It's a ubiquitous sign for the ages. Whether thrown in rapture or irony, the pinky-and-index-finger-extended "devil horns" might mean something different to Browns fans or Shakespearean scholars, but to lovers of classic hard rock and heavy metal they mean, quite simply, Ronnie James Dio.
Nobody has thrown the horns more unabashedly and consistently in his career than Dio, metal's biggest voice in its smallest (5-foot-3) body. And now the truth can be told: The horns did not spring forth from the fiery pits of hell or a dark dragon's cave. They came from Dio's Italian grandmother.
"She used to flash that sign all the time. It was protection against the 'evil eye' as well as a way to give it," Dio says. "It was natural for me to do, and it's become a symbol of the bond between me and the audience. But I didn't invent it. Some caveman probably laid it on his buddy, Og!"
Dio also knows the power of the sign in concert. "Sometimes I tease the audience with it, but then when I do it, the place goes nuts," he laughs. "It's like 'Yes! The horns! That's what we came for!' And here I thought it was the music . . ."
For fans of Ronnie James Dio throughout his three-decades-plus career -- first with the boogie-rock band Elf, to his high-profile frontman duties for Rainbow and Black Sabbath, to fronting the current band that bears his name -- it is the music as much as the man.
Today, the New Yorker (born Ronald Padavona -- who, depending on the source, is either 54 or 61 years old) is on the crest of a new wave. He's still out there shooting the horns, slaying dragons, and wailing about heaven and hell with a voice and look mostly unravaged by time.
"Every time I go onstage, I know that half the audience came to see me, and they've dragged the other half along. I don't want to make the first half liars," he sums up. "I don't want to disappoint."