DiMucci, not Celine
I blame John Perry -- guitarist for the Only Ones and author of my pick for the best book ever about the Who (that'd be Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, a volume in Schirmer's Classic Rock Albums series) -- for my current Dion obsession. He'd posted a series of Youtube videos on Facebook, including "My Girl the Month of May," a song Dion wrote and recorded when he briefly reunited with the Belmonts in 1966 that was subsequently covered by the Fairport Convention spinoff The Bunch (whom it fit like the proverbial glove), and "Shu Bop (The Lost Track)," an authentic-sounding bit of doo-wop pastiche that was released on Dion's Y2K album Deja Nu.
Perry's posts sent me back to Francis Davis' Like Young to re-read Davis' 1989 profile of Dion when he was recording his Dave Edmunds-produced "comeback" album Yo, Frankie for Arista. (The piece takes its title from one of my favorite lyrics of all ti-i-ime, from "Runaround Sue": "Here's the moral of the story from a guy who knows.") There was a guy who taught at my high school who grew up on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx and claimed that Dion was "laughed out of the neighborhood" for shaving his legs ("so they'd fit in those pegged pants"). After reading Davis' account of accompanying the singer on a visit to his old 'hood, I'd say Tony D.'s story was probably bullshit.
Listening to a guy with a heavy East Coast accent picking and singing the likes of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," Fats Domino's "My Blue Heaven," and Howlin' Wolf's "Built for Comfort" puts me in mind of my pal Josh Alan Friedman, but Josh (bless him) doesn't have pipes like Dion's. When Dion sings Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues," it also evokes the memory of Vinnie, the guitar-slinging cigar store owner in Wayne Wang's Blue In the Face.
Dion tells a story American Pop author Allen Lowe would appreciate about meeting Howlin' Wolf -- an early inspiration, via late-night radio -- when both of them were appearing on a bill at the Brooklyn Fox. When Wolf asked him where he learned to sing, Dion (who'd been walking on eggshells, trying not to say anything stupid to Wolf) admitted, "From records," to which Wolf replied, "Me too;" it's a common denominator if you grew up in 20th century America.
Dion got his coat pulled to Robert Johnson by none other than Johnson's discoverer, John Hammond, while signed to Columbia, where he was produced by Highway 61 Revisited producer Tom Wilson and cut blues and Dylan-inspired folk-rock with a band that included "Like A Rolling Stone" organist Al Kooper. (Both 1991's Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings and 1997's double disc The Road I'm On: A Retrospective mix doo-wop hits with blues and folk-rock; the latter adds a couple of uncredited Little Kings tracks.)
When Dion dedicates "Truth Will Set You Free," from his 1980 gospel album Inside Job, to Pope John Paul II, he does it with the sincerity of a lapsed Catholic who returned to the church in 1968, when he was fighting his way out of the morass of heroin addiction. His World Cafe set also includes Lightnin' Hopkins' "You Better Watch Yourself (Sonny Boy)," which he originally cut for the self-titled '68 album that bore his hit "Abraham, Martin and John."
Back then, having been dropped by Columbia before he kicked his jones, he'd gone back to Laurie, the label that released his hits with the Belmonts, and asked for another chance. He cut Dick Holler's tribute to four assassinated icons of social justice reluctantly; it wound up selling four million copies. Covering material by Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Fred Neil, Dion sounded bruised and fragile, more like Tim Buckley than the younger, swaggering singer of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." The British CD version of the album includes the bluesy B-side "Daddy Rollin'," which blew my mind when I turned the single over when I was 11, and proves that the title of his '97 album Son of Skip James was more than an idle boast.
Dion's discography, swollen with oldies compilations and Christian releases, also includes Born To Be With You, a gloomy reflection on middle age, produced by Phil Spector (except for the 1970 single "Your Own Backyard," covered by Mott the Hoople on Brain Capers), that was released in the UK in 1975 and didn't see an American release until the CD era. No less an authority than Pete Townshend has called it his favorite album of all ti-i-ime. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying, "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." Take it from Pete, take it from Bob, or take it from your humble chronicler o' events: If you've only heard the Belmonts hits, you haven't heard Dion. And you owe it to yourself to.