Dion Goes Wandering Around the Blues [UPDATED]

Dion: King of the New York Streets
Dion: King of the New York Streets Photo by David Godlis/Courtesy of Bob Merlis

Long before most music stars were big enough to go by one name like Cher, Madonna or Bono—there was Dion.

One of the last remaining performers from the Golden Age of Rock and Roll, he’s best known for his impressive string of vocal group hits both with and without backing group the Belmonts: “I Wonder Why,” “A Teenager in Love” “Runaround Sue,” “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna,” “Lovers Who Wander” and signature tune “The Wanderer” among them. Others may recall his period a folk singer/songwriter who gave us the ‘60s anthem “Abraham, Martin and John.”
click to enlarge RECORD COVER
record cover

But surprisingly, it’s blues music that the now 82-year-old Bronx Boy says might be the most important to him personally and professionally. He’s recorded in the genre often, including last year’s Blues with Friends.

Next month, he’ll release another in the same vein with Stomping Ground (KTBA). His friends guesting this time including heavy hitters like Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top’s Billy F Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Mark Knopfler, Joe Bonamassa, Boz Scaggs, Rickie Lee Jones and Keb’ Mo.

All but one of the record’s 14 tracks were pandemic-penned by Dion and his writing partner, Mike Aquilina, and recorded with his guests via file sharing.

“Blues is like the ultimate genre to express yourself. You can express your joys, your fears, loneliness, any emotion you can think of. It’s natural and honest and not complicated. It’s a form of music that really gets you out of yourself,” Dion says. “I don’t know what I’d do without it. As a kid, it was a handle to salvation. It lifted me out of my circumstances and helped me to reach for higher ground.”

When asked if the state of the world since his last record made Stomping Ground easier or harder to complete, he’s quick to answer.

“You know, Bob, it sounds weird but the pandemic has worked creatively for me. I had the time to sit at home and write songs instead of worrying or living in fear. That’s how my mind works,” he says, adding that the original intent was not to go heavy with guests.
“I was coming home from the studio and listening to these tracks in my truck, and I kept hearing all these other guitar players that I’d like to hear on them. And I didn’t tell them anything or how or what to play. They’re all great artists and they’ll contribute what they want. When I talked to Clapton, I said ‘Man, you sound like you’re 19 again!’ And he told me he wanted to do a good job for me.”

Of all his partners, Dion has special fondness for one man of particular Houston interest. “Billy [Gibbons] was so easy to work with, man. He’s one of a kind the way he talks, he dresses, he paints, plays guitar—even how he writes an email! He’s so distinctive!” He says.

Reached via email, Gibbons says the feeling is mutual. “Having an opportunity to collaborate with the legendary Dion Dimucci two years running has been a real gift,” Gibbons writes. “Dion is a latter day hero of the blues and getting to join him last year and again this has been both an honor and a privilege, not to mention a rockin’ groove. Go Dion!”

Another superstar guest guitarist whose talents Dion called upon was Peter Frampton. He contributes some emotionally charged-solos to the slow burner of regret “There Was a Time.”

“[Dion] said that he’d send me a track and I said yes before I even heard it! It was an honor, and he’s really kept himself relevant,” Frampton says from his home in Cincinnati. “I worked on it for a week before I even hit the record button. And the beauty about doing it from home was that I could go into the studio at 2:15 a.m. if I felt inspired.”

On a deeper level, Frampton also credits Dion and the assignment for helping to bring him out of a deep mental and physical slump. Frampton suffers from Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM), a degenerative muscular disease that has made it difficult for him to play at all, and will only get worse as the years pass.

“I was feeling very down and in a dark place, and this brought me out. It was the perfect track for me because of the emotion. And Dion’s voice tells a story in one note,” Frampton says. He adds that afterwards, Dion said that most guitarists would “go nuts” playing the outro, but Frampton’s more subdued ending impressed The Wanderer.

“Now, because of this song and Dion, I’ve found myself in maybe the most creative place in my life. I have him to thank for that,” Frampton continues, adding that he’s got numerous musical projects already in the can and is writing more.

As for his long relationship with the genre, Frampton released his All Blues record in 2019. And like so many other English teens of the ‘60s who would go on to become classic rock titans, he was besmitten by the blues and the men who played it.

“We only had the BBC playing the top five songs or whatever. The blues was spread in England all by word of mouth and records brought back from America. It was an underground thing,” Frampton says. “Alexis Korner started the British exponent of it. And Americans like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters would come over and be treated like royalty.”

There’s also two full-on vocal duets. In one with Boz Scaggs (“I’ve Got to Get To You”) the pair shout out increasingly out-there modes of transportation to reach a highly desirable woman: a helicopter, ice cream truck, unicycle and circus cannon are just some options.

“I wrote it with a sense of urgency, but Boz saw the humor in it. So we decided I would take the first two lines of every verse and he’d do the second. I was passionate about getting to the girl and he thought it was funnier. And it worked!” Dion says. “And what a great singer. I’m definitely in with my wife now! She might think I’m OK.”
click to enlarge Dion—ready to sing on the street corner again. - PHOTO BY DAVID GODLIS/COURTESY OF BOB MERLIS
Dion—ready to sing on the street corner again.
Photo by David Godlis/Courtesy of Bob Merlis

And the couples commentary “I’ve Been Watching You” was especially meaningful to duet partner Rickie Lee Jones, as she says via email. “I thought this is a very moving lyric. This guy singing to this woman who has been with him through everything. I will never know that, I will never have that, and there he is singing about the woman who makes him feel whole enough to see the whole world. And the horizon to face death with faith in possibilities and wholeness."

In addition to blues, Dion says he’s also had a lifelong fondness for country music, a cultural love he shared with two Texans back in the late ‘50s—Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings.

“Just like Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings were ignorant about the Bronx, I was ignorant about Texas. They told me they thought Italians smelt bad because of the parmesan cheese—this was 1959! That’s how my whole neighborhood smelled!” Dion laughs. “And I didn’t know Texas clubs had sawdust on the floor!”

He even once brought Holly to his house in the Bronx, took him to Manny’s Music, and then a clothing store to get sweaters. “I always wanted to go to Texas as a kid. I always felt I was born in the wrong place. I have a picture of me when I was 13 with a cowboy hat and plaid shirt and a guitar. And I loved Hank Williams.”

As he’s always said, including in a 2016 interview with the Houston Press, Dion was supposed to be on that doomed plane that crashed on February 3, 1959 killing Holly, fellow rockers Richie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and the pilot. He says he was offered a seat, but the $36 ticket ($338 in 2021 dollars) seemed steep. And was the exact same amount as Dion’s parents’ monthly mortgage. So he gave up his place.

In addition to the new album, Dion is looking forward to the long-delayed premier in early 2022 of The Wanderer, the biographical jukebox musical that’s been more than a decade in the making.

“It’s a very good story the way that Charles Messina wrote it. It has substance. It has all that early street rock and roll and then a lot of action with the gangs, like the young Sopranos with great music and a Rocky Balboa ending,” he says, selling it like a pro. “And romance! My wife Susan and I are childhood sweethearts. And betrayal and overcoming and a lot of laughs. It’s a trip.”

Finally, as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (class of 1989), who would Dion give a Magic Induction Pass to? “Well, a lot of the performers from my era aren’t around anymore,” he says, before asking about a certain blues man of local renown “You’re in Houston. How about Lightnin’ Hopkins? That guy is so real. I’d also put in the ‘5’ Royales. And Louis Prima would be in if he didn’t sing Italian songs!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero