Ronnie James Dio: the doo-wop singer

An internet report which was initially dismissed as a hoax has been confirmed to be true: singer Ronnie James Dio died this past Sunday, May 16th, 2010. Dio succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 67. Those who are well-versed in the world of heavy metal are well aware of the distinguished career of the diminutive man with the powerful voice. Besides fronting his namesake band Dio from 1983 onward, Mr. Dio was also the original lead singer of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in the ‘70’s, and replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath in the early ‘80’s. Dio recently reunited with two of his former Sabbath bandmates to form Heaven and Hell, which was named after one of the studio albums that Sabbath recorded with Dio. Also, Dio fronted the blues-rock band Elf in the early ‘70’s.

But Dio was an even more seasoned veteran of the music industry than those credentials reveal. When he was in his teens and twenties, Dio fronted a doo-wop group whose first single was released in 1958. That’s right – the man who popularized the “devil horns” gesture among metalheads was making music back in the early days when rock and roll was called “the devil’s music”.

In the beginning, this doo-wop group was called Ronnie and the Red Caps, and Dio used his real name Ronnie Padavona. Their first single was released in 1958. The A-side “Lover” was sung by a different member of the group named Billy DeWolfe, and its B-side “Conquest” was an instrumental on which Dio played the trumpet. But the teenaged Dio sang the lead vocal on their 1960 sophomore single “An Angel Is Missing”, on which he already proved to be an impressive crooner.

The band soon changed their name to Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. Under this name, they released at least eight singles between 1962 and 1967, and one full-length album in 1963. That album, Dio at Domino’s, was supposedly recorded live at a Cortland, New York restaurant, but the 12 songs sound suspiciously like studio tracks. Regardless, it’s a very enjoyable listen. On this set of doo-wop standards and originals, the future metal icon comes across as a gentle young romantic, albeit one with a definite masculine timbre in his voice. Dio’s heartfelt crooning distinguishes these recordings, particularly “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and “Don’t Take Your Love From Me”.

The earlier Prophets singles tended to be in the same vein, and were generally the better ones. Their 1962 single released on Atlantic is the standout Dio composition “Love Pains”, which also appeared in different form on Dio at Domino’s. The sound of their later singles showed a mild British Invasion influence, particularly on the Beatlesque “Smiling By Day (Crying By Night)”. Their transition into that territory often sounded awkward and hesitant, suggesting that they were reluctant to change with the times. But Dio’s vocal range and versatility continued to impress, especially on the Rat Pack-inspired “The Way of Love”.

The Prophets broke up in 1967, after which Dio and guitarist Nick Pantas formed the band Electric Elves. That band recorded one single under that name, both sides of which sound like weak imitations of early Who songs; Dio’s voice is virtually unrecognizable on both. The band’s name was then shortened to the Elves, whose two singles released on Decca sounded more like American chamber pop from the late ‘60’s. The first of those was “Walking In Different Circles”, a different version of a song previously recorded by Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. The second, “Amber Velvet”, is the better one. The band then evolved into Elf in 1970, after Pantas was killed in a car accident. Elf recorded three albums and toured with Deep Purple, which led to Ritchie Blackmore enlisting Dio to be the lead singer of Rainbow, and the rest is history.

Ronnie and the Red Caps – singles:

"Lover” (b/w “Conquest”) -- (Reb 59-45-105) 1958

“An Angel Is Missing” (b/w “What’d I Say”) -- (Seneca S 178-102) 1960

Ronnie Dio and the Prophets – singles:

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (b/w “Bad Man In Town”) -- (Swan, unreleased acetate) 1962

“Love Pains” (b/w “The Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo”) -- (Atlantic 45-2145) 1962

“Gonna Make It Alone” (b/w “Swingin’ Street”) -- (Lawn L-218-G) 1963

“Mr. Misery” (b/w “Our Year”) -- (Swan S-4615-M) 1963

“Love Potion No. 9” (Valex 001) 1964

“Say You’re Mine Again” (b/w “Where You Gonna Run To Girl”) -- (Kapp K-697) 1965

“Smiling By Day (Crying By Night)” (b/w “Dear Darlin’ (I Won’t Be Comin’ Home)”) -- (Kapp K-725) 1965

“Walking Alone” (b/w “The Way of Love”) -- (Kapp K-770) 1965

“Walking In Different Circles” (b/w “10 Days With Brenda”) -- (Parkway P-143) 1967

Ronnie Dio and the Prophets “Dio at Domino’s” (Jove J-108) 1963

Track Listing:

1. Follow Me
2. Blue Days
3. I Left My Heart In San Francisco
4. Red Top
5. An Angel Is Missing
6. Irresistible You
7. I Told You So
8. Everybody's Got A Dance
9. Don't Take Your Love From Me
10. Johnny Blue
11. Great Balls Of Fire
12. Love Pains

Electric Elves – single:

“Hey, Look Me Over” (b/w “It Pays To Advertise”) – (MGM K13839) 1967

The Elves – singles:

“Walking In Different Circles” (b/w “She’s Not The Same”) – (Decca 732507) 1969

“Amber Velvet” (b/w “West Virginia”) – (Decca 732617) 1970