I'M A GREAT singer. There's nobody better than me at what I do. But that's not an ego, that's the truth. I'm sorry." The man looks at me hurtfully as he shrugs his shoulders.

"I seem to have to apologise for sounding like an ego-maniac and I suppose that's what most people think I am, but I'm probably the most truthful person you'll ever interview in your life.

"I don't care what people think of me, except those who I play for. I honestly don't even care what you write about me in the press, even though I hope you'll like me as a person, because your opinion is your honesty and I admire that.

"I'm basically a really nice person. I care about people, I love animals and if I see someone who is crippled, then the tears start to well up in my eyes. I can't help being soft-hearted, but yet I'm confident enough in myself so I don't take crap from anyone either. If someone upsets me, I tell them to piss off!"

When is an ego not an ego? When it's the truth, perhaps? If you agree, then Ronnie James Dio would be unfairly accused of being an egocentric little bastard because he holds no exclusive preoccupation with his own ability. He merely tells the truth.

He IS "a really nice person". One of the nicest, most thoughtful, intelligent, interesting and likeable people I've met in this business in fact, and I've rarely met a man who cares so much about the people he plays for either.

He IS a very "truthful person" because at the same time as realising his ability quite confidently, he readily admits his mistakes and faults, constantly apologising for sounding big-headed and never saying anything rash. He makes considered statements and has strong grounds to believe in them wholeheartedly.

He IS "a great singer," with no parallel this side of Glenn Hughes. His voice is a mountain of might with more colours than the countless rainbows he sings about. It's viciously thunderous at times, yet delicate, tender and silky smooth at others. It soars, swirls, floats, drifts and stamps its authority on everything it touches in a way which makes the majority of rock singers - past, present and probably future - pale beside him.

Add to these qualities a sparkling talent for songwriting which has given birth to a whole catalogue of classy rock material from Elf through Rainbow and Black Sabbath to Dio and the brilliant debut album 'Holy Diver', which is probably the only hard rock album to top Heavy Pettin's gem this year, and an excellent team consisting of former Sabs skintapper Vinnie Appice, ex-Rainbow and Wild Horses bassist Jimmy Bain and sizzling new Oirish discovery Vivian Campbell on guitar - and you've got one helluva band!

THREE NIGHTS into their first British tour, I found them at Hanley's dinky Victoria Hall on fine form. Not quite firing on all cylinders just yet, but then you wouldn't expect it this early would you?

All the same, Dio's joy at being back onstage was obvious, because apart from Donington and seven shows in the States supporting Aerosmith recently, it's been quite a while since he's played live.

"It's great to be back," he beams, "and it's good to be playing the smaller gigs like tonight. I much prefer them to the stadiums in America because you can get close to the people, and I enjoy that."

But that wouldn't have been the case at Donington earlier this year, so how did he enjoy that?

"I was very happy with the show and we went down exactly as I expected to," he smiles contentedly. "I don't want to use a whole list of superlatives because that's not the way I talk."

He sounds as proud as he does sincere, but politely accepts my one and only criticism of their set that day, concerning the amount of old material they used. I tell him that I would've preferred the band to have exploited the 'Holy Diver' album more.

"That's fair enough and I believe you could have a valid point," he replies breezily. "I disagree. You must understand that from my point of view, I'm trying to present not only Dio the band, but Dio the man. I know what people want to hear and I think we've balanced the material well.

"I didn't try to get a reaction at Donington by doing old material, but you must remember that we haven't done many shows and we came to England to prove a point, so I don't apologise for using old songs. Those songs are important to me AND you won't hear them again if we don't do them because Sabbath are trying to totally erase every memory of me from my connection with them. That's all right, I don't mind. I'm proud of what I wrote for them, I feel I did it well and it meant something to me. It's just sad the way they've treated me."

EVIDENTLY, THE sweet taste of freedom has given Dio a new lease of life and I wondered if the lyrics to 'Stand Up and Shout' relate to his personal relief.

"Yes, it really is my release from all the pressures that were on me," he admits.

"'It's the same old song, you gotta be somewhere at sometime, they never let you fly/lt's like broken glass, you get cut before you see it, so open up your eyes/You got desire, so let it out/You got the power, stand up and shout!' It's the way I feel about the whole album and what I've done.

"It was a great step to take because I was still under the blanket of Sabbath, so I had to overcome that firstly, but it didn't take long because I was so happy with 'Holy Diver' that I wouldn't have cared if it only sold two copies - both to my Mom! I think it's the best all round album I've done and it's certainly the happiest."

How does the chemistry of Dio compare to that of your previous bands?

"Well, here we all like each other," he laughs, "everyone is perfectly honest with each other. We're all very creative too and I encourage that from the other three because they are all creative people.

"In Sabbath after the 'Heaven And Hell' album there was no creativity at all, and the same with Rainbow after a while."

So have your ideals been realised, because you were very positive as to what you wanted from your band at the outset?

"Absolutely!" he exclaims triumphantly. "I wanted people with young ideas and that's what I got. I like to give people the chance to do new things because I see no sense in going back to the old tried and trusted ways.

"I've realised a goal in producing myself too and I'm just an infant in that field, so in some senses we're all young and growing together with young attitudes, playing for young people."

Our conversation meanders well into the early hours through a forest of different topics from Glenn Hughes to Waysted, from the fantasy within his lyrics to the reality of the Grenada problem, and from his increasing annoyance at having people constantly referring to his height (or lack of it? Sorry!) to his apparent fascination with rainbows ("A rainbow signifies freedom; the pot of gold is within the rainbow, not at the end of it" and so on) which unfortunately space doesn't allow me to go into.

All the time, an extremely heavy-lidded Jimmy Bain ferries from the bar to our table with tray loads of drinks and Vinnie Appice tries to spoil the singer's claim to having a democratic band by jokingly refusing to say anything, "In case I get the sack!"

We talk for ages about his lyrics, image and how he feels he's unfairly type-cast, because although his lyrics are generally around the same themes, his phrasing covers some underlying messages and ideas (like the way 'Temple Of The King' deals with humanity), but again space prevents details.

With Dio hoping to continue along the lines of 'Holy Diver', probably with a more basic, rock'n'roll slant to the songs, and with such a promising live show (which was firmly underlined by the band's immensely satisfying show at Hammersmith a few days later), Dio look set to bely their collective height and become rock giants. So, at this fresh point in Ronnie James Dio's career, I ask him for a retrospect. Naturally he obliges, willingly and truthfully.

"Elf was my learning period and our eyes were so BIG when we played on tour with Deep Purple! When I first saw Ritchie I huddled into the corner!

"We were wonderfully naive and it was a part of my life that I'll never recapture again, even though I've been close with this band now.

"Rainbow was my first chance for the 'big one'- a chance to write, perform and socialise with an idol. But when I joined Sabbath I felt I'd already been with the best and I wasn't any more. I felt I was better than all of them as far as I was concerned and again it was a bit of an ego trip for me.

"They were a different band from what I wanted them to be: they were 'Iron Man', 'Paranoid' and 'War Pigs', and that just wasn't me. I wouldn't have written those kind of songs, so I just joined the band and made it me. It was a silly attitude, I know.

"Now this band almost reverts back to Elf because I'm wide-eyed again and it feels so good to walk out onto a stage and see those banners.

"I'm in love with it all again!"

Mark Putterford, Sounds 19 November 1983
Pix by Tony Mottram