Dion DiMucci is rock ‘n’ roll’s ageless wonder. In his 80s now, he continues to amaze and inspire us with new material and new takes on old material. Norton Records released his Kickin’ Child “lost” album in 2017, KTBA released Blues With Friends (with an all-star cast) and is now releasing the followup, Stomping Ground (backing by G.E. Smith, Clapton, Knopfler, Frampton, Rickie Lee Jones, among others). And, oh yes, a play based on Dion’s life and music,The Wanderer, will premiere next March in N.J. and will, hopefully, hit Broadway soon thereafter. PKM’s Benito Vila caught up with the speeding Dion and conducted this ‘crazy good’ interview.
In April 2019, PKM’s editor asked if I would be interested in interviewing Dion. Yes. Absolutely. Easy. Except, Dion doesn’t do interviews. After reaching out more than a few times to his management and some mutual friends, a polite response came back by email that December, reading, “It’s not possible to speak to Dion at this time.”
By then, however, the research I had done on Dion had me hooked: how he didn’t get on the flight with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens (the $36 cost was as much as his parents were paying in rent and too much to dole out); how he discovered the blues through Columbia Records producer John Hammond, Sr.; how he had a spiritual awakening in 1968 that led him to drop heroin and embrace sobriety and Catholicism; how Lou Reed described Dion’s “Bronx Soul” in inducting him to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; how Dion was posting on YouTube and Facebook about making blues recordings, mostly original songs, backed by the likes of Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Paul Simon; and how he recently released a “lost” album, originally recorded at Columbia in 1965, on Norton Records.
That 2017 release, Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album, was accompanied by a two-hour podcast, part of Norton Records’ Crashing The Party series, that starts with co-host Marc Miller asking Dion if he considers his voice “the midpoint between Johnny Ray and Howlin’ Wolf.” Dion responds with a laugh, calling that a compliment and saying, “Johnnie Ray was crazy good and Howlin’ Wolf was just, to me, so special, one-of-kind. Both of them, like, I would say, are very distinctive voices. I never even thought of that.” Miller and his co-host (The Cramps drummer and Norton Records founder) Miriam Linna draw out Dion’s stories of growing up in the Bronx, mimicking jazz beats in singing doo-wop, doing studio work in the ‘50s and ‘60s with a who’s who of musicians and producers, and being on hand for Bob Dylan’s early recording sessions. A late-in-the-podcast tale reveals Dion’s 1968 song “Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)”––the overlooked, rowdy, blues-infused B-side of his mellow, on-every-radio-station megahit “Abraham, Martin and John”––was recorded using storeroom boxes for percussion, at a time Dion was kicking his drug habit and missing his wife, Susan. Dion says, “To me, it was a love song. Now, I listen to it and I’m thinking there was something else going on in my head.”
That Dion song and many others, like, “Lovers Who Wander”, “I Wonder Why”, “Ruby Baby”, “Drip Drop”, and the lost album’s title track, “Kickin’ Child”, make the Crashing The Party interview the best Dion must-listen for any fan or for anyone interested in his music.
Dion & the Belmonts (Dion DiMucci, Fred Milano, Carlo Mastrangelo, Angelo D’Aleo) “I Wonder Why” on Saturday Night Beech Nut Show, 1958:
So does Dion finishing the session with toe-tapping solo takes on Bob Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years”.
Of course, Dion is best known for his hits, “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”, songs written by Ernie Maresca, a Bronx doo-wop pal, featuring tight and fast rock ‘n’ roll lines, like, “There’s Flo on my left, and there’s Mary on my right/And Janie is the girl that I’ll be with tonight/And when she asks me which one I love the best/I tear open my shirt, I got Rosie on my chest” and “Here’s the moral and the story from the guy who knows/I fell in love and my love still grows/Ask any fool that she ever knew, they’ll say/Keep away from a Runaround Sue”.
Before that “not now” email arrived, I wanted to ask Dion whether he had any tattoos, how he dealt with girls, as a kid and then as a star. I wanted to ask him if he, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens really backed each other on drums on their tour, and who was the better drummer. I wanted to know what he remembers of the young Waylon Jennings, who was in Buddy Holly’s band, and how the coin flip for the last seat on the flight really played out. I wanted to know the albums John Hammond gave him and if he’d ever recorded anything with Bob Dylan. I wanted to know more about his sobriety, his life in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, how he’s stayed married for almost 60 years, and how he came he came to get in touch with all these great guitarists for his blues project.
That in-box note took away any chance to get those answers. My response was to send three questions back into the Dion management universe, to see if I might get a nibble. I got nothing. But I kept after Dion. I stayed in touch as best I could, corresponding with Dion’s publicist Bob Merlis, from time to time, asking about Dion and other potential PKM projects [one on Sam Cooke clicked].
About a month ago, I came across two pieces of Dion “news”: that Stomping Ground, the follow-up to his 2020 Blues With Friends album, was set to be released Nov. 19, and that The Wanderer, a play based on Dion’s life and music, is set to debut at The Paper Mill Playhouse [Millburn, New Jersey] on March 24, 2022, for a month-long run, with its producers looking to a Broadway booking.
I wrote to Bob Merlis and this time there was a bite. Yes, I could interview Dion, but there was a caveat. The last time Dion was interviewed, for the release of Blues With Friends, the interviewer was more interested in the old Dion than the new album. I promised to make Stomping Ground and The Wanderer the focus of our time together. That led me to receive a link to Stomping Ground and its liner notes, which feature Dion’s take on working with his latest collaborators, who include G.E. Smith, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Patti Scialfa, Marcia Ball and Rickie Lee Jones, among others. On Blues With Friends Bob Dylan’s introduction reads, “Dion knows how to sing, and he knows just the right way to craft these songs, these Blues songs. He’s got some friends here to help him out, some true luminaries. But in the end, it’s Dion by himself alone, and that masterful voice of his that will keep you returning to share these Blues songs with him.” For Stomping Ground, Peter Townshend offers, “Dion is a star who knows well how to start again, how to keep shining. He looks at his watch every few years. Damn! Let’s make a record. Take care. This one will blow those little white things in your ears right into your brain.”
There was one more thing for me to consider before Dion and I talked on the phone––the interview was to be 30 minutes. And that’s it. If Dion wanted to stay on longer, he might. Wow. Okay. Since it was to be mostly questions about The Wanderer and Stomping Ground that made my work easy. But how to start? I went back to the three questions from two years ago and decided those would work, realizing, if they didn’t, I could be dragging Dion around for 30 minutes. When I heard him say, “That’s crazy good” after asking the second question, I knew I was in for a fast ride.
PKM: Can you describe the song, the musician or the moment that hooked you, that connected you to music in a way that wouldn’t let you go?
Dion DiMucci: Yeah, I remember. I was a young kid. I had to be close to 10 or 11 years old and I heard Hank Williams on the radio, singing “Honky Tonk Blues”. I just got reeled in. It enthralled me. I ran up to Fordham Road. There was a record store there called Cousin’s. Lou Cicchetti ran it, and I became really good friends with him at a young age, like that. He took me under his wing. He started calling me every time a new 78 came in. He’d call my home and I’d actually run up to Fordham Road. It was about a mile. I’d go up there and purchase the record. Hank Williams got me totally involved. I’ve never been the same since that day. Then I heard Jimmy Reed do “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” I heard him do, “Take some insurance out on me, baby, because if you ever leave, I’m gonna lay back down and die”. I thought, “Who writes stuff like this?” Not only I was into the communicating a lyric like that, I was also into the groove. I was learning how to live through listening to those records. A lot of this maybe sounds corny today, but listen to Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter records. It’s just incredible, the recitations on those records. I never heard anything like it. Everybody in The Bronx, as far as I knew, was listening to Jerry Vale, Al Martino, guys like that; Jimmy Roselli was big. Nobody knew what I was doing, what I was into. I was kind of a weird kid. I was listening to Hank Williams and reading Saint Thomas Aquinas. I was looking for God and I wanted to know about the music.
PKM: If you could describe the last 80 years in American culture by way of a set of songs or group of musicians, who or what would they be?
Dion DiMucci: I’ve never thought about it. That’s crazy good. What do I have to do?
PKM: Pick a lens to look through. Look at the last 80 years through the Rolling Stones, or through the musical Hair. Or, through your own life if you want, or through someone you like to read. Pick any lens.
Dion DiMucci: I can connect the last 80 years through groups of people, songwriters, guitar players. For me, it starts very grassroots, very down-home rural, kind of survival music, like Hank Williams. It goes to Jimmy Reed and then––I’m skipping over people like T-Bone Walker––it goes off to Chuck Berry and then Bob Dylan. He changed the landscape single-handedly, brought thinking in single-handedly. Groups, like The Rolling Stones, songs like “Honky Tonk Women”. To me, it’s all connected. I never looked at it like “the British Invasion”. I looked at it like the British infusion. They were echoing Chicago Blues for me––whether it was Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf or Jimmy Reed––I was always connected to that. And I got to say, Springsteen. Bruce’s singing, to me, goes right back to what I was always searching for. Those guys for me, like Dylan and Springsteen and U2, they’re very biblical. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Like a rolling stone. How does it feel? It feels good. To have this healthy detachment. To find your individual freedom. I’ve always been attracted to music, to somebody behind the lyric that I wanted to know, who had something to say. It was The Clash coming out in the punk era.
Most of the guys that I’ve reached out to on these last two albums are part of those 80 years. Things changed for me when I heard Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, who repackaged B.B. King, Alvin King and Freddie King to a new level, and then, Joe Bonamassa, who took that to another level.
I kind of see guitar players connecting the dots. Lyrically, I always felt like Dylan was my go-to guy. To me, he’s a genius. My definition of a genius is always a distance for me. The distance between what somebody’s doing in their particular field and what everybody else is doing. In his lyrics, in his songwriting, Dylan always gives me something to learn, evidence of something I’m not aware of. It’s crazy, his lyrics, the trip they take me on. Springsteen is underrated in that way, in that sense. Like I said, I was always reading Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. To me, Springsteen echoes those guys. Everybody has a hungry heart. Like Saint Augustine said, “Hearts are restless until they come to rest in God alone.” It’s the same thing. He could have written that Bruce Springsteen song.
PKM: What ideas or concepts are you looking to make sure that you express now and what’s your way of doing that?
Dion DiMucci: I’ve always liked to take people on a trip, especially a good one. I like to take them to a higher ground. I like to write songs that are worth listening to, that spark your imagination and really show you good stuff. I’m not too into bullshit. I’m from The Bronx. There was this wrought iron fence on the north side of my little neighborhood, with Fordham University behind it. I quit school when I was a junior. I never graduated high school. At this point in my life, I’ve had a lot of “life experience”. When I was given a doctorate for humanities by Fordham in 2013, I asked my wife, “How did this happen?” She said, “You have a lot of ‘life experience’. You deserve it. You’ve been working with other people, making music, for 50 years now.” Maybe, now that I look back on it, in my reading all these books about God and the life of the mind, I’ve found a way to talk about it in my own little way.
PKM: On Stomping Ground you have that trip thing happening in “I’ve Got to Get to You”, and on the title track. One of my favorite songs though was “Hey Diddle Diddle”, the one you did with G.E. Smith, the one with the line, “Don’t let the woke cat rock ya.”
Dion DiMucci: I tell you, it’s crazy. You give a song to somebody and you have certain ideas, maybe, of what you want to hear, but I’ve learned that when you ask a great guitar player like G.E. Smith to play something, you don’t want to fool with his head. He’s a real student of music and he’s well known for his knowledge of the Telecaster. He can make the thing sound any way he wants. When I reach out to someone like G.E. Smith, I don’t want to say, “This is what I’m hearing.” Screw what I’m hearing. That’s the whole idea of going to him. I’m limited. I can write a song. I can communicate a song. I can make a great record. But when it comes to that kind of window treatment, playing with these guys, I’ve learned not to say a word. I just say, “Hey, whatever you’re hearing, get into it.” When he sent “Hey Diddle Diddle” back, it was something I wasn’t hearing, and now I cannot hear the song without what he did. It’s just perfect. I don’t know what he’s playing on. It’s like Arabian Blues or something. I don’t know what he’s doing. That’s all him.
PKM: How did you pick your collaborators on this album?
Dion DiMucci: I’ll be honest with you: I don’t really pick them. I kind of listen to the track and I let the track talk to me. I’m thinking, “Wow, I’d like to hear a Telecaster on this” and I come up with a few names. Sometimes not. I hear somebody on it. I hear a certain style. It’s just one guy, and I give him a call. You can hear by the records that everybody I chose, they belong on the record. When they contribute what they have in their head, and in their heart, and they play on it, it seems to be perfect. To me, it’s like, “Oh, that’s what I was hearing.” These guys are something. They’re just gifted, and that’s the fun of making these albums. I’m playing with all my heroes and I’m finding new guys within it––like Jeff Beck. Every guitar player on the planet, when Jeff Beck walks in the room, they come to attention. The guy has such gold in his hands. To work with a guy like Peter Frampton blew me away and to become close to Sonny Landreth, who’s way under the radar, but one of the greatest guitar players on the planet, I’m living a dream. Some of these guys, I’ve never known them close up. I’ve never really hung with them. What I found in making this music is that they’re so accessible and so giving. It’s made me experience the true community of the musical community that I belong to. It sounds drippy, but it makes me feel loved, man. It makes me feel part of something. I’m glad I lived this long. I’m making great music with wonderful friends and we’re making new friends with the music we’re making. This is fun. It’s like full circle. That’s kind of a cool thing.
PKM: The last track on Stomping Ground, “I’ve Been Watching”, blends your voice with Rickie Lee Jones.
Dion DiMucci: Again, I got to be honest: I was a little unsure about that. I love Rickie Lee Jones. I thought, “I got to try this with her. It’s a quirky love song and she has this really mysterious kind of quirkiness.” I tell people now: “You haven’t lived until you’ve sang a quirky love song with Rickie Lee Jones.”
PKM: This is your second blues album, is there a tour of any sort that you have in mind?
Dion DiMucci: Some of these guys, like Billy Gibbons, he’s telling me, “Hey, Dion, we got to do something. We got to go on the road.” I would love to do it with a few of these guys. That would be fun. Man, that would be fun. Who knows? You never know. It’s crazy. This lockdown has kind of worked for me. As a writer, you know what I mean. It’s the perfect time to write a book. You have the time. This is your chance to say, “Man, I’m not going anywhere. I might as well get at the typewriter.” That’s what this lockdown has done for me. I’ve recorded two of the best albums I’ve ever done. I had the time, the patience and it’s been really enjoyable to do this.
PKM: On Blues With Friends, I liked your “Song for Sam Cooke”, the one you did with Paul Simon.
Dion DiMucci: Yeah, that came out great. Paul Simon put a lot of time behind that. It’s a song I had in the back of the drawer for a long time and I didn’t even think of doing it until I saw the film Green Book. I saw that and I thought, “Hey, this reminds me of touring with Sam Cooke.” I experienced both sides of it because sometimes Sam had to protect me. I’d go to Black clubs with him. He took me to see James Brown and The Flames. Nobody even knew who James Brown was back then. Sam took me to a club in Mobile, and, man, he had to protect me. He kept saying, “Hey, the boy is with me.” It was the opposite of Green Book. I pulled that song out from the back of the drawer, I dusted it off, and then gave it a whirl.
PKM: Were there bluesmen on the tours that you did in the ‘50s and ‘60s?
Dion DiMucci: On the tour I did with Sam Cooke, Bobby “Blue” Bland was with us and Little Willie John. That stuff got in me. When it comes to me playing the blues, some people say, “Oh, you’ve reinvented yourself.” I don’t think so. I don’t know about reinventing. I didn’t invent myself in the first place. I’m not going to reinvent myself now. I did “The Wanderer” and “Ruby Baby” and “Drip Drop” and all those but I always had a flair for this kind of music. I look at it like I was an acorn. Now, I’m an oak tree. People don’t recognize you by your baby pictures, but it’s the same DNA. I just evolved. I don’t think I reinvented myself. I just developed. I evolved into what I’m doing now. I’m writing better songs. I have more experience and I play better, I sing better. That’s my take on it.
PKM: Do you have a favorite? Coke or Pepsi?
Dion DiMucci: Coke.
PKM: Onion rings or French fries?
Dion DiMucci: French fries and ketchup, man. That’s all day long. That’s dessert to me.
PKM: Cocaine or speed? Tuinal or heroin?
Dion DiMucci: How can I say it? I prefer good friendships and being real. I love life and I’m a grateful guy. I don’t need anything artificial, any synthetic stuff, to make me feel anything. I tried it, been there, done that. I was a heroin addict for 14 years. It was the most unnecessary thing I’ve ever done. It was insanity. I don’t need that. I haven’t had a drug or a drink in 54 years.
PKM: One more: Buddy Holly or Lou Reed?
Dion DiMucci: Oh, my God, I love both those guys. Lou Reed loved me and the feeling was mutual. Buddy Holly, for the short time I knew him, he was something special. I miss him. I could never pick between those two.
PKM: What did Buddy Holly turn you onto?
Dion DiMucci: Buddy Holly turned me onto being courageous. He said, “Dion, I don’t know how to succeed, but I know how to fail: Try to please everybody.” I think if he didn’t tell me that, I probably wouldn’t have done “Runaround Sue” or “The Wanderer”.
PKM: What did Lou Reed turn you onto?
Dion DiMucci: Lou Reed. [Laughs] He liked to push people’s buttons, but it wasn’t just to get a reaction out of them or just to stir them up. He was actually looking for what was real and what would stick, what would stand up. He kind of stirred people. He was a street poet, the best at that. He was so gifted. Out of his own mouth, he said, “Man, I’m not the best-looking guy. I can’t play the guitar the best. I can’t do this the best, I can’t do that the best, but I do what I do.” I was thinking, “Man, it’s enough. That’s enough.”
PKM: I want to ask about the play, The Wanderer. How did you select the songs? How do you describe the story?
Dion DiMucci: Charles Messina, a young writer from Manhattan, he wrote the book and he chose the songs and he placed them. The story he wrote, it’s not chronological, but there’s a lot of rock and roll street history. There’s a lot of action. It’s like the young Sopranos with great music and a Rocky Balboa ending. It has romance. It has betrayal, overcoming, redemption and music, so it has a lot of layers. Charles Messina, he’s real––he writes with a lot of substance, in an entertaining way. If you give me something of substance, you can entertain me all day long. I really like what he did. I think you’ll be surprised. You’ve got to come see this thing. It’s wild. It’s not like The Jersey Boys. People might think it’s like jukebox music. I don’t know what the hell that is, but man, I guess if they want to call it that, they can call it that.
PKM: Charles has done a few gangster/brotherhood plays, featuring Italian families. How does your Italian heritage play out for you?
Dion DiMucci: I hate to say this, but I was never into that. People would put these statues in their backyard, all this Italian stuff. I don’t know how to say it. But I’ll tell you one thing about being Italian that made sense to me. There are two angles to this. I loved it as a kid because I come from an Italian neighborhood and I loved the food and my aunts and the cooking and the love and the music and the family. As I grew older, I was a little disappointed in what Italian meant to me, the guys on the corner, you get like into The Sopranos shit, and I thought, “These are dumb motherfuckers. These dumbass bastards.” I didn’t like them. Then Columbia Records sent me to Italy and my whole world opened up. I saw the poetry. I saw the love, the history, the architecture, the music, the spirituality, the depth and width and height. Then I went to Israel and that’s when everything changed. I thought, “If people could really embrace their culture at the center, it’s really rich. It’s really beautiful.” So I started doing that. I started really going back, to the beginnings.
I’ll leave you with this and I’ll get a little philosophical here, but it’s important. What that taught me to do is go to the originators, the center. When it came to religion, I’ve learned to look at the founding fathers, the apostolic fathers, the people who gave their lives for what they believed. What did they believe? I went there. I didn’t listen to preachers on TV. When it comes to America, I don’t listen to this and I don’t listen to that. I listen to the founding fathers. I listen to the people that invented liberty. They actually invented it and they were willing to give their lives for it. That’s what I want to know. What did they believe? Then I went to the Blues. And I go to the founding fathers. I go to Skip James. I go to Robert Johnson. I go to those guys and I want to know what their intention was when it comes to the music. In A.A., I want to know what those guys who started the program thought. The degree of sanity I have comes from that.
PKM: Cool. We’re at a half hour. One last question: What makes a blues song?