082: Dion DiMucci, ‘Sit Down Old Friend’

Posted by on Feb 1, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week |

Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 in the Bronx, where he grew up singing on street corners (literally) with his pimply Italian cronies. At 17 he signed a record contract, and as leader of Dion & the Belmonts had a string of major hits including Teenager in Love and I Wonder Why (trust me, you want to watch this clip). He was a big enough star to share the bill with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper on their fateful winter tour of 1959. Living a life of stardom and dissolution at 20, Dion was already deep into heroin and alchohol addiction. The other three grabbed a ride on a plane to the next show in Iowa, but the $36 ticket cost as much as Dion’s parents’ monthly rent, so he chose to shlep on the bus. Shocked by their deaths, he tried rehab. He broke up the Belmonts, and his solo career continued to climb, with iconic hits such as Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, in which the lyrics were no longer the self-pity of a broken acned heart, but the racy bravado of an ego-driven superstar:

Oh well I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em they don’t even know my name
They call me the wanderer yeah the wanderer
I roam around around around…

That lyric was far from standard fare for 1960. He moved to a major label (Columbia), continued making hits such as Ruby Baby (in this clip from 1963 Dion is playing guitar, and is clearly an emerging artist, not just another Corner Boy punk). The song is written by Leiber and Stoller, see SoTW 042.

In the coming years he was influenced musically by such luminaries as producer Tom Wilson, executive John Hammond (the men behind Bob Dylan at the time) and keyboard legend Al Kooper, but his addictions led him astray, and he recorded nothing of significance. In 1968, clean of substances and a born-again evangelical, he returned to his original label. They insisted that he record Abraham, Martin and John (written Dick Holler, who also wrote The Royal Guardsmen’s ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’–I bet you didn’t know that!) He moved to Warner Brothers, the most successful label

of the late 1960s to record a series of singer-songwriter albums which were all commercial failures. We’ll come back to this period in a moment.

In 1975 he was joined up with Phil Spector for a project that was supposed to reboot the careers of both. Spector outdid himself in terms of grandiosity—more than 40 musicians, including a dozen guitarists, seven percussionists, and five pianists.

Only half a dozen tracks were recorded, dark, bizarre, even by Spector standards. Spector couldn’t get the resulting “Born to Be With You” released in the US. Dion disassociated himself from it. Its reputation today is mixed; some (including myself) dismiss it as a megalomaniacal bummer; others, including Stones mentor Andrew Loog Oldham and Who Pete Townshend, call it one of the finest albums ever made.

Over the past 35 years, Dion has continued recording, most frequently in an acoustic blues mode. He’s made many fine albums–modest, mature, honest, well-crafted, serious. In 1990, visiting the Bronx parish of his childhood, he experienced an epiphany and returned to Catholicism. He continues to record and perform, and works as a Renewal Ministry activist. Well, okay.

But let’s go back for a moment to 1969, to a wholly obscure Warner Brothers singer-songwriter effort, the album “Sit Down Old Friend”. I discovered the album back then when I was listening to every single major release, and quite a lot of minor ones. It’s easy to see how Dion’s album went unnoticed in that landmark year of singer-songwriter releases: Dylan’s “New Morning”, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”, Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”, and the first albums by Elton John, Stephen Stills, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

But “Sit Down Old Friend” always shined for me, even in that heady company. It’s almost a demo—just Dion playing classical and steel-stringed guitar on a dozen gems, mostly self-penned. The lyrics of the title song, our Song of The Week, seem more than a bit callow. Unguardedly ingenuous, too good-hearted and sincere and embarrassingly loving. The way I’d probably feel at a spiritual retreat. But when I listen to the song, it becomes something else. Its utter sincerity overcomes all my cynicism. It forces me to remember that truisms are true. Really, what is there for us to do on this earth other than love our fellow man? So, Dion, thanks for ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘Teenager in Love’. But ‘Sit Down Old Friend’ has never left me over the 40 years since I first made its acquaintance, and it has never failed to affect me. It’s been in my mind and my heart and my ears during not a few rough patches, and it’s lent me a steady and trustworthy arm to lean on. I’d like to give it my ultimate compliment—for me, this is life-changing music. It really does make me want to be a better person.

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

If everybody had it in their heart today, I’d say, to keep love in your heart you gotta give it away.

Then the world would be some great big beautiful loving smiling place,

Hey, love is really all you need to carry around.

To keep love in your heart you gotta spread it around.

I’m changing in myself and I’ve found that I don’t have to be so smart.

The last thing in the world I’d want to do is break somebody’s heart.

If it was up to me I’d gather everybody round and we’d all hold hands.

And we’d say a prayer just for today, we’d pray.

To keep love in our hearts and never let it stray, never let it slip away.

Don’t let it pass you by.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 070, Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

SoTW 076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

SoTW 078, Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

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11 Comments

Mike
Dec 31, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Beautiful song. Thanks!
Thanks also for “Snoopy vs the Red Baron” – a horrible song, but one I sang often as a child, because I was a huge Snoopy fan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nalzsJYn5lw


 
zelio schmidt
Dec 31, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Beautiful, nice voice. Thanks Jeff and Shabat Shalom


 
ze'ev
Jan 1, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Nice, kind of nostalgic (though I didn’t remember him from Adam DiMucci).


 
Steve
Jan 5, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Jeff- Thanks so much! I am a big Dion fan and have enjoyed being facebook “friends” with him. But I don’t know much about his history. I will have to track down that effort with Spector– two of my favorites together and I didn’t even know it! And you are right, I didn’t know about the Snoopy connection.
Unfortunately, I don’t always like Dion’s posts about politics (differences in religion don’t bother me), but I try to just appreciate his music. Thanks for this.


 
Doug Sunn
Jun 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Dear Jeff
I too share your sentiments with “SIT DOWN OLD FRIEND” a grande’ Idea
that has inspired me and helped me many times through those “rough patches”!
Only a poets heart (Dions) could arrange so few words into such profound truth!
THANK YOU SO VERY,VERY, much my friend.


 
maggie
Feb 3, 2017 at 10:19 am

Before hearing “Sit Down, Old Friend” here, I had mostly associated Dion with one of my personal favorites, “Run Around Sue.”
“I’m changing in myself and I find that I don’t have to be that smart…”
It really does inspire a sense of humility and grace.
It’s understandable why you would carry it with you these many years.
Thank you for sharing it.


 
Kevin Miller
Feb 7, 2017 at 11:49 pm

Album will always have a special meaning for me. I found the LP at a 2nd hand store after a job interview and bought it not knowing I’d discovered my friend had died that day. I used that quote from the album while consoling his family. In another ironic twist I was just thinking about the album last week and here you are writing about it. Dion is an was an incredible talent.


 
jeff
Feb 9, 2017 at 10:24 am

Thanks for sharing, Kevin. What a shame that the album is virtually unknown. It never fails to touch me deeply.


 
Mark L. Levinson
Feb 10, 2017 at 4:42 pm

I love Dion, I even read his autobiographical “The Wanderer Talks Truth” (nice little book), but I never had the slightest inclination to listen to “Sit Down Old Friend.” The title screamed faux folksiness at me. Now I’ve listened to the song and I don’t know what to think of it. It’s a recitatif, kind of, and bold in its scantiness. They say that in this period (and in the Columbia period preceding) Dion was looking for a direction that he never quite locked on to. But he’s said today to be the only fifties survivor who is still making new music worth hearing. (E.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4HM3LwpBgg )


 
jeff
Feb 10, 2017 at 4:59 pm

I’ve listened to quite a lot of his later stuff, find it all very admirable.
He’d be considered resilient even if his music weren’t anything to write home about. The very fact that he still keeps on keeping on is quite remarkable.
I admit that this sort of open lovingness usually makes me uncomfortable. But I find this album, especially this song, disarmingly honest. It touches me every time.


 
Dennis Kiel
Nov 22, 2017 at 8:18 pm

Yes, Sit Down Old Friend, a fantastic album! I loved it when it came
out and I still listen to it quite often today…


 

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