A contender for greatest album of 2020,
Dion is back with a new collection, ‘Blues With Friends’
and even when those friends include Paul Simon,
Jeff Beck, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison,
Dion is still the star…
Here’s my story…
When Dion started out, Rock ‘n’ Roll was the bratty sound of teenage youth, with an urgent restlessness for kicks, and impatient for things to change. Now, when it’s more about wistful nostalgia and looking back, he’s here again to take the pulse of these new uncertain times. His “Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America)” is a heartbreaking memory-jerker of when ‘we travelled this land in 1962’, with a haunting nudge to his “Abraham, Martin And John” in the loss of another great advocate of ‘a change is gonna come’. ‘I wrote this tune back many years ago’ Dion relates. ‘At first I just had the melody and the refrain ‘here in America.’ A friend suggested I use an episode from my memoir about walking southern streets with Sam Cooke in 1962.’ Sam and Dion had done a joint concert, ‘we drove to Memphis, we rocked the set… you sang “You Send Me”, I sang “I Wonder Why”’, but Sam was not welcome in the same segregated Hotel, ‘the places I could stay, they all made you walk away.’
‘I finished the song, but it felt too personal, so I put it aside. Then in 2019 I saw the movie ‘Green Book’ (Peter Farrelly’s 2018 film about a black musician touring the segregated south) and after that I couldn’t shake the song.’ Across Dion’s decades-spanning career, this track is as good as anything he’s ever done. His voice is timeless. And the world needs this song now more than ever. For the idea of America, the idealised aspiration of America is still here, still intact, despite Vietnam, Watergate, 9-11, Iraq and Trump. There’s a subtle ‘uh-ah’ Chain Gang vocal undertow, and the perfect vocal foil of Paul Simon adding harmonies – a Garfunkel to Dion’s Simon, the logical coming together of two disparate careers, for they shared the same streets, the same times, and it is startlingly supernaturally right (just as Paul had added a verse of “Little Star” to Dion’s earlier “Written On The Subway Wall”). ‘My friend Paul Simon wanted to record it, what he was hearing on the tune, it’s a story we both share. Thank you Paul. Rest in peace, Sam.’
Dion’s ‘Blues With Friends’ fulfils a long-held vision. As he explains, ‘the Blues have been at the heart of my music since the early 1960s. I wanted an album of songs that were strong and memorable and told stories that were worth telling.’ With songs lifted by a cadre of great players, for “Blues Comin’ On” he’s standing at the station waiting in the rain, with Joe Bonamassa cutting swathes of high-flash guitar setting the tone. ‘It’s funny how a song evolves. For me it usually starts with a few words. In this case it was ‘if I didn’t know better’ I wanted to sing those words, so I wrote a song around them. Joe Bonamassa is a monster and took the song to a whole new level.’ Joe was the first of the album’s co-conspirators.
‘Stray Cat’ Brian Setzer adds his signature slap-bass Rockabilly feel to “Uptown Number Seven”. ‘I wanted to write an old-fashioned gospel number in the style of the Golden Gate Quartet’ says the one-time King Of The New York Street. ‘I wanted this one to be about moving forward in the spiritual life… having a goal… facing temptations along the way. So, I put it all on a train, because that’s what New Yorkers do if they want to get anywhere – they take the train. I can never leave well enough alone, so one day I tried the melody in a minor key. I loved the way it turned out and that’s what you’re hearing.’
Giving way to Jeff Beck’s pleading aching slow-testifying Stax-style guitar, with unobtrusive ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ strings working around Dion’s flawless delivery on “Can’t Start Over Again”, illustrated by an effective black-and-white video of rain on the sidewalk. ‘My earliest influences were Country Blues, especially Hank Williams. Any money I earned I took to the neighbourhood record store, where the owner used to razz me about my ‘hillbilly’ tastes. I guess I still have that hillbilly inside. For my last album (‘New York Is My Home’, 2016) I wrote a song called “Can’t Go Back To Memphis”, but I go back there with this number. It’s about love and loss and heartache, the classic themes. I believe it’s a true Blues song. I asked Jeff Beck to play something on it, he said yes! What can I say, it’s Jeff Beck.’
While Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt and Van Morrison proved just as eager to collaborate. Lou Reed once did background vocals for Dion’s “King Of The New York Streets” (on 1989 Arista LP ‘Yo Frankie’), then inducted Dion into the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame’, where he eulogised, ‘and then there was Dion – whose voice was unlike any other I’d heard before – a voice that stood on its own, remarkable and unmistakably from New York Bronx soul.’ There’s Bob Dylan too. He contributes liner-notes to the album, telling how ‘Dion knows how to sing, and he knows just the right way to craft these songs, these Blues songs. He’s got some friends here to help him out, some true luminaries. But in the end, it’s Dion by himself alone, and that masterful voice of his that will keep you returning to share these Blues songs with him.’ He’s correct. This is unmistakably Dion’s album.
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Born Dion Francis DiMucci 18 July 1939 in the Bronx, his mother Francis was an actress, and he was singing from the age of five, touring with his father Pasquale who was singer with the Martin Brothers. Dion made his professional debut on Paul Whiteman’s 1954 ‘Teen Club’ Philadelphia TV-show. While fifties austerity Britain had Skiffle – salvaging home-made or found DIY instruments played with more energy than skill, beneath the New York stoops, using a stairwell for an amplifier, young white Italianate teens had Doo-Wop. Vocals fill in for instruments they couldn’t afford, using machine-gun ‘dun-dun-dun-dun-de-dah’ tight harmony back-up to the lead voice, underscored by a low baritone bass bottom, in the same way that Hip-Hop kids would later imitate the Beat-Box. As Paul Simon recalls ‘I heard the sound of a a-cappella groups, yeah, singing late in the evening.’ ‘It’s black music filtered through an Italian neighbourhood’ Dion told Radio 2 interviewer Suzi Quatro (in August 2006). But it was in a dramatic schmaltzy big-band setting that Dion And The Tamberlanes debuted with slow ballad “The Chosen Few” c/w “Out Of Colorado” for New York’s Mohawk Records (105) label in 1957.
It was the following year he formed the Belmonts – named for the main Bronx drag where they lived and hung-out, ‘pool-halls in the afternoons, transistors playing Elvis tunes, Sunday mornings out playing stickball’ (“Written On The Subway Wall”), with his Roosevelt High school hoodlum buddies Fred Milano (second tenor), Angelo D’Aleo (fluid falsetto tenor) and Carlo Mastrangelo (baritone). Signed to Bob Schwartz newly-launched Laurie label they cut one failed single before “I Wonder Why” soared to a ‘Billboard’ no.22 in April 1958. In the States it was evocative soda-Pop jukebox music, in the UK – lacking distribution and promotion it was left to colourful revivalists Showaddywaddy to take it to no.2 here, as late as 1978. As the Belmonts toured on the ill-fated Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper package, there were a couple more hits – “No-One Knows” (no.19, September) and “Don’t Pity Me” (no.40, January 1959), before they wrote themselves into Pop history with a big 78rpm paean to the pained adolescent agonies of a “Teenager In Love” (US no.5, May 1959).
Wearing smart high-collar suits with snappy slim-ties they perform its anguished harmonies on ‘American Bandstand’. When Dion emotes ‘each night I ask the stars up above’ his eyes flick heavenwards in yearning appeal. Even the ‘teenager’ in the lyric is a defining trigger-word, a signifier that this is not a record intended for the oldster Perry Como demographic – but, as with Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” or Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”, this is aimed exclusively at the new post-war kids. At us. Caught in an opportunistic UK three-way covers-battle, the Belmonts lose out to Craig Douglas and to Marty Wilde – who takes the song to ‘NME’ no.2, one rung below Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover”. The song also happened to be the breakthrough composition for ‘Doc’ Pomus and Mort Shuman, who go on to write classic hits for the Drifters, and for Elvis.
Despite D’Aleo getting conscripted into the US Navy the group continue as a trio for a dreamy “Where Or When” (US no.3, January 1960), then a couple of oldies – “When You Wish Upon A Star” (no.30, May) from Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’, and shimmering Platters-like close harmonies on Cole Porter’s “In The Still Of The Night” (no.38, August). To music critic Lillian Roxon ‘Dion’s high sad voice had the nicely unbroken quality of adolescence.’ If Elvis was King, Dion was the upstart Prince, one of the first teen idols, along with Paul Anka, Edd ‘Kookie’ Byrnes, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Ricky Nelson. At the turn of the decade into 1960, greedy management machinations split the group into two separate acts. Re-signed to Sabina the Belmonts continue with “Tell Me Why” (no.18, June 1961), and “Come On Little Angel” (no.28, August 1962) – but it was Dion who achieved the major solo stardom. He hit with zippy up-beat ballad “Lonely Teenager” (US no.12) in November 1960, but after a couple of failed singles he roared back to no.1 first with “Runaround Sue” (October 1961), with Mickey Baker’s fatback guitar, then with the brash street-braggadocio of “The Wanderer” (December 1961) with vocal backing from the Del-Satins – both 45rpms written by Dion in collaboration with pool-hall buddy Ernie Maresca who was also fuelling the Belmonts (“No-One Knows” and “Come On Little Angel”).
Despite the usual rash of cover-versions, Dion even won out over the UK chart competition for “Runaround Sue” against local Popstrel Doug Sheldon, lifted to no.11 (November 1961) by his first UK tour and an aggressive live TV performance on ATVs ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, as well as by his dark Pop Star good looks. ‘Here’s my story, it’s sad but true…’ he opens direct to camera, using the subway Brooklynese that Roy Carr called ‘true street-corner charisma.’ It’s his story, his warning, his personal heartbreak. Rough, tough and danceable, yet in an ironic unreconstructed gender mind-set Dion was urgently alerting guys against the inconstant Sue’s promiscuity, while celebrating his own heartbreaker-reputation as the ‘Wanderer’. When he gets hurt he whines about it, when he’s doing the hurting, he boasts about it! He bares his chest, and his soul, to provide a glimpse at the hurt-vulnerability beneath the ‘two fists of iron’ macho swagger. The finger-poppin’ hump-and-jive “The Wanderer” hits a UK no.10 (February 1962), then returns to the chart in October 1984 via Status Quo, and even spawns a 1979 movie – with Dion on the soundtrack. He returned to tour the UK later that year with Del Shannon and Buzz Clifford (September 1962). This was around the time Dion was doing those shows with Sam Cooke. Recalling now how Sam took him to see a pre-fame James Brown – Sam defusing black suspicions by saying ‘he’s alright, he’s with me.’ And Dion followed the hits with four more US Top Ten singles, “Lovers Who Wander” (no.3, May 1962), the self-penned “Little Diane” (no.8, July), “Love Came To Me” (no.10, November), and “Sandy” (no.9, March 1963), plus “This Little Girl” (no.21, May 1963).
‘I was the first Rock ‘n’ Roll artist signed to CBS (US Columbia) Records’ he recalls now, but he managed to steer clear of the label’s cheesy middle-of-the-road cabaret style. Pointing out that ‘the Blues aren’t always about being down and out. “The Wanderer” is a twelve-bar blues. When you aren’t crying, you’re bragging about what you can do. It’s what I did in songs from “The Wanderer” to “King Of The New York Streets” to “Gangster Of Love”. And I was covering Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed during my early years at Columbia – much to the dismay of my corporate masters. They thought Rock was a passing fad and wanted me to be the next crooner of Great American Songbook standards, but I wasn’t going there. I recorded what I wanted, even when it mostly stayed in the vault.’ As he told journalist Joe Jackson ‘I may have been a jerk in my private life but I was never dishonest in my music’ (in ‘Hot Press’ 16 November 1989).
He hit no.2 (January 1963) with a revival of the Drifters’ “Ruby Baby”, then “Donna The Prima Donna” (no.6, September), and “Drip Drop” (no.6, November 1963) – touring the UK for a third time in September with Brook Benton, Trini Lopez, Timi Yuro and Lesley Gore. But things were about to undergo a seismic shift. Although Dion would ironically figure on the ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ cover-art, he found himself a victim of the British Invasion, complicated by his own heavy narcotic problems. Fame was ‘each time I jumped behind the wheel, of a pin-striped custom Oldsmobile, the guys would bow and the girls would squeal’ as he writes on “King Of The New York Streets” – then ‘I awoke one day and I realised… this attitude comes from cocaine lies.’ As his ‘memoir’ recounts, he’d been using drugs since running with street-gangs aged fourteen, now he was battling the same drug-demons that killed Frankie Lymon (‘The Wanderer: Dion’s Story’, Beech Tree Press, 1988). ‘I’ve been sitting here, thinking, about when I started in drinking, I went on to dope, it surely did change my life’ he wrote later on the acoustic “Your Own Back Yard”, ‘my idea of having a good time, was sitting with my head between my knees.’ Down, maybe – but not out.
The fallen teenage-idol with the smooth crooked-smile looks met, and married Susan (Butterfield) in 1963, recalled on the ‘Blues With Friends’ song “Bam Bang Boom”, which ‘is another song that started as phrases I wanted to sing. ‘I stepped into love.’ The lyric does a good job of describing what happened when I first met Susan. We were both teenagers. She was new to my very Italian neighbourhood in the Bronx and she was a redheaded transplant from Vermont. Bam Bang Boom! (ZZ Top) Billy Gibbons was a joy to work with on this. There’s nobody like him.’ Moving away from Teeny-Bopperdom through 1964 and 1965 Dion released a series of R&B numbers “Johnny B Goode” c/w Lonnie Johnson’s “Chicago Blues”, Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” long before such material became vogue, to be rewarded with little success.
1967 saw a Dion And The Belmonts reunion album for ABC, with spin-off singles “Mr Movin’ Man” and the wordless-scat harmonies of “Berimbau”. But, although – as early as 1963, he’d put simple acoustic songs on his CBS B-sides, and Bobby Darin had reignited his dormant career by switching to Folk-Rock for “If I Were A Carpenter”, it was for his old Laurie label, that “Abraham, Martin And John” took Dion back up to no.4 (November 1968), introducing a newly sensitive introspective Folkie image. Written by Dick Holler it caught the impatient mood of the times by remembering four assassinated pioneers of change, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, plus John And Robert Kennedy, investing Dion with contemporary socio-political relevance. Although the Dion version failed to register in the UK, there was a respected version by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, before Marvin Gaye took the song into the UK Top Ten. And once re-established, Dion never really went away, he signed to Warners as singer-songwriter in 1970 with album ‘You’re Not Alone’ (WB 1872), he recorded with Phil Spector (LP ‘Born To Be With You’, 1975), and ‘Streetheart’ (1976) – just as a UK re-issue of “The Wanderer” (Philips 6146-700) climbed back up to no.16. He was both honoured by his contemporaries, and periodically rediscovered by new generations of fans.
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The bastard love-child of black R&B and white Country music, Rock ‘n’ Roll had a bratty puberty and a delinquent adolescence, it lost its virginity in the backseat of a pink Cadillac, got high and got low, it had troubled and dysfunctional growth-spurts before impacting a traumatic mid-life crisis. Now it’s into nostalgic memories of times lost, and Dion has been there all the way to articulate it. Sometimes ‘dun-dun-dun-dun-de-dah’ says everything that needs to be said. As one of the few first-generation Rockers creating original work, he’s still seeking new avenues of expression. ‘Blues With Friends’ is not ‘covers’ or Dion-takes on Blues standards.
He wrote the music and lyrics for twelve of them, co-crafted with Mike Aquilina. He called in Bill Tuohy (with whom he’d written the song-cycle ‘Suite For Late Summer’, 1972) to help with the yearning spirituality of “Hymn To Him”. ‘I first recorded “Hymn To Him” for my 1987 gospel album ‘Velvet And Steel’. But songs are never finished… I kept hearing this with Patti (Scialfa)’s voice, so I asked her to help me remake the song. When she started singing and layering her vocals down, I got a big surprise. Bruce (Springsteen) walked into the studio with his guitar and asked to play a solo. They make it something sublime.’ Springsteen had done pretty much the same when he guested on Dion’s “Baby Let’s Stick Together” single recorded during the 1975 ‘Born To Be With You’ Spector sessions at the LA Gold Star studios. E-Street Band and sometime ‘Soprano’ Stevie Van Zandt is also there, for “Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More)”. Dion also wrote “Kickin’ Child” with Buddy Lucas. ‘I first wrote and recorded this song in 1965. Tom Wilson produced a version of it (as the B-side of his single “Spoonful”). In 2017 I released an album with ‘Kickin’ Child’ as the title track but it wasn’t where I wanted it, so I re-recorded in here.’
Another long-term association is with John Hammond Jr. ‘We go back to the sixties at the ‘Gaslight Coffee House’ in Greenwich Village. I’ve always admired John. He’s a dear friend.’ In fact, during the hitless years, it was Hammond who first said ‘Hey, I know you got a thing for the Blues’, and pointed Dion towards Robert Johnson and Leroy Carr. Fast-forward to now, and ‘I played him “My Baby Loves To Boogie” and he said he could hear harp on it. Well, friends, now you can hear exactly what he was talking’ about.’ “Told You Once In August” also has John Hammond – this time on slide guitar, plus Rory Block’s vocals and slide guitar on left-channel. ‘One of my favorite guitars is a little Cordova travel model that I bought for practically nothing. One day I was fooling around on it and I got this sound that reminded me of those old backwoods Appalachian Blues recordings. I tried to capture the slow anger of a man who gradually realizes he’s been done wrong by his woman.’
The crawling deep-down Blues of “I Got Nothin’” has Van Morrison co-vocals. ‘You know when you sit down and you want to write a song, but nothing comes to mind? I was having one of those days. So, I went with the feeling and this is what I got. I got nothin’, and nothing is enough! It’s more than enough, actually, when you’re singing it with Van Morrison.’ Then “Stumbling Blues” is ‘one of those melodies that came out of nowhere and it feels like it’s been drifting on the wind since the beginning of time. It’s built on a classic Blues progression. I didn’t really hear it till I was sitting in Van Morrison’s dressing room and he asked me to play something new. For whatever reason, I knew while I was singing it that it was something extraordinary.’
The basic album tracks were recorded with producer Wayne Hood in his Florida studio. ‘From the first day, I was at home. We hit it off like brothers on a mission. We caught the same vision and sound and off we went.’ Dion remains one of the few singers to not only embody, but transcend styles and eras, from fifties Doo-Wop through sixties Twist-Pop with attitude, into seventies Folk-Rock and confessional singer-songwriting, and all the while, the Blues too.
Here’s the moral and the story, from the guy who knows…
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
Dion’s ‘Blues With Friends’ (June 2020) released through ‘Keeping The Blues Alive Records’, a label founded by Joe Bonamassa with manager Roy Weisman, as an offshoot of the non-profit ‘Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation’ that aims to conserve the art of music and the rich culture and history of the Blues.
The album spin-off singles:
(April 2020) “Blues Comin’ On” with Joe Bonamassa
(May 2020) “Hymn To Him” with Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen, “Bam Bang Boom” with Billy Gibbons. “I Got Nothin’” with Van Morrison and Joe Louis Walker (guitar), “Can’t Start Over Again” with Jeff Beck, and “Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America)” with Paul Simon
Produced, arrangements, mixing, digital editing and mastering by Wayne Hood, and Dion for Diod Productions. Producer: Roy Weisman. Dion (vocals and guitar), Wayne Hood (guitars, bass, Wurlitzer electric piano, Hammond organ and drums), Jimmy and Jerry Vivino (saxes on “Stumbling Blues”). All songs written by Dion DiMucci with Mike Aquilina, except: “Kickin’ Child” written by Dion with Buddy Lucas, and “Hymn To Him” written by Dion with Bill Tuohy – all Bronx Soul Music Inc. (ASCAP)/Skinny Zach Music (ASCAP)