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Behind the Curtain: An Easygoing Encounter with Ronnie James Dio
In his latest Behind the Curtain column, Steve Rosen recalls making a return visit to chat with Ritchie Blackmore — and his new vocalist, a very pleasant and chatty man named Ronnie James Dio.
By the time Deep Purple recorded and released Stormbringer in November 1974, there was certainly a storm coming their way. Thunder on the horizon. A shitstorm. Following the recording of Who Do We Think We Are in 1973, singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover quit the band during their second tour of Japan that summer. They’d had enough. Glenn Hughes [formerly of Trapeze] was brought in to replace Glover while singer David Coverdale entered to take over on vocals. Coverdale brought a blues influence to the vocals, which appealed to guitarist Ritchie Blackmore — but that feeling wouldn’t last.
This new version of Purple toured in the U.S. including a show on April 6, 1974 at the now infamous California Jam held at the Ontario Motor Speedway. Over 250,000 fans watched the band turn in a stunning set, punctuated by Blackmore literally destroying a movie camera with the headstock of his samurai Stratocaster and all but assaulting one of the onstage cameramen. Ultimately, this version of the group would record the highly-regarded Burn album followed by the aforementioned Stormbringer, a record Blackmore derided as being a bit too funky for his own hard rock tastes. As a result, he quit the band on June 21, 1975 to form Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow [later shortened to Rainbow].
Following his resignation from Purple, the Strat cat in the black hat made for the West Coast. He ended up in Oxnard, a high-rent and exclusive beach community situated about 56 miles north of where I resided in the Hollywood Hills. Blackmore was living like a king, renting an upscale home and pursuing an opulent lifestyle funded from the huge amounts of monies he’d earned churning out the riff for “Smoke On the Water” for so many years. A Purple pasha.
I had received an advance test pressing of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and while it didn’t stand up to the classic riffs Deep Purple had created on albums such as Machine Head and Fireball, it was still a ridiculously good record and I wanted to talk to Ritchie about it. I’m really not sure why I pursued Blackmore a second time inasmuch as he turned out to be a less than stellar human being when I’d met him about a year earlier during the Burn tour [you can read about that encounter elsewhere on these pages]. The cat in the hat had been a nightmare back then, but his playing that night was transcendent. Whatever you said about the dude, the fucker was one of the greatest guitar players in the universe.
So, I figured I’d be in for the same again but I nonetheless tracked him down. This was a new band and he didn’t have the security and prestige of Purple to fall back on, and my thoughts were he’d need to talk about the new project. I was right. I made some calls — can’t remember to whom — and scored an interview with the black-clad man. During my hour-plus drive out to Oxnard from my little guest cottage in the Hollywood Hills, all I could think about was, “I am walking into the dragon’s den, the lion’s lair. A lamb to the slaughter. I hope Ritchie doesn’t treat me like garbage again. I hope Ritchie is nice this time. I hope Ritchie will act like a human being this time. I hope, I hope, I hope.”
A big part of me didn’t want to do the interview. My brain kept screaming, “Run away. Turn around. Save yourself.” But the chance to interview Blackmore about his new band and even talk to his new singer — James Dio — was an opportunity I couldn’t let slip by. I was psyched to talk to this singer, though admittedly I didn’t know anything about him. I knew he had been in a band from the East Coast called Elf and had released three albums: Elf, Carolina County Ball and Trying To Burn the Sun. I can’t remember ever hearing any of those albums but I had heard the debut Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow album prior to talking with him. I had a test pressing and his voice had blown me away. It was powerful, soaring and expressive and it was easy to see why Blackmore had tapped this young gun to front his new band.
Crowding out the Stygian thoughts I was having about Blackmore was thinking about what type of person this Dio cat would be. Surely Ronnie had heard the stories about Ritchie. Hadn’t he? Yes, this would be a high-profile gig for any singer and for a relative unknown such as Dio, it was a major springboard. Still, hooking up with Blackmore would require balls of steel and the ability to withstand withering criticism as well as dealing with the guitarist’s capricious and sometimes creepy nature.
I figured anybody with those credentials was probably a pretty hardcore character who didn’t suffer fools lightly. I would be proven both right and wrong.
I finally located the manse, a sprawling multi-level modern castle with a front lawn the size of a football field. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by an incredibly buxom and well-endowed blonde. Walking in, I saw the guitarist sitting on a couch in the corner and on another sofa a rather diminutive-looking fellow comfortably reclining. I recognized Ronnie from his photos.
I sat down and spoke with Ritchie first and he was actually quite affable. Sporting the all-black ensemble he always wore — black pants, boots and a black long-sleeved shirt with silver spangles — he talked about how he first heard of Ronnie and why he wanted to make music with him.
I must admit, Blackmore was cool. Maybe he was trying to put his best face forward in front of his new singer. Maybe the blonde had something to do with it. In any case, as Jethro Tull — Ritchie loved Ian Anderson — played in the background alongside Sgt. Peppers, he talked the new band. “It started first of all with Roger Glover and Ian Paice who had produced Elf,” he recalled. “I never heard the LP but Roger and Ian both said how good the band were. Elf were signed to Purple Records and then we met them on the tour in America and they used to support us a lot on the American tours. We got to be friendly and I noticed in particular the singer. It was his style and the way he was singing. We got to be friends and then Ronnie was in a lot of sessions in England. I listened to this single called ‘Black Sheep of the Family’ and I asked Purple if they wanted to do it on the next LP and they said they didn’t want to do anybody else’s songs. I really wanted to do this song. I said to Ronnie when I got him around one night and I got him drunk, ‘Do you fancy doing it?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I might sing it.’ He got the song off in about a half an hour. Then we went into the studio and we put it down. It sounded great and that was what started it.”
As Ritchie related the tale about how he first came to work with Ronnie, it was obvious how much respect he truly had for the singer. Blackmore was not one to hand out praise lightly, and as he spoke about Dio his eyes lit up and you could absolutely tell how thrilled he was to be working with him. From time to time as the guitarist spoke, I glanced over at Ronnie sitting on a couch just a few feet away. Certainly he knew we were talking about him and it was even possible he could hear his own name being mentioned from time to time. I wanted to see what his reactions might be as Blackmore described him in glowing terms. Would he take on a cocky edge and sit there with a self-satisfied smirk on his face? Would he try and pretend he wasn’t listening to the conversation and simply act nonchalant? It was impossible to tell.
After I spoke with Blackmore for a while, I sauntered over and introduced myself. We hadn’t really met when I first arrived so we shook hands and I knew instantly that this person standing in front of me was not some ego-fueled, glib or empty-headed rock singer. He came across as both thoughtful and confident without sounding like some loudmouthed, cocksure dickhead. You had a sense about some people the moment you met them, and this was the reaction I had when I first met Ronnie James Dio back in 1975 [and during several subsequent interviews in the years following].
What did strike me was how small he was. On a good day if the wind was blowing just right and I was standing on an incline, I measured 5’6”, yet I towered over Ronnie. How such a small man could possess such a monstrous voice always amazed me.
We sat down and I put in a new cassette and pressed record and Ronnie began to talk … and talk … and talk. The boy could talk! He was articulate, expressive and exacting in looking for the perfect words to convey what he was feeling.
He opened up about his early days in Elf and as he related the tale, I sensed a bit of wistfulness in the words. He seemed a bit heartbroken that Elf had never materialized into the type of band he’d envisioned with all the attendant success he’d hoped for. “We were pleased with the progress of the band but not all that pleased,” he told me. “I think we wanted it to happen sooner than it might have.”
Though he never uttered the words specifically, Ronnie’s tone of voice and demeanor suggested that leaving his Elf band mates was not something he took to lightly. Lying below the surface of what he was saying, Dio harbored a hidden desire. I think he was thinking, “Shit, man. I wish I was still with my boys. I wish we could have made it.”
Still, he wasn’t an idiot. An opportunity such as came knocking on his door in the person of Ritchie Blackmore never comes along more than once — if at all — in a lifetime. “It was definitely a big step up to do this kind of thing with Ritchie,” he admitted. “Certainly anybody would be a fool to say it wasn’t a good step.”
Indeed. If you were just a singer in a rock and roll band who had been knocking around for a few years, had made a handful of albums and then got tapped by a guitar player who had come from arguably one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, what would you have done? You’d have packed your bags, jumped on the first plane out of town and been thanking the gods for your Big Shot.
But for all the allure of standing ‘neath the bright white lights on big stages and in front of hordes of fans, there was the reality that lurking in the shadows was the Purple People Eater. A petulant cat who didn’t play well with others and was capable of sucking the very marrow from your soul and spitting out the bones.
That hadn’t stopped Ronnie, nor did it even cause a second’s hesitation on his part. Let’s face it, Dio could have been walking through the gates of hell to sing in a band with the devil himself and he would have done it whistling a happy tune and thinking good thoughts. Rock and roll was a hard fought pursuit and if it meant dealing with shitheads and negativity, then that was the price you paid.
Still, I wanted to know what it had been like first getting to know Blackmore. “I’d gotten to know Ritchie after a while and it took a while,” he confided. “It did. It took about a year or so after doing two tours with him. I think with Ritchie, it’s a matter of mutual respect. Once you get on that respect plan, then it’s easier to become Ritchie’s friend. But if he thinks that you’re just going out and doing the job the best you can, but really don’t have any merit to what you’re doing, I think he’d rather forget you. Not as a person, but as the entire thing.”
Ronnie hit on a key element: respect. Blackmore was a lot of things but he would never have worked with Dio if the singer wasn’t someone he truly dug and admired. Upon leaving Deep Purple, the guitarist was in a position where he could have brought in virtually any singer in the world. I mean who wouldn’t want to be in a band with Ritchie Blackmore? But he knew exactly what he wanted in a vocalist and what he needed from a fellow musician. That respect was tested when the pair entered the studio for the first time to do a cover of the Quatermass song “Black Sheep Of the Family” [which would become the b-side for “Man On the Silver Mountain,” the first single from the debut album].
Taking a deep breath, Dio talked about that initial recording session. “I had been in England for about four or five months doing other sessions for other people. When we started the rehearsals for it, it was interesting because it was something new. It was working with different people but it was still very doubtful. You know what I mean? It was like when you’re used to working in a structure where you’re really confident because you’ve worked with the people so many times. One guy’s pants come full off and the other guy covers up by pulling his higher up to his chest. You know, that kind of a thing. It was new but interesting and exciting but completely different. The session was good and it went well except for a little foul up with one of the musicians but that wasn’t Ritchie’s fault. We were very pleased with the product. We were very tired that night and we probably thought it was better than it was. We did the track again eventually. I think it turned out quite a bit better and we were much more pleased with it.”
Ronnie would ultimately sing on five albums: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (1975); Rising (1976); On Stage (1977); Long Live Rock ‘N Roll (1978); and the 1990 release of Live In Germany ’76. The band would never repeat the success of Deep Purple but it did present the singer to a new generation of rock fans who’d later embrace him during his own solo career.
I met Ronnie several more times during his life. We met for the second time in early 1983 just prior to the release of Holy Diver, his first solo album. He was the same relaxed cat, talkative and sincere. Nobody had heard any music yet because it hadn’t been completely mixed but the singer wanted to talk about his new project. We did the interview at Sound City Studios, a recording facility located in Van Nuys, California where the album was cut.
Dio was understandably happy about pursuing a career away from the politics and rigors of Rainbow and Black Sabbath. The studio’s Neve desk was sprawled out in front of us and there were gold albums on the wall from Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar. Following our conversation, Ronnie played me some of the music from Holy Diver — I may have been one of the first journalists to hear any of these tracks — and I knew instantly what a monstrous impact the record was going to make. It would be the blueprint for a lot of metal to follow.
We talked about the record and about the inevitable tour he would undertake. “It will probably be a little bit nerve wracking,” he said about the ensuing tour. “My first concern was to do an album that I liked and I believed in. If I don’t believe in it, how can I expect anyone else to think it’s gonna be good? I like what we’ve done here very much and I think it’s a logical progression for me for what I wanted to do. What it’s all about isn’t going on the road for the hotel rooms and the parties after because god knows I’ve seen enough of hotel rooms and the parties after. I’d rather get to sleep. It’s performing and perfecting what you’ve done on record because you can’t do it properly in the studio. Yeah, I can’t wait to tour. I wanna go to Europe first and do some festivals and then about four weeks after the album’s released here, embark on a long American tour. Whether it be playing some smaller halls as the headline act or going out on the road as very special guests to someone else. I’m not adverse to doing that as long as it’s the right pairing. I don’t want to go out with Bob Seger or Air Supply.”
I joked, “You and Black Sabbath would be a good show.” He laughed out loud and remarked, “Probably be an excellent package! Or Blue Oyster Cult and me.”
I continued the repartee. “What about Motley Crue?” to which he responded, “Yeah, that would be wonderful. Just what I need! The New York Dolls regenerated. Although I like the drummer in that band and I think he’s real good. I think Tommy Lee is a real, real good drummer. The rest of them? It’s hopeless.”
I brought our conversation to a close and thanked him. “Did you get enough bitches in there?” he said. I told him, “We slammed everybody” and he countered with, “Sure we didn’t miss anyone? We didn’t do critics yet. F—kers. Oh, sorry!”
We both had a huge laugh. We would get together again at Wendy Dio’s office — Ronnie’s wife and manager — in Studio City and there were a couple of phone interviews in there as well. I was hurt deeply when I heard that Ronnie had passed on May 16, 2010. What I do remember about that day is how everybody was singing Ronnie’s praises and talking about what a tremendous singer he was. The truth was, however, that you didn’t hear other singers talking about how great Ronnie was when he was alive. He had the utmost respect from everyone around him but Dio was more of a well-kept secret rather than the type of vocalist who was constantly being talked about in magazines and online.
I just think — and this is my personal opinion — that a lot of musicians only came out of the woodwork after Ronnie’s death to chime in about his extraordinary voice. It seemed a bit fake to me.
When I met Ronnie that second time for the Holy Diver interview, I brought a photo with me [see accompanying picture] that had been taken that night we first met at Blackmore’s house. I think Ronnie had asked me if I was a musician and I probably told him in my meekest voice that I was a guitar player and had been in some local bands. When I showed Ronnie the picture and asked him to sign it, he wrote, “Steve: If you can’t find a singer, give me a call! Magic from Ronnie James Dio.”
I just thought that was the coolest thing to write and you know what? I think if I had called Ronnie James to lay a vocal down on one of my songs, he would have done it. I really do. That’s the kind of person Ronnie James Dio was.