The heavy metal and rock worlds lost a living legend yesterday when Ronnie James Dio — frontman for Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell, Rainbow, Elf and his own band Dio — passed away after a brave battle with stomach cancer at age 67. The news has already sent shockwaves of grief throughout the metal world and touched the mainstream as well.
I was fortunate enough to have met Ronnie on a few occasions — either in interview mode or at a meet and greet (including a Sam Ash appearance in NYC last summer) — and he was always polite, thoughtful and without the attitude that people associate with famous entertainers. I have never heard anyone say a bad word about him.
Rather than write a standard obituary or pontificate on his contributions to music, I thought I’d let other writers’ words help paint the picture of a metal icon who transformed heavy rock, defied and transcended the stereotype of the spoiled rock star and who made personal connections with so many people whose paths he crossed. He was a gentleman, a rocker and a dreamer whose distinct voice and lyrical musings left an indelible impression on his followers throughout the world.
TIM HENDERSON, President/CEO of Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles/BWBK.com: “I’m holding back the tears. He was incredible human being on record and in person. I can’t believe he’s gone – he seemed immortal. His music and memory will live forever.”
DAVID GLESSNER, music journalist: “A true legend and perhaps the most gracious man I’ve ever met in a business that’s driven by ego. His music is a staple of my library and all of heavy metal. I’m saddened even more knowing he was a true gent and an absolute pleasure. Kim and I were lucky enough to enjoy his one-on-one hospitality backstage a couple years ago. He signed all my albums and couldn’t have possibly been any kinder. He spent 30 minutes alone with us wanting to know all about us and thanking me for the interview I did for San Antonio Express-News — still one of my all time faves in an endless portfolio. His legacy will live forever. One of the greatest metal singers of all time! A sad day. RIP RJD.”
DAN EPSTEIN, Managing Editor, ShockHound.com: “I only interviewed him once – when he severed his thumb in a bizarre gardening accident a few years back – but I was struck by how humble and self-effacing he was, and what a great sense of humor he had about himself. I was also struck by how much he sounded — over the phone, at least — like Jerry Stiller. He truly rocked on every level.
GAIL FLUG, music journalist: “I can’t remember the first time I met Ronnie; maybe 1985, when I was working as the Metal Editor at CMJ. Word got through to his office that I owned one of those early singles from his ‘crooning’ days, so when I asked him to sign it he took me into a private room, signed it ‘why me’ and said if I played it for anyone he would ‘hunt me down and kill me’. (In the days before the Internet, his past and his age were kept guarded, and to this day I keep it safe and tucked away in my collection.) Of course, a joke, but this was the first of countless chats, interviews and time spent with him through my jobs in journalism and radio. Everything you heard about him is true – a genuine guy whose heart was just as big as his voice. The fact that I’m shorter than him was always a means for a laugh. I mourn him not just for creating music which enriched my life, but for the man who played a major role in my life personally as well as professionally. I am still numb, but comforted that the last time I saw him, I hugged him goodbye, told him I loved him and he responded the same.”
BRIAN GROSS, president, BSG PR: “I interviewed Ronnie on the phone in 1994, from my dorm room at Northern Arizona University. The interview was 2 1/2 hours [over] three tapes and two missed classes. He told me everything I wanted to know, and more. Months later, I return to L.A. and go see him perform at The Ventura Theater, and upon approaching him after the show, he not only recalls the interview, but begins to ask me questions about myself, school and so on. He treated me like an old friend. I cherish his music so much. I am deeply saddened.”
JEFF KENT, music journalist: “In January of 2000 our first child was born. In March of 2000 I sat down to interview one of the legendary voices in metal, Ronnie James Dio. I told him right away not to be offended if I fell asleep on the table because I hadn’t been getting much sleep due to the baby. He smiled warmly and asked how everything was going at home. He seemed genuinely interested to hear about the birth and concerned about the few basic complications that followed. After getting down to the business at hand, discussing the Magica record, we talked a little bit about how he felt about doing press and interviews. He admitted that it wasn’t his favorite thing to do, but it was part of his job. One of the things that really impressed me was that he always referred to me by name. I can’t think of anyone else I interviewed who did that. As we were wrapping up we got into a little New York versus L.A. ‘argument’ which ended with Ronnie inviting me to come visit him at his house to show me the ‘real L.A.’ I never took him up on it sadly, but I get the feeling if I had showed up at his door he would have greeted me with open arms and by name. Just to further bolster his standing as one of the nicest guys in metal in music or in life, he ended by saying, “Jeff, go home and be with your new son.”
CHRISTA TITUS, music journalist: “While I never followed Dio’s music like I have with other metal acts, I always admired his talent and knew that his iconic stature in metal was well-deserved. The bands he left his mark on — including Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Dio, Heaven and Hell — and the thousands of musicians and fans who are paying him tribute attest to his gifts as an artist and his great spirit as a human being. He made music that touched several generations, and it will live on for many more. His presence in the world at large — and metal especially — will be greatly missed. He has left enormous shoes to fill.”
One quick fond memory of many: I remember being backstage with Metal Tim Henderson quite a time ago, one of the first times I met Ronnie, and through he comes, there he is right in front of us. A quick few words later, he’s off, and Tim and I just look at each other stunned and say, ‘OK, did Ronnie James Dio just ask us if we had every thing we needed, and could he go get us a beer?!?’ It’s a little thing, but that was Ronnie. Time and time again after that, he made you feel like we were all in this together, the subconscious undercurrent being that we were all warriors defending a maligned music and given that we were all part of this embattled army, we had to treat each other with respect.
But as Henry Rollins would say, it’s the work. Once Ronnie had worked his way through 45s in the late ’50s and the Electric Elves and Elf, well, he bound onto the metal scene and never stopped impressing a demanding heavy metal audience; yes, with his down-to-earth, upstate New York kindness but also with his regal voice, authoritative songcraft and lyrics of comfort for the misfit and downtrodden. Indeed, in terms of material, rock-solid legacy, when all is said and done, I think most studiers of the form would agree that Ronnie was instrumental, alive and in command through no less than six of the most classic and timeless heavy metal albums of all time, namely Rising, Long Live Rock ‘n Roll, Heaven And Hell, Mob Rules, Holy Diver and The Last In Line. And happy, hard-working, taking-nothing-for-granted Italian that he was, in between all that, Ronnie built a fortress of a catalog that proved time and time again that he was heavy metal tried and true, earnest in forging quality metal with messages of sympathy and empathy being the life-rich bonus between the grooves. I have to chuckle about how being heavy was rarely something he felt he had to, ahem, trumpet. If you brought it up, he’d toss off with a laugh, something about not wanting to make wimpy music. But the thing with Ronnie, action spoke louder than his always gracious words — he just kept building a brick and mortar bunker of weighty, anchored metal, and kept doing it until he was stricken. Teenager through to 67, the work ethic and more spectacularly, that roaring golden voice, never wavered.
Like I say, there will be more famous hard rockers taken from us, but no more famous a metalhead. Ronnie’s loss, in our — in his — community, is as big and as crushing as it gets, and this huge void is felt both because of the man’s accomplishments and because of his unanimously beloved stature in the eyes of the entire metal community.”