Ronnie James Dio.
The name is synonymous with heavy metal music. His majestic voice stood out in an age of copycats and his musicianship is an aspect of his craft that got marginalized because of his powerful voice that seemed to boom from the heavens.
But he was more than just a voice for a generation of heavy metal fans. His story is filled with hardship and pitfalls mixed with this "never give up" attitude that inspired not only his songwriting, but so many other musicians and artists alike to purse their dreams.
"Ronnie’s story traverses the whole history of rock music,” said rock journalist Mick Wall in the documentary. “His career went on for decade after decade after decade. Here we are, all these years after he died, and he’s still this huge figure in heavy metal. Some of these guys are immortal but none more than Ronnie James Dio."
"I've been in this industry professionally for almost 40 years and I've seen it all, done it all, interviewed everyone you could possibly imagine," said music historian and rock talk show host Eddie Trunk. "In some cases, some of these people, like Ronnie, became friends."
Ronnie James Dio live in concert. (PHOTO: Gene Kirkland)
His tenure as a pioneer on the heavy metal scene, as well as being its resident poet laureate, is well documented. From his stint in the 70s with Richie Blackmore and Rainbow then to replacing Ozzy Osborne in Black Sabbath to his incredibly successful solo career, his fans can replay those moments over and over where Ronnie would give the audience his hand gesture that would be deemed the "devils horns."
But there is so much more to this rock legend that has yet been uncovered for the masses. Until now.
The first feature-length, career-spanning documentary sanctioned by the Ronnie James Dio Estate – Dio: Dreamers Never Die - hit theaters in 2022. Fans can now watch the documentary on Prime Video, Paramount Plus, Showtime Anytime, Spectrum TV or The Roku Channel on your Roku device.
Directed by Demian Fenton and Don Argott, this documentary, presented by BMG, takes the viewer through Ronnie’s life, starting with his early days playing trumpet to his first bands and a life-changing car crash before moving on to stardom with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and his solo band Dio.
“Part of our task when we first started was to understand how does a guy, who started playing rock and roll before The Beatles, end up slaying a dragon in 1984 on the Sacred Heart Tour. How did he get there?” said Fenton. “And if you go back in his life, he takes something from the crooner days, stuff from the Elf and Electric Elf days and from Rainbow and Sabbath and it all comes together to form this mythical dude Dio.”
The documentary captures the power and majesty of Dio on stage where millions of fans watched as he held court night after night at sold out arenas around the world. But the film gives us a glimpse into the man that few had the pleasure of knowing and the making of some of the seminal albums in heavy metal history.
" Ronnie was a very humble person," said Ronnie James Dio's wife and longtime manager Wendy Dio. "He would play to 80 people the same way he'd play to 80,000 people. He just loved performing. He loved his fans more than anything. He loved that interaction with the fans and made every fan feel like he was singing just for them. "
And to think the man who would one day fill arenas with adoring fans was born Ronald James Padavona.
The directors do a great job of showcasing Ronnie's modest upbringings in Cortland, New York where he was trained as a trumpet player from age 5.
Young Ronnie playing the trumpet. (Courtesy: Wendy Dio)
During his teenage years, Ronnie looked to have been inspired by Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets, as he made his way through a succession of bands like the Vegas Kings or Ronnie and The Prophets and Ronnie and the Redcaps. But singing was not on the top of Ronnie's to-do list of musical endeavors. He would have preferred to just play guitar, bass or trumpet in a band than be the frontman. Ronnie said during an interview back in the 80s that he didn't want to sing, but everybody else in the band "fell by the wayside and they finally said it was my turn.”
Ronnie James Dio back in the late 50s. (Courtesy: Wendy Dio)
But he knew that his training as a trumpet player would serve him well in his new role.
" As a Dio fan, I had heard that he got his start back in the 50s, but I had never tracked that music down," Fenton said. "What was so cool is that we got to go to Cortland (New York) and meet some of the guys from the Prophets. And to hear that acetate with those songs and hearing Ronnie's voice at such a young age. And the beauty of that is you can hear Dio in those songs. You can hear the power and you can hear the soul. "
But early on, Ronnie knew that his last name Padavona was not going to work in the music business. The moniker that would be his band's namesake actually came from a real life Mafia tough guy - Johnny Dio - a mobster in the Lucchese crime family.
So Ronnie James Dio was born.
The documentary really captures the essence of those early years, including when he formed several bands with Nick Pantas, a guitarist that would play an important role in his life.
" Nick was Ronnie's musical soulmate at the time," said Mick Wall. "Who he builds bands with. Who he writes with. Who he builds dreams with."
But tragedy struck one night in 1968 that would change the course of Ronnie's life forever.
The Electric Elves had just finished a week-long gig in Waterbury, Conn. and were driving back home to New York. A drunk driver crashed head-on into the band's van. Ronnie was severely injured with his scalp being nearly ripped off, requiring over 100 stitches. His cousin, Dave "Rock" Feinstein was also severely injured.
But Nick wasn't so lucky. He was driving when the accident happened and was pinned behind the steering wheel. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
During his months of healing, Ronnie had to battle with a major decision. Does he call it quits and forget his dream of a music career or does he go all in?
Demian says when he was making the documentary, he felt that the accident was a pivotal moment in Ronnie's life.
" Music, and heavy metal music in general, has a way of getting us through the hard times, especially when you're young," he said. "And when we're trying to figure out what is creating this guy, I think when that crash happened that was sort of this pivotal time when he joined up with (his cousin) Rock, who was listening to the heavier music. I think the heavy music taught Ronnie that aggression and power in his music is healing."
Coming out of the crash came a Ronnie more determined than ever to make it and make a name for himself.
In the documentary, you see that this was the start of the evolution from Ronnie into Dio. The music he's playing is heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin, The Who and especially Deep Purple, who would play a major part in Dio's future. The Electric Elves changed their name to Elf and found themselves with an audition for Clive Davis and Columbia Records.
But the kicker was, at the audition was Roger Glover and Ian Pace of Deep Purple, who were blown away by the sound of the band. So much so that Roger and Ian agreed to produce the album, which was released n 1972.
After opening for Deep Purple on their world tour and three more albums, Ronnie got an offer he couldn't refuse. Richie Blackmore, the legendary guitarist for Deep Purple, was leaving the band and he took Ronnie and many of his bandmates and formed the neo-metal band Rainbow. That gave Ronnie a much bigger stage and he found his niche in writing about the gothic and medieval fantasy worlds that would encapsulate so much of his music going forward.
The transformation from Ronnie to Dio was complete.
The Rainbow Bar & Grill.
A Sunset Strip institution where on any given night, you could see Slash from Guns 'N Roses sitting in a corner booth or the guys from Night Ranger enjoying drinks after a show. This was also a special place for Ronnie. It's where he found his soulmate Wendy who was working there one night back in his days in Rainbow.
The documentary really captures that genuine love between the two in photos or hearing Wendy speak about her soulmate and how through all the ups and downs, it always came back to just the two of them. But her first impression of Ronnie was one that still makes her laugh.
Wendy said she went to a party with Ronnie after they met at The Rainbow and her first impression was "he's too short for me." But after getting to know the rock star, she would later say she "fell in love with his brain" due to his interest and knowledge of so many subjects like movies, art, animals. After knowing each other for only a couple of days, Wendy accepts Ronnie's invitation to come out on the road with him for a few days. Little did she know that those couple of days would turn into the rest of her life.
And the luck at The Rainbow didn't stop there.
After Ronnie leaves Richie Blackmore and Rainbow, Ronnie he runs into another guitar legend - Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath - just at the right moment at of all places The Rainbow.
Ozzy left the band, or was fired depending on who you ask, and Tony asked Ronnie to come up to his house and listen to some stuff he was working on. Ronnie hears a tune Tony played on his guitar, walks into the next room and a few minutes later, has the lyrics to a song called "Children of the Sea" - a song that is a fan favorite on the album "Heaven and Hell."
" We had him come over to our house in Beverly Hills and I played him a riff and he just started singing to it and we went, 'Bloody hell, this is fantastic!’” Iommi said in a 2006 interview with Loudwire. “We didn’t audition him, as such, we just started writing. It was a different way of working for me, which was very refreshing. Always, before with Ozzy, it was about riffs, and Ozzy would sometimes sing the riff. But with Ronnie, there were more chords than actual single note riffs."
Many outsiders thought that Black Sabbath wouldn't succeed without the flamboyant Ozzy as the frontman. But Dio immediately put those rumors to rest, recording what many believe are some of the best albums in the Black Sabbath's catalog - Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules.
" When we finished and played the songs for everybody it was like a real vindication,” Dio said in an interview with Loudwire. “Everyone who had originally doubted us was suddenly saying, ‘Alright, I’m hopping on this wagon."
Upon release in April 1980, "Heaven and Hell" reached No. 28 on the Billboard album chart and eventually went platinum, but more importantly, a whole new set of fans were exposed to not only Ronnie's majestic voice, but his compositions that seemed to speak to an entire generation.
The band followed it up with "Mob Rules" in 1981, which eventually went gold.
But while working on those albums, Ronnie was thinking about writing some material for a possible solo album and talked about his vision with Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice.
"When we were both in Black Sabbath, he had a record deal for his solo record in place. He planned on recording a solo record during a break from Sabbath," said Vinny. "Things then turned sour with Sabbath and he decided to leave and he told me that he was leaving Sabbath and he was forming a new band and would love me to join me. I had a decision to make. I love Tony and Geezer. They're legendary, but I felt that Ronnie lives really close to me and we get along like brothers. I thought that this might be a cool thing to pursue. We could start from scratch. How could you go wrong with Ronnie singing?"
Starting from scratch, Ronnie and Vinny begin working on songs that would set the framework for Dio's debut album "Holy Diver."
"This was a scary time for us. It was a huge gamble," Wendy said. "Ronnie was now in control of his own destiny. It was a scary time, but a very exciting time. He had left Sabbath and he was already writing. He had written 'Holy Diver' and 'Don't' Talk to Strangers' before the band was formed. So many people think that Ronnie is just a poet, but he's not. He plays bass, he plays guitar and he played trumpet for years. He reads music. He is an all-around musician. A lot of times, he would write songs just sitting on the couch with his guitar watching sports."
Eddie Trunk and Ronnie both have a love of sports, with both being from the New York area. Eddie could see that Ronnie's infatuation with sports creeped its way into his songwriting.
" Ronnie was such a sports fan," Eddie said. "Ronnie would tell me that a lot of his songs were written about sports. He would watch sports and write songs. Ronnie and I were in the same lane when it came to football. We both loved the New York Giants, but we split when it came to baseball. I'm Mets and he was Yankees. So we used to spar quite a bit about that. He told me that watching games inspired him to write some songs and that is definitely the case with 'Stand Up and Shout."
But after some of those songs were written, Vinny said it was time to get a band together.
"We started writing and rehearsing in his garage. Ronnie would play bass or guitar and we had a little bit of Holy Diver written and at that point, we had to get the rest of the band together," Appice said. "Ronnie always felt he wanted an international flavor to the band. He wanted a guitar player from Europe, so he contacted and we met up with Jimmy Bain in London. He also put us in contact with Vivian Campbell who was from Belfast. We all jammed together in this rehearsal place in London and it was magical. And that was how the band formed."
Ronnie. Vinny. Jimmy Bain on bass and Vivian Campbell on guitar. The classic Dio lineup was formed. The newly formed band would take over Sound City Studio in Van Nuys where "Holy Diver" was recorded. That classic album is still a benchmark for heavy metal music was back in the 80s. MTV had snatched up the video for "Rainbow in the Dark" and put in heavy rotation. But prior to the album's release, Wendy said it was scary not knowing how the public was going to accept it. It didn't take her long to find out.
" The record company didn't really care much about the album. They just thought it was Ronnie's solo record and what was that going to do," she said. "We really didn't know how well it was going to do. I remember our agent booked a gig at the Santa Monica Civic Center and it sold out in about an hour. We wound up doing two shows in one night and then an in-store after that. There were so many fans there that they broke a window at the record store. We knew that we had a hit on our hands."
In the studio, Vinny said he could sense that they had something special with "Holy Diver."
"We thought 'Holy Diver' was good, but once it started being mixed, we thought this album kicks ass," Vinny said. "I remember we were playing theaters and then the album came out and it started climbing the charts. And before you knew it, we were playing arenas. Geezer Butler even told us that he knew that we'd make a good record, but not that good. That was a real compliment."
"Holy Diver" would go on to sell two million copies and Dio played to sold out arenas around the world. He would continue that multiplatinum streak with his two next albums "Last in Line" in 1984 and "Sacred Heart" in 1985.
Back in the 80s, Ronnie was filling arenas around the world with millions of adoring fans. His fans are some of the most brand loyal in the industry and stuck with the metal pioneer through the years. You can experience that adoration when Dio waves his signature "devil horns" gesture and seeing 20,000 screaming fans gesture him right back.
And that adoration was not lost on Dio. In fact, he reciprocated that appreciation by giving back to his fans every chance he got. He went out of his way to make fans know that he was just as much a fan of theirs by showing a genuine interest in them as people and not just giving them lip service, talking with them, signing an autograph and even going so far as remembering their names years later when most celebrities can't remember what they had for breakfast."
" When I first joined Sabbath, we were playing arenas. It was after a show and we were in the limo. It was on the East coast and it was cold out," Vinny Appice said. "We are pulling out of the arena and we are waiting at this gate. There are some fans out there. Ronnie tells me to open the door. He went out and talked with them and signed everything for them. I got out and joined him and it was an amazing moment. He always took care of his fans."
Eddie Trunk saw that connection firsthand Dio had with his fans on many occasions, but it was his amazing memory that blew him away.
" Ronnie had an amazing connection to fans. It is unlike anything that I've seen with anyone else. And the way Ronnie remembered people's names just blew my mind. I tell a story all the time when he would come into my radio studio in New York, he'd often walk in and a lot of times I would have people screening my calls and half the time they were interns and I forgot their names. Ronnie would come in six months later and he'd be like 'Hi Holly, how are you doing?' Nobody could believe it. He had an amazing memory and an amazing connection with the fans. He always made a point to talk with his fans, engage with them, he would give them some time, he'd sign some autographs and take photos with them. He always went that extra mile."
That connection continued through the years while traversing the rough waters of the 1990s where the music business seemingly turned their back on an entire genre of music to his return with Tony Iommi and the Black Sabbath reincarnation as Heaven and Hell, which had the momentum to bring Dio's music to a new generation. The fans couldn't get enough.
Sadly, the promise of a new album from Heaven and Hell would never come to pass. Ronnie was diagnosed in 2009 with stomach cancer. Ronnie put up a fight against the illness, seeking treatment in Houston. His last live performance was with Heaven and Hell on August 29, 2009, in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Ronnie James Dio died of the illness on May 16, 2010.
Ronnie's passing ignited a firestorm of praise and admiration from fellow musicians and fans around the world.
Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich posted a moving “A Letter to Ronnie,” crediting Dio as “one of the main reasons I made it into the stage to begin with,” saying that he first saw Dio as a member of the band Elf in 1975, opening for Deep Purple. “I was completely blown away by the power in your voice, your presence on stage, your confidence” He also recalled going to the Plaza Hotel in Copenhagen when Dio came through with Blackmore’s Rainbow and being impressed that Dio was “so kind and caring. I was on top of the world, inspired and ready for anything.” Ulrich concluded that, “Ronnie, your voice impacted and empowered me, your music inspired and influenced me, and your kindness touched and moved me. Thank you.”
Tony Iommi expressed his deepest emotions for Ronnie after he'd heard the tragic news of his passing
" I’ve been in total shock. I just can’t believe he’s gone. Ronnie was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, we had some fantastic times together. Ronnie loved what he did, making music and performing on stage. He loved his fans so much. He was a kind man and would put himself out to help others. I can honestly say it’s truly been an honor to play at his side for all these years. His music will live on forever. Our thoughts are with Wendy Dio who stood by Ronnie until the end. He loved her very much. The man with the magic voice is a star amongst stars, a true professional. I’ll miss you so much my dear friend. RIP."
Wendy Dio has made it her life's mission to make sure that Ronnie's spirit, his voice and his music are not forgotten. She founded the "Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund" and she has organized several fundraising events that have been massively successful, including Ride for Ronnie and Bowl for Ronnie celebrity events.
But she feels the documentary will serve as a lasting visual legacy that she hopes will be a care package for his millions of fans around the world.
" I just really want people to enjoy listening to Ronnie's music. I never ever want him to be forgotten and I don't think the fans will let that happen. Ronnie means so much to them and they meant so much to him."