People, let me put you wise

In a long career now spanning more than fifty years, Dion Dimucci has experienced many ups and downs. Through it all, he has maintained a rare purity in his work. At every stage of his career you can hear the blues coming through.

In 2003 Dion appeared as part of an oldies show at the Iowa State Fair, a show that I am reliably informed was pathetic until Dion took the stage. My informant described Dion as sounding vocally closer in age to 16 than 64, as he was then, and commented that he was superb.

The musical highlight of his Iowa State Fair show was introduced by Dion’s 9/11-related comments, comments from the perspective of a native New Yorker. He spoke of the guys who died because their jobs had called them that day. He said that many of them had learned about duty and doing the right thing as he had in parochial school.

Then Dion gave a stirring performance of his comeback hit “Abraham, Martin and John” — one of the few topical songs he has ever recorded. The song and its message –“They freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young” — touched more than a few hearts in 1968. In the video below, Dion performs the song live thirty years later.

The only other “message song” I know in Dion’s catalogue apart from his 1980’s work in gospel music is “Your Own Backyard” from 1970, a harrowing account of his nasty battles with alcohol and heroin:

My idea of having a good time
Was sitting with my head in between my knees.
I knew everything there was to know —
Everything except which way to go.
I cried, “Oh, God, take me will you please?”

A little further along in the song he adds: “I can’t tell nobody how to live their life.” He concludes: “It’s gotta start right in your own backyard.”

In 2006 Dion stripped down his sound for “Bronx in Blue,” a recording of blues songs (mostly classics, though Dion wrote two that fit right in). Dion accompanied himself handsomely on guitar and has never sounded better. He performed the difficult task of making these songs utterly his own. Writing about the disc, Dion revealed the secret of his access to what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music:

Some people think I grew up on Rock & Roll (not so). When I was a kid, there was no Rock & Roll. In the early Fifties late at night, I’d tune into some southern radio station that somehow reached the Bronx, listening to The Blues, Howling Wolf’s How Many More Years, Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City.

After school, I’d run home to catch the last half hour of the “Don Larkin Country Show” comin’ out of Newark, New Jersey. I was a Hank Williams junkie. For me, putting country and blues together, that’s what I call Rock & Roll.

Black music, filtered through an Italian neighborhood, comes out with an attitude. Rock & Roll. Yo! The music on this CD was the undercurrent of every song I did: Runaround Sue, The Wanderer, even the foot stomping on Ruby Baby I got from John Lee Hooker’s Walkin’ Boogie.

Catching up with Dion’s tour supporting “Bronx in Blue” a few days before Dion’s birthday in 2006, reader Edward Van Bomel noted the highlight toward the end of the show:

Dion told the audience, “I recorded this song in 1968.” In anticipation and appreciation of Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin & John” the audience applause began…causing Dion to interrupt the audience and applause for the only time of the night: “I’d like to dedicate this song to the most wonderful, brave, heroic, outstanding military people protecting our country.”

Dion revisited the territory he had explored in “Bronx in Blue” on “The Son of Skip James.” Then last year Dion returned with the new CD/DVD “Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock.” The CD/DVD package is a delight, a good follow-up to the two discs devoted to the blues. Dion and guitarist Robert “Crow” Richardson take the approach of the “historically informed performance” to recapturing the classics of rock’s first era. Dion aptly described the new disc in the liner notes:

This CD is a labor of love. What a blessing to have the privilege of recording these songs. I wanted to capture the original intent, essence and passion of these first-generation rockers. This is a homage–better yet, a way for me to honor and show my reverence and respect for these artists. I want to give people a glimpse of who Cliff Gallup was. . .James Burton. . .Scotty Moore. Guitar innovators who infused fire into the music of Gene Vincent, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley.

In 2000 NPR’s Terry Gross conducted an illuminating interview with Dion. By turns funny and moving, equal parts talk and song, it’s an utterly engrossing (no pun intended) interview. You can listen to Dion sing Hank Williams and recall Father Joe, the neighborhood priest, as well as the 1959 tour with Buddy Holly on which Dion decided to stay on the bus rather than fly to Fargo with Holly. Check out the interview here (updated with a 2006 report that takes up “Bronx in Blue”) and follow up with Dion’s own account of his spiritual journey.

Today Dion turns 70. He remains an American classic with a voice crying to be heard.

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