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265: Dion DiMucci, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’

Posted by jeff on Jun 23, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Dion — ‘The Wanderer’

Dion — ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’

Dion — ‘Kickin’ Child’

Dion — ‘Spoonful’

Dion — ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’

Back in my playwrighting days I used to tape a short note to the screen (it was the early days of word processors), right in front of my eyes, the key message I needed to focus on (“Put the girl behind the 8-ball! Keep the girl behind the 8-ball!!” or “He doesn’t take the gun out till the third act!” For this piece I resorted to that old habit: “Jeff, move it forward or you’ll never finish.” And of course I didn’t, and I didn’t’.

imagesI had hoped to cover the whole arc of Dion’s career here, but I of course got bogged down in his riveting, obscure years in the later 1960s and managed only the first 11 years (out of 49). That’s alright. Dion’s worth revisiting.

You all know ‘Runaraound Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’. If you’re of a certain age, you might even know our ostensible Song of The Week ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. But chances are you’ve only scratched the surface. Our SoTW isn’t really about that song, it’s about Dion 1964-68, floundering careerly, knocking out lots of bold, innovative, relevant contemporary music during one of the most interesting periods in pop music – a legend languishing in drugs and obscurity.

Dylan (on “Kickin’ Child”): “If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes its color from all palettes–he’s never lost it–his genius has never deserted him.” You can’t always take Bobby’s recommendations at face value. This one I think you can. As a matter of fact, if you look closely, you might just reach the conclusion that Dion was the most respectable and successful and honest follower of his Columbia stablemate, both in covers and in original songs, as well as the entire nascent folk-rock sensibility.

c5dbf8747d64f5323c916ed993630d4eDion DiMucci is a really cool guy. A nice guy, a walking and talking legend who has been consistently (more or less) knocking out fresh, appealing music for longer than anyone else on earth, and deserves a whole lot of appreciation.

How many major recording artists from the 1950s can you name who successfully transitioned through the British Invasion to remain relevant, honest, creative musicians. I can name one. Elvis? He died in the army. Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? The Everly Brothers? No, no, and no.

Was Dion any different from Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley?
They all started as teen mega-idols in the late 50s. Their work has stood the test of time—they were the best of their era (excepting the great Buddy Holly, whose early death appears more tragic with each passing decade). These were never Fabians, but real creative artists (as far as that was possible in the Brill Building/Top 40 culture of the time. When the Brits came, they grew their hair and tried to remain au courant. Unsuccessfully. Each faded in his own way (Rick in a plane crash, Don and Phil in acrimony, Roy in personal tragedy, Elvis in pills and pitiful self-parody.)

dion-60s-2-500Dion sank into drugs in the mid-60s, disappeared from the public eye, struggled commercially for many years before finally attaining some degree of recognition for his ongoing musical achievements in his later years. But those struggles produced almost 30 original, interesting albums between 1967 and 2017!

I’ve been gorging myself on that corpus, but I’ve only partially digested it. He switched recording companies frequently, and some of his best work was never released or only in secret. But every single one is worth listening to (and talking about, thank goodness).

1957-60, Wop Doo Wop

Authentic doo-wop Bronxters, The Belmonts had hits with ‘I Wonder Why’ (“We sang ‘gna gna gna’ because the only lyrics we could think of all included ‘knockers’), ‘A Teenager in Love’ (Dick Clark’s audience painfully clapping on 1/3), ‘Where or When’ (from the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms”). In 1959, on tour in Iowa, he gave up his seat ($36 was a month’s rent for his parents) on the plane which crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (‘the day the music died’).  Young Bobby Zimmerman saw a show from that tour, and if you’re wondering what effect it had on him, listen to his Nobel speech. By the next year Dion was being treated for heroin addiction.

1960-64 Tearing Open His Shirt

Where's 'Rosie'??

Where’s ‘Rosie’??

He recorded a string of hits which still are still utterly convincing today – ‘Lonely Teenager’ (this live acoustic version is so reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s apartment tapes; it’s delicious to imagine how John Lennon would have reacted to this), ‘Runaround Sue’ (time capsule material), ‘The Wanderer’ (more swagger than Jagger), the knockout ‘Little Diane’ (darkest, most manic kazoo ever), ‘Lovers Who Wander’ for the little Laurie label. He then moved to Columbia (their first ‘rock’ signing), where he had a string of moneymakers, including the oh-so-cool Leiber-StollerRuby Baby’ (originally by The Drifters) and ‘Donna the Prima Donna’, despite a burgeoning heroin addiction.

Dion wrote or co-wrote most of his material, an anomaly at the time. No one had yet dreamed of the term ‘singer-songwriter’.

1965-67 The Harbinger Unnoticed

Looking to leverage his pop success, Mitch Miller of Columbia tried to make Dion (“Last of the One-Name Singers”) into a Las Vegas crooner. But he was coming under the sway of producer John Hammond, with a pronounced predilection for the acoustic blues (e.g., ‘Spoonful‘) which he maintains till today.

05813584d5af614f7ff971bf79e73349Then he hooked up with Tom Wilson, the Columbia producer he shared with folkie Dylan. Conventional wisdom says that Wilson made Dion sound like “Bringing It All Back Home” Dylan. It seems at least as likely that Wilson made Dylan sound like Dion. Think about it. Who of the three of them really knew electric blues and rock and roll (Wilson’s background was avant garde jazz)?

On December 8, 1964, with Dylan out on tour, Wilson recorded Dion with the expressed purpose of trying to imagine what Dylan would sound like in an electric context. Here’s ‘So Much Younger’ from that session.

Then Wilson took Dylan’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and overdubbed a rock band on it. Dylan liked it so much he recorded immediately recorded the electric tracks for BIABH (January 13-15, 1965). (Wilson would pull the same trick on folkies Simon and Garfunkel, electrifying their acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ in abstentia with studio musicians.)

dion050710wDion’s 1964-65 discography is rich, intriguing and murky. Most of it wasn’t released at the time. Compilations were made in 1991’s “Bronx Blues”, 2007’s “The Road I’m On”, the 2015 box set “King of the New York Streets”, and the recently released “Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965” (given a glowing 5-star review by All Music’s Thom Jurek: “It’s absolutely one of the greatest folk-rock records ever”).

During mid-1965, Dion and Wilson (with help from one Al Kooper) recorded the tracks on “Kickin’ Child”. They include some of the most honest readings of Dylan songs I’ve ever heard, some of them obscure gems: ‘Baby, I’m In the Mood for You’ (Dylan’s version), ‘Farewell’ (Dylan), and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (Dylan). There are also Dion-penned cuts that, to be honest, aren’t all that distinguishable from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ et al, such as ‘Kickin’ Child’, ‘My Love’, ‘Two Ton Feather’.

728b3454c652aa8016efdf36c61414c7You have to remember that Dylan was being heard only by folkies, and there was tremendous pressure by The Suits to capitalize on his potential in the pop market (“Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan”). There was also a desire by some of the more open-minded folkies to explore the lands discovered by The Beatles. Thus was born folk-rock, the dominant aesthetic in serious popular music for the past two or three generations.

Cher, The Turtles, Them, The Byrds – all of a sudden everyone was generating hits from Dylan songs cast in a rock context. They all were of course misdirected. Does The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (also electrified in the studio) illuminate Dylan’s original? I think not. I think it’s a commercially-successful, historically significant but artistically insignificant gesture.

pepperdionColumbia and McGuinn/Clarke/Crosby/Hillman should have understood – let Byrds be Byrds, not Dylan wannabes. Dion was never a bandwagoner. He was a rocker before The Beatles (of enough stature that they’d put him on the cover of “Sgt Pepper”; together with Dylan, the only live Americans to be so honored).  Dion’s Dylan recordings are genuine, honest, and as opposed to all the aforementioned hits—totally legitimate readings.

Most of the recordings went unreleased at the time, so Dion reunited with The Belmonts on ABC records in 1966-67 for another musically ambitious album very much of the era, “Together Again”.  The album tanked in the US, but generated a number of charted covers in the UK, including the flower-power ‘My Girl the Month of May’ (covered by The Bunch, including Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson) and ‘Your Own Backyard’ (a minor 1970 hit, a confessional account of his ongoing struggles with H, successfully covered by Mott the Hoople).

Thought I saw him walking along a hill...

Thought I saw him walking along a hill…

In 1968, following another period of cleaning up his habit and getting reacquainted with the Church of his youth, he went back to the little Laurie label to record a mix of (again) forward-looking contemporary covers. It includes a soft, acoustic ‘Purple Haze’; a very cool ‘Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever’ (this is years before James Taylor or anyone else gave intelligent, gentle white readings of Motown power classics); songs by Canadian brand-newcomers Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Sisters of Mercy’); and a mash-up of the Dylan gem ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ with Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ (a year before Nilsson’s version), as well as a few respectable originals – very similar to Judy Collins’ influential album of covers from the year before “In My Life”.

But little Laurie had a caveat – Dion had to include ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations (tied to those of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), perhaps the last patriotic song to come from ‘our’ side of the fence before the shit hit the fan several weeks later in Chicago.

hqdefaultThe song was written by Dick Holler and produced by Phil Gernhard, who had worked together back in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, where Dick led The Rockets (later The Holidays), a local band that included at times Jimmy Clanton, Dr John Rebennack and Johnny Rivers. Holler had a minor hit with ‘A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ (better known as the cover by the Swinging Medallions) and a major one with ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ as recorded by The Royal Guardsmen.

‘AM&J’ was a major hit, still covered today. Perhaps not Dion’s most typical song, but respectable, touching. (Who among us is not profoundly saddened by those assassinations and the change they wrought on our world?) Okay, that harp is just a bit gushy (Dion added some classical guitar just to class it up a bit–gee, we never even got to talk about what a fine guitarist he is.)

Ah, there’s so much more to tell. But my time has run out, as I’m sure has your patience. So I’ll just have to leave y’all cliffhanging till the next installment of that long, tortuous road Dion has travelled, and the fine music he’s made along the way.

We hope to continue the Dion saga. In the meantime, you can keep yourself busy with his unknown masterpiece, SoTW 082, “Sit Down, Old Friend“.

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082: Dion DiMucci, ‘Sit Down Old Friend’

Posted by jeff 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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