- Ronnie Dio's Early Years

Interview with Mickey Lee Soule
By Jeremy Whitted

Published March 2004

Well this is the one I've been waiting for. I'm a huge fan of Mickey Lee Soule's, and I was final able to get a quick interview with this very busy man. I'm already thinking of other things I should have asked, but I thoroughly enjoyed everything he had to say. So enjoy. And many thanks to Mickey!

Q: Let's start from the beginning. When did you start playing the piano? Do you play other instruments? Who were (and are) some of your influences that started you out in music and the piano?

A: Actually, the first instrument I played in a band was the guitar. I was given piano lessons when I was about six or seven, but I hated it. I wanted to go out and play ball (or practically anything for that matter) instead of practicing the dreaded scales or whatever. It wasn't until I heard Rock and Roll on the radio and eventually joined a band that playing the piano actually became interesting to me. Our young band decided we needed something other than just guitars in the lineup and I was the only one who could play a few chords on a keyboard, so I traded my guitar for a Wurlitzer electric piano and started learning to play from that point on. The early lessons didn't really end up helping me much at all except perhaps helping my ear in forming chords, etc. Sometimes I've regretted not continuing those early lessons, but it's hard to tell what kind of player I would be now if I had. My style was always based on improvisation. I've heard some amazing players that play mainly by reading music or memorization. They're a joy to hear, but many can't play a lick using their imagination. On the other hand, I love classical music, for instance, but can't play it well because I've missed those years of lessons and repetition. My influences in those early years included practically every Rock and Roll record out there. I loved them all. As for the piano, it was Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and especially Johnny Johnson who played on Chuck Berry's records. I wasn't even conscious of how much he influenced me until years later. I never realized how much of his playing was entering my brain at the time. It was always just going on in the background of these records. Then later on I listened and went "Wow, that's what I've been trying to play all these years!" There were others of course, mostly session players on early records, etc., whose names I will probably never know. Leon Russell became a big favorite of mine. After Elf, I began listening to the great jazz players like Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, the list goes on and on.

Q: How did you meet Ronnie, and what led to you playing with him?

A: Ronnie and I grew up in the same small town in upstate New York. He was a few years ahead of me in school and had the first Rock and Roll band in town. In 1968 he and his band (by this time called Electric Elves) were involved in a bad auto accident that killed his guitar player (Nicky Pantas, who had been with him from the beginning) and left the rest of the band in the hospital. By this time I'd been playing for a while and was friends with everyone in the group. When the band reformed, I was asked to join.

Q: What were some of your favorite songs from Elf?

A: I always liked the first Elf album the most. It was raw and straight ahead. After that we started experimenting in the studio with other instruments, girl singers, etc., with mixed results in my opinion. If the band had continued as Elf we would have probably gone back to a more basic sound.

Q: Do you ever go back and listen to the Elf albums? What do you think of them now?

A: Not really. Occasionally I'll hear some Elf by chance. It will usually remind me of those days, like looking at a scrapbook I suppose.

Q: So tell us about the night Roger Glover and Ian Paice first discovered you. What club were you playing in? How did it play out? (Did they call you over to their table, go chat with you backstage...?)

A: It wasn't in a club. Our manager worked for a major booking agency in New York and had gotten us an audition with Columbia Records. Deep Purple was about to start a tour of the U.S. when Ritchie came down with hepatitis (maybe it was Ian Gillan) and had to cancel the tour. By chance, Roger and Ian Paice were hanging around the agency office just as we arrived. We met them and they decided to tag along to the rehearsal hall where we were to audition. The dudes from Columbia (Clive Davis was one) sat in folding chairs in front of us smoking cigars. You could tell by looking at them that they didn't have a clue about the music. Very difficult scene for us under normal circumstances, but the Columbia boys knew who Deep Purple were. Luckily, Roger and Paicey were knocked out, and I'm sure this made the decision easier for Clive and the boys. We were offered a deal, and with sudden time on their hands, Roger and Ian offered to produce. Within days we were in Atlanta recording.

Q: It must have been a great feeling the first time you went into the recording studio knowing Roger and Ian were producing your music. Quite a big step up from playing the small clubs. What was that like? What was going through your head that first session?

A: It all happened pretty fast. We'd done some recording before. I remember being thrilled that they actually cared about the piano. Most of the time up until then the piano would get buried in the mix. Even during live shows I was constantly being told that the piano couldn't be heard. Roger and Ian made it a major part of the band's sound. Also, they were concerned about what WE wanted and if we were happy with the takes, etc. Up to that point, it had never been musicians running the show in the control room. It had always been a manager or agent or someone that didn't have a clue about what we were trying to do. Finally we were involved with someone who understood the process from both sides of glass.

Q: Why didn't Ian Paice help produce the second and third Elf albums with Roger?

A: Roger loves the recording process. I think Ian did the first album because he was there with spare time on his hands. He was quite helpful, though, and he loved how our drummer played, which was quite a thrill for Gary.

Q: Tell us about the first concert you played opening up for Deep Purple. Where was it? Were you Nervous? Scared? Elated? It must have been a different world from the clubs you were used to playing.

A: I wish I could remember. This was the early 70's. We were all high. It was in England, I remember, and I'm sure we were a bit nervous, although we'd played some big shows before. This time it was more important because we had a record to promote, but we were more concerned with partying. By the time the tour got to the states we were in stadiums, which was pretty exciting. We were actually the first band to play live in the Houston Astrodome, I've been told.

Q: Do you have any regrets leaving Rainbow when you did? Do you wished you had stayed a little longer, just to see what would have happened?

A: Not really. One only has to look at the history of Rainbow to see what happened. I don't think things would have been much different if I'd stayed. It wasn't so much that I left Rainbow, it was that I left the music business in general. I did a couple of sessions after that, one with Roger that turned out to be "Elements," and I filled in for the Ian Gillan Band on a tour of France. But by that time I was pretty much fed up with the business aspects of the music world. I also had a young son that I wanted to watch grow up. By the way, he's now in L.A. playing drums for a band called Where's Moo? and they seem to be doing quite well. Anyway, there were other reasons I chose to leave Rainbow and they all seemed to come together at the same time. Only occasionally have I regretted leaving the music business, but never leaving Rainbow. Not my most pleasant experience.

Q: So how do you like working with Roger Glover now? You're working as a keyboard tech for Deep Purple, right? How is that going? Didn't you also do some recordings with him not too long ago? How did that feel, after being behind the scenes for so long?

A: Roger and I have always been great friends right from the start. I did play some piano on his latest solo album "Snapshot." All of the members of the band are great guys and I've been around the world about a billion times and seen places that I never dreamed I'd see. As we speak I'm about to go to China for the first time and I'm looking forward to it. But I believe my tenure is about to come to an end soon and I'll move on. There are other things I want to do and there's never any time.

Q: You have your own band now, correct? Tell us about it.

A: Well, no I don't have my own band. When I'm home I sit in with friends on occasion and usually have a great time. This may change, however. I've been writing with a friend of mine, Dave Salce, who's an amazing drummer. Before he passed, Gary Driscoll, Elf's drummer and my best friend from those days, actually gave Dave the kit that was used on the Elf records. Hopefully, we'll be recording in the near future and you may eventually hear our efforts in some form or another.

Q: Any updates regarding the long-rumored Elf reunion? Last I heard, you mentioned there had been talk but that it probably wouldn't happen.

A: No updates. I personally feel that there can never be a true reunion without Gary playing drums. Ronnie Dio and I could do a project and call it Elf, but it wouldn't be the same. I'm not opposed to doing something with Ronnie in the future, and we've definitely talked about it. But we've both been very busy in recent years, and I'm not sure if it will ever come together. It might be a lot of fun, though. Never say never.