Dion: rock and roll’s Wanderer is keeping the blues alive

dionThe great Muddy Waters once said “The blues had a baby and they named it Rock and Roll!” No doubt when Rock and Roll first hit the scene in the 1950’s and early 60’s it was heavily drawing on the Blues. Those early rockers got their inspiration from the blues. That was their Rock and Roll. Some of them went out of their way to record cover versions of their Blues heroes’ best tunes, even before groups like the Rolling Stones did. One such artist is Dion.

Dion is a living inspiration to musicians worldwide. The man has been there since the birth of Rock and Roll. Truth be told, Dion has done more than any other early Rock and Roll artist to keep the blues alive and draw attention to the music. His most popular tunes may be great Rock and Roll classics “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” but Dion was also recording classic Blues tunes like, “Katie Mae” from Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Spoonful” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” from Willie Dixon and “Chicago Blues” from Lonnie Johnson as early as 1963. Take a close listen to “The Wanderer.” If that’s not a Blues song, I don’t know what is.

Dion Francis Dimucci was born on July 18, 1939 in the New York Bronx. Country music artists like Hank Williams were a huge influence in his early years, but doo-wop and the blues also caught his ear. His skills were honed on the streets, performing a cappella with other singers in his neighborhood. It was during this time that Dion became a sort of “street poet,” a personality he carries to this day. His music has always had a particular edge due to the fact that even when he performs a country blues tune in the style of Robert Johnson, it will always be filtered through the Bronx streets. That’s the Dion sound.

“In one of the greatest tragedies in music, all on board perished when the plane crashed shortly after taking off. Dion was understandably devastated at the loss of his friends, but he carried on.”

In 1958, Dion teamed up with The Belmonts, Carlo Mastrangelo, Angelo D’Aleo and Fred Milano and released “I Wonder Why.” Belmont Avenue was a street in the Bronx that everyone either lived on or close by. The tune shows the now polished doo-wop stylings at their peak and reached number 22 on the charts. Building on the single’s success, the group released two ballads: “ No One Knows” and “Don’t Pity Me.” Both did well and landed the Belmonts on the now famous “Winter Dance Party” tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The tour made a stop in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959. The artists were cold and tired and decided to charter a plane to get to the next stop instead of making the drive. Dion was offered a spot on the plane for $36. The number stood out to him as his parents worked hard to pay $36 a month to rent Dion’s childhood apartment. He just couldn’t justify spending the money to fly and declined. In one of the greatest tragedies in music, all on board perished when the plane crashed shortly after taking off. Dion was understandably devastated at the loss of his friends, but he carried on.

the_day_the_music_diedThe following month, “A Teenager In Love” was released, reaching number 5 on the charts. This tune, along with a handful of others, started to cement Dion’s reputation as a teen idol. Interestingly though, the blues can still be felt underlying everything Dion did, even when the music leaned heavily in a pop direction. By 1960, personal differences within the group helped Dion decide to pursue a solo career. Tunes like “Lonely Teenager” did well and added to more chart success. In 1961, Dion’s “Runaround Sue” stormed to Number 1 and made Dion a household name! He toured worldwide and released “The Majestic” as a follow-up single. As was the case many times in those days, disc jockeys ended up playing the B Side of the single, “The Wanderer”, and it climbed to number 2 in the nation in 1962.

As the British Invasion hit in 1964, the Beatles and other bands stole the public’s attention away from many of rock’s founding fathers. All of them acknowledged Dion’s impact as well. In fact, Dion is pictured on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s album cover. Look for him between George Harrison and Paul McCartney!

Over the next three decades he continued to release music, much of it being great cover versions of blues classics from the founding fathers. There were occasional reunion shows with the Belmonts, but one thing always remained: the music and its blues roots. In 1989 Dion was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“One listen to “New York is My Home” will prove there is plenty of gas left in the tank for this Rock and Roll blues man.”

In 2006 he released the album Bronx In Blue. The title says it all and the listener is treated to a masterpiece of blues filtered through the city streets. The album shows Dion in fine form and proves, once and for all, that The Wanderer is, indeed, a true blues man. Son of Skip James followed in 2007 and kept the blues going. 2011’s Tank Full of Blues yet again showed some amazing original blues tunes from Dion mixed with covers from his heroes Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. 2016 saw Dion release New York is My Home. The album gets this author’s vote for “Album of the Year.” From start to finish, there is not one moment wasted. There are great original tunes like “Aces Up Your Sleeve” mixed with classic blues covers like Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Katie Mae.” “Visionary Heart” is a stirring tribute to Dion’s old friend Buddy Holly. The highlight is the emotional title track sung with Paul Simon. Search out the video for “New York is My Home.” It’s amazing to watch the two music legends interact and share their love for the city of New York.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about the album is the feeling you get as the final track, “I Ain’t For It,” ends. At 77, Dion has put out his finest effort. Besides Buddy Guy, I can’t name many other artists who started almost 60 years ago and are on top of their game in 2016. Of the original founders of Rock and Roll that are still with us, most have long since rested on their laurels. Others sit quietly on the sidelines watching newer artists take the music to the next generation. Not Dion. One listen to “New York is My Home” will prove there is plenty of gas left in the tank for this Rock and Roll blues man. The new album has a constant passion and fire throughout. It’s music for today’s world from a man who knew yesterday’s world very well. The man has lived an amazing life. He is a true street poet, filtering the blues through city life. He’s seen and done it all, and after listening to “New York” you just know the man wants to keep going and outdo himself yet again. That’s the sign of a true artist. A legend. That’s Dion. Thanks for the music sir.

-Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe

Todd Beebe is a full time musician/teacher in the Chicago area and a staff writer at BG: Blues And Music News. His first exposure to music was hearing his Grandfather's bands playing Traditional Country music by the likes of Hank Williams Sr., The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Tracing the roots of that music lead him to his love of the Blues. Todd is available for private guitar instruction at All About Music, Inc. in Mokena, IL. 708-479-0440 www.AllAboutMusicMokena.com For more info contact him @ 708-214-6459 or visit www.ToddBeebeMusic.com.

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