Friday, 9 December 2011
"Can you tell me where he's gone?": Dion in 1968
What happened after his run of hits was four years of heroin addiction, and a total immersion in New York's folk and blues scenes. This was the start of a slow-burning process that led to a Grammy nomination for 2006's Bronx In Blue, an album of Hank Williams, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed covers. Personally, I think it should have gone to the record that brought Dion back from the teen idol graveyard in 1968 - it was originally called Dion but is usually given the title of the hit single taken from it, the delicate Abraham Martin And John.
"Lemme tell you about that record" he begins, a practised storyteller. "After Martin Luther King was shot, Bobby Kennedy was at his coffin and he said 'Who'll be the next victim of a senseless act of violence?' And three months later he was assassinated. The record came out of a frustration. These guys are reaching for a state of love. People are cutting them down but we're not going to give up. The song was trying to be part of a solution."
The song exploded, a Top 5 hit. It had a soulful humanity that people hadn't heard from Dion Di Mucci before. And it coincided with a relocation - in the old tradition - from New York to Florida.
"The album was done, and all the arrangements, within a week. They were songs I sang around the house. I just went in with my little nylon string guitar. John Abbott from Staten Island did the arrangements. He was a beautiful guy. He always had some french fries. He'd lead the band with a french fried potato."
After Drip Drop was a Top 10 hit in early '64, Dion began to release singles like Hoochie Coochie Man, Willie Dixon's Spoonful and his own folk-blues The Road I'm On. The latter made it onto the young Marc Bolan's setlist but Dion's teenage fans were more than a little confused: a few months later they'd be lapping up imported versions of the same songs by the Stones, Yardbirds and Pretty Things.
"There was a guy called Buddy Lucas, he played sax for me on The Wanderer, a 300 pound guy. Big guy. He recruited a bunch of guys from the Apollo Theatre. Blues were their roots and they supported me, tried to help me out. I was experimenting." Columbia, who were hoping he'd become a "legitimate" singer like Bobby Darin, were in no mood for experiments. Among the finest, and rarest, of his Columbia 45s is the folk rock stormer Tomorrow Won't Bring The Rain - teeth-clenched, ringing like the bells of Rhymney, it's a match for any Byrds or Dylan 45. Its rarity suggests just what Columbia thought of it.
"I had to leave! They didn't know what I was doing! Tom Wilson, my producer, he encouraged me. And I sat in on a couple of Bob Dylan sessions. But they'd signed a popular rock 'n' roll artist, not a guy who hung out in the Village with Tim Hardin and Richie Havens."
Yes it does. Looking back, Dion's career - and his forays into folk, blues, soft rock and doo wop - makes a lot more sense than it would have done to Columbia in 1964. There is a love of American music in Dion that he shares with Dylan: few other singers could pull off an album as diverse and delightful as Abraham Martin And John. Maybe the pick of the whole set is a heartfelt version of the Motown-written Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.
"That was a Four Tops songs. How did I end up recording it? Probably they were playing it the night before in a saloon or something!
"The way I explain it is I don't sing white and I don't sing black. I sing like Bronx. I don't know exactly what that is, but it's definitely black music filtered through an Italian neighbourhood. It comes out with an attitude."
Posted by Bob Stanley at Friday, December 09, 2011