LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ronnie James Dio, the pint-sized heavy metal singer who replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, died on Sunday, five months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer, his wife said. He was 67.
The rocker, born to an Italian-American family in New Hampshire as Ronald James Padavona, also led his own band, Dio, whose 1983 song "Holy Diver" is a classic-rock radio staple.
He also helped popularize the "devil horns" hand sign, a heavy-metal motif in which the index and little fingers are extended, while the other fingers are held down with the thumb.
"Many, many friends and family were able to say their private good-byes before he peacefully passed away," Wendy Dio, who also managed her husband, said in a statement.
"Ronnie knew how much he was loved by all. We so appreciate the love and support that you have all given us. Please give us a few days of privacy to deal with this terrible loss. Please know he loved you all and his music will live on forever."
She did not say where he died, but previous statements had said he was seeking treatment in Houston.
Dio first achieved prominence in 1975 when he joined Rainbow, a group led by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.
"Ronnie had a unique and wonderful voice. He will be sadly missed in the rock and roll world," Blackmore said in a statement.
He moved over to Black Sabbath, the leading exponents of heavy metal, after Osbourne was ousted in 1979. He recorded three albums with the band before quitting. He reportedly complained there were not enough photos of him in the artwork for the group's 1982 concert album "Live Evil," and guitarist Tony Iommi referred to him as a "little Hitler."
Dio formed his own band in 1982, with former Black Sabbath drummer, Vinny Appice. The group enjoyed success the following year with the album and song "Holy Diver." It recorded 10 vastly inconsistent studio albums amid frequent lineup changes through 2004.
The Rolling Stone Album Guide said the group's albums contained "plenty of sludgelike guitar, dime-store satanism and the sort of vocal vibrato usually found in aging Salvation Army workers."
Dio briefly rejoined the remains of Black Sabbath to record the 1992 studio album "Dehumanizer," by which stage the group had already lost most of its fans.
Dio reunited with Iommi, Appice and Black Sabbath bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler in 2006 under the banner Heaven & Hell, taking their name from the title of the first album Dio recorded with Black Sabbath. The group toured, and released a studio album last year.
Dio disclosed last November that he had been diagnosed with the early stages of stomach cancer, and would immediately start treatment. Two months ago, he reported that the main tumor had shrunk considerably, and visits to his cancer clinic in Houston had been reduced.
But earlier this month, Heaven & Hell said it would cancel a planned summer tour of Europe because of Dio's illness.
"Horns at half mast. Such a huge loss," said Scott Ian, rhythm guitarist with metal group Anthrax, which toured with Dio's band in 2004.
Ian recalled that Dio was also a huge fan of the New York Yankees baseball team, and that he updated the singer with the latest scores while he was performing on stage.
Reporting by Dean Goodman, Editing by Sandra Maler