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Doo-Wop to Heavy Metal?

Here's a dispatch from our resident rock guru, and obituaries contributor, Terence McArdle:

The Associated Press obituary for former Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio left out one major biographical detail.

He didn't start singing heavy metal.

Dio, born Ronald James Padavona, started out doing Dion-styled doo-wop in the late 1950s as the bass gutarist and lead singer of Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, a vocal group from upstate New York. You can hear the Dion and The Belmonts influence in this early record from the early 1960s, a cover of one of Dion's early hits: here.

He actually made it to one of the larger rock records, Atlantic in 1961 with Love Pains, a song filled with 'ice cream' chord changes and teen angst, though a generation apart from the angst that fueled Black Sabbath.

Perhaps the oddest recording in Dio's discography is this cover of the Gene Ammons be-bop jazz standard, Red Top. Dio pulls it with a healthy bit of finger snapping swing and clearly knew how to use his voice. And by the way, there is some nice guitar work on it: here.

It really struck me that Red Top is a world away from Black Sabbath and the devil's horns. So I asked Ed Engel, a Pennsylvania record collector and dealer about it. Engel, who operates a web store,, is (according to other record collectors) something of an expert on the unjustly maligned field of white doo-wopers.

"Ronnie Dio did whatever the style was at the time," said Engel. "Many of these guys continually metamorphasize into something new."

Engel cited the Lou Reed and Mark Stein of the 60s psychedelic act Vanilla Fudge as other examples of rock front men who started as 50s doo-wopers. He said that Dio's group probably made enough noise in upstate New York to get airplay and hook up with record labels. However, the fact that his early records are collectible proves that they didn't have national hits -- and so Ronnie James Dio had to continue to change with the times.

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By T. Rees Shapiro  |  May 17, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
 | Tags: Black Sabbath, Heavy metal music, Lou Reed, Music, New York, Rock music, Ronnie James Dio, Singing  
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