R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

May 16, 2010

Heavy metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio died today. He is known for singing for Black Sabbath (replacing Ozzy Osbourne), and popularizing the “devil’s horns” rock-out sign:

Ronnie James Dio

Photo by rjforster (license)

He also had a notable solo career. His album covers were always, uh, provocative, such as “Holy Diver” featuring the devil (making the hand sign) binding a priest in chains and casting him into the sea:

Dio - Holy Diver

Nice, eh? That much you may already know.

What you may not know is that he recorded guest vocals for Kerry Livgren. Livgren, the uber-talented multi-instrumentalist of the band Kansas, encountered Jesus. Livgren’s music naturally reflected his changed life, and he recorded a solo album in 1980 called “Seeds of Change”.

Silly Christians, for not realizing this is how the power of Jesus spreads

But Livgren didn’t know “the rules” of his fledgling faith and the then-fledgling Christian music industry, and asked Ronnie James Dio to sing on two of the songs. Wikipedia notes that this decision “later proved somewhat controversial among Livgren’s evangelical Christian fans, as Black Sabbath and Dio were then perceived as ‘satanic’ by many Christians.” Naughty Kerry Livgren, inviting nasty satanic singers to belt out Mask of the Great Deceiver and To Live for the King!

Silly Christians, for not realizing this is how the transforming power of Jesus spreads: by inviting people to participate with you in your journey of faith. I thought this is what we were supposed to be doing? This is an example of evangelism done right. …And those are the best two songs on the album! I wish I could find my liner notes, where Kerry Livgren describes how Dio electrified the studio with his improvisations at the ends of the songs.

First, the end of Mask of the Great Deceiver:

The mask of the great deceiver
He’s gonna make you a believer
He’ll tell you lies!
He’ll bend your eyes!
The great deceiver!  

Then at the end of To Live for the King: (Preview provided courtesy of iTunes)

Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!
It’s an easy choice!
The time has come to sing
We’re gonna walk, walk with the king!
Open your eyes, open your eyes
The writing’s on the wall, don’t you realize

I can just picture Kerry Livgren and others behind the sound board, jaws dropping. Dio was tapping into something — or someone.

(Can anyone find a copy of the Livgren liner notes? It was written up in Kerry Livgren’s compilation album Decade. He wrote about forming a new band that toured in both bars and churches, and how flabbergasted he was when the churches told him they didn’t want just music, they expected him to preach and do altar calls. Sigh. I’m afraid evangelical churches still haven’t figured out the arts yet.)

What did Dio experience in the studio with Livgren? Did it alter his life in any way? I can’t say. But I hope he gets the chance to improvise for the Lord again. Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! It’s an easy choice!

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

19 responses to R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

  1. The really funny part, to me as an unbeliever, is that it’s perfectly clear to me that anyone who claims to be a Satanist or revels in “Satanic imagery” is really just saying, in a really roundabout sort of way, that they’re so deeply steeped in Christian mythic imagery that they can’t even figure out how to reject it properly.

  2. Wow. Very interesting! Not really my style of music, but I love this story!

  3. Samia Perkins May 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    What a great story. There is so much more to people that what we see on the surface. It usually pays off to look deeper, and not be so dismissive.

  4. Thanks for the info, Jon. What did you think of Pat Boone’s “In a Metal Mind”? I admired him for doing such a thing to empathize with people he once deprecated.
    Similarly, a hardcore Republican friend in college printed an article in the Republican campus newspaper apologizing to the gay community for his previous comments about them. He stated at the end of his article that he still believed homosexuality was morally wrong, but he was willing to meet with anyone he had previously offended to discuss things. One man took him up on it.

  5. I have noticed that one of the best ways to get a non-bleiver involved in church is to ask them to help with ministry or service. I think as long as we are not looking to the unbeliever for leadership in the church, we should be free to ask them to participate. Then they get to see first hand the practical side of our Christianity. –Richard

  6. It wasn’t your main point, but I really liked how you told us that the evangelical churches wanted him to preach and do alter calls. We are not all given the same talents. I can preach every day, but I stink at prayin’ out loud. Sounds funny for a preacher huh?
    I do pray out loud at every service, but I always try to find a few people who are pretty good at it to help me out with opening prayers and such.
    The key word is “expected”. When we start expecting someone to do something, we usually get the exact opposite.

  7. Nice post. I remember hearing Dio was diagnosed with stomach cancer and praying for his salvation. His Livgren interaction coupled with the kind of subject matter he probed makes me relatively confident he was aware of the claims of Christ and Christianity. His Roman Catholic background no doubt marred his clarity about these, but one has to wonder (and hope) that Dio gained saving clarity, by God’s grace, in his last weeks and months.

  8. Found my liner notes (You really should get organized!) and here is what they have to say about RJD . . .
    “For ‘To Live for the King’ and ‘Mask of the Great Deceiver,’ I wanted to find someone with a good deal of power and range but also expressiveness. As I searched through my record collection, I recalled someone who had a voice like that. His name was Ronnie James Dio, and I had seen him years before with a band called Elf. Unlike the other singers, I didn’t know Ronnie James; so my manager, Budd Carr, made the initial contact. I chose Ronnie James strictly on the basis of his vocal abilities. Even though he had begun to sing for Black Sabbath, Ronnie is no Satanist. People have asked me why I included him in my solo album, and the answer is that I saw him as the right singer for two of the songs. In addition, his work on my album gave him an opportunity to sing lyrics which are diametrically opposed to what he does in Black Sabbath. This provided a clear witness to him about Christ.
    . . .
    “I was a little concerned about how some of these singers would react to the Christian content of the lyrics . . . Whether they believed what they were singing or not, they all put their hearts into it. Ronnie James’ improvisation at the end of ‘To Live for the King’ was certainly witness to that. Some of the lyrics he added amazed [us], considering he came up with them ad lib.”
    From comments RJD made elsewhere (and which you read in my post) it seems clear that his “faith” was quite different from anything Livgren or most evangelical Christians ever embraced . . .

    • Hello. I came from Germany. Hope my english is good enough. I am a fan from Ronnie since 33 years and I am a christian since 33 years too. Ronnie sung int the song Heaven and Hell ….The Devil is never a maker. And he always said about his songs that he want to warn the people about the devil…Inside of the HOLY DIVER LP are photos wich shows some things Ronnie collect. And there is one picture with a Rainbow and beyound of this Rainbow you can read the words: Beware of the temptations of satan. I was in some concerts of DIO, in one of this concerts two guys began to beat each other. Ronnie stopped the music and said: Please stop with this violence or I will not continue the concert. At least I Know that a priest was there as Ronnie died. Is Stephen King a satanic because he wrote evil thing? Ronnie always said that Heaven and Hell, both are in all of us and we have just decide wich site will rule us. And I guess he was right. Noone has the right to say: Ronnie is in Hell or in Heaven. Only God has this right. I know Ronnie was a good human beeing who never hurts anyone.

  9. And to correct Randy, in case people go searching for it . . .
    Pat Boone’s 1997 album is titled “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy.” I used to own it, but can’t find it anywhere at present. So much for organization . . .

  10. peterb,
    Yeah, a truly comfortable unbeliever would, I suppose, just ignore the Christian myth.
    On the other hand, you have to admit that his brand ingeniously marketed itself. Look at all the free publicity he got from irate Christians!

  11. Carrie,
    Oh forgot, you’re a Coldplay-weenie. 😉
    I’m not a metal-head, but I think he had an amazing voice. I dug out these two songs and have been listening to them at work. FYI they are less metal and more Kansas.
    The story challenges me to keep evangelism real, not churchy.

  12. Samia,
    Isn’t it? I like the way you put that, and hope it gives us pause the next time we think about dismissing anyone.

  13. Randy,
    I see tsydaddy has corrected your album title, but we both knew what you meant. That Pat Boone album is held up by metal-heads as a joke (I even gave a copy to a friend as a joke), but Boone said he did it because there was more musicianship in those songs than his ordinary fans realized.
    It takes courage to cross the line you’re not supposed to cross.

  14. Richard,
    I agree! I think we place too many expectations on non-believers to show up and automatically start believing. And instead of evangelism being “I am doing this to you, pay attention,” it becomes, “We are doing this together. What do you think?”

  15. Kevin,
    You’re right, we expect people “in leadership” in church to automatically come with the same set of gifts, or something!
    In the case of musicians, it seems like it’s fine to “just play” as long as you’re not involving the Lord in any way. But once you do, well that needs some preachin’ and teachin’. …And that frustrates me, and I think it frustrates most artists. I want to say, “This thing I do — whether singing or sculpting or whatever — this is my preaching. Aren’t you paying attention?”

  16. Tony, thanks for sharing your thoughts about Dio, especially on your post.
    Hey everyone, check out Tony’s tribute.

  17. tysdaddy,
    There are my missing liner notes — you had them all this time! Though now I wonder if I have your Pat Boone CD somewhere…
    No really, thank you for digging up the liner notes. You have made me a happy blogger.