“Rock is not the devil’s work, it’s magical and rad!”
Those lyrics come courtesy of Jack Black in “Kickapoo,” a song used in the opening scene of the ill-fated Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny. A young version of Jack is singing to his Ronnie James Dio poster, trying to figure out how to escape his suburban malaise.
Much of that film was fantastical (if not fantastic), but that moment was something that thousands of metal fans who grew up in the ’80s could identify with. Metal was an escape from the doldrums of the ‘burbs. To be clear, we’re talking about heavy metal here, not any of its offshoots like thrash or glam metal. And no one flew the flag of metal as ardently, and consistently as RJD (although you can make arguments for Iron Maiden and Judas Priest). He never got close to the Top 40 singles charts, and didn’t seem to care; he had his people and that was what mattered. Dio got love and respect from the fans and fellow musicians because of his incredible singing voice, and his great catalog of songs. But also because he never sold out his genre or his fans.
That love and respect is evident on Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life, a tribute album out this week (April 1) featuring his peers (Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford, Motorhead and the Scorpions), as well as his disciples (Anthrax, Slipknot‘s Corey Taylor, Halestorm, Metallica and nearly every other artist on this collection).
For those who are unfamiliar with the man’s phenomenal career – and we’ll try not to judge you here (much) – Ronnie James Dio has fronted no less than three classic metal bands. First there was Rainbow (the band Ritchie Blackmore formed after leaving Deep Purple). RJD was with them for their first three albums (which most fans would agree were their best): 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1976’s Rising and 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. After that, he had the confidence and chops to replace the un-replacable: he took over as the singer in Black Sabbath after Ozzy Osborne‘s departure; 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules gave the band one of the great “act twos” in rock and roll history.
Taylor tells Radio.com that “It didn’t matter what band he was with, the power of what he did just translated over any type of music. Rainbow is very different from Sabbath, and Sabbath is very different from Dio. He could pick up on any type of music and make it his own. He was wonderful. He’s one of the best metal singers of all time… it’s hard to sing his songs!” Indeed, he t0ok on one of the hardest, and most iconic, “Rainbow In The Dark.”
“That’s been my favorite Dio song since I was very young,” he says. “I remember being so taken by the video and the song itself. it was so damn catchy. And it’s just been one of those songs that has stuck with me through the years. A lot of people gravitate towards [Black Sabbath’s] ‘Heaven and Hell,’ and ‘Mob Rules,’ or of course [Dio’s] ‘Holy Diver,’ that’s probably the one that people instantly recognize. But ‘Rainbow in the Dark,’ I was lucky that it wasn’t already taken, but I called dibs pretty much immediately. ‘That’s mine!’ I just tried to make it my own and do it in the spirit of the song. It is such a brilliant song.”
In fact, it was Anthrax who recorded a new version of “Mob Rules.” Guitarist Scott Ian told Radio.com that his entire band are followers of Dio. “We were all huge fans since way back. I heard him on the first Rainbow record. Years later, I heard some old 45’s of him singing doo-wop! And that was great too!” He’s not kidding: while Dio is an icon of heavy metal, he started his music career singing in doo-wop acts including Ronnie and the Red Caps and Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, before moving to heavy rock with a band called Elf, and then after that, Rainbow. “But pretty much everything he’s done, especially his work with Sabbath, was a huge influence on Anthrax, and certainly on [Anthrax singer] Joey [Belladonna]. Joey is a massive Ronnie fan,” Ian says.
Taylor and Ian are probably the average age of Dio fans; that’s not the case for Lzzy Hale, who was born the year after Dio’s debut album, 1983’s Holy Diver, was released. Yet, her band Halestorm covered “Straight Through The Heart” from that album. But unlike Jack Black in the Tenacious D flick, she had parents who liked to rock: in fact, she tells Radio.com that they turned her on to Dio at a young age: “Holy Diver was actually the first album that I heard from Dio, thanks to my very cool parents. When I got interested in singing and being in a band, they were like, ‘Here, get into some real music.’ It was Dio and Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and all the ’70s hard rock and metal stuff. ‘Straight Through The Heart’ has been a part of my life for a long, long time.”
Tribute albums with A list lineups are always difficult to put together, and RJD’s wife/manager Wendy Dio, who produced the album, told Radio.com that it has been in the works for two and a half years. It was a long haul, due mostly to hectic schedules by the artists, but everyone was eager to pay tribute; also, the album is raising funds for the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. “I asked Glenn Hughes first,” she said, referring to the former Deep Purple bassist/singer. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ Then I went to Rob Halford, who was also a good friend of Ronnie’s. Then, Metallica called to see if they could be involved, and then Corey Taylor and Anthrax.” From there, the project took on its own momentum.
Which is no surprise to Taylor: “It’s kind of a sign of what this community is, the metal community is very, very tight. And that’s one of things that I’m most proud of. Some of us may not get along, but for the most part, man, in times of trouble we come together. I don’t know if you can say that about other genres. I’m very proud of the fact that we came together for a great cause, it’s a reflection of what this family is all about.”
(In related Dio/charity news, Wendy Dio tells Radio.com “We’re gonna reissue the Hear N Aid album next year,” referring to heavy metal’s answer to “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” that Dio organized in 1985. “That’ll be a DVD too. we’ve got so much footage. Maybe some of the artists who couldn’t get on this, can be involved with that,” mentioning Iron Maiden, as a possibility. Asked further questions about the project, she says “I’m telling you secrets out of the box here!” and said that details of the release are still being worked out.)
A lot of the Dio love on this tribute album is about his body of work, and what he stood for, but also because, by all accounts, he was a cool guy. Hale recalls opening for Dio-era Sabbath (who had changed their name to Heaven and Hell, to avoid confusion with the Ozzy-era lineup). “It was in 2009, we were called and asked us to fill in for Coheed and Cambria,” who had been scheduled to open. “We played the gig, and I was uber-nervous because I am a huge fan. It was the House of Blues at Atlantic City. I look to the balcony and there’s Ronnie James Dio and [Heaven and Hell/Black Sabbath bassist] Geezer Butler! After our set, for the rest of the night, I was like a total fangirl! Here’s a guy in his 50s who can hit higher notes than I can! After the show, Ronnie took the time to come and hang out with us. My dad was there, so I introduced him to my dad. [Dio] made you feel like you knew him for your entire life. Later on, outside the buses, he went out and signed autographs for every fan. And then after that, he came back to our vechile to make sure he said goodbye. I said to him, ‘I just watched you play that set, hang out with us, sign autographs for all your fans… you didn’t have to come back here to say goodbye to us!’ He looks at me – this is amazing – he wags his finger in my face. “Lzzy, it’s a moment in time. you might not remember the gigs or the people you meet or their faces or their names, but they will remember you. So you have to make it a good moment for everybody!’ I’m like, ‘Yes, sir!’ I still think about that and what he said every time we’re doing one of these two hour signings, I think “What would Ronnie do.” And then I think “that’s the way to be.”
A bonus for all of the participants on the album: being rendered in comic book super-hero form on the album cover, and image wholly appropriate for a Dio tribute. Scott Ian, whose band has worked with legendary comics artist Alex Ross on their artwork, was blown away: “I had no idea that was coming! That artwork is amazing!”
Taylor concurs: “I was like ‘Whoa!’ It’s killer! it’s ridiculous man! I didn’t expect to be up front! I thought I’d be behind the Metallica boys. Everything from this is going to a very worthy cause, but at the same time, we wanted it to be exciting and fun, and Ronnie would have wanted that.”
Also in the front row is Hale: “I was floored that they put me up front. It’s awesome! It’s such a tremendous honor, I’m standing – at least in cartoon form – in line with my idols and people who influenced our band. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought I’d be this tiny little head in the back, and I’d be fine with that! My teenage self is doing backflips about this.”
In the back of the cover image, you can see Jack Black and Kyle Gass, aka Tenacious D; they do a fairly straight cover of Dio’s “The Last In Line” for the album. Their association with Dio began with their song “Dio,” from their 2001 self-titled debut album. The lyrics included “He has songs of Wilder Beasts and dangers/He has soared on the wings of a demon!” Wendy recalls, “Everyone was afraid to let Ronnie hear it, and I was like, ‘I’ll play it for him.’ He was like, ‘It’s hysterical, I want to meet these guys!” He invited them to appear in his 2002 “Push” video and then, of course, he appeared in The Pick Of Destiny. “Ronnie loved to make fun of himself, he was very much a joker,” Wendy says.
Of course, elsewhere in “Dio,” the D sang “It’s time to pass the torch!” And while this very singular talent won’t ever be replaced or forgotten in the hearts of metal fans, some of his more famous fans have done an admirable job of helping preserve his legacy on This Is Your Life.
— Brian Ives, Radio.com