Soaring on the Wings of a Demon

It's a ubiquitous sign for the ages. Whether thrown in rapture or irony, the pinky-and-index-finger extended "devil horns" might mean something different to UT sports fans or Shakespearean scholars, but to fans of classic hard rock and heavy metal it means, quite simply, Ronnie James Dio.

Nobody has thrown the horns more unabashedly and consistently in his career than Dio, metal's biggest voice in its smallest (5'3") body. And now the truth can be told: The horns did not spring forth from the fiery pits of hell or a dark dragon's cave. They came from Dio's Italian grandmother.

"She used to flash that sign all the time. It was protection against the 'evil eye' as well as a way to give it," Dio says. "It was natural for me to do, and it's become a symbol of the bond between me and the audience. But I didn't invent it. Some caveman probably laid it on his buddy, Og!"

Dio also knows the power of the sign in concert. "Sometimes I tease the audience with it, but then when I do it, the place goes nuts," he laughs. "It's like 'Yes! The horns! That's what we came for! And here I thought it was the music..."

For fans of Ronnie James Dio throughout his three decades-plus career -- first with the boogie-rock band Elf to his high-profile frontman duties for Rainbow and Black Sabbath, to fronting the current band that bears his name -- it is the music as much as the man.

Both are enjoying quite a renaissance. Last year's Killing the Dragon drew praise from metal fans. This year has seen the concert DVD Evil or Divine and an excellent double-disc career-spanning Rhino anthology Stand Up and Shout! And finally, he's the subject of Tenacious D's "Dio," which admonishes the singer of "wildebeests and angels" to "pass the torch" because of his age.

"I knew right away it was obviously tongue in cheek, and I thought it was cool they did that," Dio says. The duo even later appeared in the video for Dio's "Push" single. "They're both huge rock fans, and Jack [Black] is the most intense guy I've ever met. I was flattered."

He was also surprised to find himself in the most recent "Hot" issue of Rolling Stone. "I'm always happy to be recognized, and we have such a wonderful fan base," he says. "The people who like this style of music have always been there, it's just that other forms came and took its place. Probably because it got redundant and boring." And though he never sees a return of metal's glory days of the mid-'70s to mid-'80s, that doesn't mean he likes the crop of nü-metal acts either.

"I respect their right to do it, but from a singer's sucks," he offers. "And I'm sick and tired of being told how tough life is and how traumatic everything is and how hard it is being young. It's pretty damn hard being older, too!"

Even harder, it seems, for the man whom Dio replaced at the helm of Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne is now a mumbling, semi-conscious reality sitcom star who shuffles around in his sweatpants scooping up dog shit and being dominated by his shrewish wife and spoiled-ass kids. This is what happened to the fucking Prince of fucking Darkness?

"Ozzy's legacy is now incredibly tarnished. I would be more concerned about the people I'm making music for. I thought he was supposed to portray himself better, but now they have him as some guy with an affliction," says Dio. "To see this's sad. But it's what he wants and there's money involved. So who am I to say? It's just sad, because he's one of the guys who invented heavy metal."

Ronnie James Dio himself could also take some credit for the birthing. After recording three records with Elf in the early '70s, Dio yearned for a harder sound. So when guitar wizard Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple to form Rainbow, he took Dio along, creating pivotal records and signature songs like "Man on the Silver Mountain" and "Long Live Rock and Roll."

As the '80s began, Dio had an even bigger challenge, stepping into the genre's 800-pound gorilla outfit when Ozzy's substance abuse got him booted from a sputtering Sabbath. Dio -- who writes his lyrics -- responded and the group resurged with Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, both favorites among critics and fans. Dio brought an even darker, heavier sound to the mix, and his signature screech literally forced the title tracks and songs like "Neon Knights" down your throat.

Amazingly, Dio was then booted from Black Sabbath, and he's still not sure exactly why. "I don't understand where the tension came from. [Bassist] Geezer [Butler] was my best friend in the band. But you'd probably have to say that there were too many drugs going down at the time," he says. "And when success kicked in again, so did all the old vices."

Dio says that Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi later "apologized" to him and drummer Vinny Appice (who would also leave with Dio) during sessions for their 1984 reunion record Dehumanizer, but it clearly still rankles. "I don't know how much from the heart it was, but I wasn't angry, I was more hurt. It was a great time in my life and my favorite band to be in."

He would waste no time though, launching the band Dio whose first three efforts out of the gate, Holy Diver, The Last in Line, and Sacred Heart hit big and established him finally and firmly as a metal god. Like most of his record covers, they featured Murray, Dio's trademark giant demon. Commercially, there was success with his most famous song, "Rainbow in the Dark," buoyed by a video that was in constant rotation on early MTV. But it's a good thing that Dio the man didn't act on first impulse.

"I really hated it when we did it and it's not my favorite song. It's just too poppy," Dio says, adding that it was only at his band's insistence that the song didn't end up as Dio wanted it -- in razor-torn shreds on the studio floor. "Musically, it's just those same three 'Louie Louie' chords with a hook around it. But thank God they talked me out of it!"

Dio continued to produce records through the rest of the '80s and '90s, and continued to be railed against by religious and moral groups for his use of "Satanic" themes and visuals in his music, which actually relied equally on fantasy and mythology.

"I've always been telling people that there's evil in the world, but [music] is not going to make you run out and be a killer or child abuser," he says, adding that the evil in the title track from Killing the Dragon could be a presence, a bad king, or computer technology.

He was equally miffed about the mass song censorship that happened on radio across the country in the wake of September 11, something he addresses in that record's "Rock and Roll" with lyrics about "the song police." "Here we are asking people to go and fight and die, but they can't listen to a certain song or type of music? It's ludicrous."

Today, the New Yorker born Ronald Padavona (who is, depending on the source, is either 54 or 61 years old) is on the crest of a new wave. He's still out there shooting the horns, slaying dragons, and wailing about heaven and hell with a voice and look mostly unravaged by time.

"Every time I go on stage, I know that half the audience came to see me, and they've dragged the other half along. I don't want to make the first half liars," he sums up. "I don't want to disappoint."

Unlike, say, Ozzy?

"There will be no reality shows in my future!" Dio laughs. "Only music!"

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero