RONNIE JAMES DIO
SINGING AGAINST THE CLIFFS
Ronnie James Dio ultimately had little luck with the two well-known groups in which he so far provided the vocals. Ritchie Blackmore deviously worked him out of Rainbow, the deeply started connection with the illustrious Black Sabbath turned into a flat swearing match.
We heared a few MMs back some stories about that. But where the British Iommi and Butler from the industrial city of Birmingham called the American rotten fish, the latter initially maintained a haughty silence. Yet the singer also has a barely concealed grudge, although he tries to keep it somewhat within bounds with some disparaging remarks and scornful laughs. He prefers to attack his ex-colleagues on the in his opinion poor intelligence with which Mother Nature would have endowed them.
So one side throws mud uncomplicatedly, the other looks for it in a more stilted approach. It all comes down to the same thing. The result of the Sabbath misery is the group Dio. Recently a first LP, called "Holy Diver" was released, a beautiful piece of work that Ronnie James came to Europe physically to support.
The record company has installed the singer in an upstairs room of Wisseloord, where he gives audience, seated behind a bowl of unadulterated Dutch sandwiches. Ronnie James is doing the promotion alone. The group Dio is, as the name suggests, his show. He has put his savings in it and will therefore be the only one to reap any financial benefits. We will talk about that later.
Ronnie James Dio is as it is called in the jargon, a singer with a great voice. He started with his own group ELF, then was joined by Ritchie Blackmore with this company in Rainbow 1st edition, and saw his old mates disappear one after the other. Eventually the time came for RJD, who then found shelter with Black Sabbath. The rest is known: thanks to the input of RJD, the occultistic Black Sabbath was given a hefty blood transfusion. The group went mainly in the U.S. doing very well, until earlier this year Mr Dio was removed from the ranks. He has since been succeeded by Ian Gillan.
RJD is not an imposing male in appearance. He is small and skinny and has a little luxuriant, with a head of long hair. He speaks eagerly in short, measured sentences. Go go. Go, hop, hop, hop. Go go go. RJD didn't leave Black Sabbath alone. Drummer Vinnie Appice, a brother of the famous Carmine, also left with him. When asked, the singer tells without further ado how the drummer is.
"I was his point of reference in that group (referring to Black Sabbath). He couldn't have gone on without me. He couldn't have done that." Immediately we find ourselves in the middle of the Black Sabbath affair, the cause of RJD's premature solo career. He throws out a cascade of arguments to the effect that he expected it all. He knew it would be like this. But he wanted Tony (Iommi) and Geezer (Butler) to just sit there when the Black Sabbath split came up. Because, how unilaterally it is presented! Lies are lies, wouldn't they have come to believe them by now? Well, the singer thinks it is fine afterwards.
But if I innocently assume that both parties can be happy then, RJD thinks that is going too far. No, that is not true. Because he, Ronnie James Dio, is happier. Anyway, the whole unsavory affair comes up several times. And every time, RJD argues with great passion that he has always given everything. That he has always put himself in the service of the band. But he decides to tell me that at least he finally has his own group. Besides him, there are Vinnie Appice on drums, Vivian Campbell on guitar and Jimmy Bain on bass. The last two are British, where RJD and Vinnie Appice are Americans. Whether there is a special reason for this?
"I prefer to play with Brits. I appreciate their attitude and they go against it. Americans are too fiddly for me. Too jazzy, I conclude from that. RJD hurries to explain this. I don't mean condescendingly. But I don't like that speed merchant job. I like players who can make rhythm. Who can also play solo, but can play well. Tony (Iommi), despite all our problems, is a unique rhythm guitarist. Ritchie (Blackmore) also had his own way of playing rhythm.
For me it is about piling up sound, and that dressed with solos. You need a certain feeling for that. The English have that. RJD traveled for his band-to-be together with drummer Appice to London where Jimmy Bain was the first to get called. He had already played with him in Rainbow. He suggested as guitarist Vivian Campbell, a guy from Ireland. The studio was booked, the quartet went to work and the group Dio was born. It's as simple as that. RJD attributes the smooth running of things to the fact that he knew what he wanted. He knew that too, when a start was made in Los Angeles on the record that would be called "Holy Diver".
RJD had two songs ready himself, but being a democratic minded person, he asked during rehearsals, "O.K. lads, what've you got? Well, one had this, the other had that. Then we put together some songs. At the moment the singer is having a hard time with the past, because when I ask him if everything was completely sorted out and worked out before the recording, he replies: "Unlike other people - I will not name any names - I plan everything. You can guess the names, they are obvious. It only took us a month to complete the record, because everything was well planned. And because the musicians are good."
"We all recorded at the same time. In such a case, I immediately sing along with all the guide vocals. I always do that, because I think a song has a reference. I also go all out. Not but some humming along as you sometimes see. Some guide vocals were just as good as what I did later. Only because of the sound it had to be done over, because I often used a Shure SM 58 for the guide vocals. I don't think that's the best microphone for the vocals during a studio recording."
Singing along with the band lustily, is also very important to him, according to RJD. It gives him a better idea of what a song is going to be. For "Holy Diver" the group left the first vocals sung - the guide vocals up to and including the overdubs of the guitar. The solos are not included. In this case, overdubs refer to doubling the rhythm guitar parts. RJD appreciates this Procedure. He believes that the guitar should sound rough through one speaker and "mellow" through the other. He himself wants to sit in the middle of it (or stand if you like).
After the overdubs of the rhythm parts, RJD sings in the real vocals, followed by the guitar solos last. "I think that a guitarist can only solo when everything is actually already finished. Only then I think he can get the full feeling of a song. Before he starts soloing, I always play the song so far. Then he can play it. Diving. Just like on stage. I don't think a guitarist can respond well to just a backing track." RJD just mentioned a much used vocal microphone. He thinks the Shure SM 58 is not suitable for vocal recordings in a studio, on the other hand it is suitable for performances.
"Not that the SM 58 is a bad microphone, but there are those that suit my voice better. I always prefer to use a Neumann 87 and an Electro-Voice RE 20 in a studio. The latter is better for the real shouters because it can handle the power. The 87 is more mellow, warmer. Live I use a Shure 58 again, because it is rough and can take anything you throw in. For the guide vocals I also use a Shure 57. The Neumann 87 would rather not, because then you would look at such a big case. Just like singing into a beer bottle." RJD uses the entire studio for the recording. He has a whole-hearted aversion to "singing boxes" and therefore laughs at a quote by Pierre Courbois, quoted by me, who compared playing drums in a drum house to sitting in the toilet.
"Yes, ha ha. Drums don't belong in such a loft. They have to be able to move the air. We surround the drums with partitions, which we leave spaces in between. For example, we make a kind of plywood loft against the window of the control room. The drummer sits with his back to us. We also make a roof with a plywood bulkhead and set up the microphones in different places. So we record the bass both inside and outside the bulkhead; we put a central microphone in it, two in the actual studio, one more hang over the roof and "miken" all the drums again.
"It's a hassle, but then we're in control. We use Kepex on most toms to cut a few things down, so we also have the 'ring' under control."
Sing from the diaphragm
RJD claims not to record too much vocals. A second voice here and there is more than enough in his opinion. He assumes that rock music must have space; hard and heavy yet transparent. RJD says he does not have problems with the vocal cords. Never had either. Singers pay attention, because RJD knows how to do it.
"You have to sing from here (points to his diaphragm). If you sing from your throat instead of from your diaphragm, the airflow does not pass your vocal cords. And that is exactly what produces the sound timbre; the air that rises and you vocal cords vibrate. When you sing from your throat you choke yourself. Also the sound. That's how people lose their voice because they cut off the air flow. I learned it from the trumpet lessons I took from my sixth year. The first thing I learned, was how to breath good. Any good teacher will tell you to force the air up from the diaphragm. Now I can't go wrong, because it hurts me if I sing wrong." Adequate monitoring is of course also a nice help. RJD agrees with this as a matter of course. He's always had good monitoring as well as a good monitor man, he says. And that while the guitar towers were always facing him.
RJD shifts his position for a moment, offers me a cigarette in vain because I don't smoke and then explains in detail what the stage setup of the guitarists he worked with looked like. I gather that both Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi had a habit of angling their speaker cabinets inwards. It looks suspiciously like a punitive measure, the singer now concludes, but he has never had any problems with it. The monitoring did rectify the matter.
"Actually I always hear myself, because I have a strong voice. Besides the voice, I also have the bass and snare drum through the three floor monitors. I also get the vocals through the side fill, but then that furthest away from the guitarist. Guitarists prefer not to hear the vocals on their side. That seems to destroy their sound. Don't ask me how, but it seems to be so I can still hear the side fill from the guitarist, total drum set and of course the guitar. The bass has a little direct sound. It comes from everywhere, so I always hear it. In the time of Rainbow we had that rainbow over the stage. There were also two vocal monitors we use depending on the situation. I like to be surrounded by the vocals."
When it comes to the guitar, RJD faces a handicap in the new group, as Vivian Campbell prefers to be to the right of the drums, which makes the singer fear that his sense of orientation will be temporarily disrupted.
"Why he wants to be to the right of the drums? I know. Because he's Irish, I guess. It will take some getting used to. Where's the guitar right? Oh yes! There it is. Something like that. The drums will be my landmark for a while to be."
RJD will probably take over from Black Sabbath the curious habit of hiring a fifth musician (in this case a keyboard player), who is especially not allowed to show his face. English speakers call such a pitiable creature a "shadow player". With Black Sabbath this figure played keys. His name is Geoff Nicholls. Ronnie James also assumes that a fifth man is only there to facilitate the guitarist's soloing. That it therefore receives support when the fat chords disappear. Such a shadow does not really have to be an all-too-big-ass. Rather not likely. Then he cannot talk. In the case of Geoff Nicholls, this appears to be more or less true for the tests. RJD feels sorry for him.
"He's a good guitarist and he writes good songs, but he can hardly play keys. I think my dog would improve him. I feel sorry for him, but he's Tony's friend (Iommi), all of his life. He could do a lot himself, but they won't help him, the egoists."
The conversation shifts to going on tour. RJD tells a long story, to the effect that he first want to enter the U.S. because that's the largest market as such. The investments seem huge to me. RJD agrees, but says that everything is budgeted fairly well in advance. A guarantee amount is assumed for the performances. That is a concrete fact. Furthermore, in the US, where the market is considerably larger than here, despite the recession, there is still something like tour support from the relevant record company, who wants an artist to go out. This makes a not to be underestimated contribution to the sale of as many records as possible. And lastly, RJD himself turns out to be not entirely unmediated.
"If you don't speculate, you don't build up anything," he says in a business sense. He adds that you can forget making money on a tour. That then applies to himself. His musicians will miss the boat, although in this case they will not regret it at all. The gentlemen are employed by RJD and therefore receive a fixed salary. Regardless of what happens and how many records may or may not be sold.
"Yes, they run no risks. And I pay them well. But of course they earn extra from the songs we write together. This is my deal and it is my name. I think that is realistic".
At the basis of this whole idea, of course, besides the fact that the record company is indeed about Ronnie James Dio, is a number of bitter experiences in the past. RJD had a 50/50 deal with Ritchie Blackmore, but he has yet to see much of the money. He calculates quickly that he has already paid back about 200,000 English pounds to the famous guitarist. The little boss seems to have been guilty of this to the guitarist with the beautiful wig. It is not clear to me how that money has moved from one to the other. Especially not when RJD says with renewed bitterness in his voice that the arrears have been taken by the British tax authorities. The only satisfaction the singer can derive from this is that Blackmore "doesn't get anything from it".
From the stories that the disappointed singer brings up, I gather that he still believes he is entitled to large amounts of money that have been blocked, because the administration was not entirely correct. It must be the £ 200,000, because I can hardly imagine that RJD Blackmore has just paid an amount on the basis of obligations from the past. All quite unpleasant for the singer. In addition, he feels personally addressed, because the manager who has incriminated Blackmore against him was his best friend, whom he introduced to Blackmore as a business manager at the time. But he has learned, he says, even if it was a "very expensive lesson".
A last word has not yet been spoken about it, because the singer is considering hiring a shrewd lawyer, although he is afraid that he can pay everything to this person! RJD also formed an alliance concretised on paper with Black Sabbath. And now again, complicated problems with finances threaten. "Well", the singer says with a shrug, "I don't care about the money, it's all about throwing the mud". So back to square one. And I just ask RJD why he thinks that Messrs Butler and Iommi think they should do all that. "Because they are wackies. Because they are not intelligent at all and feel they have to protect themselves. Against anything. Why can't you stay friends in a case like this and leave all the business grief to lawyers?"
It will continue in this vein, where we will end up writing lyrics. RJD rightly believes that his arrival at Black Sabbath brought a certain form of intelligence to a group that was stuck in a milked-out formula.
"Geezer (Butler, the bass player) used to write all the lyrics. Ozzie (Osbourne, RJD's predecessor in Black Sabbath) probably can't even write his own name. But I never found much in Geezer's lyrics:" Finished with my woman 'cause she couldn't help me with my mind. "Oh My God, how did you make that up. No, I joined Black Sabbath at a time when they were starting to get ridiculous. And then all of a sudden they became a little more respected. Do you know "Heaven and Hell"? I still think that's a terribly good song. Actually, I wrote my best things for Black Sabbath."
RJD draws inspiration for texts largely from medieval, King Arthur-like myths and sagas. His philosophy boils down to the fact that people have it difficult enough during the day and therefore do not have to be saddled with ready-made truths. They must have an outlet, be able to put their imaginations to work. That is why it is the intention that everyone interprets a text of RJD in their own way. In principle, RJD believes that everyone can be right about what is meant. The singer himself reads a lot before recording. Not to steal something, but to get into the right frame of mind.
© J van E, Music Maker, The Netherlands - August 1983