I recently had the privilege to interview one of classic rock and heavy metal's most legendary figures - Ronnie James Dio. Dio came to fame as original frontman for Ritchie Blackmore's RAINBOW in the mid-70s, singing on 3 classic studio LPs, and 1 excellent double live set, before leaving and replacing Ozzy Osbourne in BLACK SABBATH in 1980. With SABBATH, Dio sang and wrote on one my favorite SABBATH albums - "Heaven And Hell", as well as the excellent follow-up "Mob Rules", and then departing amongst feuds and controversy following the classic double live set "Live Evil" in '82. Following SABBATH, Dio went on to front his own band DIO, which originally included guitarist Vivian Campbell (ex of SWEET SAVAGE and now of glam wanna-be's - DEF LEPPARD), drummer Vinny Appice (also from SABBATH, and still with DIO !), bassist Jimmy Bain (from RAINBOW; the guy who looks like Mr. Bean!)), and keyboardist Claude Schnell. DIO's first 3 studio albums were huge spanning the years 1983 to '85, far surpassing any success of his former bands that were still going. After the live "Intermission" set, Campbell left DIO to be replaced with guitarist Craig Goldie for the "Dream Evil" album. 1990's "Lock Up The Wolves" saw Dio change his whole band by bringing in 18 year old guitarist Rowan Robertson, bassist Teddy Cole, drummer Simon Wright (ex AC/DC), and keyboardist Jens Johansson. Following that DIO gave up his own band for a much publicized reunion with BLACK SABBATH. Following the release of the album "Dehumanizer" and a subsequent tour Dio left SABBATH again under nasty circumstances. He immediately put together a new DIO band with Appice, guitarist Tracy G. (ex of WORLD WAR 3), and bassist Jeff Pilson (of DOKKEN). 1993's "Strange Highways" went by with little publicity in North America, and a poor push from the record company. Now DIO is back with one of his heaviest and best sounding albums to date -- "Angry Machines." From all I'd ever read and heard of Ronnie James Dio, the man himself (once dubbed "Leather Lungs" by a British rock journalist for many o' year), there were 2 versions of him that could be found -- one was the little Nazi like dictator with the world's biggest ego, and the other was of one of rock's most intellectual, smartest, and gentlemanly figures out there. After this interview, I can confirm that, as I'd already believed, that the latter was the real Ronnie James Dio. So here we go with an exclusive look in to one of rock's legendary singers.............
FTTT : I wanted to ask a few things about you personally because Ronnie James Dio is not seen in the public eye as much. I don't think there's a lot known about you compared to some people who's every antic is in the paper. Can you tell me about you as a person, and family, and some of your thoughts ?
RJD : I'm from a small town in up-state New York called Cortland. I moved to LA about 20 years ago; I wanted to get out of the cold weather -- as everybody does, I'm sure ! My wife is my manager. We don't have any children. I've spent my whole life doing this, I think. Maybe that's why it's not so interesting. I started playing the trumpet when I was 5 years old, which was great training for me as a singer. It taught me the correct way to do it because I've not taken singing lessons from anyone. I went to the University of Buffalo; I was a pharmacy major. After I finished my University education I did what I always wanted to do -- which was to become a musician ! From that time I decided to be a musician it was a matter of traveling all the time and loving every minute of it. And then to be lucky enough to form a band with Ritchie Blackmore from DEEP PURPLE , and then to be in SABBATH after that, and to have the great success with DIO that we did after that ! Most of it's been working; it's been a pretty normal life other than the musical part of it.
FT : Do you have many thoughts on politics and religion ?
RJD : I don't dote on religion. Religion, I think, is something that you can never argue, and you can certainly never convince the other person because even though there's a bible -- how concrete is it ? It depends on the point of view. So religion is not something I'm involved in, other than the fact that having been in BLACK SABBATH it seems like there's a connection. I just think there's a lot of similes and metaphors and things that have gotten me to that point. Religion, much like fantasy, much like the tales of King Arthur is, again, something that is so difficult to put a hand on and say "this actually happened." It's such a matter of belief that you're really dealing in the same kind of properties. My fantasy writing is coupled with some religious overtones as well because they are part and partial to, again -- they're not the same thing, but you see what I mean. As for politics, I've not gotten involved because my time is taken doing what I do as a performer. I do deal with charities though. There are some that are very close to my heart, but politically I just feel that we're in a mess. Beaurocracy has continually eaten itself by the tail, and it's a problem that never ends. It's gotten too big and it's a horrible place we live in ! A lot of that has to go down to the government. It's our government and it's up to us to change it. We can throw all the barbs we want at the people we elect, but we're the ones who elected them so it's our choice. But again, the 2 subjects are pretty unarguable, so I stay away from them.
FT : In reference to the track "Dying In America," from the new album, is that partially where that sprang from ?
RJD : It is. That one, of course, from the dissatisfaction that I see within myself from the people who appear never to be able to have anything. We want education for our children -- of course we should have education for our children, but to what end ? We try to prepare them to be the viable citizens, who are going to be able to get a job, and that's impossible right off the start -- so that's a problem. From drive-by shootings to serial murders, all of the things we experience -- cataclysmic extremes with the weather, what we've done to the ecology, AIDS, the list goes on and on -- it's a pretty miserable place ! And I just needed to make a statement, as an American, that this is not the rosy little garden path that everyone thinks it is in the rest of the world. We have as many problems with homeless and the under-educated, etc, etc -- then anyone does ! In fact we're a first rate nation with a lot of third world attitudes inside of it. So yeah, that track's about that ! "Big Sister" is another politically motivated track. It's kind of a take-off of the "Big Brother" situation from Orwell's "1984," but in this case I substituted the feminine attitude for government. But hey, if you change it and put politics inside of it it's the same thing.
FT : You did the "Stars" thing many years ago, and you mentioned charities. What sort of things do you still do ?
RJD : I've been involved with a charity here in Los Angeles called "Children Of The Night." It's a charity founded by a woman named Dr. Lois Lee, who is now a psychiatrist or psychologist. And she went out on the streets all by herself and would find young kids who had traveled here to LA, and who were about to be pressed into prostitution or drug use or drug sales -- whatever the case may be. She went out and took these people in to her own home. The reason being that -- when we talk about government, what the government does in that situation is they'll find a runaway and send that runaway back to probably the exact same dysfunctional attitude he or she came from . What she did, because it's a private charity, was keep these kids until they were 18 years old and prepared for a life on the streets without drugs, and without prostitution. Unfortunately a lot them have AIDS, so it's to help them ease the remaining part of their lives. I've been involved in this charity for 11 years now, and we've been able to build a shelter for them in Los Angeles, a wonderful facility, with a lot of wonderful people contributing too ! Among them are Ozzy Osbourne, Richard Marx -- just a lot of people who care.
FT : That's great ! You used to play bass in ELF. Do you still play at all ?
RJD : Actually this year and the last time we did an album ("Strange Highways"), I played for about 2 or 3 months as we were writing the project because at different points Jeff Pilson, our bass player, was not available. So I kept my hand in it a little bit, but it makes me realize, as I did when I chose singing instead of bass playing (because I did both), was you have to be pretty damned good at one or the other. You just can't kind of coast through being good at one and not the other. I decided my joy was in singing, so that's why I stopped playing bass. But every time I do play it brings me back to the realization of why I did that. Boy -- the old wrist hurts, I'll tell you !!
FT : I was reading an interview with your cousin Dave Feinstein (ex THE RODS) in a fanzine and he talked about your early days with ELF. What was your first recording, and what can you remember of those days ?
RJD : The first ELF album was just called "Elf." We did that in Atlanta, Georgia, produced by Ian Paice and Roger Glover of DEEP PURPLE. It was great -- two of our heroes were producing the album. It was just great to be around them. It was real quick. I played bass on that album, and we did almost everything live. We went in and I played and sang at the same time. We just did it and away it went ! It wasn't like where each instrument was done separately in a different studio, you know -- with that craziness. We were very well prepared; it was a good band. We played together for a long time, grew up together. So we just went in and "bang" -- did it ! It was so much fun to do and it was a really good album as well.
FT : What were your favorite bands and musicians back then ?
RJD : Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, King Crimson. I liked King Crimson a lot, and The Beatles, of course ! FT : You were involved in "The Butterfly Ball" project. You did the tracks on the album, but you weren't part of the live show !? RJD : I didn't do the live show. At that time we'd just put RAINBOW together, Ritchie and I, and he felt it was not something that I should do, that we should be concentrating on the RAINBOW thing and not me side-tracked by that. It was his band, and he was another one of my heroes, so I figured he knew what he was doing . In retrospect I'm quite glad I didn't do the show.
FT : Do you still have contact with Roger (Glover) and Ritchie ? Any of those guys ?
RJD : Ritchie lives on the other side of the continent in New York, so I only get to speak to him through people that we both know. Roger, the same -- I haven't seen him in a long while, but we've all remained friends. It's nothing like it's been blown up to be in the press, you know -- "Ritchie's the most difficult man on earth to work with!". He probably is for everybody else, but he never was for me. I have nothing but the best to say about Ritchie. He's the one who gave me my first great opportunity and I learned a hell of a lot from him
FT : What were the circumstances that you left BLACK SABBATH the first time, and then the second time?
RJD : Well, the first time I left it was just over some stupidity about the live album we were doing -- "Live Evil." The engineer was drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels a day and told Tony and Geezer he thought Vinny and I were sneaking in to the studio and turning the vocals and drums up. As their want -- they believed it, and that lead to the break-up of that one. It was all completely untrue and absolutely stupid ! When we did reform in '92 the apologies went all the way around. The second time was because of the shows I was told we were going to do. We had all our shows booked in LA and now we were going to change that to become the opening act for Ozzy -- which I refused to do ! I didn't do it out of a personal thing with Ozzy - I couldn't care less about him. But it was -- here we were trying to get this band back on the road together, trying to reform this band and make it special again -- and now, suddenly, we were going to be the opening act for the Ex lead singer ! AND I also knew that when that show came that they were going to announce the reunion between the 4 of them -- which did happen ! So what was the sense of my doing the show to bolster their careers, they obviously didn't care less about mine. So that was the end of that !
FT : Do you think you were misunderstood in the press at the time ?
RJD : Well, I said exactly as I've said to you. "Misunderstood" -- I don't think is the word. The thing is that everybody continually believes the things that they hear about me -- that I'm some kind of "Hitler" figure. People who know me will tell you absolutely different. You know, I don't need to defend myself. Was I misunderstood ? Yes, I think so, because of the perception people have that of course it's my fault, that 2 unassuming gentlemen -- Geezer and Tony, couldn't possibly make any kind of wrong decision. In that matter that it had to be Dio who was wrong. Those are my beliefs. My beliefs were that I gave up the DIO band and they gave up nothing ! They had BLACK SABBATH and were lucky enough to get Vinny and I to come back and do it ! And at the end of the day our preferences weren't given any credibility. When that happens you have no communication, which is what we didn't have and spelled the break-up. I can only tell my version of the truth and I believe what I know is correct. Others will hear other things. I think a lot of it was the Ronnie versus Ozzy thing that cropped up for some reason or another. I don't know why, because it's never really bothered me what Ozzy does -- I'm happy for his success. But it was that more than anything else, you know -- "oh that I disrespected Ozzy" or something -- like I really care !
FT : About the recording of the "Dehumanizer" album -- how genuine was the reunion ? How tense was it from the beginning ?
RJD : I think it was always going to be tense. It had been 10 years since we'd done anything, and we hadn't talked to each other or anything. When you get thrown back in the situation it was a lot of success and a lot of failure had gone down the road in that time. They hadn't exactly been knocking the socks off anybody, and we had had great success with the first 3 DIO albums. We both kind of reached a medium ground, and we were presented with each other as equals as opposed to the first time when they were BLACK SABBATH and I had just come out of RAINBOW, and Vinny was an unknown. So, the footing was very different. But yeah, there was some tension there. We made the best of it. We had intended for it to not be anything but a lot of albums to come, a lot of touring, and perhaps end our careers that way. But once again, circumstances and personalities dictated other things, so that was that ! The tension was good; it was a great album, and the reason it's a great album is because there was tension. If we had fallen into each others' arms with love and adulation it probably would have been the biggest, sappiest piece of crap on Earth !
FT : Do you still have contact with any of those guys ?
RJD : I do with Geezer, again through other people, and Tony through other people. You know, I love those guys, I always have, I always will. It was never a personal thing with me -- NEVER ! It just turns out that way more in the press than anything else. I still care for them very much, and we do speak, but again through other people. FT : A few years ago I read that there was to be a Retrospect video on you that would feature some early RAINBOW and ELF footage -- has that ever been released ? RJD : I don't know anything about it, really -- wish I did, it sounds interesting ! ELF footage (?) -- I think there is some from when we toured with DEEP PURPLE. The unfortunate thing to me was that we, DIO, never made a live album. I think that was an opportunity well missed -- not missed by us, but missed by the record company.
FT : The "Intermission" release was close !?
RJD : Yes, but it's still not the same. That was a compromise. It was "OK we know you really want to do a live album, well we'll let you do half of it live, and the other half...". That's not representative of the live show. So I don't consider "Intermission" to be an ultimate live album.
FT : About your new album, I think it's great ! It's probably the best one, I think, since the mid-80s.
RJD : I think you're right. Thank-you very much !
FT : Your voice is in incredibly good shape. Do you practice a lot ?
RJD : I've never really had much problem with my voice, and I think a lot of that has to do with technique -- you know how to do it. It's like having good tools, and with good tools you build a good house, if you've got a bad saw -- you're going to cut crooked. I've never had a problem; I've never had to cancel a show. I hope that continues. It's just a real tuff vocal performance for me every year, and every year I say I'm going to write songs in a lower key so I don't have to kill myself. But every time I write them higher and higher. The show is very bruising for a singer; not a lot of rest, continuous music. So again, touch wood, I've been pretty lucky with that.
FT : On the back of the new album there is 3 of you (pictured) -- you, Vinny, and Tracy. Jeff's not there -- is he an actual member of the band or ...?
RJD : Well, we always considered Jeff a member of the band, but Jeff's been doing the DOKKEN project for a while. They did one album a couple of years ago and now they're doing another. That was a commitment that he had that we knew about, so we didn't have any other choice but to wait around for Jeff until he was able to write and record with us -- which he did. When it came time to do a photo for the album management said that they thought it would be confusing if Jeff was included on the album picture. So it was nothing to do with us. We wanted Jeff's picture there, and I still think it's stupid that he wasn't there; after all, he contributed -- so why should that have anything to do with DOKKEN. But, that's the reason there's only 3 of us, because management wanted it that way.
FT : The last track on the album -- "This Is Your Life" is quite a nice ballad and you don't do a lot of them.
RJD : No. I've always tried to stay away from anything that smacks of being a love song, and this is not a love song ! Of all 10 tracks on this album -- 9 of them are pretty vicious as far as their content goes. Lyrically by that I mean they're reality based -- like "Dying In America." And then on the last song, "This Is Your Life," I wanted to show that I had some optimism left for humanity and this world. So, if there is any message -- it's that an individual can make a great change for not only themselves -- but for humanity ; you know "this is your chance, it's your life -- make something of it !" That's the reason I wanted to include that one and tie it down. I did it with a piano, and I've never done a song with just a piano, but because it was a bit more personal...I tried it with a guitar but it didn't have the personalness that the piano version had.
FT : You once said you never liked doing ballads, and that's what the tracks are that you did on "The Butterfly Ball" album.
RJD : But that wasn't a DIO project, that was Roger's -- for a purpose.
FT : But it does show a lot for your voice !?
RJD : Sure it does. The vehicle which you have is what makes the difference you know !!? Obviously if you have a good vehicle to sing, and you can sing -- that's going to show you off in that light. I've always been pretty single-minded to the kind of music I want to make. I like things that are very very hard and hard-edged. And I thought that, in this case ("This Is Your Life"), by putting something so gentle against all that came before it also had some credibility. I think I've done enough ballads throughout my career so that I've kept "respect" from other people. Because when they think it's all going to be a matter of shouting this and shouting that, and suddenly they get something nice. So, I think I've done enough.
FT : You usually stay current, sound-wise, especially with this new album -- it's very up to date; and now that a lot of heavier bands have gone soft now seems like a really great time for you.
RJD : Well, I think it is. I think it should be. We've taken steps to understand what's out there. I mean, if you don't listen to what you're competing with you're a fool. And if you don't listen to what the people who are making music like you do, you're a fool as well. I've produced all the records, with the exception of the last one ("Strange Highways"), and that many of the songs on it were very dated sounding. It was almost a "back to the '80s" kind of sound and that was very disturbing to me, so I decided I would then again step in as producer on this album. Not only I, but everyone in this band knew exactly what we wanted to sound like. We knew that it needed to be more up front; that the guitars shouldn't be doubled; that there shouldn't be a lot of effects on the voice; that the vocals should be straight up, and that the drums alive. It's really more of a harkening back to what we did on "Holy Diver" and "Last In Line"; especially "Holy Diver" -- which is a very "live" sounding album. It's a very hard-edged, in front of your face album. We wanted to recapture that. To move on to what I hear today, I hear a lot of alternative bands doing things that are interesting; not just from a sound perspective -- but also from a musical perspective. In the old days if you wanted to do something that was a little off kilt or time-wise -- if you wanted to do something in 7:4 you wouldn't do it because you were afraid people would break their legs trying to move around to it. In this case you just listen to the way the younger bands go where they want to go and I go "that's great ! that makes so much sense." You should be able to go where you want to instead of having to go around the corner first and come back again. From listening to all these things and being smart enough to know where moderness lays we just did it this way.
FT : "Strange Highways" was very difficult to find around here !
RJD : When we did that album the record company just went "whoa -- we don't know what to do with this one so we'll throw it against the wall and if it does something -- we'll support it, if not -- the hell with it !" They really did nothing. We were at the back end of getting ready to leave that label anyway, it just wasn't the place for us. And making a move now has made a great difference for us. But I must say I can't lay the blame on everybody else, that album perhaps sounded too dated -- that might have been one of its problems too. The sad part is that you have to make it available for the people to make that judgment, as opposed to having to mail away for it. But that's water under the bridge, and that lead us to this point, which is important. We started writing in a different manner on the "Strange Highways" album and it's carried on in that writing style to this one. We've just taken it a few steps closer to the year 2000 rather than looking back and trying to be a reunion band and thinking -- "gee, I think they're going to like this one -- it sounds like Holy Diver !" That's something I never wanted to do.
FT : What do you think of all the reunions going on ?
RJD : The only one that makes any sense to me is KISS because so many young people have heard from their parents, brothers or sisters of what a great show it was and now they'll get a chance to see it. The rest of them -- there's so many bands reuniting because they failed after the break-up of the band that they were successful with. Well, what's the easy way to do it ? "Let's not go out and find other musicians to create something new -- let's go back and do what we did before !" I think it's being done because it can be done. I think if you're going to do a reunion you have to make a good album and step into the future. With SABBATH we did exactly that ! I think that the album we made was certainly a lot more timely than a lot of the product I'm sure I'm going to hear these days. But one never knows, I guess they deserve a chance. My feeling is that you reunite because you couldn't make it in another direction. .
FT : You once said that "Heaven And Hell" was your favorite album from your past. Is it still ?
RJD : Yes ! And it's not just the music, it's all the things that went together with it. You know -- the reason it was made, how difficult it was to make it, the time it took, the people involved, the changes while we were doing it -- that's what made the difference, I think. It was an album, again, that started a cycle for hard-rock music, and I'm very proud of that.
FT : You're going on the road, what sort of venues are you going to play ?
RJD : Well, once you've had a dragon and all those kind of things around you, it's very difficult to do anything on a lesser manner. So we'll bring nothing that moves around and shouts at you, but we'll bring somebody to dress up on stage, obviously to make it look a little more usual, and a back-drop. These days I don't think people are as concerned about that as they used to be. I think it's a matter of they prefer to see you in a small place then they can get a feel for it instead of getting lost in an arena situation. And let's face it -- arenas don't sell out anymore anyway, so economically that's not going to happen. What we bring will be perfect for the size venues we play.
FT : What do you have planned for the future ?
RJD : Another album after this one -- about a year down the road. I want to finish the book ; that's really it for me. I'm just so happy with this band that I just know that the next album is really going be a landmark for us, and I can't wait for that one ! So until my musical career goes away, or it's time for me to go away, I'll just stay fully directed in that motion.
FT : Do you still have a lot in you ?
RJD : Yeah. That's what I do; that's what keeps me sane, keeps me happy, and keeps me wanting to work. So I plan on doing it until people tell me I shouldn't do it anymore, or until I get to the point that my bones start creaking so much -- I just fall over !
FT : You've always come across to me, through everything I've read and seen, as one of the most intelligent guys in the rock world. (RJD: Thank-you!) I was wondering -- do you read a lot ?
RJD : I used to read an awful lot. I still do, but not as voraciously like I used to. I read as much as I possibly can. I read a lot of science-fiction. I find science-fiction writers are normally the prognastocrators of what's to come. They tend to do it 5 or 6 years before it ever happens. I also like to read a lot of sports biography books -- I love sports ! I like to read about people who have succeeded because I can get a glimpse into the attitude of what made them successful and perhaps adapt it to myself.
FT : You work a lot through St. Louis Music with Ken Hensley. Do you still have a lot of contact with Ken ?
RJD : Not an awful lot, being that I'm not a player. Ken and I toured together a long long time ago when I was in ELF and he was with URIAH HEEP. I got to know him then, and I've had some contact with him via our bass players. I see Kenny every once in a while -- like at the NAMM show or some function here and there. But he's such a busy man -- that guy rushes around like a blue-tail fly ! But yes, I know Ken, and he's a hell of a nice guy ! Kenny's helped a lot of musicians through what he does. He's a great guy...and a hell of a player too !
FT : That's about it. Do you have anything to add about the new album ? Any last thoughts ?
RJD : No. Just that we're more than happy to be going on the road, and getting a chance to learn how to do it right. Because what you do in the studio -- to me -- that's the means to the end. The end is to go out and play live. That's what we all love to do in this band ! All I can say is -- come out and see us ! We're going to do a lot of interesting songs. It won't be all the ones we've done before, but some of the things that people have asked us for that we haven't done in a while. It should be a good show !
FT : Do you still include some RAINBOW and SABBATH stuff ?
RJD : Yes. We probably do more SABBATH things than we do RAINBOW things. I think we're only going to do one RAINBOW thing, and that's from such a long time ago. We're going to do something we didn't do before. I won't tell you what it is !
FT : I hope to see you. I wish you guys the best of luck.
RJD : Thanks for all the compliments. Thanks especially for liking the album -- that's the most important thing. Because you don't know yourself unless you hear it from others. You know, you're too close to it most of the time. But it's great when other people give you those kinds of compliments !