Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dion DiMucci: A Hank, A Buddy & A Tank Full Of Blues

I Put Away My Idols-1983
I would really have to do several entries on Dion DiMucci's career accomplishments to give a detailed, comprehensive list.  Even picking some highlights seems to be a bit of a disservice.  I will try to just give a few that stand out to me.  He started his career in 1957 with a single on Mohawk records before moving to Laurie Records with his new group The Belmonts.  Dion & The Belmonts had a string of hit singles including "I Wonder Why", "No One Knows", "Don't Pity Me" and "A Teenager In Love" among others.  They were also a part of the Winter Dance Party tour that tragically took the lives of the other headliners- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper).  Read why he says this is not the "day the music died" below.  He later went solo and continued a string of hits including "The Wanderer", "Runaround Sue", "Ruby Baby", "Donna The Prima Donna" and "Abraham, Martin & John".  He spent the 70's making some amazing acoustic/folk/rock records on Warner Brothers.  The early 80's saw his focus switch to Gospel music where he recorded several albums with Word Records.  For these Gospel recordings he won Dove Awards and was also nominated for a Grammy for the album I Put Away My Idols.  The end of the 80's saw a return to rock & roll with the Dave Edmund's produced Yo Frankie and his induction in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989.  He continued making great albums in the 90's like Dream On Fire and his Christmas album, Rock 'N' Roll Christmas.  After the turn of the century, he came out with some of his best work to date with his Blues projects Bronx In Blue (also nominated for a Grammy) and Son Of Skip James followed by a killer early guitar-rock tribute album called Heroes.  January 24th, 2012 will mark the 3rd in a trilogy of Blues projects called Tank Full Of Blues.  If anyone is keeping score, that makes 55 years since he made his first recording and over 30 studio albums (not counting live projects and multiple greatest hits compilations)!  Not only is Dion not slowing down, he feels more relevant now than he's ever felt.  One listen to Tank Full Of Blues and I can see why.  I can't stop listening to it and feel this could very well be his best project to date!  I spent some time asking him about the past and the future that he's so excited to share about.

What comes to your mind when you think of rockabilly?
Yo Frankie- 1989
There’s a lot of people getting into rockabilly.  It’s my heart.  When Carl Perkins plays those guitar riffs they’re like a horn section.  He must have picked up on horns like I did.  That’s the way I see rockabilly.  I know it seems really guitar oriented but he’s playing horn parts.  To me he was the best.  Nobody swung like he did.  He was the king of boogie woogie.  It was so organic.  I never gave “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley much thought.  To me, there’s the authentic genuine article and then there’s the counterfeit. But, I'm not taking anything away from Presley.  That guy was just mammoth…just off the charts great. 

Carl had a big influence on The Beatles!
Oh sure.  He was a big influence on me.  He was a great groove guitar player.  You’ll find guys like The Edge.  They have a very specific sound like maybe Luther Perkins had for Johnny Cash.  It was simple and potent.  A little style goes a long way.  You could play all the notes in the world and not be as popular as Luther Perkins or Norman Blake for Johnny Cash.  That groove they had was unbelievably off the charts.  The beauty of rock and roll is repetition. 

You had a part in a recent movie called A Little Help.  How did that come about?
I never saw the whole film.  I knew Michael Weithorn from doing sitcoms.  We were out in Brooklyn and they were shooting and said, “you wanna do something?”  I jumped right in.  I had my guitar in the trunk and just did it.  He grew up to my music.  We did it one day.  We sat in the disc jockey scene.  It was fun.  The kid (Zach Page) was nice.  It was a nice afternoon….friends, music and trying to make a movie.

New Masters- 2003
My favorite part was when this mom found out her husband took their son to the radio station to see you instead of taking him to school so he could take a math test.  The mom was furious to which the dad replied “Dion’s a legend!  His music will be around a lot longer than math!”
(laughs) that’s cool.

Was that a new version of “Runaround Sue” in the movie?
They used the version I had on an album called New Masters.  

I know of your love for Hank Williams from a really early age.  Do you remember the first Hank record you bought?
Oh yeah…”Honky Tonk Blues”.  Oh man, I heard “Honky Tonk Blues” and I went out of my mind.  That changed my life.  After that…”Lovesick Blues”…loved it!  And then “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” and “Kaw-Liga”.  But I knew songs people never knew Hank wrote.  I knew about 50 songs of his by the time I was 15.  I used to sing in a Saloon right across from the Bronx Zoo.  It was called Armando’s.  I used to sing “Cold, Cold Heart”.  In fact, did you ever see the picture of me and Tony Bennett?  I was singing “Cold, Cold Heart” to him.  He had a hit with it and I was thinking, “this guy doesn’t sing it as good as me or Hank Williams”.  I love Tony Bennett…don’t get me wrong.  When it came down to that song, nobody sang it like Hank.  To me it wasn’t a pop record.  I was a new person that had very specific tastes. 

What was the first rock & roll record you bought?
Runaround Sue- 1961
The first rock and roll record might have been “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”.  Then probably “Long Tall Sally” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”…those kinds of songs.  They were right before I got into it.  I had my guitar and was doing Jimmy Reed stuff.  I loved the stuff that was happening.  Carl Perkins’ “Boppin’ The Blues”…wow.  Then you got Fats Domino…my God help me!  What I grew up to was “Shake Rattle & Roll” by Big Joe Turner.  I had this country blues thing going too.  It’s what I was listening to. 

Let’s talk about the Winter Dance Party from 1959.  Do you remember which tunes stuck out in your set?
I know we opened up with “All By Myself” by Fats Domino. 

You’ve sparked some controversy talking about those times.
People got to arguing with me on my Facebook page.  There’s a bunch of people that meet in Clear Lake, IA.  Year after year they tell each other stories and nobody’s asked me anything.  I was the only other guy in the room that lived...who tossed the coin with those guys.  I was the only guy that didn’t get on the plane that lived past February 3, 1959.  They’ve made movies, written plays, books, blogs, articles…nobody’s ever talked to me.  When the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame came to me and said “Dion, we’d like you to give us your account because nothing makes sense.  We went out to the 50th anniversary in Clear Lake, IA and nothing makes sense.” If as many people who have said they’ve flipped a coin with Buddy Holly was true, they’d need a 747.  They came down and took my account.  Last year, they played it out there and they went nuts.  They started accusing me of all kinds of stuff.  Why didn’t you do this and why didn’t you do that?  It’s crazy.  I don’t even know how to respond.  They were accusing me of coming up with a story.  I told this stuff 50 years ago.  When I was 19, I lost 3 friends.  I grew up in a little family in New York.  You grieved privately.  You didn’t capitalize on anybody’s death or exploit it.  You didn’t make a public big thing over it to make a name for yourself.  It was something you did privately.  They’ve always invited me out there but I’ve always found it distasteful...selling coins and frames.  I never went out there.  Now that I’ve got a computer, I’m dangerous.  I can talk.  Buddy Holly did charter a plane.  He was an extraordinary man.  I just did it for the archival, historical reason.  I really told the story accurately.  You know...what the contract was booked for.  And just what was going on the bus and where we broke down.   Buddy was extraordinary at 22.  You can understand that yourself…at 22 to charter to plane.  People today at 22 very rarely charter a plane.  He was taking flying lessons out of Teterboro Airport.  I was just learning how to hail a cab!  You know what I mean?  He come from Texas…very decisive, elegant, formal, very structured, deliberate, fearless business man kind of guy.  But on stage he was a free abandoned rock and roller.  The guy rocked out as well as anybody.  But off stage he had another persona.  He was every elegant, stately guy.  I remember him that way.
You're Not Alone- 1971

What has always struck me about this is that you’ve never had to use this story to make your career more popular.
I was busy trying to make him proud.  I had some conversations with Buddy.  He would say things like “I don’t know how to succeed but I know how to fail...try to please everybody” or “Make sure you’re doing what you want”.  If I didn’t have those conversations I probably never would have made “The Wanderer”, “Runaround Sue” or “Abraham, Martin and John”.  “The day the music died” never defined that day for me.  I call it the “day the music was born”.  Jesus says, “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it doesn’t bear fruit”.  I think the day Buddy Holly and those guys died bands popped up everywhere.  It was almost like it pollinated.  I always looked at it like trying to make him proud and carrying the music forward.  I never thought of capitalizing on it by winning a coin toss…which I did.  But when they told me $36…that was what my parents were paying for rent.  $36 was a lot of money back then.

What other guitar players from the 50’s do you remember?
Heroes- 2008
You had guys like Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent's lead guitarist) who nobody knows.  It’s why I did the Heroes album.  Your site to me champions what I was trying to do with Heroes with all the guys that played on the Everly Brothers tunes, James Burton, Scotty Moore and even the guys in Bill Haley’s band like Danny Cedrone and The Ventures.  They were off the charts these guys.  Link Wray was a sonic boom…or grunge. 

A couple of years ago you turned me on to the early rockabilly of the Burnette brothers (Johnny and Dorsey)with Paul Burleson in the Rock & Roll Trio.
Now, there you go.  That “Train Kept A Rollin” song they did…they belong in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame just because of that song.  Paul Burleson…are you kidding me?  I met those guys in Arizona.  I don’t know the name of the place.  It was like rock & roll upstairs and down in the bottom of the place there was another club with sawdust on the floor and they played cowboy music.  I went from doing my set and they were on the show.  Johnny Burnette was a cool guy.  He had a lot of hair and was just like a “dude”.  I remember getting along with him.  I told him I was going to go down there to do some Hank Williams tunes.  So I borrowed somebody’s guitar and I got up there and sang “Your Cheating Heart”, “Cold Cold Heart”, “Moaning The Blues”, “Hey Good Lookin”.   I would have went through his whole "Luke The Drifter" series but I was afraid they didn’t know it.  That’s what I remember about them.  They wrote “Believe What You Say” and played it for Ricky Nelson.  God, what a record that is.  When you listen to it, you think there’s a train in it or a buzz saw…I don’t know what the hell it is.  There’s stuff that happened on those records that when you did them live it was incredible. 

I knew of both Johnny and Dorsey’s solo songs but somehow the trio stuff just didn’t cross my path.  I realize now that I had heard some covers by others and didn’t realize it was them originally.  I regret not hearing it until a couple of years back.
photo courtesy of Dion DiMucci
You could do it now and you have the appreciation.  Probably like me…first time around I liked stuff.  But then all of the sudden I started to find all the little nuances in the stuff.  You go a little deeper with it.  When I first heard Jimmy Reed or Hank Williams I just loved it.  But who’s looking at all the little things in it?  I didn’t even know Jimmy Reed had harmonies with him.  It just had this feel.  Then you start listening to how the drum sounds.  It’s like “The Wanderer”.  I get asked by every drummer in every band…from Aerosmith to The Pretenders to The Rolling Stones…what was the drummer doing in “The Wanderer”.  I remember either it was Sticks Evans or Panama Francis.  I think it was Panama Francis.  We did Kansas City and he played a shuffle and I said “I got a song just like that and I want to do it cause we’re in the groove.  It’s in the key of D…same key and it’s a shuffle.”  He said “well I’ll reverse it and instead of doing a guitar solo let’s do a sax solo”.  That’s the way “The Wanderer” was done.  We just kicked it off.  People are saying “was he hitting the high hat underneath?”  “Was he doing this…was he doing that?”  Who the hell knows what he was doing?  He was a jazz drummer.  When they did simple stuff it came out great.  But yeah, he was hitting the high hat underneath.  It was like an upbeat thing.  Those things were just happening in the studio back then.  There was a lot of inspiration.  They could play with one stick tied behind their back.  They were from the Apollo.  They didn’t read music, they just played.  They didn’t know how to do it wrong.  They didn’t know how to do it any other way but the right way.  You give them a beat and they were right there.  It was just all intuitive.  The rest of it is all heart and feel.  That’s like all the records you got up there on your rockabilly site.  I love it.  To me, I love that site you put up.  It kind of looks like the music sounds.  It’s very exciting and brilliant and bright.  It captures it. 

photo courtesy of Dion DiMucci
Let’s talk about this new album Tank Full Of Blues (available January 24th, 2012).  What made you decide to do another blues album now?
I was talking to a friend of mine, Jay Sieleman, who runs the Blues Foundation.  He was talking about how blues is so guitar driven, which it should be.  A lot of people toss the words off and not pay attention to it too much.  It’s not like Robert Johnson and his brilliant lyrics.  I recorded Bronx In Blue and Son Of Skip James and I’m going to do the trilogy and complete it.  I’m going to show people who I am.  I did songs from the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s on the first 2.  I started writing blues songs and unbelievable songs started coming out of me.  I wrote lines that when I wrote them I thought, “how come nobody wrote these before?”

I got a tank full of blues and I’m out at the break of dawn
I got my guitar in the back with a new set of strings on
I got a woman who really wants me and another who wants me gone

That should have been written a long time ago.  I continually ran into lines like that.  I wrote a song called “My Baby’s Cryin” and I’m wondering how come nobody ever wrote this song?  

My baby’s crying, I think it’s something that I said
I wasn’t really thinking it just shot off the top of my dumb head
I should have shut my mouth, I’ve got to learn to think before I talk
I’m like a little baby, I’ve got to learn to crawl before I walk

Every song’s like that.  I wrote a song on this album called “Ride’s Blues”.  I got this vision of me driving Robert Johnson to the Crossroads because he was looking for a ride from the Crossroads.  He went down to the crossroads, fell down on his knees and asked the Lord above “have mercy, save poor Bob if you please”.  He tried to flag a ride.  “I went down to the crossroads/tried to flag a ride/ nobody seemed to know me…”.  But I drove him from town to the crossroads.  I have this whole conversation with him.

Robert Johnson painting by Dion DiMucci
Hitcher on the back road 
man with his guitar
Said take me to the Crossroads
The Crossroads ain’t that far
Said he come up from the Delta said he liked my car
He told me on the way there he was born in sin
I said I ride that road yeah I know just where you been
I don’t know where I’m heading he said
I can’t go back again
You tell me what you got now
I tell you what you lost
Tell me what you bought now
I’ll tell you what it cost
Look out of your window it’s gone like morning frost

It goes on and what he told me and what people back in town are saying about him.  It’s a narrative but to me I feel like I painted a masterpiece.  I got this other one “I Read It (In The Rolling Stone)”…

Well I’ve been shaking down the newsstand for a word to ease my soul
Pleading with the newsman I need a read to rock my roll
Nights are hard but I know I’m not alone
Hey, I know it’s true I read it in the Rolling Stone

It’s kind of a tribute to Rolling Stone.  It’s been around for so long.  I really wrote a blues album that leans heavily on lyrics and feel.  It’s a little different.

After listening to this project, I understand why you say you feel more relevant now than you ever have!
Bronx In Blue- 2006
I know.  That’s an important thing right there.  It's what I was telling you about Jay Sieleman wanting to concentrate a little more on the lyrics.  Dave Marsh said to me “you’re the only guy from the 50’s that’s remained relevant and creative”.  With both of those guys giving me that direction…yeah I want to show people who I am.  The 3rd album should be me...who I am in this form of music.  I did it with the bass, drums and 2 guitars.  Actually, I played all the guitars because I couldn’t get somebody to play what I was hearing.

Looking over the years you keep reinventing yourself with doo-wop, rock, blues, folk, gospel, back to rock, back to blues again, etc.  What is your secret to continually reinventing yourself and staying relevant?
I hate to sound trite but I think it’s having God in your life.  Without God in your life, people die very broken.  Or they could have God in their life, but they don’t appropriate His power in their life.

Do you have some dates coming up in 2012?
I do plan on working.  I got the Blues Cruise January 22-29 (http://www.maltshopcruise.com),
“The Cutting Room” in New York on February 18th and 92Y on February 19th (http://www.92y.org/Uptown/Event/An-Evening-with-Dion.aspx)

"Runaround Sue" 

"The Wanderer"

"Ruby Baby"

"Donna The Prima Donna"

"Written On The Subway Wall"

"Written On The Subway Wall" live

"Ride's Blues"