Interview: Wendy Dio Remembers Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio passed away four years ago today. This story previously ran in Revolver's "Fallen Heroes of Hard Rock and Metal" special issue, which is available online here, and also includes features on Dimebag Darrell, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan, Layne Staley, Paul Gray, Chuck Schuldiner, and many more.
When Wendy Dio met her future husband in 1975, her first impression was not very promising: “ I thought he was a bit short for me,” she says now, thinking back to the party where her friend, ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, introduced her to the 5’4” singer of his new band Rainbow, one Ronnie James Dio. “But he persisted, and he kept calling me,” she adds. “And we finally started going out together.” Soon she fell in love with him, and, in 1978, they married.
It was a love shared by millions of hard-rock and metal fans around the world. As the frontman of Rainbow, Elf, Black Sabbath, Dio, and Heaven & Hell, Ronnie gave us some of heavy music’s most rousing anthems (“Holy Diver,” anyone?), and of course, he also gave us the hand gesture by which to salute such anthems—the “devil horns,” a gesture his Italian grandmother taught him to ward off the evil eye. But it was his personal grace, his humility, his effortless generosity to his fans and his peers that really won him so much affection and respect. So it was a crushing blow when, on May 16 of 2010, the beloved singer, born Ronald Padavona, finally succumbed to the stomach cancer that he had been fighting for some six months. And despite that battle, it was also shock, since he had appeared so confident and healthy at the 2010 Revolver Golden Gods award show, where he had triumphantly accepted the trophy for Best Vocalist, less than a month before his passing--you can watch his award acceptance and final interview right here.
Of course, no one was hit harder than Wendy, who had also acted as Ronnie’s manager for the last 28 years. Since his passing, she has worked to keep his legacy alive. The label she and Ronnie started shortly before he got sick, Niji Entertainment, has continued to issue releases, including a recent all-star tribute album, This Is Your Life. She also has organized numerous fund-raisers for the Stand Up and Shout cancer fund that she started in her husband’s name. “I want to raise 10-million dollars for this, and I want to see if we can just save a few lives,” she says. “Ronnie would’ve wanted to.”
REVOLVER Was Ronnie a romantic guy?
WENDY DIO Oh yes, of course, he was romantic. He was very, very loving. And incredibly loving with his animals. He had dogs and cats, and he was really caring person. He cared about all people. He always thanked the road crew every night. And he loved his fans, of course. His fans were, like, his No. 1. That’s what his whole life was based on—what his fans thought of his music and how much he loved them. And I think they loved him in return for that.
How far would he go with his fans?
One time, I think it was with Dio, we’d left after a show on the bus, we were pulling out, and there was a kid sitting on the side of the road. And Ronnie said, “Stop, and see what’s going on.” And so Ronnie personally got out and said, “What’s wrong?” And the kid said, “Well, I’ve missed my last bus home.” And so they ask him where he was going, and they say, “Well, hop on the bus. We’ll give you a ride.” And that was Ronnie.
What’s something else his fans might be surprised to know?
He was a very private person when he wasn’t on the road. He loved his home and his family and his animals. And he loved sports—I’m sure some of them know that, actually. Always when he was writing, he would have his sports on TV and watch that and write. He always wanted to be a basketball player or a baseball player. He always wanted to be a sports person.
Did he play sports during his time off?
He wanted to play a lot when he was a child, but his father bought him a trumpet and he went to practice four hours every day from 5 years old. So he didn’t really have much time to play sports.
That’s actually why he had such a powerful voice, all the trumpet training. He won a scholarship to [prestigious performing arts conservatory] Julliard at 8 years old for trumpet playing. But then he just decided he couldn’t find any girls with a trumpet in the band, so he switched and taught himself how to play the bass.
Did he play a lot of instruments at home?
Yes, he played guitar, he played piano, bass. He didn’t play onstage anymore, but he would always write on guitar or on piano.
We were really honored to have him at the 2010 Golden Gods award show. How were his spirits after that?
I really thank you for that. Very, very special. [Chokes up] I mean, he fought it so hard. And he didn’t let it get in his way. Because he didn’t think it was going to conquer him. And nor did I, we just thought, We’re gonna beat it. And that was the attitude he had through the whole time, right until the end.
I was actually leaving that Friday morning to go to, I think it was, Chicago. And he wasn’t feeling well. And I was like, “You know what? I think we should see the doctor.” The doctor said, “I think we should take him to the hospital.” So we went to the hospital, and Ronnie says, “Go, go. I’ll be fine.” And I’m like, “No, no, I’m staying.” And thank god I didn’t go, because he got these incredible pains. And they gave him a bunch of morphine, and he was almost in a coma. He came in and out of it a few times, and then he passed away on the Sunday.
Could you communicate with him?
No. Ronnie…I mean, I held his hand the whole time and he’d squeeze my hand. I’d ask him things and he’d squeeze my hand. In between the shots, I’d wait—just when the morphine was wearing off and they’d give him another shot, he could communicate for a few seconds. But it was really hard. Really, really hard. There were like 30 people there, all of his really good friends were there that day.
After Ronnie passed, you held a public memorial for him at Forrest Lawn Hollywood Hills in L.A. Thousands of people attended. What was it like for you to see that kind of turnout?
You know, I don’t really remember any of that. It’s like a big fog. The thing Forrest Lawn told me was that, ’cause there was about 5,000 fans there, they had hired all of these extra people to clean up trash afterwards. And they said there wasn’t one bit of trash left. The fans were so respectful. Unbelievable. It was really amazing.
Have there been any particular fan gesture that really surprised you?
Well, we had a fan who Ronnie visited every time we went to the hospital. We used to go to Houston every two weeks for his chemo treatment. And there was a kid, a fan, and Ronnie became friends with him. He worried more about him than he did about himself. Ronnie always said, “Make sure to bring him CDs and some hats and some T-shirts.” The kid had been there for a year and a half. He was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. And then he passed away last week. Which was terrible, but his family called me, and they just told me he’s gone on tour with Ronnie.
What’s your fondest memory of Ronnie?
Oh, there’s so many fond memories, you know. Every day there’s a memory of something. I remember when we’d go to Houston to get the chemo, ’cause it’s a long walk in the hospital, we’d skip along and go, “OK, one more down to getting’ better.” You know, that’s what we’d do. We’d go there with a positive attitude. And that was Ronnie’s attitude on life.