mob Rules tour, and features, among others, a twelve-minute version of “Heaven and Hell”, as well as other Ozzy-era standards, like “War Pigs” and “Iron Man”, and of course their signature tune. It's interesting to see how Ronnie handles these, the different nuances and colours his performance give songs which, up until then, had been seen exclusively as lying within the Osbourne pervue.

After the album was recorded and was being mixed, differences which had become insurmountable finally led to Ronnie leaving Black Sabbath. He would not return until eleven years later, and then only to record the one album before returning to his solo material. We will look at that in due course, as this section is intended to run chronologically.

Trollheart 05-13-2022 07:00 PM

Part III: Stand up and shout

After having parted ways with Black Sabbath, Ronnie and drummer Vinnie Appice, who left with him, sharing his misgivings, still wanted to work together, so they recruited a new young up and coming guitarist called Vivian Campbell, who had been working with Irish heavy metal band Sweet Savage, and keyboardist Jimmy Bain, whom Ronnie had known from his days with Rainbow. Together they formed the new band which would bear Ronnie's name, and gain him his most significant following and fame, and his biggest hits, up to his untimely death.

Holy Diver - Dio - 1983 (Vertigo)
I have already extensively reviewed this album, so I won't go too deeply into its guts here, but it is nevertheless important to mark its place as the beginning of the Dio phenomenon, Ronnie in effect stepping out from the shadow of people like Blackmore and Iommi, and facing the world on his own terms, as his own man. Probably most singers dream at some point of having a solo career; Ronnie not only worked towards and at it, but succeeded, possibly beyond his own wildest dreams.

The debut was a huge smash, at least among rockers, and instantly cemented the credentials Dio already had as a member of Sabbath and Rainbow, but having his own band elevated him to new heights, and the discovery of Campbell was looked upon as something of a master stroke. Not surprisingly, the album courted controversy from the beginning, with its unsettling imagery which could be seen as anti-religious (a claim Ronnie refuted during his life) and Ronnie's reputation of having “been in that Black Sabbath band”, but there was no denying the quality of the album.

Tracks like “Rainbow in the Dark”, “Don't Talk to Strangers” and the title track all vie for standout on this debut, with others like “Stand Up and Shout” (which would later lend its name to a charity Ronnie's wife Wendy would set up to fight cancer after the singer's death), “Gypsy” and “Invisible” ensure there is no filler on this excellent debut. Hitting number 13 on the UK album charts and even number 56 on the difficult-to-break-but-bloody-impossible-for-a-debut US Billboard charts, Holy Diver was a roar of intent from the man known as Ronnie James Dio, and a marker for further great albums to follow, though in fairness he would never again achieve the pure brilliance of this debut.

The Last in Line - Dio - 1984 (Vertigo)
No, he may not have reached the dizzy heights of Holy Diver, but by gum he came close with his second effort! Standing as two of the best Dio albums, these were the creative peak of the band, which is sad really, as there were another eight albums to follow, few if any of which attained the level of quality of Holy Diver and The Last in Line. This could perhaps be attributed to the core of the band leaving over the period 1985-1989, with by 1990 no-one left of the original lineup except Ronnie himself. On this album Jimmy Bain, who had played bass and keys on the debut, moves to just bass as Claude Schell is drafted in to take his place behind the keyboard.

Nevertheless, this was the heyday of Dio and the album contains some excellent tracks, starting off powerfully and forcefully with “We Rock” (and they do!), which charges along at breakneck speed, slowing down for the title track, which is a true metal cruncher, with a Black Sabbath-like rhythm, somewhat reminiscent of “Heaven and Hell”, in fact, and nodding of course back to Zep's “Kashmir” in the keyboard melody. “Breathless” and “I Speed at Night” kick the tempo back up, flying along in the fashion Dio fans had come to expect from songs like “Gypsy” and “Stand Up and Shout”, before things slow down (insofar as Dio ever slowed things down: ballads were not their forte!) with “One Night in the City”, with some pretty growly backing vocals!

Sadly, though three singles were released from this album, none really charted and Dio would never again repeat the commercial success they enjoyed with Holy Diver, but then, few metal bands ever break into the charts, bar the likes of Iron Maiden or Metallica. “Evil Eyes” revisits the opener in style, then “Mystery” is a keyboard-led almost AOR song, taking something of its style from “Rainbow in the Dark”, before the one track I see as sub-par, “Eat Your Heart Out”, spoils things, but then the album closes strongly in an eastern-flavoured cruncher, “Egypt (The Chains Are On)”, reimagining the arrival of aliens whom the ancient Egyptians took for gods. Original? No, but that doesn't stop the song from being a storming finale to a great album.

After this album relations between Ronnie and Vivian Campbell would be strained to breaking point, with Ronnie remarking that Campbell “wasn't there” for the recording of their third album, after which the guitarist would leave. Whether due to that, or just the general fall in quality that I personally perceived throughout much of the remaining catalogue, this album would be poorly received, and a general lack of interest would begin to pervade the casual Dio fan, though his hardcore fans would ensure his albums continued to sell, if not in the quantities they had from the start.

1985 saw Ronnie's first real foray into charity work, something that, with second wife Wendy, he would engage in a lot more vigorously throughout his life. When the leading lights of heavy metal banded together to form the metal version of Band Aid, Hear'n'Aid, it was Ronnie's bandmates Vivian Campbell and Jimmy Bain who were instrumental and pivotal in arranging and organising the effort, and of course Ronnie sang on the single they produced, “Stars”, and on the subsequent album, which garnered one million dollars for the charity in its first year.

Sacred Heart - Dio - 1985 (Vertigo)
You can immediately hear the cracks beginning to appear as this album gets underway. Dio's third, and the last one to feature both Campbell and Bain, it would mark a shift away from the quality metal of the first two albums into a sort of muddled no-mans-land through which Ronnie would release another five albums before finally returning to the level of Holy Diver with his 2002 effort, and indeed penultimate album, Killing the Dragon.

There are good tracks on this album, and in fairness it's not a total loss, but quality would definitely start to slide after this. Opener “The King of Rock and Roll” gets things going nicely, and like the start of the previous two albums it's a fast rocker, with this time some faux live performance effects, then the title track is a slow cruncher. In fact, looking at the albums, at least the first three, they do seem to follow a pattern of starting with a fast rocker, then slowing for a cruncher, then back up the gears for another few tracks before taking it back down again. Nothing wrong with that, though it does make the albums the smallest bit predictable perhaps. For all that, “Sacred Heart” is a great track, quite keyboard-driven, and so far the album is living up to the promise of its two powerful predecessors.

“Rock and Roll Children” is a great song, but lyrically it's just a rewriting of “One Night in the City” from the previous album. Doesn't make it any less excellent though, but a bit of originality I feel might have been more welcome here. Things just get better though with the storming “Hungry for Heaven”, with some great solos from Vivian Campbell. Unfortunately there's a sharp dip in quality from there on, with the only really decent track after this being “Just Another Day”, and the album ends weakly on “Shoot Shoot”.

Possibly one of the problems I've come to recognise with Dio's music - at least, with his own band - is that an awful lot of it was very similar. The opening track on this album is very close to that which opened The Last in Line, and as already mentioned, “One Night in the City” from that album adheres fairly closely to the style and lyrical content of “Rock and Roll Children” from this one. Similarly, “Like the Beat of a Heart” here is very much on the same lines as “Straight Through the Heart” from Holy Diver. That does not of course mean Dio's music is generic or formulaic always, but a lot of it does seem, on close analysis, built on the same ideas, themes, melodies and rhythms.

Things would go from bad to worse for Ronnie the next year, as Campbell left the band, citing musical differences and disappointment in the direction Dio was heading, often it would seem a familiar reason for bands splitting. Unfazed, Ronnie recruited a replacement and went on to release Dio's fourth album, but it does come across as largely quite flat, missing the spark that characterised the first two, even three albums.

Between this and the release of his fourth album, Ronnie put out a live album - well, more an EP really, as it only had a total of six tracks. One of these was a new song, included to introduce the new guitarist, Craig Goldy, who was to replace Vivian Campbell.

Intermission - Dio - 1986 (Vertigo)
As far as live efforts go, I feel it's kind of a case of rehashing stuff I have already written about particular tracks or albums, so rather than repeat myself (not to mention the fact that I don't have his live albums!) I will just give a quick overview of each as I come to them, pointing out any important tracks or points, such as above, where there was an extra track included, “Time to Burn”, and also the fact that this being so relatively early in the career of Dio the band, that there is a medley of two Rainbow songs mixed in with one of his own. Pretty unremarkable though really.

Dream Evil - Dio - 1987 (Vertigo)

Personally, this was the point at which I decided to stop buying Dio albums. I was very disappointed with this effort, and though it made a decent showing in the UK album charts, it did not do as well as Sacred Heart, and was in fact the last Dio album to trouble the upper echelons of the charts. As a matter of record, the highest any Dio album after Dream Evil would attain was 159, this being for their last album (although of course at that point no-one knew it was destined never to be followed up, with Ronnie dying six years later). Sacred Heart was in fact the last Dio album to be certified, going Gold in the USA. After that, there was a massive vote of non interest.

Dream Evil has its good tracks, though they are few and far between. It starts off well (and predictably) enough, with “Night People”, though this track is a little more keyboard than guitar-driven, and the strain of sparring with Campbell does seem to be telling on Ronnie; you can hear it in his voice. It's not as powerful, confident or brash as it used to be. At least the cycle is broken though, as the title (and second) track is a fast enough rocker, not a cruncher. Quite a lot of “Caught in the Middle” from Holy Diver on it I feel however.

Surprisingly, this is the very first Dio album to have a proper, assigned ballad, and I have to say, it's been worth waiting five years for! “All the Fools Sailed Away” is a fantastic, powerful, emotional and moving song which easily stands out as the best track on this album, and while in general that's unfortunately not saying a lot, it even stands quite easily shoulder to shoulder with Dio standards like “Rainbow in the Dark”, “Don't Talk to Strangers” and “Egypt” as one of the very best songs this band has produced. A pity it's not matched by the rest of the album, or indeed, Dio's output for the next few years following this. Nevertheless, while one song does not an album make, and you can't really make a case for buying an album for one track, if you were thinking of getting Dream Evil and just needed a reason, then this is it: it really is worth the price of purchase alone.

Other than that though, I can really only recommend “I Could Have Been a Dreamer”, with the rest of the songs just okay, but not I think up to the usual Dio standard. He does surprise at the end, because with a title like “When a Woman Cries”, you're definitely expecting a ballad and it's just, well, not. But as I say there's not too much to recommend this fourth album, and sadly that would not only continue to be the case, but worsen as the years wound on.

music_collector 05-27-2022 06:58 PM

Last week, I picked up a box set of five of his albums. It was the first time I'd heard Holy Diver in its entirety. The box also included Sacred Heart, Lock Up The Wolves, The Last In Line and Dream Evil. I'm looking forward to checking them all out.

Dio was so well spoken. His interviews from Metal: A Headbanger's Journey were excellent.

Plankton 06-06-2022 09:47 AM

Holy Diver and Last In Line are his two best, imho. Sacred Heart was ok, but Campbell was on his way out after that, and again, imho, he was one of the main reasons the previous albums were so well done. He's a phenomenal guitar player.

Trollheart 06-06-2022 10:31 AM

No question. He brought it back I think for the last album, Killing the Dragon, but after the first two everything was spotty. Some great tracks on Sacred Heart, Dream Evil, Lock up the Wolves and so on, but overall nothing like those two albums, where pretty much every track was gold. Not much skipping on those. Campbell was a prodigy, to be that good at such a tender age.

Plankton 06-06-2022 11:06 AM


music_collector 06-06-2022 01:31 PM

Dio, like Alice Cooper, surrounded himself with A list players. Vivian, Vinny Appice, Jimmy Bain, Blackmore, the Sabbath guys, they're all awesome players.

Plankton 06-06-2022 01:51 PM

He sure did. In Rainbow and Sabbath, the talent was already there, but with his solo stuff, without Campbell it kinda fizzled out.

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