September , 2011
By Andy Laudano
Holy Divers Celebrating Musical Icon
JAM Magazine Speaks with Tim "Ripper" Owens
On May 16, 2010, the world lost one of rock music's great voices when Ronnie James Dio succumbed to his battle with stomach cancer. As the powerful vocalist behind Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, his own band Dio and Heaven and Hell, the diminutive singer crafted some of the greatest hard rock/heavy metal songs of all time. More importantly, Dio was also one of the most beloved, gracious and genuine human beings to ever grace this planet. A little over a year later, his loss still weighs heavily on his family, friends and fans.
Everyone deals with grief and loss in their own way. In the case of Dio's former comrades, they have organized a tribute tour to celebrate the musical legacy of their fallen leader. It’s appropriately titled Dio Disciples. The group has the full blessing of the singer's wife Wendy. It features longtime Dio band guitarist Craig Goldy, Rudy Sarzo on bass, Simon Wright behind the drums and keyboardist Scott Warren. The delicate task of singing is being carefully handled by Tim "Ripper" Owens and Toby Jepson.
Without a doubt, Ronnie James Dio left behind some very large footprints that anyone wishing to walk in must tread extremely lightly. Owens, however, is no stranger to stepping into the shoes of giants. Blessed with a superb voice with extraordinary range, he was tapped by Judas Priest to fill the vacant slot left behind by Rob Halford’s departure from the group in 1996. Owens, who was the inspiration behind the movie Rock Star, recorded two studio albums with Priest and was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Metal Performance category. This situation, however, is entirely different.
"I'm not trying to be Ronnie or take his place," explained the singer, who was given the nickname "Ripper" by Priest band members. "No one could ever do that. He was the best, not just in hard rock, but in music period. I was asked to be a part of this because Ronnie was a friend. He was also a big fan of my singing. They didn't want to get someone in here who sounds just like Ronnie. This isn't about being a tribute band. It's a celebration of his life and music."
One of the Ohio native's fondest memories, he says, was the very first time he met Dio. The singer himself requested the audience.
"I was in Judas Priest at the time,” he recalled, “and Juggulator had just been released. Dio and Iron Maiden were playing together in Cleveland, and I was fortunate to get some tickets. When I picked up my envelope, I was informed at the Will Call window that Ronnie wanted me to come backstage. Anyone who's ever met Ronnie will tell you one thing. He had this way of making you feel like family, like you had known each other all your lives.
"When I met him in his dressing room, Ronnie was extremely gracious. He said, 'You are one of us now. You're just like me. Remember that!' I can't tell you how much those words meant. At the time, there were people in the business, nowhere near Ronnie's stature, that treated me like I was anything but one of them. But here was this megastar embracing and welcoming me with open arms into his inner circle."
The warm welcome into the brotherhood notwithstanding, Dio also made another impression on Owens that has served him well to this day.
"My three biggest influences in the world,” offered Owens, “are Rob Halford, Ronnie Dio and Chris Cornell. As my career moved forward and I became better acquainted with Ronnie, he became more of an influence on me. This man was just a wonderful, wonderful guy and I don't think there's anybody out there who wouldn't agree with me. Ronnie was someone you could learn from every single day. He taught me important things like how you should act among fellow musicians, carry yourself while you’re singing on stage, and especially to always be gracious with your fans."
Dio’s impact on Owens professional and personal life came full circle for the musician the night he found out his friend and mentor had died.
"I was devastated," the singer reflected sadly. “The night before he passed, I did an acoustic show at my restaurant. I even played a couple of his songs. When I finished performing that evening, I went home and found out Ronnie had passed away. Shock, disbelief, you name the emotion, I just couldn’t believe it. I was going to call his wife Wendy, who's also my manager, but then I thought I'd better not. She had enough to deal with. I went back to the restaurant, put a bunch of money in the jukebox, and played all the Dio and Heaven and Hell songs I could. Needless to say, it was a tough night."
When the call came to be a part of the Dio Disciples, Owens jumped at the opportunity. "I was the first person they asked," he said proudly. "I agreed immediately and began clearing my schedule to accommodate the tour. I had a bunch of solo shows lined up at the time, but doing this was far more important. Fortunately, I was already friends with everyone in the band. Most of them had played on my solo record."
Owens however, won't be the only singer on stage performing Dio's catalog of hits. Toby Jepsen, the English born vocalist and producer, will also share the limelight.
"Toby sounds even less like Dio than I do," explained Owens. "He's more of a classic rock guy, like David Coverdale or Glenn Hughes. But here’s the thing. We are not going on tour to sound like Ronnie James Dio. We are not going up on stage in an attempt to replace Ronnie James Dio. We are there to celebrate his legacy, his life, and bring together fans touched by his music. Toby's also a really good guy. After he did the Dio Disciple shows with us in Europe, I told Wendy we had to bring him on tour with us in the United States. She agreed."
Owens is unsure whether Dio Disciples is a one-time event, or a continuing project. The first leg of the tour ends in Dallas on Oct. 9. Four days later, Owens begins a month long stint with Yngwie Malmsteen.
"We really haven't had any conversations about it," answered the singer about future Dio Disciple plans. "We started the tour in Europe so we could play the summer festivals. We'll finish the first leg of the American tour in Texas. After I finish a prior commitment to Yngwie, we’ll pick up the tour again. Wendy understood Yngwie was something I couldn’t get out of.
“I’m sure at some point down the road, we will all have some discussions about the future of this project. Right now, I'm having a lot of fun playing with these guys. That said, I wouldn't want to make new music with them and call it Dio Disciples. However, if they want to be the band on my next solo album, I’d love to have them."
Dio Disciples project started off in Moscow this past summer and was well-received throughout Europe. The group is selling out shows around the country as fans have flocked to shows and critics have given the group a thumb's up for their performances.
"The most important thing about what we’re doing,” stated Owens, “is that people fully understand we’re doing this for the right reasons. In the beginning, people out in the audience didn't know what to think about us. They all knew we loved Ronnie and we were doing this because he loved them. We fully understood the fans didn’t want to see anything onstage that would tarnish his memory. Once they saw us live, or played some of the videos of us on YouTube, the attitude towards us performing Ronnie’s music live changed.
“When fans of Dio attend the show, they’ll know from the looks on our faces and our smiles, we are all about honoring Ronnie’s memory. This band pours out real and raw emotion every night at these shows. The people in the audience immediately get it. If you’re a real Ronnie James Dio fan, you’ll get it too. We invite anyone who loved this great man’s music to come out and share the celebration with us."