Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Day With Ronnie James Dio

It was 1984 and I was pretty early in my commercial radio career at WHJY in Providence, RI, having just come off a three-year stint in college radio at WUSM (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth). So Ronnie James Dio wasn't even part of my musical vocabulary. I was more of a fan and huge promoter of progressive bands like The Smiths, New Order, INXS, Depeche Mode. These bands were not anywhere near as commercial back then as they are today.

So I had to adapt to working at a radio station that at any given time during the day and night was blaring hard rock bands like The Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, Ratt, etc. I had to fake it, pretend I was into that kind of music.

But then something weird happened. I started to re-enjoy classic rock and not act so snooty over the new head-banging metal bands. After all, this was my new career and pretty much my new life. I had to live and breath the stuff, if I wanted to stick around. My college radio pals were probably scoffing at me whenever I came on between songs.

"That was Don Henley and BOYS OF SUMMER here at ninety-four FM, W-H-J-Y, the home of rock and roll," I said into the microphone with all of the enthusiasm I could muster. "And this one is by request, it's AC/DC and BACK IN BLACK."

Laugh all you want, my progressive rock friends, I was beginning to enjoy this.

Then one day I went into the station early to do some production. There was this short little guy with a mop of dark, kinky hair coming out of the main studio. Rick OB had just interviewed him. It was Ronnie James Dio, legendary frontman in a couple of bands you may have heard of--Black Sabbath and Rainbow. I wasn't a huge fan--remember, I'd become a music snob. Regardless, I stopped to say hello. After a little back and forth, he asked if I was going to his show at the Providence Civic Center that evening. I told him I wasn't sure if they had set aside tickets for me. Ronnie reaches into his pocket and pulls out an ALL ACCESS backstage pass and hands it to me.

"This should work," he said.

The record label rep he was with invited me to have dinner with Ronnie and him. Next thing you know, I'm in a car with Ronnie James Dio headed to the venue. And just like other rock stars I'd met up to that point, he was fascinated with new music and was actually into a lot of the bands I followed at the time. We got into a lengthy discussion about music and where it was headed, and we actually had very similar tastes.

The first place we stopped was at his hotel. There was a mob of fans outside that swarmed around Ronnie for autographs and photos the moment he stepped out of the car. I was stunned they knew and waited to find him there. I knew he was popular, but I never would have guessed this popular. We managed to break away from the fans and got into his hotel.

Later over drinks and dinner before the show, I learned that Dio also liked classical music and he collected cars. He lived in Los Angeles. And he was very smart.

At showtime, I stood off to the right of the stage. The lights went out and Bic lighters ignited all over the civic center. Then there was a huge explosion and flames onstage, out of which jumped this short guy (I'm 5'7" and he was shorter than me). The music was so loud and the light show intense. It was electrifying to see this guy, who hours earlier I could have cared less about, come to life and get thousands of hardcore fans onto their feet for almost two hours of non-stop, sweaty, ear-tickling, hard rock. It was one of the best concert-going experiences of my life. Theatrics, showmanship and really amazing guitars and drums.

Ronnie James Dio, the man himself, had turned me into a fan. Then off he went to repeat his kindness and professionalism and spread his music and message. I never saw him again but was quite sad when I heard news of his death in 2010. Thank you, and RIP Dio.