Outside a bar on south Main Street in Cortland, Jim Pantas dragged on a cigarette.
It was 1963 and for the last five years, he had managed a band that took on two separate names. His brother, Nick Pantas, was the lead guitarist, but the defining talent of the band was undoubtedly the incredible versatility of their lead vocalist, Ronnie James Dio.
For a rock and roll singer — who would one day find himself in heavy metal — he had a careful control of his voice that blues- and jazz-inspired artists sometimes lacked.
Jim Pantas said he didn’t have many bad interactions with Dio — just one. During a break after a show, Dio stepped outside with Jim Pantas and they smoked and chatted. That year, Dio had married a local girl named Lorretta Berardi. Dio always wore his wedding ring, and he did that night on stage.
“You should probably take off your wedding ring,” Jim Pantas suggested. Perhaps it would appease the women in the crowd, he thought, maybe it would make them think they had a chance.
But Dio yelled, argued, and punched him. Jim Pantas admits now — everything down to the logic — he was uninformed. One way or another, Dio was connected to the town he grew up in, the people he met there and the place where he started his music career.
A year later, Dio and the band would open for the Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall.
Rock the Dio way
WHAT: Dio Day 2019
WHEN: 1 p.m. July 14
WHERE: Night Owls Bar, Cortland
FEATURING: Sydney Irving, The Essentials, Austin/Schell and Company, Pull, Band of Doom, Taylor Made and Ten Man Push
Even after Dio left Cortland, Cortland maintained a connection with him.
Nine years after his death from stomach cancer, Dio is honored every two years with Dio Day, a concert in his name.
For the past two occasions, it has been at Night Owls, a bar in Cortland where Dio used to wash dishes.
Cortland Standard file photo
David Feinstein, cousin of Ronnie James Dio, performs during the 2011 Dio Day at the JM McDonald Sports Complex. The annual tribute to the metal icon will soon be return.
Proceeds from the concert are donated to Stand Up and Shout, a cancer fund in Dio’s name, the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes and a $1,000 scholarship for a high schooler interested in entering the music business.
“Maybe one of the best voices ever from a heavy metal perspective,” Night Owls owner Larry Baker said. “Unfortunately, he died too young.”
Jim Pantas met Dio in 1958, when Pantas was in a hospital bed at Cortland City Hospital awaiting surgery on his thyroid. His brother, Nick Pantas, who started a rock and roll band the year prior in the garage with his high school friends, realized it could expand. Jim Pantas asked the name of the group.
“Ronnie and the Rumblers,” Nick Pantas said. At that point, its lead singer was still known as Ronald Padavona. “We need a manager.”
“What does a manager do?” Jim Pantas asked.
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t bother to ask you,” Nick Pantas replied.
So, Jim Pantas became the manager of Dio’s namesake band. They developed a strong relationship, and Jim Pantas grew fond of Dio’s kind, gracious demeanor. Dio attended SUNY Buffalo in the pharmacy program, but dropped out and enrolled at SUNY Cortland. He decided to leave Cortland as well, and stayed in Jim Pantas’ apartment before he even told his parents.
“It was obvious his mind was on something else and that was what it amounted to,” Jim Pantas said.
From 1961 to 1967, the band performed under the name Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. They rode the success of Dio’s versatile voice, Jim Pantas said, to a few minor hits.
Cortland Standard file photo
An early group photo of Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. From left are Gary Driscoll, Dick Bottoff, Nick Pantas and Ronnie Dio, seated.
It became clear Dio — an accomplished trumpet player since the 7th grade who played a trumpet solo in the Angels hit song “My Boyfriend’s Back” — wasn’t simply a vocalist, but a gifted musician.
In 1968, the band was returning from a gig in Waterbury, Connecticut, and turned onto a two-lane road to head home. About midnight, an oncoming car crossed the median and collided head-on with the band’s van. The crash killed Nick Pantas, then 26, sent the rest of the band to the hospital and shot Dio through the windshield. He stayed in the hospital for eight months.
After being discharged, he got the band together again and they picked up where they left off. The renamed themselves the Electric Elves, later known as Elf, and continued to play together for five years.
“When we had the right sound, it was magic,” Dick Bottoff, a guitar player who played with Dio, said.
Bottoff left the band in 1972 and was replaced by David Feinstein, Dio’s cousin. Around that time, Bottoff said Dio realized that his career had extended beyond Cortland. He had divorced and his career moved him to Los Angeles, where he owned a
$3 million home. He took over for Ozzy Osbourne as the lead singer in Black Sabbath, formed the band Dio and ended his career with Heaven & Hell, a band he formed with former members of Black Sabbath.
He gained success in songwriting by writing about things he loved: wizards, castles, knights and dragons.
He had accumulated multiple awards for heavy metal singers and in 2004, he was inducted into a local hall of fame. Cortland dedicated a street to him and named it Dio Way, an event for which Jim Pantas was asked to be the master of ceremonies.
However, before the event, Jim Pantas received an anonymous phone call to look at the side of St. Mary’s High School, where symbolism of the devil was painted on the side of the building, surrounding the phrase “Dio Forever.”
“I didn’t think it gave the right message to teenagers,” Jim Pantas said. He backed out of the event. Dio contacted him.
“I guess you’ve forgotten what sells records,” Dio told Pantas.
Pantas and Dio argued. Dio was now well-removed from the place he grew up in. Though their communication wasn’t great before that, it dried up after that exchange, Pantas said.
Dio continued to tour, and the heavy metal vocalist played and played. Pantas said they saw each other once, at Dio’s mother’s funeral, but not much else after that. Dio was still gracious and introduced Pantas as “the most honest person he’s ever met.”
His career that started in Cortland had now firmly removed him from it. Bottoff said it was only a matter of time. Pantas agreed. Dio was always destined to be greater.
He continued to play — because no one would get paid if he didn’t, Bottoff said — but the bad feeling in his stomach had persisted for years. Finally, in 2009, he went to the doctor and was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. Jim Pantas, a four-time cancer survivor, had tried to reach out, but the two never connected.
Photo by Michael McCleary
Before he became a heavy metal superstar, Ronnie James Dio was Ronald Padavona. He was the leader of a doo-wop group and washed dishes at the Night Owls bar in Polkville, which plans a Dio Day series of music acts to raise money for assorted charities.
Dio died in 2010.
The year of his death, Jim Pantas and a group of Dio’s friends and loved ones helped organize a benefit in Dio’s honor — the first Dio Day, Jim Pantas noted. Jim Pantas decided to leave the past disagreement with the Cortland legend behind.
“None of that counts anymore,” Jim Pantas said. “… His life was his music.”