Ronnie James Dio, a tiny man with a gigantic voice, was one of rock’s great lifers. He got his start in the late 1950s, fronting bands for which he played trumpet and bass in addition to singing. Starting out as the Vegas Kings, Dio’s band changed its name to Ronnie and the Rumblers, then Ronnie and the Red Caps, and finally Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. Their music shifted with the times, from rock ‘n’ roll to garage rock, R&B/soul, and whatever else was popular. “When you start, you do cover material, and whatever happened to be around, we did it,” he said in a 2009 interview. “We did a lot of blues, a lot of R&B material very popular back East—people like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers, James Brown, those kinds of people. You did what was put in front of you.” By 1967, Ronnie Dio and the Prophets had gone psychedelic and changed their name yet again, becoming the Electric Elves, and then the Elves, and finally Elf.
Elf signed with Epic, and their self-titled 1972 debut album was produced by Deep Purple‘s bassist and drummer, Roger Glover and Ian Paice. Despite the fact that they were from upstate New York, many of the songs were written in an almost redneck boogie-rock style. A few tracks, like “Never More,” exhibited the theatricality Dio would make his trademark later in his career, but for the most part they came across like a wannabe Southern Rock outfit—song titles like “Hoochie Koochie Lady,” “Dixie Lee Junction,” and “Gambler, Gambler,” as well as the dominance of Micky Lee Soule‘s Dr. John-ish piano, tell the story.
Two years later, they moved to MGM and recorded a follow-up, Carolina County Ball, originally released as L.A. 59 in the US and Japan. (Get it from Amazon.) Glover produced again, and they apparently had a little more money to spend, as the album-opening title track features female backing vocals and a New Orleans-style horn section, including clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. If anything, Soule—credited as sole co-writer, along with Dio—was even more dominant on this record, though new guitarist Steve Edwards (replacing Dio’s cousin, David Feinstein) got some decent solos in. Interestingly, given what became of Elf only a year later, there’s a song on CCB called “Rainbow.” More about that later.
The third Elf album, 1975’s Trying to Burn the Sun (get it from Amazon), was recorded between January and April of that year. It’s their hardest-rocking album; yes, the opening track, “Black Swampy Water,” kicks off with more barrelhouse piano from Soule (who co-wrote all the songs again), but the guitar is definitely dominating more, and Dio is singing with the same power and drama he’d make his trademark as a solo act, close to a decade later. “Liberty Road” has the strutting aggression biker-boogie acts like Molly Hatchet would display a few years later. On the other hand, “Shotgun Boogie” is an almost-swinging showcase for the keyboardist. Like its two predecessors, it’s a weird mixed bag of a record—the songs are organic enough that they’re clearly the product of a band, not a pool of songwriters or an A&R man, but the question of why a bunch of guys from upstate New York would be so determined to sound like they were from New Orleans or northern Florida remains.
At the same time that Trying to Burn the Sun was being recorded, all the members of Elf save guitarist Edwards (for obvious reasons) were flown to Munich to serve as the backing band for Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore‘s first solo album. Elf had been opening for Purple for several years, and had obviously made an impression. Other than two covers, all the songs were written by Blackmore and Dio, and they have none of the Southern rock/boogie feel of Elf. Soule is limited to a support role, frequently playing organ or clavinet rather than piano, which makes his role in the other band’s music even more obvious. It sounds like Blackmore kept him on a tight leash, wanting a sound like Jon Lord (his Deep Purple bandmate), minus Lord’s florid solos.
Trying to Burn the Sun was released in June 1975; Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow was released in August. Elf dissolved shortly thereafter, as Blackmore built up an entirely new lineup of Rainbow, retaining only Dio. The two men would work together on two more albums, 1976’s Rising and 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, after which Dio would join Black Sabbath.
The Elf discography is too often overlooked when Ronnie James Dio‘s catalog is considered. None of their albums are essential, but each has its virtues. The bandmembers, particularly Steve Edwards and drummer Gary Driscoll, could play, and there are some forceful, anthemic songs scattered through their corpus. Dio’s attempts to be a Southern rocker are weird and unconvincing, though—when he moved into lyrical realms of high-fantasy abstraction with Rainbow, Black Sabbath and as a solo artist, he was ironically on much more solid ground, sounding more committed to the material even as he often seemed to be singing jabbering nonsense. But no Dio fan should ignore Elf. There’s a difference between early work and juvenilia, and this is definitely the former.