Sunday afternoon in the Hollywood Hills, a telltale procession wound its way up toward Forest Lawn cemetary: gangs of bikers with grizzled white beards protruding from their helmets, skinny Hispanic teens sporting wavy hip-length locks, middle-aged metal-heads peering out from limousine windows.
By 2 p.m., upward of 2000 fans, friends, and family had gathered around the cemetary’s Hall of Liberty to mourn the loss of Ronnie James Dio, former singer of seminal hard rock bands Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath and, of course, Dio.
The crowd was split between the Hall and a pair of large video screens that broadcast the public memorial service to the surrounding courtyards.
Both inside and out, frequent chants of “Dio!” were heard and countless devil horns were raised as a series of guest speakers described a chronology of the revered vocalist’s work, interspersed with acoustic performances from metal’s elite.
Queensrÿche’s Geoff Tate delivered a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Paul Shortino (Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot) choked back tears through a cover of the Beatles’ “In My Life.” Others including Asia singer John Payne and Anthrax frontman Joey Belladonna played staples from Dio’s own legendary songbook.
But the highlight of the afternoon — aside from learning that the City of Los Angeles has declared May 30 “Ronnie James Dio Day” — came in a pair of stunning performances from Glenn Hughes, the onetime vocalist of Deep Purple whose singing Dio admired above all others.
Hughes crooned his own “Coast to Coast,” then brought the evening to a close with a version of Rainbow’s “Catch the Rainbow” that split the difference between Al Green and early Pink Floyd. Both songs received a standing ovation.
The four-hour service, hosted by Eddie Trunk of VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show, was not without some sober moments, of course. Dio, 67, succumbed to stomach cancer on May 16, and his son Dan Padanova sternly cautioned those gathered to get screened for the disease.
He also offered some consolation. “Secretly I’d always wished that my dad would’ve done a collaboration with Dime from Pantera,” he said, referring to murdered guitarist “Dimebag Darrell” Abbott. “I thought that fusion would’ve been absolutely epic, and I think they are doing that right now above us.”
Bandmates and crewmembers shared stories about Dio as well, painting a picture of a caring man who went out of his way to make friends of his fans, and who — along with his wife and manager Wendy Dio — took those friends into his home when they were in need.
Also touched upon was his 25-year commitment to Children of the Night, a nonprofit devoted to rescuing victims of child prostitution, and the posthumous launch of the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund.
Meanwhile, video footage showcased a performer willing to give his all at every show, with a voice that lost nothing in fierceness or falsetto over a career that spanned a half-century.
“As incredible a singer as Ronnie James Dio was,” Trunk stressed a handful of times, “he truly was an even better person, and that’s remarkable to say.”
Most likely ignorant of Dio’s charity work, members of the Kansas-based hate group Westboro Baptist Church staged a small picket outside of Forest Lawn’s gates in protest of the “Satan-worshipper” who pioneered the devil horns hand gesture. But the three sign-toting dissenters were vastly outnumbered by Dio supporters who brought signs of their own tailor-made to mock the W.B.C. representatives. Truly, this was a day for the fans.
Back inside, Dio’s longtime assistant Willie Fyfe concurred. “Ronnie had that magic. Once he had a crowd in his hands, that’s where they stayed until it was time to go, then he’d give ’em back, walk off, do his thing. And bless him — he’s still doing that now and the guy is in a coffin.”
Alt-country rocker Ryan Adams, spotted among the attendees, sat down with Spin for a moment and effectively summed up the feeling out in the crowd.
“Losing a musical icon like Dio, you feel a little bit more alone on Earth,” said Adams. “He was just out there kicking so much ass.”