This past weekend, we lost Ronnie James Dio, not only one of the best singers in hard rock and heavy metal, but someone who was polite, well spoken and gentlemanly, something of an anomaly in a genre where ‘bad boy’ behavior is embraced and expected of its frontmen. When someone of his stature of passes away, there is a collective void felt by millions of fans, creating a sense of unity. This feeling takes on an even more sad, surreal quality when it is someone that you were on a first name basis with.
Twice, I had the magnificent fortune of being on the same bill with Ronnie. On both these tours, the differing schedules of his band, Black Sabbath in 1992 and Heaven & Hell in late 2008 (same band, different name) made our encounters infrequent, as is often the case with headliners and support acts. But whenever we did bump into each other, he always went out of his way to say hello.
His knack for remembering everybody’s names was nearly as legendary as his vocal ability. He remembered everyone on the crew, everyone’s friends, wives and girlfriends and made each person feel the center of attention when he spoke to them. So while we did ‘know’ each other, I don’t pretend to have known Ronnie well. It’s not as if we ever spoke by phone. Actually, that’s not true….
One day, I was trying to reach my friend Lorenzo, who was on Dio’s sound crew. This was the early 00’s and our tours were crossing paths in Cleveland. I’d been unable to make the Dio concert, but another friend of mine went to the show and bumped into Lorenzo, who told him to say hi to me and pass on his new phone number.
When I called a day or so later, the voice didn’t sound like Lorenzo’s. “Alex Skolnick! How are you? I’ve always liked your guitar playing.” He asked what I was up to and how this person was and how that person was, asking me to please say hello to these people for him. This guy obviously knew me and others I knew, but I didn’t recognize his voice. Who could it be? I hesitantly asked. He laughed and said “Alex, it’s Ronnie Dio!”
My jaw dropped. He explained that either he’d lost his cell phone and had been borrowing Lorenzo’s or vice versa (I forget), then nicely offered to pass on the message and have him call me, then we said goodbye. Whatever the situation was, I barely processed it and it scarcely mattered…I was on the phone with Dio!
I immediately thought of the Dio concert I attended in 1984 in San Francisco, the first concert I ever went to without adult supervision. I remember asking my father for permission. He didn’t understand who I was talking about. “Devo?” he asked. A friend and I took BART (the metro train) to the concert which was held at the Cow Palace Arena. The Dio album “Holy Diver” had become part of the soundtrack for my high school years and those of countless other teens of the mid-80’s. Seeing him live, I felt for the first time like I was hearing music for my generation.
Although Dio’s draw would shrink somewhat in the ‘90’s (thanks in part to the music industry’s collective turn against 80’s hard rock acts) Ronnie James Dio still stands as one of a small handful of vocalists in the hard rock/metal genre who was ever able to sell out arenas under his own name. The other two that come to mind are Ozzy Osbourne, whom he replaced in Black Sabbath, and Alice Cooper.
When he emerged on the national scene in the 70’s, he sang with enough rasp, grit, dirt and guttural quality to stand side by side with throaty greats of the time such as Bon Scott of AC/DC. But unlike Scott and others, whose sound was fueled by cigarettes, bourbon, and other, less legal substances, Ronnie took care of his voice with a discipline on par with an opera and Broadway singer. Never a ‘notorious rock star’ like his contemporaries, he lived his life in moderation, resulting in an unshakeable constancy and flawless execution that concertgoers could count on, right up until the end.
Indeed, at the ‘Metal Masters’ shows barely a year and a half ago, the universal consensus was that Ronnie, then in his mid 60’s, had never sounded better. On that tour, I frequently found myself standing on the grass with friends after our set, listening to Ronnie, Toni, Geezer and Vinne filling the star filled August sky with songs like “Heaven & Hell,” “Lost Children Of The Sea” and “Neon Knights.” It was about as perfect a Summer evening as one can imagine. Now Ronnie is a part of that star filled sky. He will forever be missed and remembered.