Although he's a legendary figure in the heavy metal world, Ronnie James Dio doesn't have the mainstream name recognition factor of other metal pioneers like, say, Iron Maiden or Ozzy Osbourne. But he's got the devil horns.
You know, the slightly demonic hand gesture with a raised index finger and pinkie that has long been as an essential element as jeans to the hard rock fan's concert accessories. The soft spoken gentleman with the loud personality and one of rock's most distinguishable voices, may not have been the first person to use the devil horns sign, but he's now synonymous with it. So much so that when rock & roll comic Jack Black parodies /honors heavy metal singers, it's Dio he's emulating.
"Of course, I invented the devil horns," Dio said with a laugh during a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post ahead of his Israel debut on October 29 in Tel Aviv. "Actually I saw my grandmother do it when I was a kid. She used it to ward off the evil eye. I think someone named Og invented it 50,000 years ago. But I've become synonymous with it. I'm proud of starting a trend that will last and has become a symbol."
Dio could have been referring to himself - the symbol of metal grand wizardry. But the New Hampshire native who transplanted to the countryside of Courtland, New York as a small child almost didn't choose the rock & roll world.
"I began playing trumpet when I was five, and grew up listening to opera, a nod to my Italian heritage. Then I formed my first rock band when I was 11. It's obvious in my performances there's lots of crossover. I eventually was offered a scholarship to Julliard, but I didn't want to go in that direction," he said.
Dio credited the proximity of SUNY Courtland to introducing him to the exotic sounds coming out of the 60s musical revolution.
"The students that came there were mostly from Long Island and Brooklyn, and they brought their own music with them and their attitudes - you could say more cosmopolitan. So I got a chance to emulate the kind of music they brought - people like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Sam and Dave. I got into music from the soulful end - at the end of the day, rock is blues-based."
Singing in a long line of non-starter bands, Dio finally gained a level of popularity with the band Elf - who opened up a tour for British giants Deep Purple, who were impressed with his vocal pyrotechnics. This propelled Dio into stints as vocalist for a solo project by Purple keyboardist Roger Glover and in the late 1970s and early 80s as frontman for Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and as Ozzy's replacement in Black Sabbath.
"It never seemed strange to me to go from being a fan of Deep Purple to playing in bands with Roger Glover and then singing with Blackmore's Rainbow. That was supposed to happen, it was part of a plan. I've never been one accused of lacking self-confidence," he said.
With that self-confidence, Dio found it only natural to step out on his own. He formed Dio in the early 1980s and the band quickly became one of the country's biggest draws with one of the most over-the-top stage acts of its time loaded with props and special effects (lasers, explosions, a giant dragon) and matching lyrics mainly dealing with dungeons and dragons, swords and sorcery, damsels in distress. The band's 1983 debut "Holy Diver" is still considered a heavy metal classic.
"I was surprised at the success of 'Holy Diver.' When we first did Rainbow, Ritchie was antsy, after all it was his name on the product. I was sure it was going to be great, but he was the one out there," he said. "With Dio, it was my own name, and I was apprehensive - I hope this succeeds. I know what Ritchie went through. I was totally unaware that it would become a blockbuster. And it has held up."
Between his involvement with some of hard rock's premiere units, Dio feels that he's helped to shape a generation of music fans.
" I feel proud to have been part of three things - I think - that have defined a generation of music. Rainbow 1, Sabbath's 'Heaven and Hell' - that band was dead in the water and we put it back together. Many people come up to me and say that this version of Sabbath was the one they grew up to - taking nothing away from Ozzy and the original...and Holy Diver. They all stand the test of time," said Dio. So much so, that Jack Black and his acoustic metal duo Tenacious D has formed a mutual admiration society with Dio.
"Jack and Kyle (Gass) are fans and appeared on a video that we did for a song called 'Push.' I was knocked out by him - this guy is knowledgeable about rock," said Dio.
"He especially like 'Heaven and Hell' - that's the one he grew up with. So in the video, he sang his own lyrics to the song and they appeared as two street buskers - it was hilarious. He told me that he and Kyle were in the process of writing a film and would I be in it? Two years later, I had forgotten about it, but he called and said 'are you ready?' He wanted me to play the part of Ronnie James Dio. I can do that pretty well, so I said sure."
The film is slated for release next year, and will undoubtedly introduce the undiminished talents of Dio to a new generation of headbangers, just as his current world tour is exceeding the expectations of longtime fans.
"I've been playing with these guys for years - For me, it's the culmination. It's not Ronny Dio and his boys, we're a band. My job is to be as good as the drummer is."