By Mike Greenblatt
There’s a reason why The Beatles put Dion on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. He’s a classic. Period. Starting as the lead singer of Dion and The Belmonts in 1957, continuing through his string of solo hits from 1960 to 1964, reinventing the blues with an arrogant sneer in 1965, he became a hippie hero with his folk phase in 1968 (the same year he turned the Jimi Hendrix classic “Purple Haze” into a trance-like mantra). Then he started the 1970s by penning the greatest addiction/recovery song of all-time (“Your Own Back Yard”). He rocked throughout the ’70s and ’80s as a badass New York City street king and bona fide rock and roll hero with a voice that could peel paint. He had an overt Christian-music phase like Bob Dylan, but soon mastered the art of Mississippi Delta blues guitar like no white boy from the Bronx has a right to do.
Sure, there were fallow periods. He may be a legendary pioneer, but he’s also human. Point is, Dion is not only a role model, he’s larger than life. His new album, Blues With Friends, is one of the best albums of a disappointing 2020. His friends include Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, John Hammond, Jr., Dylan (who wrote the liner notes), Sonny Landreth, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Bonamassa, Stevie Van Zandt and others, yet Dion is not overwhelmed by all this star power. They’re his songs. His voice is still elastic. And he answered the phone on the occasion of promoting it just the way you’d want Dion, “King of the New York Streets,” Francis DiMucci to answer the phone.
GOLDMINE: Congratulations on Blues With Friends. What a powerful album! And there’s so much more than blues, too. Instant classic rock. And, boy, do you have some friends!
DION: Yeah, right? I’ll tell ya, the people who said yes, man, it seemed like everybody I asked jumped right onboard. It was definitely a labor of love. Very exciting for me to hear these contributions. Every time somebody would say yes, I’d envision what they’d infuse these tracks with. I mean, sure, I had the songs, but there was no filling. I really did think right from the jump that every song had a good story and was worth telling.
GM: You got Bob Dylan to write the liner notes, and he said that you know “just the right way to craft these songs.”
DION: I was like, “Yeah, I’ll take that.” He was very generous when I asked. We go back to Columbia Records together.
GM: You were the first rock and roller ever signed to that label.
DION: As such, I was at all of Dylan’s early recording sessions.
GM: Mitch Miller, the head of A&R at Columbia, absolutely hated rock and roll.
DION: I came up right on his heels. They were trying to move him a little by then.
GM: Your new song with one of your friends, Paul Simon, “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” is a real highlight. In your 2011 memoir with Mike Aquilina — Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth (Stories, Humor & Music) — you talk about traveling the Jim Crow South with Sam Cooke.
DION: “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)” was written a long while ago. I put it in the drawer and never looked at it again. It was too personal to release. I had been in Memphis with Sam Cooke. He took me to a small club to see James Brown in The Famous Flames. James wasn’t even popular at the time. He was just a Flame. Sam protected me. It was a rough place. Sam was an extremely refined gentleman. His father was a preacher. And he was living out the gospel, now that I look back at it. He was all about “love one another” and “understand one another.” That’s what my song came out of, not so much about racism in America, but about Sam Cooke’s incredible compassion for people... and for me. To see a guy I admired so much in the music business who made all those great records, and who was like a brother to me, be treated like he was, I mean, it was so incongruous. That’s where that song comes from. And don’t think he didn’t understand it. He understood racism. He understood America. Yet he was considerate enough with me to the point where he never let me see him become bitter. So we perform on the same bill that night and he has to get dressed on one side of the stage and I had to get dressed on the other side of the stage. It was a segregated theater. I’m from New York, so that was all new to me.
GM: After reading Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke and watching The Two Killings of Sam Cooke documentary film, I’m convinced he was assassinated...
DION: I have no idea about that. All I know is how his death affected me personally. It hurt. Bad. It hurt to lose him. It was a shame. A waste. That’s the way it affected me. The implications of a conspiracy theory are beyond me. I just know how it felt to lose a friend. [Sam Cooke was shot to death on December 11, 1964, at the height of his fame. He was 33. The perpetrator was found innocent by reason of self-defense despite ample evidence to the contrary.]
GM: How can your voice remain so supple, moving, elastic and soulful at the age of 80? You haven’t lost an inch!
DION: I think the only thing my voice has lost over the years is the innocence. I feel like I sing better than ever now.
GM: Your duet with Van Morrison rocks.
DION: My wife is a huge Van Morrison fan. You get in her car and she has 12 Van Morrison CDs. And I’ve always told her we’re soul brothers, so I thought, “I’m gonna show her.” But when I sat down to write “I Got Nothin’,” I couldn’t get anything. I sat there and thought, “Damn, I got nothing,” but then I thought, hey, when you got Van Morrison, nothing is more than enough. Actually, I sent it to him to play sax on. He said, “No, I’d rather sing with you.” I’m like, “Yeah! OK!” So we just went in and did it. We sang a line here and a line there, and I don’t even know if you can tell us apart!
GM: Joe Bonamassa positively shreds on “Blues Comin’ On.” Is it true he was the one who led you to the altar of getting all these other famous guys?
DION: Yes. I think it’s fair to say that he was the catalyst for the whole project. I had these 14 songs. They accumulated over the years, but I didn’t really have a chance to go in and cut any of them. One day I went into the studio and knocked ’em out in three days. I played one for Joe because his manager lives close to me. I pass his house every day when I walk around the community. So Joe comes over to my house and says, “I really like that. I wanna play on it.” And he does.
Truth is, I’m sorta limited to some degree with these songs. I mean, sure, you’re gonna get a good record from me, but you’re not gonna get it all. On this record, what happened is, I went beyond my limitations. When you say something to a Joe Bonamassa, he thinks long and hard and kinda infuses his perception of what he’s hearing on to what you did, right? So you get something totally surprising, nowhere near what you could even imagine, think of or ask for. He’s such a great artist. A total master at what he does. And it was like that with every artist I asked. I mean, I sent a rockabilly thing (“Uptown Number 7”) to Brian Setzer, but who the hell thought he was going to play like that? Certainly not me. I couldn’t tell him what to play or how to play it. Who would know? Same goes for Jeff Beck (“Can’t Start Over Again”). These are artists of the highest caliber. God! I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew upfront is that Jeff Beck is probably the only guitar player who could make me cry. So I sent him that ballad. But, I gotta tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve sung a song with Van Morrison. It was just too much fun. And, best thing of all, (my wife) Susan loved it so much, I am so in as an artist now in her eyes. In! Like never before. All because of Van Morrison. That’s her guy.
My job is to take people on a trip and I love it. I love bragging songs. “The Wanderer” is a bragging song. — Dion
GM: I’ll never forget seeing you at The State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania. Your rock and roll music infused me with the spirit so much I wanted to get up, jump up and down, dance down the aisle and totally freak out. But guess what? You don’t do that at the State Theatre. You just don’t. And I was sitting there imploding inwardly with a very appreciative audience who obviously loved you, but this was rock and roll, damnit, and everybody seemed content to just sit there and watch you perform as if they were watching a movie. I likened it to the death of rock itself wherein people admire it as a relic of some bygone era like they’d admire a painting on a wall of a museum.
DION: I totally get it. That’s why I prefer the clubs where you can stand and actually participate in the music itself. I perform on some of these blues cruises with Taj Mahal and The Fabulous Thunderbirds where you can really rock out. It’s great. You get all these doctors and lawyers and such and they put on wigs and really let loose. They let the music fill them mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. And they dance. Boy, do they dance. So to have to sit there and simply admire it? That’s not how it supposed to be enjoyed. But, I must say, I love working at The State Theatre in Easton. It’s a great venue with great sound, and the people from Martin Guitars always come to see me there.
GM: Tell us about your time before Dion and The Belmonts.
DION: I started out after high school with a bassist and drummer covering songs like Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” and Carl Perkins’ “Boppin’ the Blues.”
GM: I love your cover of that great old Leiber/Stoller song “Drip Drop” by The Drifters.
DION: And that’s the whole point. I never changed. My job is to take people on a trip and I love it. I love bragging songs. “The Wanderer” is a bragging song. So is “King of the New York Streets.” That’s why I’ve always loved the Steve Miller Band’s “Gangster of Love.” That’s the ultimate bragging song. My bragging song on this new album is “I Got the Cure” with Sonny Landreth, a great guitar player. It’s a Bronx thing, y’know?
GM: I’m old enough to remember you in the Belmonts, but it was that string of records you made after the Belmonts, one after another, “Runaround Sue,” “Lovers Who Wander,” “Love Came to Me,” “Ruby Baby,” “Little Diane,” man, I made my mom buy me every single one of those 45s. You were our Elvis. It was your attitude that swayed me. And that voice! I didn’t even realize some of ’em were covers. Years later, I went back and listened to the originals, but they still weren’t as good as yours.
DION:You wanna know, it’s a funny thing you say that because Little Richard’s mother was sitting on a couch backstage at the Brooklyn Fox Theater when her son and I were doing a show together. Her name was Leva Mae, and she called out to me. “Hey son,” she said, “come over here, sweetheart.” So I walked over to her and she said, “Honey, are you that young fella who sings “Ruby Baby’?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she says, “You got soul!” To hear that from Little Richard’s mom was the ultimate compliment. I never forgot that. Leva Mae!
GM: I think one of the reasons that your vocals stand out on so many songs is that you purposely lag just behind the beat. There was this Elvis tribute album once where your track, “I Got a Woman,” was head and shoulders above anything else on that album because of that sly, soulful almost jazzy phrasing of yours.
DION: I gotta go back and listen to that. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top analyzed my singing as “putting every syllable in the right place.” I’m a rhythm singer. I don’t hold notes. I’m not Johnny Maestro or Luciano Pavarotti. When I was kid listening to Vic Damone, he always sounded like he went for voice lessons. I just never took to that style. I didn’t have vibrato. I gravitated towards singers like Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed. I like the groove, man! You give me rhythm, and I can nail it. You give me a backbeat, and I’m all over it.
GM: I know you’re friends with arguably America’s greatest living songwriter, Paul Simon.
DION: Paul is deep, man. Deep. He’s a thinker. He’s also a perfectionist, in the best way possible. I have a special place for him in my heart. We go out to lunch and have these lengthy discussions about songwriting, life and artistry. He’s a real fan of so many different genres of music. He especially loves world music... global music. I think he was the first guy on his level introducing people to world sounds. And boy, does he love to experiment in his own music. He’s so, so... inventive, an extremely creative guy for all these decades. He’s just always there, y’know? I mean, he started out singing Dion and The Belmonts and Everly Brothers songs.
GM: I know he loves doo-wop. In fact, he wrote one of the very few songs that could make me cry, “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War,” which, among other things, is a doo-wop tribute. Plus, I saw his Capeman on Broadway, and it fused doo-wop with true crime drama and Latin music and — although the critics hated it — I just loved it so much.
DION: You know why Capeman closed so quick? Because he didn’t use Broadway people. They get pissed off at that. They’re good ol’ boys. If you’re not part of the club, they’ll bury you. That’s a shame in any genre. Even in the blues. I tell people all the time that it’s not a dead tradition. It lives! It’s the handing down that counts. There’s no such thing as a tired song. There are tired singers! You get someone, for instance, to breathe life into “Maybe” (The Chantels, 1958) or “In the Still of the Nite” (The Five Satins, 1956), and the song comes alive again. What I call tired singers can’t do that. I never feel tired like that within a song. In fact, I feel so alive when I’m inside a song.
But I gotta tell you. I first heard Capeman sitting right next to Paul Simon at his house. He has a home studio. He sang me the whole musical one night. He wanted to know what I thought of it. You haven’t really heard Capeman until you’ve heard him sing it. When I saw the play, I was a little disappointed in Marc Anthony, who I love — he’s great — but when Paul Simon sang this stuff, it resonated more with me. It was almost a little anti-climactic for me seeing it onstage.
GM: So when you were recording all those great post-Belmonts songs that I’d play in my room over and over again, you were a junkie?
DION: Uh, yes.
GM: How the hell did you come back from the abyss?
DION: Y’know, I tell ya. Frankie Lymon and I used to get off together (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” in 1956, written and recorded by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, reached No. 6). Yeah, we were junkies all right. We’d get high... with a syringe filled with heroin. Then, in February of 1968, he died. (Lymon was found with his syringe by his side, dead at the age of 25 from an overdose.) It, uh, kinda shook me to my core. (Dion was 29 at the time.) That, right there, is when I started to wonder, who am I? What am I doing? This is not going to end up well. I got on my knees one night and said a prayer. By the time I got off my knees, I was changed. I haven’t had a drink or a drug now in 52 years. And I haven’t looked back. I can’t say for sure, but I do think I was touched by God. You know what I mean? I almost feel like I was chosen. It was His doing. I asked and I received. That’s when I became a man of faith. A man of prayer. I just said, “Hey, somebody up there likes me.”
GM: God must be a Dion and The Belmonts fan. Actually, I think, since I’m not a believer, that you have an incredible wellspring of inner fortitude, of sheer will power, of strength. I know plenty of guys who didn’t make it. I know other guys who have 20, 30 years clean, but are now popping pills all the time after back surgery.
DION: I know a lot of dead guys. Almost all of ’em died. I don’t know what that is. I call it God’s grace. Hey, we all have a different way of defining that. However you wanna explain it, I’ll take it.
The thing I want to say in closing is that when I finished the new album, I called Joe Bonamassa’s manager, Roy Weisman, to find out what to do with it. I mean, sure, I knew and felt that it was a blues album, even though there’s a couple of things on it that are a little outside, I felt I could still do them on the blues cruise. I called him to ask him about some sort of direction with it. I had financed it myself. I told him of Joe’s involvement. He didn’t even know about it. So I sent him the track with Joe. Roy called me back and said, “I’m going to start a blues label, and your album is going to be the first one on it. You in?” I said, “Yeah.” So that’s what we’re doing. That’s what his Keeping The Blues Alive label is all about. And your magazine, Goldmine, is another treasure, so thank you so much for taking the time.
GM: Are you kidding? It’s a labor of love, my man. I’ve always maintained that talking to your rock and roll heroes on the phone is a totally surrealistic situation because all the love is a one-way street. I feel like you’re a member of my family and yet you don’t know me from Adam. I’m just another reporter. I remember telling that to Brian Wilson and he was so sweet when he said, “I feel your love” to me.
DION: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve been on both sides of that equation. I remember talking to Bruce Springsteen prior to him appearing on the album and telling him, “I’m such a fan. You’ve kept me young through your songs. Then you did your book and your book blew me away! I went on a trip because you really know how to put words on a page. Then the Broadway show! Oh my God! And the new album, Western Stars, the beauty of that album,” and yada yada yada. I went on and on. So yeah, I could be on either side of that so I know what you mean. I’m a fan too, y’know.