Ronnie James Dio's Dreamy Fifties Pop Group the Vegas Kings
As a high school student in Cortland, New York, Ronnie James Dio (then still known as Ronald James Padavona) formed his first band, the Vegas Kings, in 1957, featuring himself on bass and trumpet. "I started playing the trumpet when I was five years old, which was great training for me as a singer," he explained to Extreme magazine. "It taught me the correct way to do it, because I've not taken singing lessons from anyone." For strictly practical reasons, he quickly assumed the bulk of the group's vocal duties. "No one else wanted the job," he later admitted. "It wasn't my plan at all to lead the band."
After a spell as the Vegas Kings, the friends changed their name to Ronnie and the Rumblers – named after their favorite Duane Eddy song, "Rumble," which became their theme tune. They filled weekends performing at local dances and American Legion Halls, but in 1958 they had the chance to play a much larger hall in nearby Johnson City. However, organizers were nervous about their name. "Rumbling" in the Fifties was slang for fighting, so the group quickly transformed into Ronnie and the Red Caps. It was this name that appeared on their debut single that year, a Ventures-style instrumental called "Conquest." They followed it up with "An Angel is Missing," backed with a cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." It was this record that first bore the surname "Dio," though how he came to chose it remains the source of speculation. Some believe that it was a nod to his Italian grandmother, who always said he was a gift from the heavens ("Dio" being Italian for God), but Dio's widow has disputed this. Others have theorized that it was a tribute to infamous mobster Johnny Dio.
Throughout the early sixties the group released a string of singles as Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, and even a live album purportedly recorded at a pizza shop called as Dio at Domino's – featuring covers ranging from "Great Balls of Fire" to Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." In addition to the his work with the band, Dio released a number of extracurricular singles in a baffling array of styles, trying to see which musical mask might launch his career as a solo artist. "Mr. Misery," a heavenly 1963 tune complete with angelic choir, is a gentle teen lover's lament that would have done Ricky Nelson proud. Two years later, "Smiling by Day (Crying by Night)" sees Dio doing a killer John Lennon impression with a hard driving garage stomper, whereas the B side – "Dear Darlin' (I Won't Be Coming Home)" is a less convincing pastiche of Nashville shuffles, punctuated by Floyd Cramer–style honky tonk fills. "[We] tried everything with Ronnie," his manager at the time, Jim Pantas, later said. "However we tried to position him, it didn't come off."
By 1967, the Prophets had morphed into a group called the Electric Elves, later shortened to just Elf, which would see Dio jettison his teen idol ambitions in favor of heavy-metal immortality.