#39. I met Ronnie James Dio (Tampa, 1998)

The best to ever do it.

Ronnie James Dio, arguably the greatest heavy metal vocalist who ever lived, helped bring Black Sabbath back to respect after Ozzy’s exit. Dio then went on to a platinum solo career. His non-ironic influence resonates through today’s minor-key metal; without Dio, there’d be no Chris Cornell. In 2000, Dio visited Tampa to perform with opening act Yngwei Malmsteen (whom I also met).

When Dio called my desk at the newspaper from his tour bus in Cleveland, Ohio, I happened to be in the bathroom, and so my colleagues put him on hold! The tape, which I still own, starts with me scolding my co-worker, “You don’t put Dio on hold!” I then pick up the phone and tell Dio what an honor it was to speak with him:

Michael Patrick Welch: So, you have been on the road a lot lately?

Ronnie James Dio: Yes, I just finished eight weeks on the road with Deep Purple and a 90 piece orchestra… It went so well they wanted to take it to South America for three weeks, then five weeks in Europe, and we finished in Poland three weeks ago. Now Dio is about to do Russia, England, South America, etc.

MPW: Did the Deep Purple gig make you want a string section? Seems like the orchestra would lend itself to a certain heaviness.

RJD: No. No. It was wonderful, magnificent and I especially enjoyed meeting the orchestra as people. They were actually the Transylvanian Orchestra. So there was a little consternation after 12 o’clock, everyone would lock their doors and put garlic around their necks. A wonderful orchestra. But for the kind of music I’ve always made I can do without the orchestra. We do that kind of thing with synthesizers. I think you can also get trapped in it. Metallica did it recently, I think the Scorpions are attempting to do it now. It’s like, have you forgotten how to write songs so now you’re putting strings to your old stuff? I think everything I have been involved in, Dio and Rainbow and Sabbath, they were done right the first time, without strings, and that’s how they should remain.

Tell me about the visuals for the upcoming shows.

It would be nice if it were the old days where we could bring dragons and pyramids and knights in shining armor and lasers and everything else, but unfortunately bands in the genre we play haven’t been given a lot of attention lately, and you have to earn a lot of money to spend a lot of money, so we aren’t bringing any stage props this time. But we will have great lighting which in some ways circumvents the need for dragons…

I read somewhere you said you prefer small venues because people don’t like to go to big venues anymore.

I think that might have been misquoted. I’d rather play at a big venue because you get to bring the props. And when you play a bigger place, people have the feeling that it’s a bigger event. What I might have said was that I love playing the smaller places because that’s where you prove how good you are, where you can’t hide behind anything and you have to look ’em in the eye. I take great pride that my bands were all great live bands, and in the small venues we proved what we were really worth.

Do you have any other artistic habits or hobbies aside from music?

Well, not to encroach upon your field Michael, but I’ve started quite a bit of writing. In the university I was a history major but actually minored in English so I have a little bit of expertise in that field, though I haven’t done it since college. I am going back to my roots — writing the novella for Magica made me realize I could still write, so I have begun an autobiography. I am about a third of the way through. But you have to focus to write at the level of what you consider real art. You can’t be watching a hockey game and think you’re going to write the next Jurassic Park or 2001… I’m also an extremely avid sports fan… So I feel a kinship to athletes, and actually had wanted to be an athlete more than a musician but unfortunately my stature didn’t get big enough for me to be what I wanted to be, which was a basketball player. But I was lucky I had music to complete my life.

Is anyone helping you write your biography?

No. I am the kind of person who never asks anyone for help. I haven’t even taken any vocal lessons. I started when I was five years old as a trumpet player and was lucky enough to play a lot of classical music, which is more my love than anything outside the genre that I am in. But I have always avoided lessons because what a vocal teacher teaches you is how to sound like they want to sound, and in the end that’s taking all your naturalness away — especially when you’re talking about rock-n-roll. It’s not the same when you’re talking about operatic movement, where you have to learn technique and you must have an instructor. But rock-n-roll is such a natural medium, and once you’ve got it too polished that takes away what you really have to offer. The same goes for writing with me: I feel that I am good enough at it that someone else would dilute [my story].

Good answer. I read you chose your stage name. What does “Dio” mean to you?

Well, literally it means God, which I had no idea when I chose it. I took it from a famous Floridian, a man named Johnny Dio who was a…I guess you’d have to say a mafia man… He wasn’t one of my heroes or anything but I am proud to be of Italian extraction, and I didn’t want to lose that in my stage name. I was reading something at the time about “underground figures” and the Italian name “Dio” popped out at me, and it seemed very concise. I just loved the name. And the number of coincidences that have followed, and when I was in Black Sabbath people really started playing with it as a word game, and and then other people assumed that I thought I was God or something, which of course I don’t.

Another great coincidence was when we picked the font style for “Dio” which has become very well known. Someone came to me one time and said, “It was very clever of you…” and I’m like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” “You know, if you turn Dio logo upside down it says, “devil.” I wish I could take credit for that. But that was purely a coincidence. People construe what they want to construe. When we were in Black Sabbath if people thought we were sacrificing children and sheep on stage, then we couldn’t change their mind.

Are people less caught up in religion nowadays?

I do believe that. You have ends of the spectrum: there are people who need to cling to religion because of the life that been put in front of us, and then there are those who, because of the life in front of us, believe there could be a God letting such cruelty happen — and I think more people are gravitating toward that end. And a lot of people are just saying they don’t have to go church because [god is] inside of them. I am actually a Taoist in that I believe that God and the Devil are both inside us and we have the choice to be evil or good.

Wouldn’t a loss of religion — or the loss of the crazy religious groups who’ve given heavy metal such great free advertising over the years– be bad for the heavy metal business?

I don’t think so. The “good” people — meaning, the religious people — read too much into it. They point and our music and say ‘Look what these people are saying!’ But what have we ever said? I have never said anything in praise of the devil. A great example is Black Sabbath; that name conjures up images of real demonic presence. And never ever did we defend ourselves and say, ‘No we’re actually good Catholic boys who grew up in good families,’ which was true [laughs]. Our music is not about evil, it’s about warning about evil. When we talk about the devil it’s saying, ‘There is a bad presence there, a…a devil if you want to think of it that way. And just beware of it because it’s gonna put you down the wrong path. But it’s being taken out of context…

Well your new greatest hits record is called “The Very Beast of Dio.” What is the “beast” that you’re referring to?

You’ll have to ask someone else about that because it’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t put this together, it wasn’t my idea to do it, it was done by people who thought it would be nice at this time to put out a greatest hits CD. It was just a play on words because, as you suggested, I’ve been associated more with the darker side. I am happy they put it out but it wasn’t for me to say how they did it.

Musicians from your generation of metal talk about how they’re winning new fans and I read something about how that’s not a concern of yours, that you realize your fans are just people who grew up with you. Your attitude is almost refreshing.

I just don’t think it can happen. Rock-n-roll is such a generational thing, and each generation has to embrace its own music. For my generation it was rock-n-roll, it was rebellious and it was ours to wave in the face of parents and the establishment. Of course you’re going to have some young people who like the music you make, because good music transcends all age boundaries. But I don’t see how anyone could delude themselves into thinking they’re out there changing the world where they are older than these people’s brothers and sisters and in some case older than their folks. We’ve never tried to do anything but make great music and be progressive and not get caught up in generational issues. Kids don’t want to see their moms and dads leaping about on stage, they want someone of their own ilk. I remember Bing Crosby said in 1857, “It looks like this rock-n-roll stuff has run its course.” And I am sure people in the Glenn Miller Band said it, and all those dissatisfied old farts who thought only big band music was the coolest — and I never wanted to be one of them. The reality is that if you’re good at what you do, you’ll have a fanbase, but don’t fool yourself that you’re out there winning new fans.

You get to meet your younger fans? What do they say?

I just ask them if they liked what they heard and they say “Wow, we love it,” and I ask where they heard our music and they say, “My brother played it for me I thought, ‘Wow, I love it, this is really opening up something for me.’” Of course there are a lot of classic rock stations now too that will turn kids on to old music. Good product is good product.

Do your younger fans talk to you about the other bands they like?

They sometimes ask me if I like Disturbed, or Pantera. They respect me and want to know what my perspective of their music is, and they hope I don’t say, ‘Well I think this rock-n-roll stuff has run its course” [laughs]. I don’t. And they are really pleased that I understand where they come from. We talked about “play” before, and we must stay very young inside of us, as artists. The body gets older but I’ve never gotten older than 18 or 21 inside of me, and young people equate with that, and feel that I understand that. I’ve always been more of a champion of younger people than people my own age, because they’re who we’re leaving our legacy to, and there is a hell of a broader scope of problems out there now that I didn’t have to deal with as a kid. So I feel strongly for them.

Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.

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