In a long, disginguished career now spanning nearly fifty years, Dion Dimucci (of Dion and the Belomonts) 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 late ’60s hit “Abraham, Martin and John” — one of the few topical songs he has ever recorded. The song’s message –“They freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young” — was one with which few would argue, and it soothed many souls in 1968.
The only other “message song” I know by Dion apart from his 1980’s work in gospel music is “Your Own Backyard” from 1970, a harrowing account of his own battles with alcohol and drugs:
…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 no one how to live their life.” He concludes: “It’s gotta start right in your own backyard.”
This year Dion returns with “Bronx in Blue,” a recording of all blues songs (mostly classics, though Dion wrote two that fit right in). Dion accompanies himself handsomely on guitar and has never sounded better. He performs the difficult task of making these songs utterly his own. Jon Pareles briefly commented in the New York Times when the disc was released this past January:
He comes to the music with fond understanding and vigorous technique, backed by just a drummer as he multitracks his own two acoustic guitars. In material by Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf and Hank Williams, he’s wholehearted and free of affectation. While there have been more haunted versions of these classic songs, Dion doesn’t smile through them. He sings like someone whose demons are in the past but still not forgotten.
Dion himself writes:
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.
Though I’ve been carrying these blues and country gems around in my head for the last fifty years, I recorded this CD in two days. No tricks. No musicians. No vocal overdubs. Just me, my trusty 000C cutaway black Martin, my baby 0021, and the Hurty Gurty man on some percussion. Yes, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, in spirit of the ‘Early Fathers of the Blues’ cheering us on, with their blessing, we Rock.
Turn it up.
At the “Bronx in Blue” site, you can sample “Walkin’ Blues” and “Who Do You Love.” There isn’t a weak song in the set, but “You Better Watch Yourself,” in which Dion adds some lyrics harking back to his struggles with substance abuse, really rings a bell. In the liner notes, Bob Schnieders puts his heart on his sleeve and speaks for me: “I hope this album sells a billon copies, not only for Dion’s sake, but for music fans everywhere.”