Dio Disciples Keep Ronnie James' Metal Flame Alive

When Ronnie James Dio succumbed to stomach cancer in May 2010 (some reports say it occurred here at M.D. Anderson), heavy metal lost its arguably greatest voice. And with a career spanning decades in bands like Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath/Heaven & Hell, and his own Dio, he left a lot of material to throw up the devil horns to.

In an effort to keep his music being performed live and give fans sort of a collective grieving venue that still rocked, Dio's widow/manager Wendy Dio has coordinated The Dio Disciples tour. The band features Craig Goldy (guitar), Rudy Sarzo (bass), Scott Warren (keyboards), and Simon Wright (drums), all of whom did time in Dio. For vocals, duties are split between multi-band singers Tim "Ripper" Owens and Toby Jepson.

Owens is probably most familiar to the masses for his stint replacing (and then being replaced by) Rob Halford as vocalist in Judas Priest. He was a tribute-band screamer who got to front the real deal. and whose story was the inspiration -- much to his chagrin -- for the Mark Wahlberg movie Rock Star.

Today, in addition to his solo career and stint with the Disciples, Owens also sings for Yngwie Malmsteen's band, Beyond Fear, Charred Walls of the Damned, and Hail!

Rocks Off somehow squeezed into Ripper's schedule, tighter than a pair of leather pants, as he spoke from his Akron, Ohio, home about Dio's legacy, the current Judas Priest controversy, and how hot wings and heavy metal go together.

Rocks Off: How did you hear about the project, and why did you want to be part of it?

Tim "Ripper" Owens: I think with Ronnie, he was such a legend and a friend and everybody loved him. When Wendy mentioned that she wanted to do something to celebrate his music, I wanted to be involved. It was a no-brainer, and I was excited. And we wanted to do it the right way, with people that Ronnie would want to do it. He was such a great person, no one nicer in the industry and vocally, he was the best.

RO: I have to agree. I did a phone interview with him once, then spent about 15 minutes with him backstage one night, and he was incredibly generous.

TRO: Everybody was his friend, no doubt about it.

RO: When did you first hear his music?

TRO: I'm not exactly sure. I really got into him when the band Dio came out, and then I kind of went back in his career. I'm sure it was Holy Diver.

RO: When did you first meet him?

TRO: It was 1997. I had just finished recording Jugulator [with Judas Priest] and went to his show here in Cleveland and went backstage. I was in awe, and he said, "Well, Tim, you're one of us now, you're just like me." And from then on, he was great and would tell the press I was one of his favorite singers. We just connected.

RO: You've already done some shows in Europe. Which song has been your personal favorite to sing?

TRO: That's tough. There are so many emotional parts in the evening. You know what, I enjoy singing "Heaven and Hell" and watching the people get into it. But emotionally, it's "Rainbow in the Dark." It's a hard one to sing. This feeling just comes out.

RO: Which has been the biggest challenge vocally?

TRO: "Rainbow in the Dark!" You know, they're all a bit challenging! (laughs). There's so much power and light and shade in how he [did the songs]. And he sounded amazing all the way to the end.

RO: You have anything different planned for the U.S. shows in terms of material?

TRO: We have a couple of new ones we're going to try and throw in, but I don't think we're taking anything out. We'd like to do something off one of the albums that Craig and Simon played on together. But there are so many songs to pick, it's impossible to make a set list to satisfy everybody. It was the same thing when I was in Judas Priest.

RO: Since four of the six Disciples played with Dio at various times over the years, do you hear a lot of Ronnie stories?

TRO: Oh, all the time, and I loved to hear them. And remember, these are all people that I grew up listening to. We had a barbecue at Simon's house one day, and I heard just the most amazing stories. They're endless!

RO: I have to ask, what are your thoughts about founding guitarist K.K. Downing abruptly quitting Judas Priest?

TRO: Well you know, I'm friends with all the guys, and that's what happens. It's just a shame that they were going to embark on their last tour - though I think they've kind of backtracked on it. You know, whatever made it happen, it was probably for good reason, and I wish Ken success. He's probably got some other things he wants to do, and I wish the band all the success. But when they do end it for good, I hope it's something with Ken.

RO: You sing with a number of bands in addition to your solo career. Is the flexibility a good thing?

TRO: You know, they just sent over songs for the Yngwie for the next tour, which starts right after the Dio Disciples tour, a day later! I think you know, may I have a bit too much on my plate! But it is a blessing. I toured solo last year most of the time in Europe and South America, all over the world.

But it's funny that people are always telling me to do more music. I've also got a Hail! tour and new Charred Walls album. This is a real job. I just booked 12 shows in Australia for next May!

RO: So you have no spare time.

TRO: Well, I spend the summer with my family and my wife and kids. The kids are in cheerleading and piano and they're always running around. I also have a restaurant, Ripper Owens' Tap House, in Akron, Ohio. It's a rocking sports eatery, and we have a lot of acts play like L.A.Guns, the BulletBoys, and Lynch Mob.

RO: I know today that the cycle has come back for a lot of those '80s bands playing to big audiences and recording new stuff.

TRO: It's true. Not only with the hair metal bands, but Death Angel and Exodus and Testament. They've shot back up. The whole genre kind of disappeared, and the bands realized they won't be big recording artists again, but people still want to see them!

For more on Owens, visit timripperowens.com.

The Dio Disciples play 8 p.m. tonight at Scout Bar, 18307 Egret Bay Blvd., Clear Lake. With Oceans of Slumber, Owl Witch, and Sanctus Bellum. $20.

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