Dion’s American Tune

On Blues With Friends, Mr. DiMucci enters his seventh decade in rock with a gang of famous pals

Dylan on Dion (Art: Ron Hart)

Tucked in the middle of the first album that had Dion’s name on it, Presenting Dion and the Belmonts, was a track written by the bard of the Bronx, Ernie Maresca, called “I Got the Blues.”

That was just over sixty years ago, not long after the group was featured on the Winter Dance Party tour; Dion was nineteen years old. The blues, in one form or another, runs through all the decades of his career. He can’t shake them. I remember a night in 1994 in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, where Brian Wilson, Ronnie Spector, John Phillips, and Felix Cavaliere were taking turns singing their hits, and when Dion was called up from the audience and handed a guitar, instead of one of his singles, he slammed straight into Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking.” The blues are his home.

We know how late-career duet albums are supposed to work: the catalog of the artist at the center of the project is combed through for the most familiar material, and contemporary marquee names are recruited to add their voices for a musical stroll down the old boulevard. That’s not what the new Dion album is. Blues with Friends is not short on star-luster, because Dion’s friends include guys like Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, and Bruce Springsteen, but there’s no direct retreading going on here. Only two of the album’s cuts, neither one a previous hit, have shown up in different contexts before: “Kickin’ Child,” from Dion’s frustrating period at Columbia Records, and “Hymn to Him,” a cut from Velvet and Steel, his last album of Christian pop before his 1989 return to secular music. All the rest of the songs are new, all co-written by Dion, and all of his guests—most of them hotshot blues guitar players, like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and Joe Bonamassa—step into the spotlight with purpose, do their parts, step aside. Dion has done considerable ruminating on blues themes during this century, on Bronx in Blue, Son of Skip James, and Tank Full of Blue. But Blues with Friends is more expansive, more thoughtful and joyful.

 

VIDEO: Dion feat. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scalfia “Hymn to Him”

“Blues” means a lot of things on this album. On “Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More),” with some frenzied out-of-the garage guitar by Steve Van Zandt, Dion’s vocal flashes back to the street-corner laments of “(I Was) Born to Cry” and “Little Diane” (and we can pause here to point out that Dion’s voice has, uncannily, lost none of its range and power since he cut those Laurie singles). There’s the infectious rockabilly-gospel slap of “Uptown Number 7” (note: the actual NYC 7 train goes west to Queens from Manhattan, not uptown at all, but “7” scans better). “Stumbling Blues” feels like a found object, the kind of vintage semi-comic song that Leon Redbone or Dr. John might have unearthed. 

Some tracks might have fit on a missing Columbia blues album (Dion was doing “Spoonful” and “Hootchie Coochie Man” before the whole Blues Project–Paul Butterfield Blues Band thing happened, and if Columbia had been as hip as Verve or Elektra, he’d probably be considered the father of blues-rock). Some, like “Can’t Start Over Again,” have the sensitive restraint of his singer-songwriter years at Warner Brothers. There have been a lot of Dions through the decades, and on this set he touches on many of them, taking us back to the Bronx, where he met his wife, Susan (“Bam Bang Boom”), to the cocky chest-thumping of “The Wanderer” on “I Got the Cure,” to his Greenwich Village days on “My Baby Loves to Boogie,” with harp by John Hammond Jr. He even references “Drip Drop” on “What If I Told You,” which features a ripping Samantha Fish guitar solo.

He also sets a striking scene. In April 1962, Dion and Sam Cooke were co-headliners (both artists’ photos are in the center of the souvenir program) on the Supersonic Record Show of Stars tour, billed over such R&B and blues giants as The Drifters, Solomon Burke, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and B.B. King. Were any two solo artists bigger in that year? Cooke was on a hit run of “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and “Having a Party,” and Dion was riding high with “The Wanderer” and “Lovers Who Wander.” Dion’s “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” with Paul Simon on quiet, rueful supporting vocals, is his recollection of that time, when he and Cooke could share a stage (“You sang ‘You Send Me’,” Dion recalls, “I sang ‘I Wonder Why’”) but not hotels or restaurants; when Dion was faced, as the two of them walked the Memphis streets together, with the fact of segregation. The song quotes Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” the sound of shackled men, and mentions “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s his American tune, with faint musical echoes of his sound that began in the Bronx in the 1950s.

 

VIDEO: Dion “Song For Sam Cooke”

Dion has traveled through it all. From the days of Alan Freed and Buddy Holly, to hanging out in the studio with Bob Dylan (who contributes liner notes to this album), to “Abraham, Martin and John,” through despair and salvation, from doo wop to folk to gospel and back to rock and blues. (Full disclosure: I played a part in signing Dion to Arista to record Yo Frankie, and in bringing the Son of Skip James album to Verve.) And back to gospel, which is where he brings Blues with Friends to a close.

If you weren’t paying attention during Dion’s 1980s Christian-music period, songs like “Hymn to Him” slipped by you, but Dion has revived that one here, and it speaks to this moment. “Do you search for the shelter,” he sings, “from life’s oncoming storms?” Patti Scialfa’s voice hovers gracefully above Dion’s, and her husband’s guitar enters midway through with an instantly identifiable dark twang, creating echoes of Link Wray and Duane Eddy. Dion imagines a path away from misfortune and pain, to the sun poking through the ominous clouds drawn by Springsteen’s guitar.

In the end, Dion comes out of the blues, and points to the light.

 

AUDIO: Dion Blues With Friends (full album)

 

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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