Who’s that gleefully malevolent-looking elf?
Why, it’s none other than the late Ronnie James Dio, legendary frontman of Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell and of course, Dio. Between 1972 and 1975, Dio (under his real name of Ronald Padavona) led the band Elf for three albums. The first of those LPs, the eponymous Elf, has just been reissued by Cherry Red’s Hear No Evil imprint in a newly-remastered edition.
Singer/bassist Dio founded Elf in 1967 as The Electric Elves, alongside keyboardist Doug Thaler, drummer Gary Driscoll and guitarists Nick Pantas and David Feinstein (Dio’s cousin). Pantas and Dio had previously played together in Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, a collaboration which ended in tragedy when, in 1968, a drunk driver hit The Electric Elves’ vehicle. Pantas perished in the crash, which also left Dio with 100 stitches and Thaler with a broken leg. The group, with the shortened name of The Elves, pressed onward, though. Thaler moved to guitar and Mickey Lee Soule took over keyboards. Thaler departed in 1972 for a career in music management, leaving the group as a foursome. Dio, Feinstein, Driscoll and Soule made one more name change, becoming Elf just in time to be signed by Columbia Records.
As The Elves, Electric and otherwise, the band had recorded singles for MGM and Decca. But Bruce Payne gave the band its biggest break yet. Payne was a fan of Elf when he joined the ATI booking agency in New York. One of ATI’s most prominent clients was Deep Purple, and so when Payne arranged for Elf to audition for Columbia Records executives, Purple members Roger Glover and Ian Paice tagged along. The presence of the Purple pair might have tipped the scales in Elf’s favor; the band was soon signed to Columbia with Glover and Paice as producers.
As David Feinstein recalls of his cousin Ronnie in the liner notes to this new reissue, “[he] could literally sing anything. It was just fortunate for rock that he decided to go in that [metal] direction. But before he chose this path, he could match whatever Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck were doing. He could sing in any style. That’s what made him so amazing.” Indeed, Elf shows off multiple influences from heavy blues-rock to balladry, good time rock-and-roll and even pop. All eight tracks on the LP were written by the band, with three songs credited to all four members and the remaining five to the Feinstein/Driscoll/Soule triumvirate.
Elf is hardly a metal record, but the seeds of the style certainly had been planted. Mickey Lee Soule’s barrelhouse piano is a key component of the Elf sound, which recalls a heavy Guess Who with a dash of The Rolling Stones and a dollop of southern rock (the album was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia). Some moments even anticipate the big sound of Queen. Feinstein provides enough scorching guitar, however, to hook fans of Dio’s later, edgier work, and the interplay between Soule, Feinstein, the perennially big-voiced, distinctive Dio and drummer Driscoll makes Elf an infectiously enjoyable and altogether accessible listen. Glover and Paice emphasized a lean, gritty sound for the band, free of much production adornment; they succeeded in bringing the live Elf sound – heard at many Deep Purple concerts for which the band served as opening act – to records.
Of course, Elf will always be best-remembered as a stepping stone for Dio’s future triumphs. After this debut album, Steve Edwards replaced Feinstein on guitar, and Craig Gruber took over bass, leaving Ronnie James Dio free to concentrate solely on his capacity as lead singer. This lineup, minus Edwards, recorded two more albums with Glover producing, and then was incorporated into Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow when guitarist Blackmore formed his new band after leaving Deep Purple. Ronnie James Dio, one of the most versatile voices in rock and metal, was truly on his way.
Hear No Evil’s new reissue of Elf features a 16-page booklet containing Malcolm Dome’s new liner notes drawing on interviews with Feinstein, Soule, Glover and Paice. Andy Pearce has remastered. Elf is available now in the U.K. and will ship on March 10 in the U.S.; it can be ordered at the links below!
Elf, Elf (Epic KE 31789, 1972 – reissued Hear No Evil HNECD 050, 2015) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
- Hoochie Koochie Lady
- First Avenue
- Never More
- I’m Coming Back for You
- Sit Down Honey (Everything Will Be Alright)
- Dixie Lee Junction
- Love Me Like a Woman
- Gambler, Gambler
Bill Mason says
Brilliant review, Joe. Ronnies work with Elf has long been overlooked. Hopefully this will lead to the remastering of the other two albums. Trying to Burn the Sun definitely foreshadows Blackmores Rainbow.
Joe Marchese says
Thanks, Bill! Crossing my fingers for remasters of those albums and maybe even some music from the vault!