Obituary: Ronnie James Dio

Heavy metal singer who popularised the genre's 'devil horn' hand gesture.

Born: 10 July, 1942, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Died: 16 May, 2010, in Los Angeles, aged 67.

RONNIE James Dio sang with the heavy metal bands Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio, and his powerful, semi-operatic vocal style and attachment to demonic imagery made him a mainstay of the genre.

A heavy-metal purist, Dio was known as much for his vocal prowess as for his Mephistophelean stage persona. He sang about devils, defiance and the glory of rock 'n' roll with a strong, harsh voice that rose to a bombastic vibrato, and he is credited with popularising the "devil horn" hand gesture – index and pinky fingers up, everything else clenched in a fist – as a symbol of metal's occult-like worship of everything scary and heavy.

Ronald James Padavona was born in New Hampshire and grew up near New York. His family were staunch Catholics. Although he was never comfortable with the religion, he would later be inspired by some of its imagery for his more outlandish performances.

His first taste of music was more demure though; he learned how to play the trumpet and the French horn at secondary school.

He turned down a music scholarship to train to be a pharmacist at university, but dropped out before graduating as the lure of the music world became too powerful to resist.

He took his stage name in tribute to the New York gangster Johnny Dio, and he began his career in rockabilly bands in the late 1950s.

By the early 1970s, his group Elf became a regular opening act for Deep Purple, and Dio gained his first wide exposure when Ritchie Blackmore, Deep Purple's guitarist, recruited him in 1975 to sing for his new band, Rainbow.

When Ozzy Osbourne was fired from Black Sabbath in 1979, Dio replaced him, staying until 1982. By then he had his own group, Dio. Its first album, Holy Diver, was released in 1983, and its cover art was typical of the band's style, with a cartoonish painting of a red-eyed demon whipping a drowning priest with a chain. In various lineup configurations, Dio released material well into the mid-2000s. Dio briefly rejoined Black Sabbath in the early 1990s, singing on its 1992 album Dehumanizer, and in 2006 he began playing again with members of that band, naming the group Heaven and Hell after the title of the first Black Sabbath album on which he had appeared. Heaven and Hell toured widely and released one album, The Devil You Know, in 2009.

Over the years, Dio became a symbol of the glories and the silliness of metal, and sometimes both at the same time. In the 2006 film Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, a boy whose father has forbidden him to play metal prays in his bedroom to a poster of Dio sitting on a hellish throne; Dio, holding a medieval-style goblet, comes to life and urges the boy to forge his own way. "You will face your inner demons," he sings. "Now go, my son, and rock."

In recent months Dio had spoken about suffering from stomach cancer, having been diagnosed in November 2009.

His band Heaven and Hell had been forced to cancel its summer tour because of his health. In March, his wife and manager, Wendy Glaxiola, posted a message on their website to say that his main tumour had shrunk and that his visits to the cancer clinic were happening less frequently.

As well as his wife, Ronnie James Dio is survived by his son, Daniel, whom he and his former wife Loretta Beradi adopted; his father, Pat Padavona; and two grandchildren.