This will surprise some of my friends, but one of the first albums I ever bought — well, maybe among the first 30, and back then they were mostly the Columbia House cassettes I would order through my mom — was “Long Live Rock’n’Roll” by Rainbow in my junior year of high school (1977-78). I remember hearing the blistering title anthem on the radio, and thinking I needed to hear the rest of the album. And besides, it was Ritchie Blackmore’s band after he left Deep Purple — and every rock fan in the universe at the time, it seemed, either owned “Machine Head” or listened to it 3,700 times by that point — so we knew how good the guitar was.
OK, so I came to the album for the title song and for Blackmore — but I stayed for the singer.
Ronnie James Dio, who died of stomach cancer this morning, had a voice that blew me away, and probably a lot of other impressionable teens as well. And not-so-impressionable adults, too. He had one of the most powerful voices in rock’n’roll history — a loud but refined, barely contained fury, with a keen sense of the mythological and the dramatic.
The two things that come to mind about Dio: 1) How did he manage to pack such a powerful voice into such a diminutive body? 2) How the hell did he manage to do it so well for so long?
His age (67) and longevity might be the most surprising aspects of his life and career. He was a metal singer, but was closer to my parents’ age than mine. For crying out loud, he started in a
rockabilly band in the late ’50s! (And his career, like his musical tastes, followed a distinct line of progression: a rockabilly band in 1957 called The Vegas Kings, Ronnie & the Rumblers, Ronnie & the Redcaps and Ronnie Dio & the Prophets; then a late-’60s hard rock band called The Electric Elves with Prophets guitarist Nick Pantas, later called Elf — and that’s where Blackmore discovered Dio in the early ’70s, when he was opening for Deep Purple.)
I mean, it’s one thing to still be around at that age, like Lou Reed, and sing in that flat, unaffected tone, and still be very much in the game. It’s another for Dio, playing with his ex-Sabbath mates in Heaven and Hell, to be cranking his vocal chords at that high a level in his mid-60s.
My tastes had changed by the time I got to college, but Dio’s influence on music never wavered. In fact, it grew immensely a short time later. He made fans see there was life to Black Sabbath after Ozzy, and in the process created a metal classic. And how different would Beavis and Butt-head’s headbanging have been had Dio (or as Butt-head called him, “that dude from ‘Willow’”) not popularized the Italian devil’s horn as a universal gesture?
And even if I lost much of my taste for metal and the cartoonish stuff that went along with his tunes, I never lost my appreciation of Dio and his magnificent voice. Long live rock’n’roll, indeed.
Tags: Beavis and Butt-head, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Elf, Fran Fried, Franorama World, Heaven and Hell, Long Live Rock'n'Roll, Lou Reed, Machine Head, Pantas, Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore, Ronnie & the Redcaps, Ronnie & the Rumblers, Ronnie Dio & the Prophets, Ronnie James Dio, The Vegas Kings