Ronnie James Dio, the legendary singer who fronted both Rainbow and Black Sabbath before going solo in his own band, Dio, was right at the heart of some of the best Heavy Metal and Rock songs of the past 50 years. It’s no coincidence that both of those aforementioned bands produced their best work with Dio at the microphone. Alongside that, the run of the first three Dio albums, ‘Holy Diver’, ‘Last in Line’ and ‘Sacred Heart’ contain some of the most iconic songs that the genre has ever produced.
It’s hard to summarise such a rich and vibrant life and career but Dio’s wife (and manager), Wendy Dio, has worked carefully for years alongside filmmakers to produce a warm, intimate look behind the curtain at the life and times of Ronnie James Dio. “Dio: Dreamers Never Die” delves deep into the singer’s incredible rise from a ’50s doo-wop crooner to his early rock days in Elf and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, to replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, and finally cementing his rock star status with his own band, Dio. The film incorporates never-before-seen footage and personal photos, as well as offering intimate scenes with his closest peers, family, and friends. The film comes to cinemas at the end of September and tickets can be bought now.
We were thrilled to catch up with Wendy to talk all about the film and Ronnie James Dio’s life.
It’s such a pleasure to speak to you about this warm and engaging film. I first saw Dio on their ‘Dream Evil’ tour in 1987 and then last saw Ronnie when he joined back up with the Black Sabbath boys for the ‘Heaven and Hell’ project in the mid to late noughties.
Great! What did you think of the film?
I thought it did a lovely job of portraying Ronnie as a warm, sensitive and clever man.
I agree! I wanted people to see him as he really was. I also wanted the fans to know everything that we went through, right back to his doo-wop days. We were lucky enough to find a bunch of footage of Ronnie from back in the 60s so I hope the fans will enjoy that aspect as well as the Rock stuff too.
Ronnie’s graciousness and warmth runs through the whole film, from beginning to end.
I’m glad you said that because that was really what I wanted people to see. What a wonderful human being he was. He was just a wonderful person, they broke the mould with him. People say you should never meet your heroes but no-one was ever disappointed when they met Ronnie.
Ronnie’s career took place in a time before social media so short of interviews in magazine’s like Kerrang we never got to find out about our heroes, that’s what makes this film all the more rewarding.
I think it takes the viewer through all the different emotions. The good times, the sad times, you know? I am very happy with how the film has turned out. I’m so protective of Ronnie’s legacy so it was very hard to choose a team who would portray Ronnie in the way that I thought he should be seen but they did a great job.
When did you first touch base with the film makers? How long has this project been in the works?
Oh, about three years ago. I first met the director and his team about three years ago and started digging up stuff and giving them things. Of course, then the pandemic happened which made interviewing people like Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) or Rob Halford (Judas Priest) more difficult because they couldn’t come over to the UK!
Rob Halford was fantastic, he’s such a wonderful person too. Rob and Ronnie and Lemmy (Motorhead) did so many shows and tours together and they always so happy – nobody cared who opened or closed or whatever. They were the real innovators of the rock music that we all came to love.
What I’m happy and excited about is that the younger generation are still listening to that type of music. It might be the only time in history where kids have listened to their parents’ music! (laughing) I certainly didn’t listen to my parents’ music! (laughing)
It’s clear from the film that Ronnie loved books and the written word. He was a voracious reader. Were there any books or authors in particular that he liked the best?
He loved a lot of science fiction. He liked books about the medieval times too. He loved to go into a bookshop and browse those type of things. When he sat down with a book he would read it in a day or day and a half!
I’ve still got a lot of his books in the house – dungeons, dragons and all of that kind of stuff! (laughing) I never had time to read because I was always too busy with other things! (laughing)
Another facet of the film that I found fascinating is that his first vocal performance on a record with Ronnie and the Redcaps was in 1961 and for the next 50 years his voice never dipped. Did he have to work hard to keep his voice in shape?
No, he didn’t. He was naturally gifted. I’m sure his trumpet playing strengthened his lungs – his dad made him play the trumpet for four hours a day from the age of 5 years old and that had a tremendous effect of his lungs and voice. The breathing techniques had such a beneficial effect on Ronnie.
He never had to warm up, in fact if he had a run of shows that were three or four days long his voice would just get steadily stronger across the days. He did exercise with daily walks but his diet wasn’t brilliant! (laughing) He didn’t eat vegetables and he loved Indian food, which Glenn Hughes introduced him too, actually. He loved Italian food as well, of course! He liked a vodka and was very partial to British beer as well.
Ronnie’s voice just improved with age. On the last tour he did with the Sabbath boys as Heaven and Hell he was suffering with stomach cancer and his voice never failed even then, which you can see it the film. Ronnie loved to sing for his fans, who he loved more than anything else in the world. They came number one in his priorities, animals were at number two and I came in third! (laughing)
I was really happy he was able to do that last tour in Heaven and Hell as Black Sabbath, really. He was able to go full circle and be back in that band. They were all such good friends and all the grievances from the past had gone away and they had become such a tight band and such close friends.
Who made the initial approach that would result in Ronnie re-uniting with Black Sabbath?
It was the record company to begin with. They said they were going to put out an album called ‘Black Sabbath: The Dio Years’. They called and asked if there were any left-over songs they could use as bonus material and I asked Ronnie and he said no but then said that they should write some more. Ronnie went over to England to write two songs with Tony and they ended up writing three! (laughing) It was during those writing sessions that they decided they should tour again together.
Talking a little bit about your input into Ronnie’s career. Which of his albums are you most proud of?
I would have to say ‘Holy Diver’ which was the album I was also most involved in. I loved his work with Rainbow and Sabbath but we worked really, really hard on ‘Holy Diver’. We had no idea whether it would be a success or what it was going to do. We ended up mortgaging our house to be able to buy the stage set that Ronnie wanted to tour the album with as well. Seeing the way the fans accepted Dio and the success he had with ‘Holy Diver’ gives me goosebumps, even today, when I think about it.
I really loved the footage we got for the film of the guy drowning in the sea whilst they were attempting to take the photographs for the concept art for the ‘Holy Diver’ cover! (laughing)
When Dio formed, who was under the most pressure? Ronnie as the frontman or you as the manager?
I was working in the background, working very hard, but in the background. I had to learn so fast and largely ‘on-the-job’ too! Believe me, there were no women managers in Rock music back then – just myself and Sharon Osborne. All the men would tell us that we didn’t know what we were doing. I just very sweetly smiled and accepted what they said and then went and did it my own way. Sharon, on the other hand, would tell them to ‘F Off’ and then went and did it her way! (laughing) We both succeeded in different ways! (laughing)
I had so many arguments with men in the industry back in those days. Some of the promoters I had to deal with were, like, ‘That’s nice love, but can we speak to a man please?’ I’m a strong person and being with Ronnie made me a stronger person because he always had my back.
I love the fact that the documentary touches upon Ronnie’s invention of what has come to be known as the ‘devil horns’ sign. The footage of the Christian right mobilising against the symbol and Ronnie’s music is also fascinating. Did the attentions of organisations like that and the PMRC in the 80s bother him or was he able to shake that sort of thing off?
I think he was able to shake them off. I do remember that a group of right wing Christians had threatened to come to Ronnie’s funeral and protest and make a big stink. I posted some advice to the fans which basically said turn the other cheek and don’t react because that is what they want you to do, to react.
Ignoring these people was probably the best thing to do. We got a lot of that, a lot of protests in some of the bible-belt states of the south over here in America – we just tried to ignore them, they were just stupid nuts.
You only have to watch the film to see what a warm, caring person Ronnie was and how much he cared about his fellow humans.
Exactly! Even if you take the things like the ‘Holy Diver’ album cover. That upset a lot of Christians, with a monster seemingly looming over a drowning priest. Ronnie would often say, how do you know the priest is the good guy? Just because he’s got a priest’s clothes on doesn’t mean to say he, himself, isn’t the evil one in that picture, you know?
Ronnie judged people on what was inside of them, not on what the outside looked like. Not everyone was a wise or as considered as he was though.
There’s a section in the film where Rudy Sarzo (famous Rock bassist) calls Ronnie ‘a sage’. Ronnie was a very wise person who loved to paint landscapes and pictures with his songs.
Absolutely. Ronnie’s songs were always written ambiguously so that people could find their own meaning within them. He liked to layer the songs so that people could make his songs pertinent to their own lives. He sang about freedoms, inner strength, being the best person you can be and standing up for your own rights.
Ronnie never cared about having hit singles or chart success. He never cared about money, he never cared about fame – he just loved to make music for his fans and then meet them to talk about what it meant to them.
That comes across so evidently in the film.
We wanted people to get to know Ronnie and to feel like they were involved in his life and career. I’m very proud of this film and the director and his team were such nice guys too. I tell them all the time that I think they did a great job portraying the Ronnie James Dio that I knew and loved.
Dio: Dreamers Never Die is out in cinemas in the UK from September 28th. You can buy tickets to spend two hours in the company of one of the greatest vocalists of all time now.