Once at a television taping, Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae, took Dion aside and asked him, “You the boy that sings ‘Ruby Baby’? Son, you got soul.”
“Dion is, after all, the original wanderer. One of the most original, soulful voices sprung from the New York cauldron. And in his heart he is rhythm and blues and country which we call rock and roll”. – Lou Reed inducting Dion into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989
Dion, who started his recording career in 1957, has just released, (by my count), his 35th studio album in July of this year – “Blues With Friends” – at the age of 81!
Dion’s career, that has spanned 63 years to date, has been anything but a smooth ride as he’s navigated through a number of creative turns. And, in the course of that journey, Dion has successfully mastered various genres including Doo-Wop, Rock & Roll, R&B, and most recently Blues. Dion, a survivor if there ever was one, has managed his career on his own terms to produce music that remains relevant and distinctly his own.
You can’t have longevity in the music business without some modicum of talent, and Dion, make no mistake, has talent to spare. And that talent’s been on display since long before his 18th birthday when he released “The Chosen Few” under the name of Dion & The Timberlanes. But Dion soon found that having talent and the corresponding fame, adulation, and wealth in the music business, wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together in the real world. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to Dion’s story than his 10 Top Ten hits.
When you mention the name Dion you’re more than likely to hear “You mean Dion, as in Dion The Belmonts”? It seems that Dion will forever be associated with The Belmonts, the ground breaking Doo Wop group that lived their lives on the mean streets of the Bronx and honed their chops on street corners, in alleys, and on roof tops.
But, in reality, Dion and The Belmonts account for only a small part of his resume. After all, they were only together for 4 years (1957-1960). And Dion only had 2 hits with the ensemble: “Teenager In Love” and “Where Or When”. As a solo artist, he has gone on to record 37 more of his 39 Top Forty hits. Not all might be as memorable as the two cited above, but some surpass them by a wide margin both in sales and artistic achievement: “The Wanderer”, “Runaround Sue”, “Ruby Baby”, “Drip Drop”, “Donna The Prima Donna”, “Abraham Martin & John”.
Dion’s story, overshadowed as it may be by his public persona, is truly one of resiliency and courage, and a lifelong search for inner peace and serenity. It started as a combination of “too much too soon” and a total lack of self-awareness rooted in a guilt ridden childhood growing up in a first generation Italian-American household in the Bronx in the 50’s.
As Dion was amassing his fame and fortune he was fighting internal demons and turned to drugs and alcohol to cure his ever present insecurities. In fact, Dion quickly escalated to hard drugs to the point of a full blown heroin addiction beginning at the age of 14; a habit that would last the next 15 years.
It was a continual downward spiral until he hit rock bottom. And Dion recognized it as such when he came to the realization that he didn’t care about the things that mattered most to him – his family and his music. Plainly, he wasn’t Dion the Rock star; he was just another junkie. But with the help of his wife and his renewed faith, his decision to kick the habit wasn’t solely a desire to get straight; it was, in his words, quite simply a desire to live. And, after a number of attempts, Dion was finally clean and sober at 35.
Dion was one of my original musical heroes. But I have to admit that after “Drip Drop” I lost track of Dion as I – like most people I knew – fell under the sway of The Beatles and then the various British Invasion bands that followed. Dion’s dynamic foray into Folk Rock went unnoticed. His return to the Top Ten with “Abraham Martin & John” was met with passing interest. The success of AM&J opened the door to a powerful, more introspective singer / songwriter / Blues solo act that I didn’t want or need to know about. Even his return to Rock & Roll with “Born To Be With You” produced by Phil Spector with his “Wall Of Sound” – a true clash of Rock & Roll titans – was met with a shrug.
Instead, when my musical wanderings led me back stateside it was to Southern Soul, Chicago Blues, and the West Coast sounds of Crosby Stills & Nash, and the like. When I did look eastward I was drawn to Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Garland Jeffreys, and Willy DeVille, among others.
In the course of soaking up what these east coast cats were laying down, it dawned on me that they all told similar gritty inner city stories that I had been accustomed to hearing from Dion, one of the greatest story tellers of them all.
As I was digesting the obvious, Dion released an album I couldn’t take off the turntable – “Streetheart”. Now if you’ve heard “Streetheart,” and you start going on about the slick production and playing; fuggataboutit! You’re missing the point, it’s the musical stories and, above all, it’s that voice! Shouting one minute, crooning the next, and scatting effortlessly and seamlessly into a Nino Tempo sax solo after that.
(If you’re looking for a copy of “Streetheart”, Ace Records, a re-issue label out of the UK, in an inspired moment, put out a twofer pairing “Born To Be With You” with “Streetheart”. Although Ace did miss a golden opportunity by not including “The Return Of The Wanderer”, the follow-up to “Streetheart”. Now that would have made a sweet trilogy of Dion’s return to Rock & Roll!)
I was now committed and had to make up for lost time. I started buying all of Dion’s Rock & Roll releases going forward. I read his autobiography, interviews, and articles that revealed some historical tidbits like:
- Hank Williams was Dion’s first hero – Dion claims he knows over 40 Williams songs – and a major influence in Dion’s ability to tell a story in song
- A lot of his early material was Blues based; not a conscious decision but rather a nod to the influence of Jimmy Reed
- A lot of the non-word riffing used by The Belmonts was based on hearing sax players at The Apollo Theatre like King Curtis and Big Al Sears
- The well-known story of Dion balking at joining Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper on that fateful flight on February 2, 1959 because he equated the $36 cost to a month’s rent. (It should be noted there were only 2 seats available, aside from one for Holly, and Dion was slated to go but gave up his seat to Ritchie Valens)
- Dion was the first Rock & Roll artist to sign with Columbia Records
- Dion was instrumental in influencing Bob Dylan to go electric; (they were Columbia Records label mates at the time).
- Bobby Darin, a mentor, and Dion used to hawk NY clubs and cut heads like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers in their heyday in Chicago; (multi-instrumentalist Darin on drums or piano and Dion on guitar)
- Bobby Darin used to call Dion’s music Bronx Blues
- John Hammond Sr. of Columbia Records formally introduced Dion to Blues by playing selections by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and, the Bluesman who possibly had the biggest impact on his music, Reverend Gary Davis. When Dion found that Davis was still alive and living in an apartment in the Bronx, he made a pilgrimage to his door and learned the Blues first hand at Davis’ feet.
- Dion recorded a Folk Rock / Blues album “Kickin’ Child” in 1965 that Columbia refused to release; a refusal that culminated in Dion leaving the label. (The album was finally released in 2017 on the Norton label to rave critical reviews).
All of that is a lot to take in, but Dion still wasn’t and isn’t done. Instead he opened another chapter in the Dion songbook: Dion 21st Century Bluesman. Starting in 2005 with the Grammy and Blues Music Awards nominated “Bronx In Blue”, Dion released a handful of Blues albums that stand collectively with the best work he’s ever recorded including: “Son Of Skip James”, “Tank Full Of Blues”, “New York Is My Home”, and the aforementioned “Blues With Friends”.
On a mix of covers and originals, with conviction and authority, Dion offers up his unique take playing and singing the Blues. (By the way, if you don’t know or believe that Dion is a fine guitar player these recordings serve as Exhibit A). At the same time, they represent his personal point of view of the world around him and his place in that same world.
Dion describes himself as “a Bronx Blues Rocker” and his music as “black music that’s filtered through the Bronx neighbourhood and comes out with attitude.” That just about sums it up.
I have a personal story I feel a need to share. Dion was at The Blues Music Awards in Memphis after the release of “Bronx In Blue”. Dion, who’s known to be a hard case at times, was surrounded by a throng of fans, and, as I approached him, he let everybody know that he wasn’t signing any more autographs. There I was face to face with one of my idols. I leaned in and as he repeated his autograph reprimand I told him I was a long-time fan, and that I just wanted the privilege of shaking his hand. He immediately put a meaty hand forward, which as he might be known to say, was “as big as a whole prosciutto”. He let his guard down and smiled saying “Thanks man. Where you from man?” But before I could answer, Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds grabbed him and whisked him off for a private conversation.
Damn you, Kim Wilson!
Suggested Dion Playlist:
- I Wonder Why (Dion & The Belmonts)
- Baby I’m In The Mood For You
- If You Wanna Rock & Roll
- Drip Drop
- Kickin’ Child
- Can’t Start Over Again
- King Of The New York Streets
- Runaround Sue
- Ruby Baby
- Two Ton Feather
- The Wanderer
- Rico Ferrara, September 2020
2 thoughts on “YO DION, MY MAN!”
Thanks for shining a light on a musical treasure. And for a very enjoyable read!
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Interesting read. I never knew Dion and Darin hung out together.
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