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A Chat With Dion


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A chat with Dion: '50s and '60s pop star records new album

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

Dion DiMucci is just "Dion" to generations who remember the hip guy who took R&B, country and rock and filtered it through a street-wise, Bronx sensibility. Dion and the Belmonts hit with doo-wop like "I Wonder Why," "Where or When" and "A Teenager in Love."

In 1959, the group was on a winter bus tour of the upper Midwest along with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper when Dion turned down a ride on a plane chartered by Holly to take them to the next gig -- $46 for a plane ride seemed wasteful to the Bronx kid. The plane went down on Feb. 3, "the day the music died," killing all on board.

Later, he split from the Belmonts and racked up many solo hits, including "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer," "Ruby Baby" and "Donna the Prima Donna." He veered into folk-rock in 1968 with "Abraham, Martin & John," and recorded many gospel albums.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is still married to the Sue he immortalized on "Runaround Sue," and has two grown daughters.

He also has a much-admired new album, "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock" (Saguaro Road) with powerful versions of '50s songs such as "Rave On," "Dream Baby," "Runaway," and a re-do of "The Wanderer." He's backed by guitarist Crow Richardson, among others, in an homage to 1950s guitarists like James Burton (who played for Ricky Nelson), Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent) and Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley) whom he feels have been unjustly forgotten.

Dion spoke to The Detroit News by phone from his south Florida home.

Do you think some of the things you sang about in your song, "Abraham, Martin & John" came true, with the presidential election?

We're coming along. We're a great country, a great people, and I'm proud of us. The message (of the song) was, people could die but the dream doesn't die ... I went right into church and started praying for Barack (Obama), I prayed Sunday night (before the election) and I went to church on Monday and sat there for an hour, said a prayer for him. He'll be a blessing.

What prompted you to record a tribute album to early rock guitarists?

The guitar solos on these songs were short and melodic, they had to capture the essence of the songs. Fender guitars were invented in the '50s -- Les Pauls, (and it led to) grunge with Link Wray, "sonic" and the whammy bar with Chet Atkins and "twang" with Duane Eddy; it was all laid out for the '60s to happen on top of it. That's why I say, there are two decades when giants walked the earth, the '50s and the '60s.

I knew all these guys and heard these songs five times a day out on tour. It's in my DNA. Doing the album evoked so many memories for me, beautiful, deep, life-changing moments. And, I have a friend Tim, who's 44, and I asked him if he knew who (early rocker) Gene Vincent was. He said, "Did he sing for Kiss?" That was a motivating factor.

A lot of people hear these songs from nostalgia acts and they don't realize how powerful the music was.

That gets on my nerves sometimes because it's a thin veneer of what I see in my overview of the '50s. In Europe, they're into the history of the music, they go into the essence of the song, who played on it, where were you in your life, what city were you in, what kind of guitar were you playing ... I was trying to bring a little of that to this album, especially to the (accompanying) DVD. I didn't want to preach or make it too dry, I wanted to make it entertaining.

You had a lot of great musicians on those early singles. Who were those guys?

Drummers always want to know who's on "The Wanderer," because they admire what he did. It was either Panama Francis or Sticks Evans. I had a lot of guys I used to use, all musicians from the Apollo Theater. The horn solo on "The Wanderer" almost has a personality of its own, that was Buddy Lucas, a 350-pound black guy from Yonkers, who was a real good friend of mine. These days I try to find a picture of Buddy Lucas, I can't even find a picture ...nobody knows of this guy, he flew totally under the radar!

People don't realize that you played guitar on every one of your hit songs.

Yeah, on Dick Clark's shows, it was lip-synch, they'd say "Put the guitar down!" When I did an album called "Bronx in Blue," (famed record producer) Jerry Wexler called me and said, "I didn't know you played guitar!" I knew I was in trouble. Maybe it's because I never was a road hog, I like creating and I like playing, but even though I worked on the road for 50 years, I was never that into touring.

During the "Abraham, Martin & John" era you were out there with your guitar.

That turned my life around. I was pretty shy and I didn't talk a lot earlier in my career. But when you sit on a stage with a guitar and people are asking you questions, you start talking. It brought me out. Now you can't shut me up!

Speaking of guitars, can you believe that there were three guitars on many of those Motown records?

Oh man, there's nothing like those records, they're like perfect records, because of (Motown bassist) James Jamerson. The drums and the bass were the heart and soul, then you have all that window trimming, especially the guitars. You have one chink here and one chink there, all the sounds...They're treasures.

Did you ever know that a record you'd done was a hit, right out of the box?

With "Runaround Sue," yeah. I remember walking out of the studio and it was like a golden, defining moment for me. We just had too much fun.

"Ruby Baby" wasn't so bad, either.

The greatest compliment I ever got, I was on a show at the Brooklyn Paramount, and I was passing Little Richard's dressing room door, when his mother, Leva Mae, yelled out, "Hey, boy! Honey! Young fella, come in here!" So I walked in. She said, "Are you the boy who sings that 'Ruby Baby?' " She grabbed my wrist and forearm kind of heavy, and pulled me down where she was sitting, looked in my eyes, and said "Son, you got soul!" Let me tell you, if Little Richard had told me that, I would have forgotten it, but Leva Mae, his mother told me! Leva Mae probably heard the Drifters' version first, so I was afraid she was going to reprimand me.

As a singer, you always made the words fit the music, even when there are way too many words...

Yeah, I call myself a rhythm singer, because I listened to all the horn players at the Apollo. I used to walk out of the Apollo, and we'd imitate them (he starts scat-singing): Da da, dit dit dit dit,... Then you start to write words to those kind of things, and, you fit all the words in.

There's some cool video on you on YouTube, like a version of "Ruby Baby" where you appear to be co-piloting an Air France plane.

I did that in France, they wanted to put these movies on top of jukeboxes, with TV screens, so it was one of the first videos done. It never caught on because you'd have to put a quarter in the telebox, instead of a dime. And I don't think people wanted to stand by the jukebox watching it, either.

You also had a new video up last year on your own Web site (diondimucci.com) and on YouTube, a song about Paris Hilton.

I did that for my son-in-law, who is kind of a computer geek. He said, do something and I'll put it up, and it will be all over the world in five minutes. I said, I'll think about that... I did a song about Paris Hilton -- she was in jail at the time -- and it got like 30,000 hits.

a new album, "Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock," that offers up new versions of songs of the '50s.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@ detnews.com.

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Thanks. I don't think I've ever heard that.

I was thinking....Although most people wouldn't recognize him as such, he is probably the biggest rock star to ever come out of NYC.

The real shame is that most people only remember him for him for his late 50's earlu 60's hits. He's still at it and his recent stuff is killer. His 2007 album Son Of Skip James was freakin' great.

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