Dio listened to a great deal of opera while growing up, and was influenced vocally by American tenor Mario Lanza. His first and only formal musical training began at age 5 learning to play the trumpet.
During high school, Dio played in the school band and was one of the youngest members selected to play in the school’s official Dance Band. It was also during high school that Dio formed his first rock-n-roll group, the Vegas Kings (the name would soon change to Ronnie and the Rumblers, and then Ronnie and the Red Caps). Though Dio began his rock-n-roll career on trumpet, he quickly added bass guitar to his skillset once he assumed singing duties for the group.
Ronnie James Dio’s main interests were music and romantic fantasy literature, such as the works of Sir Walter Scott and the Arthurian legend. He always liked science fiction literature, spaceships, aliens and the like, as well as sports – that is probably because his father played softball for some local team when Ronnie was a child and the whole family went to watch the games.
“I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember, but I never fancied myself a singer when I was young.” Having always wanted to be a performer, Ronnie’s main interest was sport. “…Though my first idea of performing was to play sports – A Sort of unrealistic goal for a guy who topped out at 5 foot 4 inches and 130 pounds.”
“I began playing the trumpet when I was 5 years old. It was baseball I really wanted to play, so I asked my dad if he’d buy me a bat. He said “No. You need a musical education” When he got me a trumpet, I said, “You can’t hit a ball with this thing!” I didn’t know why I had it. The next day I started music lessons – four hours of practice every day until I was seventeen.”
Ronnie himself credits his voice to that trumpet, he says that without the breathing exercises with trumpet he wouldn’t have his voice.
Explanations vary for how he adopted the stage name “Dio”. One story is that Dio was a reference to mafia member Johnny Dio. Another has it that Padavona’s grandmother said he had a gift from God and should be called “Dio”. (“God” in Italian.) Whatever the inspiration, Padavona first used it on a recording in 1960, when he added it to the band’s second release on Seneca. Soon after that the band modified their name to Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. The Prophets lineup lasted for several years, touring throughout the New York region and playing college fraternity parties
In late 1967 Ronnie Dio and the Prophets transformed into a new band called The Electric Elves and added a keyboard player. Following recovery from a deadly car accident in February 1968 (which killed guitarist Nick Pantas and put Dio and other band members in the hospital briefly), the group shortened its name to The Elves and used that name until mid 1972 when it released its first proper album under the name Elf. Over the next few years, the group went on to become a regular opening act for Deep Purple. Elf recorded three albums until the members’ involvement recording the first Rainbow album in early 1975 resulted in Elf disbanding.
Dio’s vocals caught the ear of Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore in the mid-1970s, who was planning on leaving them due to creative differences over the band’s new direction. Blackmore invited Dio along with Gary Driscoll to record two songs in Tampa, Florida on December 12, 1974.
Blackmore stated in 1983, “I left Deep Purple because I’d met up with Ronnie Dio, and he was so easy to work with. He was originally just going to do one track of a solo LP, but we ended up doing the whole LP in three weeks, which I was very excited about.” Being satisfied with the results, Blackmore decided to recruit more of Elf’s musicians and form his own band, initially known as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. They released the self-titled debut album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in early 1975. After that, Dio recorded two more studio albums (Rising and Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll) and two live albums (“Live in Munich 1977”) and (Live in Germany 1976) with Blackmore. During his tenure with Rainbow, Dio and Blackmore were the only constant members. Dio is credited on those albums for all lyrical authorship as well as collaboration with Blackmore on musical arrangement. Dio and Blackmore split, with Blackmore taking the band in a more commercial direction, with Graham Bonnet on vocals and the album “Down to Earth”.
Dio left Rainbow in 1979 and soon joined Black Sabbath, replacing the fired Ozzy Osbourne. Dio met Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi by chance at The Rainbow on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 1979. Both men were in similar situations, as Dio was seeking a new project and Iommi required a vocalist. Dio said of the encounter, “It must have been fate, because we connected so instantly.” The pair kept in touch via telephone until Dio arrived at Iommi’s Los Angeles house for a relaxed, getting-to-know-you jam session. On that first day the duo wrote the song, “Children of the Sea”, which would appear on the Heaven and Hell album, the first the band recorded with Dio as vocalist in 1980.
Three albums later Dio left that band in 1982 and formed the group Dio, but he had a brief reunion with Black Sabbath under the name Heaven & Hell a decade later. Dio continued to perform until his illness manifested itself.
His last public appearance was in April 2010 at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards when he accepted a vocalist of the year award for his work on the Heaven and Hell album. Dio appeared frail, but he was able to speak when accepting his award.
Widely hailed as one of the most powerful singers in heavy metal, he died on May 16, 2010 from stomach cancer. He was 67.