10 Things I Learned About Ronnie James Dio

A list of more reasons to love the eternal metal king after reading his long-overdue autobiography Rainbow In The Dark

Ronnie James Dio (Photo: Gene Kirkland, Art: Ron Hart)

I didn’t think I would ever need to read an autobiography on Ronnie James Dio. Not because I dislike Dio—quite the opposite, but I thought the story wouldn’t be all that interesting.

Having read Rainbow in the Dark, written by Dio, the singer’s widow Wendy and music journalist/PR professional/television and radio presenter Mick Wall, I realize I was mistaken.

This autobiography was in the works before Dio passed away from stomach cancer in 2010. He was roughly halfway through writing the book before he couldn’t carry on due to his illness. Wendy helped him with his notes for the remainder. It then took her 10+ years and the help of Wall before she could tackle bringing the book to market—an understandably difficult and monumental task. 

The book starts where Dio wanted the story to stop: with his headlining show at Madison Square Garden in 1986. In between, he recounts his music trajectory from his very early beginnings as part of an Italian-American family and his traditional music lessons, to his various cover bands, his shifts in the instruments he played, his coming into his voice, his growth as a songwriter, his dynamic with bandmates and his wife-turned-manager and the importance of staying true to an artistic vision.

 

VIDEO: Dio Live 1986

The historic facts of Dio’s life are covered in his Wikipedia entry in the dry and detached way of that ubiquitous source. Rainbow in the Dark’s grocery lists of iconic venues and audience numbers and fan reactions and cities played and musicians’ abilities and performance descriptions are stock ones found in every musician biography, and frankly, not interesting in the least. The peppering of exclamation points throughout doesn’t make these statements exciting! The rock and roll antics, as it were, are vaguely amusing, but ultimately not memorable—not even when they’re repeated, which happens a few times in the book. It’s definitely not the debauched tales told in those of say, Duff McKagan or Slash—to give two extreme, at the same time standard-bearing rock star autobiography examples. Dio has too much work ethic for that. A glaring omission is no mention of Dio’s first wife or their adopted son, novelist Dan Padavona.

What Rainbow in the Dark brings to Dio’s story is the emotional elements and personal dynamics of him as a musician and a person. These paint a nuanced and detailed story of the pocket-sized individual with the widescreen vocal chords and confident presence—one that started during World War II and went through numerous musical styles reflective of four decades from doo-wop to rock opera, arena rock to heavy metal.

Dio was the artist behind Hear ‘n’ Aid, the hard rock and heavy metal artist community’s efforts for African famine relief, which raised millions for the cause. Dio’s legacy of “doing good for others” lives on every year with the celebration of his annual birthday concert fundraiser benefitting the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. 

Here are 10 things I learned about Dio from reading Rainbow in the Dark:

1. Born Ronnie James Padavona, he took on the stage name Dio early on in his professional music career—which he snagged from the ruthless Italian Miami mobster, Johnny Dio, whom he once claimed was his “Uncle Johnny” in a moment of bad judgment. 

2. His father insisted on his picking an instrument to play at six years of age in order for Dio to “become a better-rounded individual.” On the suggestion of his mother, Dio listened to the radio to decide on his preferred sound and upon hearing Harry James, picked the trumpet. 

Ronnie with trumpet (Image: Permuted Press)

3. His “Gramma,” with whom he was very close, used to make “a strange hand gesture when strangers would come near or pass by too close. He learned later that this was the “Maloik,” used to protect against the evil eye. It was later appropriated by heavy metal and hard rock fans everywhere when Dio used it to differentiate between himself and Ozzy Osbourne’s peace sign when he took over Osbourne’s spot as the lead vocalist in Black Sabbath.

4. He got into far too many vehicular incidents and accidents, some of them due to fooling around, some of them during traveling to gigs during his teens and 20s.

5. His bands went through numerous name and personnel changes from the Vegas Kings to Ronnie Dio and the Prophets to Elf to a lot more in between, with his voice matching the musical style of the time of each iteration. He didn’t emerge with his identifiable and much-revered voice until much later on when the musical landscape was more conducive to that sound. 

The long-awaited autobiography of Ronnie James Dio, Rainbow In The Dark, is at finer bookstores and online retailers now (Image: Permuted Press)

6. Rainbow, the band he joined led by Ritchie Blackmore, was named after the infamous rock star watering hole, the Rainbow Bar and Grill on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Coincidentally, it was where Dio met his wife Wendy, who was a waitress at the establishment and who was introduced to Dio by Blackmore who knew Wendy back in her native England.

7. He recorded at Richard Branson’s The Manor in Oxford, England, right after the success of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, the first release on Virgin Records in the early ‘70s and in Giorgio Moroder’s Musicland in Munich, Germany while Moroder was working on Donna Summer’s soon-to-be disco classics in the mid-‘70s.

8. When Dio was auditioning for his own band, he tried out Jake E. Lee, which he wasn’t sure about. After telling Sharon Osbourne about him, Wendy drove Lee to audition for Ozzy’s band, which, of course, he ended up joining.

Dio on the set of the “Holy Diver” video shoot (Image: Permuted Press)

9. Dio financed the promotion and marketing of Holy Diver, his debut album as Dio out-of-pocket with inventive and face-to-face approaches that included developing personal relationships with radio stations and record stores across the United States. He also financed the Dio band members’ generous wages ($500 a week for rehearsals, $700 a week for gigs in 1982, which was then upped to $1,700 every week, whether or not they were working) and the swish living arrangements of the members they imported from overseas, including Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard. There is plenty of tiresome explanation in the book about the animosity between the members of Dio and the band’s namesake, which is clearly financially-driven. 

10. The “demon” on the Holy Diver album cover was called “Murray” and the 20-foot-high, fire-breathing animatronic dragon associated with Sacred Heart that Dio battled on stage every night of that tour is called “Dean.”

 

 

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Lily Moayeri

Lily Moayeri has been a freelance journalist since 1992. She has contributed to numerous publications including Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Spin, Los Angeles Magazine, A.V. Club, and more. Lily hosts the Pictures of Lily Podcast, a bi-weekly podcast about her interviewing experiences. She has participated as moderator and panelist at numerous music conferences. She has also served as a teacher librarian since 2004 focusing on guiding students in navigating the intersection of technology and education.

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