“We played it hot, hard and heavy at the Carolina County ball/And we sang ‘Ooooo’/On a boogie-woogie Friday night…”
Ronnie James Dio’s early band Elf played it hot, hard and (pretty) heavy throughout its relatively short lifespan. Elf released three studio albums between 1972 and 1975 before going to superstardom with Rainbow (the core of which was actually built from Elf), Black Sabbath, and Dio. Last year, Cherry Red released a reissue of 1972’s debut Elf; now, the label has turned its attention to the group’s second and third albums: Carolina County Ball (1974) and Trying to Burn the Sun (1975).
Though versatile lead singer Ronnie James Dio went on to become one of the most dynamic and influential voices in metal, the sound of Elf is more akin to melodic rock with a southern flair. Dio, with keyboardist/vocalist Mickey Lee Soule, wrote all of the material for the band. By the time of Carolina County Ball, the line-up also included Gary Driscoll on drums/percussion, Craig Gruber on bass, and Steve Edwards on guitar.
Carolina, produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover (who also supplied string arrangements) and released on the Purple Records label, featured more expansive arrangements than its predecessor. The rollicking title track set the tone for the LP, with its saloon-ready piano (a hallmark throughout), searing electric guitars woozy honky-tonk brass, and climactic tempo shift. This signaled a more adventurous direction for the band, as always anchored by Dio’s full-throated, confidently strutting vocals. Stylistically, the album offered a diverse array of sounds, from the pointed, moody “Happy” to the dramatic, Queen-like theatricality of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues” and the sing-along, oom-pah simplicity of “Blanche.”
In certain territories, Carolina was titled after the single “L.A. 59,” on which drummer Gary Driscoll’s always-heavy drums echo the train in the lyrics. It’s one of many muscular band performances here of a catchy yet swaggering track that walks the line between pop and rock. Harder-rocking tracks like “Ain’t It All Amusing” and the breakneck “Do the Same Thing” recall The Faces’ early influence of down-and-dirty good-time rock and roll. The title of “Rainbow” (with prominent female backing vocals, another signature of Carolina County Ball) of course looked forward to Ritchie Blackmore’s famous band.
Trying to Burn the Sun followed in 1975. The Elf line-up remained intact, though Mark Nauseef was added on percussion. (In the new liner notes, Nauseef can’t recall playing on the album, though he was credited on it.) A transitional album, it was again produced by Roger Glover. Sessions took place early in 1975, with the album released in June. However, in late February, Dio, Soule, Gruber and Driscoll began sessions for what would become the first album by Rainbow, effectively ending Elf before the LP was even released.
The album took on a high-octane, more straightforward hard rock feel thanks to tracks like “Black Swampy Water” and “Prentice Wood” – although the backing vocalists were still present to lend a soulful quality and Soule’s piano remained prominent. (The brass section from Carolina wasn’t retained.) Dio, of course, always brought ample soul in his crisp and powerful vocals, as on the mid-tempo “When She Smiles” the raw, funky “Streetwalker,” and even the carefree barroom country-rock of “Good Time Music.” Strings were deployed on the widescreen canvas of “Wonderworld,” the song from which the album’s title lyric derived.
Both of Cherry Red’s new Elf reissues are decked out with period Purple Records labels, and feature full-color booklets with copious liner notes by Malcolm Dome. The remastering has been handled by Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham. Elf may have ultimately proven a stepping stone to the late Ronnie James Dio’s remarkable career, but these albums (as well as the previously-reissued debut Elf) leave no question that the band could rock with the best of ’em. Carolina County Ball and Trying to Burn the Sun are available now from Cherry Red and Purple Records in the U.K.; they will be available in the U.S. this Friday, November 25!
- Carolina County Ball
- L.A. ’59
- Ain’t It All Amusing
- Annie New Orleans
- Rocking Chair Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues
- Do the Same Thing
- Black Swampy Water
- Prentice Wood
- When She Smiles
- Good Time Music
- Liberty Road
- Shotgun Boogie