By John Cody
OVER THE past 40 years Dion DiMucci has sung doo-wop, folk, blues, gospel and straight ahead rock, putting his singular stamp on every style. First hitting the charts in 1958 as leader of The Belmonts, he’s sold millions of records and produced a body of work that rivals any artist of his generation.
Two recent collections survey some of the leaner times between the hits. Even when he was less of a presence on the charts, the quality rarely falters.
The Road I’m On covers 1962-1966. Beginning with the final hits from the first phase of his solo career, (he parted from the Belmonts in 1960) the double disc set includes oldies station staples ‘Ruby Baby’ and ‘Donna the Prima Donna,’ both evincing the Bronx swagger that helped make his reputation.
To most of the public this is where Dion stopped, as if frozen on the street corner while the rest of the world moved on into the ’60s. But that’s hardly the end of this story; he’s continued to grow through every phase of his career.
Change is the only constant in this package. Exposed to the blues by legendary Columbia produ-cer John Hammond Sr., Dion adopted a more basic, gritty sound. Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Dixon songs sit next to Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry covers, all given authentic readings. Hanging out in Greenwich Village clubs, he soaked up the new sounds, exploring folk rock and blues music before either form had gained widespread popularity with the kids.
Columbia released a couple of albums, a few hard to find singles and then gave up. Relegated to the where-are-they-now pile, Dion was simply too far ahead of public taste. Much of the material stayed in the can: a number of tracks here are seeing release for the first time, 30 years after recording. Top notch throughout, the disc ends with a pair of rockin’ tracks from The Little Kings, his new quartet which includes former members of the Smither-eens and the Del Lords.
A few years after leaving Columbia, Dion returned to the top 10 with the definitive reading of ‘Abraham Martin and John’ and subsequently released half a dozen folk albums on Warner Bros. during the 1970s.
After accepting Christ in 1978, he recorded five albums for the Christian market between 1980 and 1986. Gospel Years collects material from all five. While the vast majority of his catalogue continues to sound fresh, here efforts to update Dion’s sound by employing then up to date production techniques, including massive drums and in your face synthesizer patches, achieves just the opposite effect.
Still, the songs, mostly originals, are great and, as always, Dion sings up a storm. Among the many standouts are ‘I Put Away My Idols’ and ‘The Truth Will Set You Free.’ Little Steven, formerly with Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, contributes liner notes, arguing that anything Dion puts his heart into is worth checking out. There’s also a brief testimony from Dion, himself, written this year.
Gospel Years is released on Ace Records, a British reissue label. Sad to say, the Christian labels that originally released this material pulled Dion’s recordings from the market once they stopped making money. It’s left to a secular label, one that appreciates the music more than the bottom line, to share the good news.
An autobiography, The Wanderer, is referred to in both packages. The book, published in 1988, is worth seeking out for his remarkable life story. Last month it was announced that actor Chazz Palminteri will write and direct a feature film based on Dion’s life.
The requisite showbiz anecdotes include fascinating tales of touring with acts like Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin and Buddy Holly. Dion was the only headliner to survive the ill fated Winter of ’59 tour that ended with the plane crash that claimed Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. His tales are impressive: not many performers could present a list of cohorts as wide ranging as Buster Keaton, Bob Dylan, Rev-erend Gary Davis, Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen.
Personal struggles are dealt with in detail. Harrowing stories of a nasty heroin habit that began at 14, kicking smack only to develop a serious drinking problem, and stints in a psychiatric ward are recorded without attempts to sensationalize. Headstrong, and unable to relate well to others, he finally came to the realization that he is "an addictive personality rooted in an addictive family tree."
His dramatic born again experience is given ample space. The book documents his struggles honestly. Like Dion, the reader marvels that his wife, former high school sweetheart Susan, stuck by him through the hard times. They’re still together after 45 years.
© John Cody 1997