A look back at the Bronx teen idol’s undelrrated ’89 return
Talk about surreal birthday celebrations. On January 18, 1989, I was sitting at a table in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with my colleagues from Arista Records and with Dion DiMucci, who was being inducted that night into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lou Reed did the honors, rhapsodizing over Dion’s musical legacy. At tables near us were Phil Spector, and Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. It was as though my record collection from 1963 had come to life and somehow I had found myself on the periphery of it all. Some of us—Clive Davis, Roy Lott and me in particular—were putting the final touches on what would become Dion’s first album of secular pop-rock in a decade. Yo Frankie was released in early May ’89, people called it a comeback, and in all my years of doing A&R for that label and others, it’s one of the records I’m most proud of being a part of.
How did we all get there? For most of the ’80s, Dion had been recording only music that centered on his Christian faith, albums like I Put Away My Idols, Only Jesus, and Kingdom in the Streets. He didn’t perform pop music at all. Then, in 1987, he was asked to headline a WCBS-FM oldies concert at Radio City Music Hall, the first time he would dust off the hits like “Runaround Sue” and “A Teenager in Love,” and of course I was in the room that night. I grew up in the Bronx, a mile and a half from Dion’s old neighborhood, and he was the main attraction at the first live rock’n’roll show I ever saw, an Easter week extravaganza hosted by Clay Cole and Murray the K at the Brooklyn Paramount in 1961. You can talk all you like about how the pre-Beatles ’60s were a fallow time for pop music, but you weren’t witness to Dion, Jackie Wilson, Little Anthony & the Imperials, the Shirelles, Del Shannon, and the Isley Brothers that April.
CONCERT RECORDING: Dion and Friends, Live New York City
It took a leap of faith for Dion to reclaim his place in pop history, a recognition that no matter how much his career had digressed from “The Wanderer,” “I Wonder Why,” and “Lovers Who Wander,” his fans hadn’t forgotten. He got an ecstatic response that night at Radio City, and I went on a mission: to convince Dion to cut a new non-Jesus-centric album and to convince Arista to sign him to make that album. Both Dion and Arista rewarded my fanboy zealotry. We asked Dave Edmunds to produce the album (actually, his manager had approached us), and they went into the studio with the musicians Edmunds assembled for the project: Terry Williams from Rockpile on drums, Chuck Leavell on keys, Phil Chen on bass, Jim Horn on sax, Edmunds and Dion on guitars (one track, done with Bryan Adams, had a different sideman lineup). Dion called in some favors. Paul Simon and Lou Reed popped in to sing backgrounds (and Simon stepped out on the “Little Star” section of “Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star”). There were cameos by Patty Smyth and k.d. lang.
Most of the songs, including what became the title track, had lyrics by Bill Tuohy and music by Dion. We tossed Dion a nostalgic-sounding Diane Warren song “And the Night Stood Still,” and the album concluded with a Tom Waits song, “Serenade” (“San Diego Serenade,” really) that summed up and capped off everything: “I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long,” Dion sang. “I never heard the melody until I needed the song.” The album, if I might say, was vibrant and modern and passionate: “King of the New York Streets” was a mighty, driving, self-reflective anthem (and it will reappear when Dion’s musical The Wanderer hits Broadway someday soon), and “Always in the Rain” sounds a bit, to me, like he was paying homage to his old friend Del Shannon. It has that kind of mysterious momentum.
Could anything have been more fun than going with Dion to Arthur Avenue for dinner at Dominick’s, where he was greeted as though it was a visitation from the Pope? Or going to the taping of a VH-1 special and, for one song, “Runaround Sue,” being one of his back-up singers? (At last! I was a Del-Satin for a day!) I owe Dion so much—and I’ve tried to do him justice in some of the reissues I’ve compiled and annotated—and one way I acknowledged that cultural debt was by using the bait of Yo Frankie to nudge him toward embracing his role as a rock icon. The night before his Rock Hall induction, Arista threw him a bash at the Hard Rock (there was a birthday cake as well), and it felt like the start of a new chapter for him. The next evening, he got a standing ovation from his admirers and his peers. Yo Frankie was just being tinkered with a little more (I wish I had kept the cassette with the original mixes), and when it came out in May, it was the first time a Dion album had made the Billboard chart since 1973.
Once in a while in the music game, you get to do something that matters. It’s not always the record that sells the most, or wins Grammys. Sometimes it’s the ones that ripple through time, connect us to the earliest jolts of excitement, fulfill the promises we made to ourselves when music chose us. A few months ago, Dion invited me to a staged reading of The Wanderer, his theatrical work in progress, and I don’t know if the musical is still in the same structural shape it was that afternoon, but the show began with the singer playing Dion doing “King of the New York Streets” and ended with a soaring “Always in the Rain,” both songs from the album we did together thirty years ago. I thought about how that all started, and about the audiences who’ll hear those songs and maybe go back to discover where the original tracks came from. The album is called Yo Frankie. That’s how I met Dion.