The first album I ever bought with my own money was Presenting Dion and the Belmonts (Laurie LLP 1002). In faded red ink from a rubber stamp, you can barely make out the name of the store at which I bought it, Steinway Sports & Records in Astoria, Queens. As its name suggested, it sold athletic equipment (basketballs, baseball gloves) on one side of the store, and singles and LPs on the other side. Everything the 11 year old me loved in one store front. If I had been older (say, 12), I might have dropped out of school to work there, just for the employee discount.
It was a great choice for an album, because Dion and the Belmonts, from the other side of the Triboro Bridge in the Bronx, were an exceptionally versatile group blessed with the-then unappreciated musical intelligence of its leader, Dion DiMucci. Instead of just one hit single and the rest filler, as most albums were circa 1959, Presenting was a sure thing because it contained five top 40 hit singles: the explosive street corner doo-wop “I Wonder Why,” which introduced Dion and the Belmonts with a bass-to-falsetto bang in 1958; the classic Rodgers and Hart ballad “Where or When” (updated from the 1937 musical “Babes in Arms”), Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “A Teenager in Love,” and two songs of teenage angst, “No One Knows” and “Don’t Pity Me,” which sounded blue to me.
And the filler wasn’t bad: “You Better Not Do That,” a 1954 country hit for Tommy Collins, verified Dion’s long stated fondness for country music: Collins’ version is as down home and twangy as country music could get in the 1950s, which was pretty twangy indeed. [Version with Buck Owens here]
Then there was “I Got the Blues.” Dick Clark writes in the liner notes that “I Got the Blues” is “a lowdown bluesy number on which Dion ‘growls out’ a lover’s lament.” (Why Clark put “growls out” in quotations remains a mystery.)
This blues “growler” was written by Ernie Maresca, who wrote or co-wrote the swaggering hits “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” that would establish Dion’s career as possibly the most significant solo rocker after Elvis and BTB (Before the Beatles). That run of hits from 1960 – 1963 also included Dion putting his own stamp on Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby,” a 1956 R&B hit for the Drifters.
So Blues With Friends is nothing new for Dion, who will be 81 in July. The most remarkable thing is the facility of his singing, the groove and tone not sounding a day over 65, about the age Dion was when he recorded the first of three 21st century blues albums. The other is that it is entirely self-written, most of the songs co-written with Dion’s longtime collaborator Mike Aquilina, a prolific Catholic historian and theologian. Aquilina co-wrote the 2011 autobiographical Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth, which details the singer’s fierce embrace of his Catholic roots. Most of the songs on 2012’s Tank Full of Blues were also DiMucci-Aquilina originals.
They make a good team on Blues With Friends, which drew immediate attention (as this is written, it is No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart), because of the guitar rock hall of famers and sterling newcomers who populate the record at Dion’s invitation. There’s Joe Bonamassa, with a crisp and concise power surge, on “Blues Comin’ On.” Bonamassa and his manager Roy Weisman started the label that released the Dion album, Keeping the Blues Alive Records. Other ace guest shots include Billy Gibbons’ topspin on “Bam Bang Boom,” and “Can’t Start Over Again,” a kind of soul ballad somewhere between Delbert McClinton and Percy Sledge, featuring Jeff Beck.
There is outstanding slide guitar on a few tracks: “Told You Once in August” succeeds so well at evoking an Appalachian feel that you forget that it’s a new song, and not from the ghost holler repertory of obscure 78 RPMs. The slide playing features John Hammond coming through one speaker, Rory Block the other.
“I Got the Cure,” featuring the slide guitar of Sonny Landreth, has some of that old school Dion swagger. Both the playing and writing show real discipline. When Dion sings “I’m the drug you need,” he’s taking on the machismo pose that made him king of the New York streets. With more than 50 years of sobriety, tapes and CDs of Dion’s spiritual talks are valued in the recovery community, and it would be easy for “I Got the Cure” to wander into an ode to the almighty. But you admire Dion’s subtlety in letting the listener choose how to interpret the disease and the cure, and he keeps it real by sticking with the language of the blues.
There is a direct line to heaven for the last song, “Hymn to Him,” with Patti Scialfa singing and Bruce Springsteen on guitar. It’s a new version of a song Dion recorded on his 1987 gospel album, Velvet and Steel. “Uptown No. 7,” with a flashy Brian Setzer on guitar, is in the train’s-bound-for-glory subgenre, and it is absolutely fitting that even after all these years Dion has lived in South Florida, the “train bound for heaven” is a subway.
“Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)” also stands alone from the all-star blues package. Paul Simon sings harmony on this unexpectedly timely song about Dion being on the road on a touring package with Cooke in 1962, both at a peak of stardom. Dion, who was seeing the world but not yet experiencing it, was not ready for the hostility that would greet them, the sting of segregation, when the tour hit the South, in Memphis. They could not have a meal together in a restaurant, or stay in the same hotels. “The places I could stay/they all made you walk away,” he sings.
Most of the guest star turns were done remotely, built by co-producer Wayne Hood around Dion’s voice and guitar. According to Hood, Dion sent polite emails to a number of musicians he thought would be right for the album. “People wrote back the sweetest emails saying what an honor it was to be asked to play on a Dion album,” Hood said in an exchange on Facebook Messenger. “It was crazy exciting! Dion would email the guest artist an mp3 of the song with a bit of backstory. Most of the songs were pretty much worked out arrangement-wise, with a full rhythm track. There was never any real guidance or suggestions as to what to play or sing. It was just, ‘play something cool and take a solo at 2:43.’” It plainly helped that Hood is also a versatile musician, who played guitars, pass, electric piano, Hammond organ and drums.
Some artists did multiple versions of their work. “Sometimes I’d might get 10 or more audio tracks for me to sync up to the main session,” Hood said. “It was never a problem getting the new, overdubbed tracks to line up. All the engineers were real pros and made it easy. Since the tracks I sent were Dion’s ‘keeper’ vocals and acoustic guitar the artists were listening to…his phrasings and dynamics, is one of the things that made this album so exciting.”
Even Bob Dylan chipped in with liner notes. They’re both amusing and imbued with idiosyncratic truth that Dylan so often conveys in his prose: “You have to be careful with the blues. They’re strong with lust and you can overpay for them, but they quote the law…. 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.”
Dylan calls it like you hear it. All these “luminaries” add their own little garnish, but the main course is still the power, the distinctiveness, and flow of Dion’s voice. At nearly 81, its power remains undiminished. He’s got the heart of a Saturday night, and the soul of Sunday morning.