Heavy-metal legend Ronnie James Dio died five years ago this Saturday after a short but intense battle with cancer. One of his biggest fans is Jack Black. Along with his Tenacious D bandmate, Kyle Gass, Black paid tribute to the onetime Black Sabbath and Rainbow frontman by writing a song about him, “Dio,” and giving him a guest spot in their movie Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. This year, they won the Best Metal Performance Grammy for their rendition of the 1984 solo Dio classic “The Last in Line,” which is featured on 2014’s This Is Your Life compilation.
Both members of Tenacious D will be in attendance at this weekend’s Ronnie James Dio 5th Year Remembrance events, alongside Tom Morello, Lita Ford and members of Dio’s band, who will all celebrate the singer’s legacy while helping to raise awareness and funding to fight cancer. Shortly before the event, Jack Black caught up with Rolling Stone to explain the effect Dio had on his life.
When did you first hear Dio?
The first time I heard of Ronnie James Dio was the summer of 1982. I was 13 years old, living in Culver City, California. A kid across the street was wearing this kick-ass [Black Sabbath] Mob Rules baseball T-shirt. It had an ominous painting of some faceless creatures holding whips. I bought the album and was blown away by the title track right out of the gate. Dio’s gymnastic vocalizations along with [guitarist] Tony Iommi’s rolling thunder riffs were impossible to resist. This was my introduction to Black Sabbath and set the stage for my lifelong obsession with heavy metal music.
How would you describe Ronnie’s impact on metal?
Ronnie’s singing voice had an almost operatic quality never before heard in the genre. While he claimed to have no formal classical music training, his total command of his vocal instrument was undeniable. Between the flawless vibrato and athletic melodic lines, the level of difficulty was off the charts. This is undoubtedly why there hasn’t been another vocalist like him in metal before or since. The heavy metal Pavarotti… and an American! That was a great source of national pride since the U.K. had bragging rights to so many metal vocalists before him. He was our guy… and he kicked major ass.
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When did you first meet Dio?
I first met Ronnie on the set of a music video he was doing for a song called “Push” [in 2002]. He knew we were fans and asked us to make a little cameo. Of course we were nervous to meet him, but he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. He was super warm and jovial, humble and relaxed – a real class act with a tremendous sense of humor.
Were you nervous about what he’d think of the Tenacious D song “Dio”?
We had no idea how he would react to the song. It was about how we wanted him to pass the torch of rock supremacy to us, Tenacious D, and that he’d enjoyed the spoils of heavy metal dominance long enough and it was our turn to reign supreme. Ultimately, it was an ode to his greatness but it could’ve easily been misconstrued as an insult. But Dio was a wise soul. He felt the love behind our humor and put our minds at ease. It was something he was known for: When he wasn’t onstage raising hell, he exuded a mellow peaceful vibe. His hang-ability quotient was extremely high.
How did you get him into the Pick of Destiny movie?
After establishing a relationship with him, we were emboldened to ask a favor of our new friend. He agreed to perform a cameo in our movie. It was for the opening song in the film and required a pre-recording studio visit. He showed up like a seasoned vet all warmed up and ready to blow doors down. I swear he nailed it on the first take. He offered to double the vocal but we wouldn’t hear of it. Those pipes were pristine and required no bolstering whatsoever.
I was embarrassed because the song we wrote borrowed heavily from a song he wrote years before, [Black Sabbath’s] “Neon Knights,” but while he recognized the similarities he graciously placed it in the category of an “homage” and gave us his full blessing. He also gave a blistering acting performance on film and I really can’t imagine the movie without him. He was actually too good – by far, the best part of the movie. Look at how many downloads his scene has on YouTube. He’s a tough act to follow indeed!
When was the last time you spoke to him?
I wish our paths had crossed more often. He was frequently on tour ’til the end, and I was always working on other projects but I will always remember his kindness and his bold contributions to the arts.
Tenacious D won the metal Grammy this year for your cover of Dio’s “The Last in Line.” What does that mean to you?
We won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance, but really it was Dio that won that award. We just tried to do that song justice. The truth is, the original is far superior to our version and the fact that we won is just a testament to the lasting power of Ronnie’s enduring legacy. The song resonated with me because it delivered a message beyond the usual doom and gloom, a sense of community with the rest of us metal compatriots. Dio was telling us that even though society held us in low regard because of our long hair and rough exterior, our destiny was beyond their comprehension. We were “The Last In Line” and proud of it.
You’ll be at the “Bowl for Ronnie” tournament this weekend. Why is participating in the Dio Remembrance Celebration important to you?
I’m looking forward to celebrating the life of a great man. Simple as that. It will be good to be around other people that looked up to him and have a deep respect for his work and people that worked with him and loved him. It’s important to remember those who gave us so much.
Anything else you want to add?
In this age of electronic music and robotic voice synthesizers, I hope there is a kid out there with the talent and the sense of adventure to follow in Dio’s footsteps. Rock & roll could use another Ronnie James Dio right about now.