Dignified, Intelligent, Objective: that’s what Dio could mean if it was an acronym, not a pseudonym. Borne from the genuine rock ‘n’ roll era, Ronnie James Dio has retained the music’s primal truth in the songs he’s been writing for the last 35 years. Three decades on since shooting skywards with RAINBOW and a quarter of a century since getting deep down with BLACK SABBATH, the singer is as down-to-earth as us mortals are, and when dialing his phone number one can be sure to have a warm, friendly chat. As for the wisdom, it’s all in here.
– This tour is taking you from Russia to Israel, from out of the cold and into the warm sun. How do you feel about it?
Well, the only thing we have to worry about is that we don’t get ill with the temperature changes, that’s all. But the weather doesn’t bother me, as we don’t really spend much time outside but it is the time when people start getting ill – getting flu’s, colds and things like that – when that happens it’s terrible!
– This is the first time you go to the Middle East. Still, you used the Eastern inflections before, in songs like “Egypt” or “Gates Of Babylon”. Where did that come from?
Because we don’t live in that area of the world, I think it’s a very mysterious place to us. Of course, it has been mysterious through our history, with all the writings from the Middle East, the Bible, all of the Biblical stories – from all religions, really. I think that that’s one thing that I like to do: I like the idea of having to use your imagination to think for yourself what that area is all about. And that’s just from historical aspect – but I love the Middle Eastern scales and just the attitude of the music as well. So a piece is written that’s very influenced by the Middle Eastern music – that I think is the only thing you can write about – it’s things like “Egypt” or “Stargazer”.
– By the way, a couple of months ago, I was talking to Doro Pesch who covered “Egypt”, and she asked me to tell you how she admires you.
Oh, she’s a great friend, she’s a great great performer, a great rock ‘n’ roller. She’s one of the best people that I know. Thank you for telling me that!
– And whose music do you love?
Those who influenced me were DEEP PURPLE, LED ZEPPELIN – mainly English bands of that era, but especially PURPLE and ZEPPELIN. That’s what made me want to do this more and more, and more, because the first band I was in back then, ELF, were much more a kind of honky tonk rock ‘n’ roll band, but I always wanted to be able to play heavier music. I loved their musicianship – I thought they were the best musicians on Earth! – those were the people I really cared about when I was into this kind of music.
– What about now? Is there any song recently that you found yourself walking about and humming along?
Last couple I can remember that were like that for me were THE DARKNESS – the song that was played on MTV all the time, that was interesting, and I kind of hummed along – but the one I liked the best was by the band called EVANESCENCE: I listened to their album and I like what they do. That’s the only things that I was singing along with lately. (Laughs.)
– And your songs: is it because of your unique voice that they are so rarely covered?
I think that’s an effect of the songs I’ve written, they’re very difficult to do. Some are okay, but most of the songs are very difficult to do for vocalists. And probably, most of it is because of my uniqueness, because that what I am, and I think it’s difficult for people to cope with what I am. I’ve invented myself, which I thought was important, I took my strengths, the things that I did well, and I applied them to the songs that we’ve written – not to make them difficult but that’s just the way I think. I think in a lot more orchestral terms, I lot more in melodic terms than most singers do, and I’m able to do it.
– Who would you like to see cover your songs?
Oh, I don’t care. I’d probably like people who don’t sound like me at all cover the songs. I’d like to have… Oh God, I don’t know! I wouldn’t even hazard a guess.
– Well, there was Pat Boone with “Holy Diver”. Who’s now? Solomon Burke? Al Green? James Brown?
(Laughs.) Solomon Burke? I don’t think so! I love them all but I don’t think that they’re the people to cover material that I’ve written. No, I don’t think so. Some of the older songs, maybe, but I think it would have to be someone a little bit more metal.
– If that would be metal people, they would be influenced by you. That’s why I’m happy to hear Paul Rodgers sing with QUEEN, because he’d not been influenced by Freddie Mercury.
Well, it was almost the same with what I had to do with BLACK SABBATH: I tried not to be Ozzy Osbourne. There are some songs when you just can’t help but sing what they are, but I never wanted to be Ozzy. I just wanted to be me without going too far over the edge. And I think that’s what Paul’s done – I think he’s gone so far over the top that you can’t recognize the songs anymore, but he’s retained his own identity and that’s important. That’s what I tried to do with SABBATH: to retain my own identity.
– Did this identity really come to you with the “Holy Diver” album?
I think my identity came about in RAINBOW. That’s what my true identity was.
– Now you’re back to “Holy Diver”, playing it live in its entirety. Is it a kind of full circle for you?
Uh, not really. I don’t look at it that way! It’s just something that was asked for, that they wanted us to do that had not been done before because the album was such a success. There were so many good songs – almost all of them are great songs. It’s just the chance to do something different, but no, I never feel anything that’s come round a full circle for me. To me, circle doesn’t end till I die.
– So what would you like to do now in terms of exploring something new?
I’d like to be involved in some film writing, music for films, especially for animated characters. I would really love to do that. As far as trying to create some other kind of new musical genre, I don’t feel the need to do that. I think once you are accepted for what you are, then you should stay what you are. I don’t think being Rod Stewart and doing a collection of ballad songs is going to make me happy or going to make the fans I’ve accumulated over all these years happy either.
– Talking of ballads, I think back in the ELF days your singing was much more soulful than later on…
I think that’s the matter of the music that you make, especially when it becomes more metal kind of music, when it becomes more blacky, where the songs lead themselves along, and there’s not a lot of spaces, not a lot of holes for soul. In ELF, we had a lot of space – we had the piano player [Mickey Lee Soule] that was featured really in the band, and that made for a lot of open holes for me to sing that way. But it was the music itself, really: I mean, the music was a lot more bluesy, perhaps – I think this is the word for it – bluesy and soulful, so I could do it that way. Once you start writing songs like the ones we mentioned before, whether it’s “Egypt” or “Man On The Silver Mountain” – a little more blacky songs – there’s not that much space to be that soulful. But that was okay with me because I know I can sing soulfully, but I just liked the strength and power of the music that didn’t have a lot of spaces.
– Don’t you regret losing that softness?
Eh… No, I don’t. That has never really been my attitude, really, to want to be in a ‘ballad’ band of any kind, or a soft band – that’s not something that ever made me happy. That’s why eventually I became what I have become: from ELF and the soulful times to what it is now. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I take a chance and sing a few little soft things here and there in some of the songs that we do, but they usually lead to the big heavy sounds. That’s kind of make you think, “Oh, this is gonna be a soft song!”, and then bang! – you get hit with it.
– So there’s no chance to hear you re-record, for example, “What I’d Say”?
I don’t think so! (Laughs.)
– Your version was one of the best I’ve ever heard.
Oh thank you! Thank you! It was fun to do that music but by the same token it was always someone else’s music, and I didn’t really want to do someone else’s music – I always wanted to write what I thought was best for me and what was best for the band. But thank you for the compliment: I enjoyed doing that stuff! I love Ray Charles, he always was one of my favorites – a genius of a singer, of a songwriter, of a player. I saw the movie “Ray” and I thought it was great.
– Well, about someone else’s songs. You’re not credited for writing a song called “Love Is All” on the “Butterfly Ball” album…
No, I didn’t write that song, it was written by Roger Glover and Eddie Hardin.
– …but I think it borrowed the melody from ELF’s “Carolina County Ball”. How come?
(Laughs.) You know, maybe a liitle bit it is so. You must remember that Roger Glover was a producer for our band, for ELF, for three albums, and maybe that had a little bit to do with it. It was a little bit like that but more like a BEATLES song than anything else, more like “All You Need Is Love” than “Carolina County Ball”. But we liked THE BEATLES in ELF as well, and Roger liked the music that we made a lot, so I think maybe there was a little bit of it, maybe. But I didn’t deserve credit for that; they wrote that song.
– The bands you were in: what have you learnt from each of them?
I think what you learn the most is dealing with people. When you start a band you never think about what are the problems there are going to be – all you think about is music that you’re making and how much fun it is to play music, to sing, to write, all these things – and then you start to realize that you are dealing with people who got their own problems, so that means that nothing is going to last forever. I think that’s the lesson I’ve learnt from all the bands from all the bands that I’ve been in. I always thought that each band that I was in was going to be the beginning and the end, that I would always be in that band, and when I retire I would retire from that band; that we’d become like THE ROLLING STONES and go on forever and never change anything – but what I learnt is that never happens, because people have different priorities: they have lives to live, they have problems, and their problems affect what’s going on in your band. Then, people have problems with each other and sometimes can’t stay forever – I learnt that.
Another thing I learnt is that there are always people out there wanting to take advantage of you, because musicians are usually very child-like people because all we do is play. We say we’re going to play a song and we’ll play it, it’s somewhere in the air for musicians: we don’t think about anything but the music because it’s all that gives us the joy. And in the meantime, there’s always a manager, or an agent, or someone who wants to take what you’ve got and what they can’t do and make lots of money from that, and leave you lying there on the ground. Those are the two things that I’ve learnt the most, so I think what the lesson learnt from that is, it’s that you should never go into something with your eyes closed. I’ve always realized that there are not only a few bad people in this world – there are many, many bad people in this world. And it’s one thing that you love the music, but as long as you’re smart enough to see that someone is out there trying to take advantage of you, you learn a little more about this business, which I did. I’ve learnt more about it, who was going to take advantage of me and who wasn’t.
Musically… Music is music, and it’s either you get better or you don’t get better. To me, the greatest lesson I’ve learnt musically is that if you’re not different, no one’s going to care about you. You can’t be a copy of someone else, and if you’re good enough to create your own identity, then people will like you, but no one wants to have the same thing over and over, and over again. So as a musician, it’s one thing to be a good player, but it’s another thing to have an identity, to create something that is so different from what all the other people are doing that you will be the best.
– The way you put it somehow reminds me of Cat Stevens’ song “Wild World”. You know this song?
Yeah, of course, I do. Of course, I do, yeah. Yeah, I know this song really well! And that’s so true: very often you get people who will be smart enough and good enough to write a song like that, that will explain it all, that really will. And that’s certainly one of them.
– Still, as I had to comment after our previous interview, the synonym for ‘Dio’ is ‘dignity’. I mean, too often people were badmouthing you, whereas you never had a bad word about anyone.
I think that’s an awful thing to do. I think you should take everything that comes your way as it’s been happy and enjoy it, while things that would happen that seem to be really terrible and make you angry are better left unsaid. There are two roads to take, the low road and the high road, and I’ve always felt with people I’ve worked with if it ended badly it didn’t matter, because all the good things that happened, whether it’s musically or the good times we had together as people, are more important than to shout it to the rest of the world. You have to remember that if you’re strong enough, you can just carry on on your own anyway – it doesn’t matter what anyone else has done to you: just put that away and be poised to be carrying on. So I have no reason to say anything bad about anybody – they’ve all been such an important part of my life that it’s something I just keep in my heart.
– Where does this attitude come from?
It’s from my parents. They always told me, “Don’t think that you’re better than anyone else, that you’re so special just because you can do one thing well”. I mean, I can sing well but I can’t repair my car, so that doesn’t make me better than the man who can repair my car which doesn’t make him better than me because he can’t sing. So my parents told me, “It’s your way to make, and along the way you’re going to have problems but it’s always better to smile with the problems and to carry on and just go on with your life”. It all comes from them.
– Is your Italian heritage important to you?
Yes, it is. It’s very important to me. When you live in this country, in America, you’re surely born here, but not a lot of people who lived here forty of fifty years ago – they all came from immigrants, and because of that, most of the people in this country have taken their ethnic attitude and bonded together. They created Italian neighborhoods everywhere. There are Greek neighborhoods everywhere, there are German areas everywhere, there are English areas everywhere in this country. And I think it’s a very important thing that people have continued to remember their heritage. I grew up with my grandmother and grandfather who were immigrants from Italy, and so I had a great chance to look into that and be proud of where I came from and proud of where they came from. But the world has changed quite a bit in the last thirty or forty years, because more people are being born in this country and consider it not really that important to worry about where their grandparents came from. But not for me, for me it’s always been very important that Italians want to sing, that they laugh aloud because it’s made me what I am.
– Did you ever think to create – maybe for a joke only – the wholly Italian band? With Vinny Appice and, I don’t know, Vinnie Colaiuta, maybe?
Well, we almost had that in BLACK SABBATH if you remember. We had Vinny and Tony [Iommi] and myself and Geezer – three Italians and Geezer Butler! (Laughs.) In fact, Geezer used to call us GEEZER AND THE ITALIANS.
– Talking about America, do you take this “Dio for President” campaign seriously?
No, of course, not. I’m sure it was it was tongue-in-cheek as well and wasn’t meant to be serious, but it was a nice compliment. But although people think I would be a good President, it’s not a job that I would ever take upon. I don’t want to be involved in government, I think it’s a most horrible thing that there is. Governments get stronger and stronger and the people get weaker and weaker – I don’t want to be a part of that and I could never make those decisions anyway.
– So it’s a not a role you’d like to play?
It’s not a role I’d like to play, no. Maybe I’d play that role if it were a film but that’s not a role I would like in real life, no.
– What about this theatrics thing that you do on stage, all these gestures? I think it started in SABBATH with “Heaven And Hell”.
Once again, I think a lot of that has to do with me being Italian: we are very expressive with our hands. And my theory has always been, when you sing a song you don’t just sing the words – you’re supposed to sing what it’s all about. Which is why I don’t get tired of singing some the same songs over and over and over and over again, because they’re supposed to mean something. So when I interpret those songs, I’m inside of that, and the meaning is important to me. So my gestures on-stage is part of my explaining as it would be if I talked to you: my hands would be leading into a place where I’m talking about living – about pain, or about Evil, or about Good. It’s part of my heritage, and also because I think it’s important to try to be the interpreter of the song.
– Does that mean you’re living a song you’re singing when you sing from the first person point of view?
Ah… (quite a long pause) I think I always sing from the first person point of view because, again, I always consider myself to be more a storyteller than a songwriter. I have the greatest sources of subjects in the world: that’s the people who live on this planet, who are always the best things to write about because they’re very predictable and also very unpredictable. And if you write about a subject that people know about – and everybody know about the people because we see each other all the time – that’s very important. What I do is I try to write those songs about real subjects but I put them in a different place. I put them in a fantasy place, perhaps, or I put them back thousands of years because that makes you have to use your imagination. You have to think about what a dragon looks like because none of us has even seen one; we’ve only seen pictures that people drew up in their minds but once again, I think it’s very important for people to use their imagination. But again, I’m telling the same story, probably, that everyone else has told, I’m just saying it in a different way – maybe in a way that, perhaps, is a little bit more interesting and imaginative.
– But you can’t really be associating yourself with the words, “I’m darkness, I’m anger, I’m pain”! You’re not like it!
Yeah, of course, I am. I’m all of those things. I am those things. All of us are those things. There’s darkness in everyone. There’s pain in many people. There’s goodness in everyone. We have choices to make, and our choices are: “Am I going to be at that dark side?” or “Am I going to be at the good side?” That’s up to each persons to make that determination. I’m worried about things that are inside of me and inside of everybody else, too, ’cause I’m not just writing the songs from the first person’s aspect: there’s a message inside of every song, it’s meant to be said to the people I’m singing a song for. So there are songs that I have written a little bit more in the first person than others, but mainly I write songs so that people can make judgements as to what I’m saying – and, perhaps, have a better time of it, so to speak.
– How often do you get angry and why?
I get angry as much as anyone else does. I get angry when I see injustice. I get angry when I see people suffer. Of course, I am very sad when I see people suffer but I’m very angry too, because this suffering shouldn’t be. We waste so much in this world on pleasure things and don’t really seem to care about the people and, especially, children – that’s the worst kind of suffering and that makes me very very angry. Government makes me angry because of the bad choices that it make – [I’m talking] not just about this government here, in this country, but governments everywhere. I’m angry about those things, just like any other person should be. Of course, I’m angry sometimes about the music if it’s not right: I get angry because I need to have it right. So there are many things that can make me angry, but I’m not an angry person all the time, I’d like life to be good and I like to share the good things with other people.
– You’ve written, I guess, several hundreds of songs. But if you were to pick the most cherished lyric what would that be?
I think, probably, a part of the song “Heaven And Hell”: “the world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams, it’s Heaven and Hell”, because to me that speaks about what happens to musicians. That was obvious that there are people in this world who always going to try and take advantage of you – and do take advantage of you. Those kings and queens are the people who think that they are so important, who want to take advantage of you, and that makes your life Heaven and Hell. Promises that you’re going to get [is] the Heaven part, and Hell [is] when they don’t come real. Just off the top of my head, that’s my favorites.
– Those advantages… I don’t feel good about pushing you and Ritchie Blackmore towards RAINBOW reunion. I think Ritchie’s happy with what he’s doing now, and that’s great, while you’re happy with your thing as well.
Oh yeah, I totally agree. I know that Ritchie is not going to [do it] because he likes very much what he’s doing, it’s a place that he wants to be in. And it’s not something that I would look forward to, either. It’s not a problem between Ritchie and myself, of course: you know, we’ve never had any problems at all – some people find him very difficult, and I never found him difficult at all, I found him to be just a genius as a player and a genius as a writer. He just wanted some perfection, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be, so we never had a problem with that. we’ve only had nothing but respect for each other. That wouldn’t have been a problem. But I think what would be a problem is stopping what both of us are doing just for the sake of doing one concert. I’ve always thought that if RAINBOW was going to get back together, it should certainly be a tour and an album. But now that’s Cozy Powell is not there anymore that makes a very big difference too: without Cozy, it would just be Ritchie and I, and I think it was necessary to have Cozy there. So it’s not something that everybody wants to happen again.
– But what is it that you think makes people want RAINBOW to re-unite?
Well, it was such a great band! It was a band that influenced so many other bands. I mean, to this day, after all these years – I don’t know how long it’s been, thirty years or so – any band that I see, whether they’re succesful bands or unsuccessful bands, always say, “Oh, RAINBOW was the reason why I started to play and, ah, I love those songs that you did”. They were great songs. It was a groundbreaking time. We were the first to do that kind of material, and it influenced people so much that they’ve just never forgotten it. A great song is a great song, you can’t take a great song away.
– I must thank you too. It’s because of “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll”, the song, that I feel in love with the music and eventually became a music journalist.
See how important I was! I was right! It was very important! (Laughs.) I’m sorry we can’t do it for you anymore, I wish we could. But again, we’re still do RAINBOW songs in our set. We do RAINBOW songs and we do SABBATH songs because they were such good songs that it seems a shame never to be able to hear them again. And it makes sense because the voice that you’ve heard doing those songs is still the voice that you hear doing them today and the band plays them so well, and they love them too. So we don’t let ’em go away.
– There’s a very interesting DIO recording I have. It’s done last year in Sao Paulo last year, and you play mostly SABBATH and RAINBOW songs, not DIO songs there. How did that happen?
I don’t know. We just, probably, at that point chose more songs from that era than we did the others. When you ask so many times for certain kind of songs, then people go away disappointed, then you must do them. We’re not SABBATH and we’re not RAINBOW but then again, it’s a part of my past and it’s easy to do those things. But we’re doing a lot more DIO songs now than we did before, but there was so much music from SABBATH and from RAINBOW that we have so many choices when we play. So each time, each year we play a different set, and that happened to be one of those when we were doing more RAINBOW songs and more SABBATH songs than we have done before.
– Maybe it’s not a problem for you do sing these songs, but what about the musicians in your band? They should be prepared to play anything?
Yeah, I guess they should. But we don’t really do things like that, we’re not THE GRATEFUL DEAD. THE GRATEFUL DEAD are the people who just go, “Hey, wanna play this song now?” We try to make any song that we choose for our touring set to be prepared and to be rehearsed and to be properly done. Well, we’ve got three or four other songs in case we need to do them, and we’ll do them and we are prepared for them most of the time.
– I’m sure a song like DEAD’s “Dark Star” played for one hour would cause a great division between your fans!
It absolutely would, yeah! (Laughs.) That’s why we don’t do that!
– The musicians in your band: could you, please, describe each one in a couple of words?
Simon Wright is like a small locomotive, like a small freight train. He’s great! He’s just so steady and plays with so much strength – that comes probably from his days with AC/DC but I’d like to think it’s from his days with us. He’s just a great friend of mine, a great friend, which is very important to me as well.
Rudy Sarzo is a maestro of the bass. He’s just the best bass player I’ve ever played with. He’s just great musician! Once again, a great person.
– And he’s Italian as well!
No… I guess he is, actually! Yes, Rudy is Italian! He grew up in Cuba but yes, you’re right: he is Italian. I think he’s, actually, half-Spanish, half-Italian. And that’s good.
Craig Goldy. Craig interprets the songs that we have done from RAINBOW and SABBATH better than anybody I’ve ever heard, and these are not even his own songs! He does a magnificent job in them. Plus, he’s great to write with, And again, a good person and a friend.
Our keyboard player is Scott Warren. Scott’s been with me for almost ten years now. He’s also so capable in doing anything that I ask him to do. And it’s hard to be a keyboard player in this band because we don’t feature keyboards, but he’s just one of those keyboard players that I can rely on. And again, a great person. You can see how important that is, to have good people!
– And the last but not least: Ronnie Dio?
Uh, I’m a perfectionist who wants everything to be great. I want each person in this band to be recognized for being as good as they are, individually. I’d never considered any of the DIO albums to be solo projects: they’ve all been by the band who just happened to have the name DIO because it was easy for people to connect with the name when we started because they knew at least who I was. That’s what I am. I’m difficult at times, difficult only because I want things to be right, but I think you couldn’t find a better friend than me.