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John Lamb, Published May 22 2010

Lamb: More than meets eye to metal legend Dio

You know how you’ll always remember where you were when you heard some bit of horrible news, like John F. Kennedy had been shot or the Minnesota Vikings had traded for Herschel Walker or someone was making a movie of the “Saturday Night Live” MacGruber sketch?

I was chopping cilantro in my mother’s kitchen on Sunday when a National Public Radio newscaster announced Ronnie James Dio had succumbed to stomach cancer at age 67.

I dropped my head, not for a prayer (though he deserved at least one) and not because I knew my mom would ask, “Was that one of those awful devil albums I bought you for Christmas?” (it wasn’t, but she asked anyway), but because I knew he would never see his song “Stars” properly appreciated.

In obituaries and memorials, Dio (born Ronald Padavona) was remembered as the diminutive singer with a big voice who fronted post-Ozzy Osbourne Black Sabbath and Rainbow before going solo, all while throwing his signature horned fingers through his career.

The solo albums really got him noticed. The cover of his debut, 1983’s “Holy Diver,” featured a giant demon drowning a priest, ensuring that Catholic mothers would never buy their sons that or any other Dio album for Christmas.

The singer warned not to judge a book by its cover. Which was good, because the album still rocks. The bass to “Holy Diver” chugs along as the drums snap. It was the soundtrack to the menacing strut he pulled off in videos, looking like actress Rhea Perlman as a barbarian Hobbit.

While Dio sported a sneer and a glare, he was all heart. In ’85, noticing a lack of heavy-metal representation on “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the singer started his own fundraiser to help combat the African famine.

“Stars” was recorded on May 20 and 21, 1985, featuring 40 musicians from nearly every major hard-rock band of the day.

Why two days to record one song? Because the seven-minute tune features nearly three minutes of guitar solos from nine noodlers. Oh, and there’s a solid minute of solos as the song fades out. And two drummers!

It’s perfectly symbolic for the excess that would lead to many of the artists’ downfalls. And the hair and clothes don’t help either.

Glancing at the cover now, it seems like a parody. David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap are there but nowhere near as comical as Mick Mars and Matt Thorr.

The Hear ’n Aid (Get it? Huh? Huh?) session is easy to laugh at 25 years after the fact, but the song totally rocks. It has all of the trademark Dio references – dreamy intro, deep rhythm cuts, soaring guitar solos (nine of them!) rainbows, magic, shadows, nights, the dark and hearts.

Yet despite all the star power, the song was held up by lawyers and labels until the following year and raised about $1 million, a fraction of what “We Are the World” brought in.

Dio is remembered as being a man bigger in character than his stature. Likewise, “Stars,” the seven-minute single sporting more leather jackets and “Miami Vice” blazers than the time Tubbs and Crocket took on the biker gang, should teach us not to judge an artist by the album art.

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533