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. I love this guy.

Dion arrived in 1958 with the Belmonts, giving vocal group harmony an outrageous Bronx twist in “I Wonder Why,” the Pomus/Shuman song that was their first hit. Dion somehow managed to keep it fresh and fun 50 years later (video below).

Dion went on to a successful solo career while he contended with the demons of heroin and alcohol that had dogged him since he was a teenager. He continued recording to notable effect. His career has had more lives than the proverbial cat.

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. Dion reportedly resisted recording the song at the time. He nevertheless turned the song and its message –”They freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young” — into something better than a hit. It worked as a restorative, touching more than a few hearts in the annus horribilis of 1968. In the video below, Dion performs the song live with Aaron Neville on TNN 25 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) that took Dion back to his first musical love. 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, Howlin’ 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 on Bronx in Blue on The Son of Skip James. Dion subsequently returned with the 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 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.

Last year’s Tank Full of Blues is an equally worthy addition to the canon. It is terrific. (Don’t miss “Bronx Poem.”) Improbable as it seems, the somewhat overstuffed three-disc overview of his career — 2000′s King of the New York Streets — would now require a fourth disc to bring the story up to date.

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 skipped Holly’s ill-fated flight to Fargo because it was too expensive ($36.00) (“the exact amount of rent his parents paid monthly”). 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 back to the Church.

Today Dion turns 74. He remains an American classic with a voice crying to be heard.

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