When it comes to the late heavy metal icon Ronnie James Dio, I must admit I’m a casual fan at best. I bought the CD The Very Beast of Dio (one of my all-time favorite compilation titles) some years ago and have heard some of his work with Black Sabbath. And I’ve always credited the diminutive singer for popularizing the rock horns hand gesture seen at metal shows the world over. Needless to say, I learned a lot from the fascinating new career-spanning documentary DIO: Dreamers Never Die, directed by Demian Fenton and Don Argott and recently screened at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Here are five fun facts about Dio gleaned from watching the film.
1) He got his name from a mobster.
Ronnie James Dio, whose birth name is Ronald James Padavona, took his stage name from New York mafia figure Johnny Dio. Johnny Dio (real name: John Dioguardi), who died in 1979, specialized in labor racketeering and was an ally of famed union boss Jimmy Hoffa. In 1956, Dioguardi was indicted for plotting to blind labor columnist Victor Riesel with acid.
“When he was in bands and stuff it was too long a name and not hip enough,” Dio’s wife and manager Wendy Dio said in the doc. “Ronnie was like [Dio] is evil, but it’s cool.”
2) He began his music career as a trumpeter and early rock ‘n roll crooner.
The directors include a clip of the 1958 recording “Conquest” by Ronnie and the Redcaps featuring Dio on trumpet. His first vocal performance release was the 1961 doo wop ballad “An Angel is Missing,” credited to Ronnie Dio and the Redcaps. I had no idea this heavy metal legend got his start crooning sweet, sentimental love songs.
In an archival interview, Dio explained that his training for being a horn player was perfect for singing.
“You play from the same place as you sing from – from your diaphragm. In my mind, my voice was a trumpet,” he said.
In the ‘60s, Dio recorded songs that had been made famous by crooners Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. (Never would have thought I’d write Humperdinck and Dio in the same sentence). Dio even cut “The Way of Love,” a big hit for Cher in the early ‘70s, over five years before Cher did.
3) The devil horns were inspired by his grandmother.
Dio’s trademark devil horns gesture came from his Italian grandma. His grandmother was very superstitious and would often use the devil horns to ward off evil. In fact, the “mano cornuta,” which translates to “horned hand,” is an ancient Italian amulet worn as protection against “The Evil Eye.”
“It means long live rock ‘n roll,” Dio tells the crowd in a clip from a concert on Black Sabbath’s Black & Blue Tour when he introduced it in 1980. “Put ‘em up!”
It caught on in a big way, and by the end of the concert, the entire crowd was doing it.
“I’m not the only one who’s used it, of course,” Dio said in an archival interview. “But I must say, I’ve used it the most and probably am most known for it now. It’s a connection between the music that we play, which is hard and heavy and pretty damn evil.”
4) He recorded a heavy metal response to “We Are the World.”
Dio wanted to be a part of “We Are the World,” the star-studded 1985 charity recording featuring the likes of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. Dio wasn’t invited because, according to his wife, he was one of those “nasty heavy metal dirty people.” So, Dio did is his own version in a project called Hear ‘N Aid. Released in 1986, the charity record, “Stars,” which, like “We Are the World,” supported famine relief in Africa, featured 40 heavy metal musicians, among them Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Dokken’s Don Dokken.
“Ronnie was the captain of the ship and he steered us through what could have been an absolute catastrophe,” comments Halford.
Respect and admiration for Dio pervades the film. Said Dokken: “I have to admit, I was scared shitless, I was playing with Ronnie James Dio!”
“Stars” is nearly eight minutes long in its full version. “I think about six and a half minutes are guitar solos going back and forth because there’s about 15 players taking different sections,” said heavy metal historian and SiriusXM host Eddie Trunk. “I love that it showed that just because you’re into metal, it doesn’t mean you’re a moron. You can still have social issues and care about things.”
5) He had to use his own mic for the film Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny.
The opening sequence (and best part) of the 2006 comedy The Pick of Destiny tells the origin story of Tenacious D. Meat Loaf plays Jack Black’s overbearing father who disapproves of him listening to heavy metal. “You gotta praise the Lord when you’re in my home!” Black prays to Dio and he comes to life in the Dio poster on his wall.
Black, a massive Dio fan, shares that the songs were recorded before they began filming. He tells the story of how Dio came to the studio with his own microphone attached to a stand with a cord.
“We’re like, ‘Awesome, but we’re at John King’s studio, he’s a Dust Brother, we’ve got like the best mics in the world here,” Black said. “Let’s try it on the Sennheiser 5000 first.”
Well, the high-tech mics didn’t cut it.
“This sounds like I’m making this up,” Black said, “But dude laid down such a heavy vocal that it was distorting.”
After going through three cutting-edge mics, the producers finally plug in Dio’s old school mic he brought, and Voila! they get the recording. “It just sounded like Dio,” Black said.
Those are my five highlights; I learned plenty more about the man, the myth, and the legend. I highly recommend DIO: Dreamers Never Die for both hardcore metalheads and more casual fans like myself. Even if you don’t care at all about heavy metal, I think you’ll find Dio compelling. He comes across as a kind, thoughtful and literate figure who overcame much adversity over the course of his long and remarkable career. The film makes clear why Dio remains highly revered in the heavy metal world over 10 years after his death — he was always bad ass.