By Brian Ives
“Rock is not the devil’s work, it’s magical and rad!”
Jack Black sings those immortal words in the opening scene of Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny where a pre-teen version of himself is seen singing to his Ronnie James Dio poster, trying to figure out how to escape his suburban malaise. Much of that film was fantastical (if not fantastic), but that moment was something that thousands of metal fans who grew up in the ’80s could identify with.
Metal, specifically heavy metal, was an escape from the doldrums of the ‘burbs. And no one–though you can certainly make arguments for Iron Maiden and Judas Priest–flew the flag of metal as ardently and consistently as RJD. He never got close to the Top 40 singles charts and didn’t seem to care. He had his people and that was all that really mattered.
Dio earned the love and respect of metal fans and his fellow musicians because of his incredible singing voice and his great catalog of songs. But, more importantly, because he never sold out. That appreciation for all three of those things is evident on Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life, a tribute album out this week (April 1) featuring Dio’s peers like Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Motorhead and the Scorpions. As well as his disciples: Anthrax, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Halestorm, Metallica and Tenacious D, who cover “The Last In Line,” complete with a flute solo.
For those who are unfamiliar with the man’s phenomenal career, Ronnie James Dio fronted no less than three classic metal bands. First there was Rainbow, the band Ritchie Blackmore formed after leaving Deep Purple, in which RJD appeared on the band’s first three albums: 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1976’s Rising and 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. After that, he had the confidence and chops to replace the irreplaceable, taking over for Ozzy Osborne after he left Black Sabbath. With 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules, he gave that band one of the great second acts in rock and roll history before forming moving on to for his own band, Dio.
Longtime fan Corey Taylor told Radio.com that “It didn’t matter what band he was with, the power of what he did just translated over any type of music.” Case in point, Rainbow sounds very different from Sabbath and Sabbath sounds very different from Dio. “He could pick up on any type of music and make it his own,” Taylor said. “He was wonderful. He’s one of the best metal singers of all time… it’s hard to sing his songs!”
Looking to show he was also up for the challenge, Taylor took on one of Dio’s hardest, and most iconic songs, “Rainbow In The Dark.” “That’s been my favorite Dio song since I was very young,” Taylor said. “I remember being so taken by the video and the song itself. it was so damn catchy. And it’s just been one of those songs that has stuck with me through the years.”
Taylor added, “A lot of people gravitate towards [Black Sabbath’s] ‘Heaven and Hell,’ and ‘Mob Rules,’ or of course [Dio’s] ‘Holy Diver,’ that’s probably the one that people instantly recognize. But ‘Rainbow in the Dark,’ I was lucky that it wasn’t already taken, but I called dibs pretty much immediately. ‘That’s mine!’ I just tried to make it my own and do it in the spirit of the song. It is such a brilliant song.”
Scott Ian, whose band covered Sabbath’s “Neon Knights,” also felt a connection to Dio, but it wasn’t just his metal catalogue. “I heard him on the first Rainbow record. Years later, I heard some old 45’s of him singing doo-wop,” he explained. “And that was great too!” He’s not kidding. While Dio is an icon of heavy metal, he started his music career singing in doo-wop acts including Ronnie and the Red Caps and Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, before moving to heavy rock with a band called Elf, and then after that, Rainbow. “Pretty much everything he’s done, especially his work with Sabbath, was a huge influence on Anthrax, and certainly on [Anthrax singer] Joey [Belladonna],” Ian said. “Joey is a massive Ronnie fan.”
While Ian was 19 and Taylor was just nine years old when Dio’s 1983 debut, Holy Diver came out, Lzzy Hale of Halestorm wasn’t even born yet. (She was born in 1984.) Luckily, Hale had parents who liked to rock and turned her on to Dio at a young age. “Holy Diver was actually the first album that I heard from Dio, thanks to my very cool parents,” she said. “When I got interested in singing and being in a band, they were like, ‘Here, get into some real music.’ It was Dio and Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and all the ’70s hard rock and metal stuff.” Her band ended up covering “Straight Through The Heart,” off Dio’s debut, which Hale says has been a part of her life for “a long, long time.”
Tribute albums with A-list lineups are always difficult to put together, and RJD’s wife/manager Wendy Dio, who produced this compilation, told Radio.com that it has been in the works for two and a half years. It was a long haul, due mostly to hectic schedules by the artists, but everyone was eager to pay tribute and give back, since the album will raise funds for the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. RJD succumbed to stomach cancer in 2010.
“I asked Glenn Hughes first,” Wendy said, referring to the former Deep Purple bassist/singer. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ Then I went to Rob Halford, who was also a good friend of Ronnie’s. Then, Metallica called to see if they could be involved, and then Corey Taylor and Anthrax.”
From there, the project took on its own momentum. Which was no surprise to Taylor. “It’s kind of a sign of what this community is. The metal community is very, very tight. And that’s one of things that I’m most proud of,” Taylor said. “Some of us may not get along, but for the most part, man, in times of trouble we come together. I don’t know if you can say that about other genres. I’m very proud of the fact that we came together for a great cause, it’s a reflection of what this family is all about.”
Wendy Dio plans to use other aspects of her husband’s catalogue for good, telling Radio.com she’s going to reissue the Hear N Aid album, which was heavy metal’s answer to “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” that Dio organized in 1985, later this year.
“That’ll be a DVD too. we’ve got so much footage. Maybe some of the artists who couldn’t get on this, can be involved with that,” she said, mentioning Iron Maiden as a possibility. Asked further questions about the project, she said, “I’m telling you secrets out of the box here!” revealing only that details of the release were still being worked out.
Though most people would have done the Dio tribute album on the rocker’s discography alone, others wanted to celebrate the man behind the music, who by all accounts, was a very cool guy.
Hale recalls opening for Dio-era Sabbath, who had changed their name to Heaven and Hell to avoid confusion with the Ozzy-era lineup, in 2009, after original openers Coheed and Cambria had to bow out. “I was uber-nervous because I am a huge fan. It was the House of Blues at Atlantic City. I look to the balcony and there’s Ronnie James Dio and [Heaven and Hell/Black Sabbath bassist] Geezer Butler,” she said. “After our set, for the rest of the night, I was like a total fangirl! Here’s a guy in his fifties who can hit higher notes than I can!”
After the show, Dio stopped by to hang out with Hale and her dad backstage before stopping to sign autographs for fans waiting outside the buses. “And then after that,” Hale remembered, “he came back to our vehicle to make sure he said goodbye. I said to him, ‘I just watched you play that set, hang out with us, sign autographs for all your fans… you didn’t have to come back here to say goodbye to us!’ He looks at me, this is amazing, he wags his finger in my face. ‘Lzzy, it’s a moment in time. you might not remember the gigs or the people you meet or their faces or their names, but they will remember you. So you have to make it a good moment for everybody.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, sir!’ I still think about that and what he said every time we’re doing one of these two hour signings, I think ‘What would Ronnie do.’ And then I think, ‘That’s the way to be.'”