Why Metallica and Judas Priest's Rob Halford Bow Before Dio

Talking with the metal stars who contributed to a new Ronnie James Dio tribute compilation that aims to raise money for cancer research and awareness

Ronnie James Dio
Fin Costello/Redferns
Ronnie James Dio
By |

"When I hear Ronnie's voice, I just get excited," Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford tells Rolling Stone. "As a singer, he really makes me want to pick up the mic and start screaming. He's just got that kind of electric effect."

Watch Slash Pay His Respects to Ronnie James Dio

Nearly four years after Ronnie James Dio's death, that current still runs strong. It's most evident on the just-released tribute comp Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life, which contains cover versions of songs that the golden-throated vocalist first aired with bands like Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his own eponymous group, now recorded by a host of hard-rock metal artists, ranging from legends like Halford to younger bands like Halestorm. But what makes the album a true standout is the list of Big Metal Names who have gathered to pay homage: Anthrax, Motörhead, Slipknot's Corey Taylor, the Scorpions. Also, comedy-rock duo Tenacious D, who once smarmily asked Dio to pass them the torch of rock, pay their respects with a mostly reverent, recorder-studded rendition of his 1984 single "The Last in Line." And Metallica, whose Lars Ulrich says the similarities between their own thrash blitzes and Dio's classic, epic heavy metal style are not so oblique, recorded a stunning, nine-minute medley of Rainbow tracks.

"Ronnie's music always felt rich and deep to me," Ulrich says. "It never felt shallow, never felt easy, never felt like they were spitting it out or churning out mindless songs or filler. There was kind of a complexity and a richness to pretty much every element he was involved with musically."

Dating back to the early Seventies recordings of the bluesy hard-rock band Elf, Ronnie James Dio made his calling cards dramatic, quasi-operatic vocals and fantastical lyrics. By 1974, when Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was ready to start a more polychromatic project, he began working with the members of Elf, with Dio on vocals, on the first record by a new hard-rock group called Rainbow, and that's when his imagination really took flight.

By the release of their second album, 1976's Rising, Dio had come into his own as a raconteur of tales about greedy wizards and tarot mysticism. He recorded three LPs with the group before departing to join Black Sabbath, following the departure of Ozzy Osbourne, revitalizing their sound with his tales of "Neon Knights" and the powers of good and evil; later, he would be playing with this same group under the name Heaven and Hell at the time of his death. But it all congealed into a fantastical beast of its own with the 1983 release of the first Dio album, Holy Diver – which contained the hard-rock radio staples "Rainbow in the Dark" and the title track – the launching pad for Dio's most enduring musical group.

In all of his musical outlets, Dio projected the fiery machismo that has come to define metal. And he continued to do so even after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in November 2009. He succumbed to the disease five months later.

After his death, his widow, Wendy Dio, founded the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. She began producing This Is Your Life two-and-a-half years ago with the hopes of raising money for the fund, and all proceeds from the sale of the album will benefit it. Her hope is that the fund will raise awareness about "men's cancer," including prostate, colon and stomach cancer. "We feel men don't get checked very often," she says. "Women do, but men you have to drag them there. We're trying to detect it early and save men's lives." Her goal is to raise $10 million for the fund; at the time of this post she had raised $800,000.

Slipknot's Corey Taylor Sings Ronnie James Dio's 'Rainbow in the Dark'

"I think that everybody wanted to do this comp to bring a significant amount of income to the Stand Up and Shout Fund and for the love of Ronnie James Dio," Halford says. "Most of us have tried to do our best in placing our own little footprints in Ronnie's giant metal boots."

One of the compilation's performers wasn't even in baby shoes yet when Dio recorded the song she covered, Holy Diver's "Straight Through the Heart." That record came out in May 1983; singer-guitarist Lzzy Hale was born in October of the following year. Her metalhead parents introduced her and her brother, Halestorm drummer Arejay Hale, to Dio's music as children. "My parents were always like, 'If you're going to get into this, here's some real music,'" Lzzy says with a laugh. "I was around 11 or 12 when we started getting into that type of music. This was around the time TLC and Backstreet Boys were around, and I remember trying to convince my friends to listen to Dio and Alice Cooper and all the stuff I was into at the time. They were like, 'Why do you listen to that?'"

She stuck to her guns, though, and Halestorm became the last band ever to open for Dio, when he was fronting Heaven and Hell. She still fondly recalls meeting him after watching him sign autographs for fans "until about 3 in the morning," by her estimation. "I told Ronnie, 'We would all understand if you just wanted to get in your bus and go home,'" she says. "And he turned to me and wagged his finger in my face. He's like, 'Lzzy, it's a moment in time for all of us, and you may never remember the gig you played at or the people's names, but they will remember meeting you for the rest of their lives. So you make it good for everybody.'"

Dio's humility and outgoingness is something Ulrich will always remember. During his childhood in Copenhagen, he saw Dio live several times with Elf and Rainbow. "I met Ronnie Dio in front of the Plaza Hotel in 1977 on the On Stage tour, and he was very nice, very courteous, very giving and forthcoming," he says. "It was really cool. He's been an on-again-off-again presence in my life since I was a wee lad.

"He was such a personable guy and, for such a legend, very easygoing and easy to be with," Ulrich continues. "Anybody that met him said it felt like you knew him your whole life."

Although Dio's music might not be a readily apparent influence in Metallica's music – Ulrich prefers the term "inspiration" – the drummer says it's a part of his band's DNA. The Rainbow songs the group recorded as part of its lengthy medley – "A Light in the Black," "Tarot Woman," "Stargazer" and "Kill the King" – all foreshadow Metallica's music, he says. "If you listen to the riff in 'A Light in the Black,' that's fairly fast down-picking," he says. "If you listen to 'Kill the King,' that's not entirely dissimilar to certain Metallica things. Certainly those correlations aren't that radical, but it ultimately inspires us to play music and live and breathe every day."

Similarly, Halford says that his This Is Your Life contribution, the Rainbow song "Man on the Silver Mountain," "captures the things I personally love in metal tracks." Describing the song as a "slam dunk" for Dio, he says, "It's got this riff that just comes flying through and it's a very giving track, from a lyrical point of view. Ronnie's asking people to take his hand and 'I'll do what I can.' It's just a nice observation that Ronnie had about his role in life to some extent."

Although Halford's and Dio's paths crossed numerous times throughout the years – including a trek in 2008 when Judas Priest toured with Heaven and Hell – one particular memory of spending time with Dio stands out above the rest. At Dio's final public appearance, at the 2010 Revolver Golden Gods Awards, Halford recalls gathering in a huddle with Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister, Alice Cooper and guitarist Zakk Wylde. "There wasn't a fucking photographer in sight," he says with a laugh. "I thought that was bittersweet, really, because internally we may have all been saying our farewells to Ronnie, because we knew the challenges he was going through. None of us directly addressed that issue – we didn't want to, there was no need. But it was a really sweet moment to be around each other, laughing, joking, telling some rock & roll stories. It was just a very affectionate memory that we were left with."

Fittingly, the album ends with a track by Dio, "This Is Your Life." The song had previously served as the closing number of the 1996 Dio album Angry Machines, but Wendy felt it had a poignancy that was worth repeating. "He wasn't sick when he wrote that," she says. "But he was contemplating what you do with your life and don't waste it. It's just him and piano. I thought it was the perfect end."