Friday, 9 December 2011

"Can you tell me where he's gone?": Dion in 1968

When Dion signed to Columbia Records in 1962, a year after Bob Dylan, he was already a wealthy and very famous singer: The Wanderer, A Teenager In Love, Runaround Sue, and - most angsty of all - (I Was) Born To Cry had made him the teen idol most loved by American girls, most admired by American boys. Columbia must have thought they knew what they were getting, and it wasn't someone who, with a New York accent as heavy as Al Pacino-on-rye, would say things like "the blues is the naked cry of the human heart, like someone waiting to be in union with God."

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.

"I'd just moved here and I'd just sobered up. What could you say? The mid sixties was kind of a lost time for me. Musically I was woodshedding but, y'know, drugs can take their toll and kill your ambition. So I'd come down to Miami to get away from myself. Lo and behold, I came along with me. I got down here, went to a church, got on my knees and said a prayer and I haven't had a drink or drug since. April the first, 1968. And a few weeks later this song came along. To me, it was like it dropped out of heaven."

"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."

It includes woodwind-borne, blue sky renditions of Leonard Cohen's Sisters Of Mercy, Dylan's Tomorrow Is A Long Time, and, most intriguingly, Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze alongside the originals. The album brought Dion in from the cold, and re-united him with Laurie Records, the New York indie that had realised most of his monster hits. The Columbia deal, signed in '62, had started sweetly enough with Ruby Baby, one of his best and biggest 45s. "Then (A&R man) John Hammond played me Robert Johnson's Preachin' Blues that he was putting on a compilation. I realised that this music was probably the undercurrent to everything I did in my life."

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."

The label let a few singles dribble out, but the full force of Dion's folk-blues revelation could only be felt on Wonder Where I'm Bound, a 1969 album Columbia issued to cash in on the success of Abraham Martin & John; these recordings were firmly in the collectors-only camp until a couple of Sony cds (The Road I'm On and Bronx Blues) were released in the nineties. In 1968, after six years away,  Laurie welcomed the returning prodigal who could do no wrong for them, more than happy to release a whole album. Abraham Martin And John "came from sitting in my little back yard, under a tree, and there was a little canal back there, sitting there with my guitar and a pitcher of lemonade. Am I right? Doesn't it sound like that?"

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."


  1. Fantanstic! Thank you. I didn't know much about Dion, but your post really helped fill me in on some interesting and important things. I am going to check his stuff out more.

  2. Thanks! Dion somehow doesn't quite the credit he deserves. I really love My Girl the Month of May.


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