Ask any average non-metal-head walking down the street about Ronnie James Dio, and you’re likely to illicit a blank stare. Confront them instead with the chorus to “Holy Diver”, and you’ll probably inspire a smile and maybe a bar or two in a bombastic, over-the-top wail. In short, you’d find that the song has become a punch line, shorthand for rock that aims for heavy but somewhere along the line crosses into silly self-parody. That's a pretty apt characterization of the tune, except that it overlooks one crucial point: “Holy Diver” remains so ripe for parody in large part because the song actually works.
If it were merely inept or bad, chances are it would have been wiped from our collective memory long ago, but while we can recognize the humor inherent in lines like “Ride the tiger/You can see his stripes but you know he’s clean/Oh, don’t you see what I mean?”, it’s impossible to deny the fist-pumping awesomeness of the song around them. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that this one track has come to represent Dio so closely -- not because it’s easy to poke fun at (in fact, Dio himself was not one to not take things too seriously) -- but rather because it overshadows a career that is much more interesting, one that cuts a unique path through rock history. One that started long before he helped write the rule book for heavy metal.
Born on July 10, 1942 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire before growing up in Cortland, New York, the young Ronald James Pardovana was already an experienced member of teenage rock and doo-wop groups by the time he adopted his stage name (in homage to the famous gangster Johnny Dio) at the turn of the sixties. Starting with the Vegas Kings, Dio’s early band underwent a variety of lineup changes, and subsequently, name changes, and these shifting appellations reflect the state of the music at the time. From Ronnie and the Rumblers to Ronnie and the Redcaps to the longer lasting Ronnie and the Prophets, the names feel resolutely fixed in the first half of the sixties, when rock was still very much a teen sensation, reveling in the simple rebellious pleasures of cars and girls.
But as the counter-culture asserted itself in the latter half of the decade, so too did Dio take his musical career in a more ambitious, adult direction, exemplified by his new group, The Electric Elves, who quickly morphed into The Elves and finally, simply Elf. Like many of their contemporaries, Elf was built around a beefy, electric-blues base, largely eschewing the transcendental, summer-of-love vibe in favor of a heavier, more rocking sound, exemplified by the likes of Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin.
Commercially and critically, the band generated little excitement, but Elf did manage to pique the interest of Ritchie Blackmore, former lead guitarist for Deep Purple, who was looking to put a new group together. Blackmore was inspired to absorb Elf, more or less in its entirety, into Rainbow in the mid-seventies. Though the groundwork for heavy metal had been laid as psych morphed into hard-rock at the end of the previous decade, as a proper genre it was still in its infancy and still in the process of codifying its own language (can you imagine a metal band naming itself Rainbow today?), and records like Rising and Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll went a long way toward setting the style. It was Dio, with his soaring, operatic voice, who contributed some of metal’s most enduring themes and symbols, from the mythological sword-and-sorcery imagery to the now universal “metal horns” hand gesture.
Of course, any history of metal would be remiss not to mention Black Sabbath, who, arguably, deserve the credit for inventing metal by fusing psychedelic hard-rock with an unrepentant darknessmore than anyone. It was an affirmation of Dio’s talents when the band recruited him to replace Ozzy Osbourne, who was fired from Sabbath in 1979. Dio filled what were staggeringly big shoes with aplomb, recording the well-loved Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, before unexpectedly leaving the group after the difficult mixing sessions for the tepidly received Live Evil disc.
Looking to become more than just a singer in someone else’s group, Dio formed the eponymous Dio, finding platinum success with the albums Holy Diver and The Last in Line. Their rising fame established the group’s position as one of the leading lights of heavy metal and as such, they received their fair share of the controversy surrounding the supposedly satanic genre. The cover art for Holy Diver, featuring a demon whipping a drowning priest with a chain, unsurprisingly raised the ire of Christian conservatives, as did the realization that the Dio logo clearly (and super-awesomely) spelled devil when viewed upside down. Though the band’s lineup would change several times, with Dio himself the only constant member, records continued to be released under the band’s banner throughout the nineties and into the new millennium, years during which he also occasionally found time to collaborate with his former Black Sabbath band mates.
Tracing Dio’s career down through the decades illuminates more than the path taken by one individual musician, it traces the evolution of an entire genre, springing from the fertile cradle of early rock and finding its first voice in the turbulent late sixties and early seventies, before standing defiantly on its own and eventually spawning any number of sub-scenes. It’s a hell of a legacy, one which Dio himself saw fit both to celebrate as well as find the humor in, which is kind of amazing given the earnestness with which he delivered lines about wizards and tigers. But his was a voice that could elevate even the goofiest material, a voice that will undoubtedly live on even after his tragic death from stomach cancer in 2010; as Willie Fyfe, Dio’s longtime personal assistant put it, “Once he had a crowd in his hands, that’s where they stayed until it was time to go…He’s still doing that now, and the guy’s in a coffin.”