Dion on Stomping Ground and Staying Curious

Six decades on, the Rock Hall of Famer has plenty to be grateful for

Music Features Dion
Dion on Stomping Ground and Staying Curious

Singing a cappella doo-wop on neighborhood street corners in the 1950s may seem like it ran on a rigid schedule, admits Bronx-born Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci. And that was where the soulful artist got his start, leading to a record contract with three other similarly schooled Italian Americans as Dion and The Belmonts by 1957, then a lucrative solo career as just Dion that kicked off in 1960 with smash hits like “Lonely Teenager,” “The Wanderer” and his signature anthem “Runaround Sue.” But there was no synchronization of vocalist watches, no pre-selected intersection where the kids would meet, no rhyme or reason to the undertaking at all. “It was never organized, and wasn’t disciplined or formally structured, either,” chuckles the singer, who—at 82—is experiencing a long-overdue renaissance with two comeback albums, last year’s aptly titled Blues With Friends (boasting cameos from industry peers and longtime fans Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Brian Setzer, and Miami Steve Van Zandt) and its rapid-fire, pandemic-sculpted follow-up Stomping Ground, released Nov. 19. On those fabled New York street corners, he adds, “We sang when there were enough guys there, and who was there didn’t really matter, but you’d bang on cardboard boxes and cans. It was that kind of thing, very spontaneous.”

The kid learned his chops well. And his voice—after adapting to the folk-tempered late ’60s with “Abraham, Martin and John,” then segueing into a passing Christian phase in the ’80s—still rocked with such hallmark fervor on Blues that even more luminaries chimed in on Dion’s latest, including Billy Gibbons, G.E. Smith, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, and—on the skeletal Gothic processional “Angel in the Alleyways”—his old friend Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa. Winning brownie points with his wife, he also included her all-time favorite artist Boz Scaggs on “I’ve Got To Get To You,” alongside returning axeman Bonamassa. Now, he jokes, he gets respect around his Florida homestead, as well as in the entire music industry. Nice work, if you can get it, he chuckles. Because he discovered the peculiar ins and outs of rock stardom right after his doo-wop days, unfortunately.

When Dion and The Belmonts actually started to happen, scheduling was no longer a problem—it was virtually impossible. “I thought people were motivated like I was motivated, you know?” he asks, rhetorically. “So you want to meet at a certain time, but it became unbearable.” Certain members wouldn’t materialize, he says—they were home sleeping instead, or off somewhere else and unavailable—a disparity that led to only Dion securing a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction from Lou Reed in 1989, and not The Belmonts. But maintaining the short-lived quartet, he recalls, “was grueling, and it wasn’t fun. So I was like, ‘I am outta here!’ And then people start blaming you, like, ‘You left the group!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah! You bet I left the group!’” Now he’s still just Dion, and he’s finally beginning to count all the remarkable friends he’s amassed over his remarkable six-decade career and feel nothing but gratitude. He runs down more reasons to be cheerful in this recent frank, hourlong interview with Paste.

Paste: I have to say, you’ve got one of the greatest rock and roll voices, ever. And just the soulful swing you put into every syllable of, say, “Runaround Sue” is totally unique. How did you understand soul at such a young age?

Dion: I think I had a natural affinity with Jimmy Reed, so I think if it wasn’t for Jimmy Reed, I never would have ended up at “Runaround Sue.” “Runaround Sue” is probably a cleverly disguised blues song. Because even Little Richard’s mother said I had that thing—she used to tell me, “You know, you’ve got soul, son—you can groove and you know how to really get into a song.” She actually used to tell me that. So I don’t know—I just had a natural affinity. I’m a rhythm singer. And I make a distinction between people who have voices and singers. Like Johnny Cash—he talks notes. Or Ricky Nelson—they just talked notes. But I’m a rhythm singer. Billy Gibbons told me once, “You know, every syllable you sing is in the right place.” And I talked to Van Morrison about this, too—we both loved horn players, you know? And we almost wanted to sing like a horn, like a saxophone, you know? So I think that had something to do with it. I just had a natural affinity for it.

Paste: Willy “Mink“ DeVille once told me that the saxophone was the most rock and roll instrument ever invented.

Dion: Well, back in the day, that was like a party—you couldn’t have a party song without a sax. And I don’t know how this happens, but when I did Blues With Friends, Joe Bonamassa was the first guy to get onboard—he said, “I like that song ‘Blues Coming On’—I’d like to play on it.” So it was like six solos that he did, and I didn’t tell him what to play, I didn’t give him a clue. And in fact, I wasn’t even hearing a slide guitar. I just told him to contribute what he was hearing, because he’s a great artist. So you tell people like this, “Just play”—why tell ’em what to play? You might as well go get somebody else if you’re gonna tell ’em what to do. But when I listened back to it, his solos? One solo reminded me of the Apollo Theater band—it was almost like hearing a group of saxes, you know? The sax section. And then one solo sounds like John Coltrane, and the other sounds like Miles Davis, because he’s playing slide. So I don’t know what he’s doing or who he listens to—I didn’t really get into it with him and talk to him about it. But a lot of it sounds like saxes to me, you know? It’s crazy. I hear them, but I guess it’s just the way I hear stuff.

Paste: Speaking of guitarists, did you know Jeff Beck for a long time? And if not, how do you go about getting in contact with Jeff Beck when you need him?

Dion: Well, that I didn’t know how to do. I mean, I know Jeff Beck, and I knew him from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And Beck’s a funny character, because when he walks in the room, every guitar player stands at attention—he’s really got just gold in his hands, you know? And I just always admired the way he played—he never ceased to amaze me when he played. So when Joe Bonamassa played on that one song, I started thinking, “This would be great if I could just get Brian Setzer to play on this one track that has a rockabilly feel. And this one is a ballad, so Jeff Beck is the only guitar player who can make me cry.” Because he does that “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s aria, and it’s so good—he just has a way with that instrument, and I thought, “He’d be the guy to play on this ballad.” So I tried, you know? I just asked. And I was really amazed that 99% of the people just said, “Yeah!”

Paste: Who’s the most surprising fan that popped up along the way? Like, “You dug my stuff? Really?”

Dion: Well, I never really sat down with Eric Clapton. But on the new record, I did a song with Eric Clapton. And he told me, “Dion, you were part of my music wakeup!” That’s the way he said it, that I was a part of his music wakeup, along with Muddy, Big Bill Broonzy, and some others he mentioned. And he said to me, “You know, I’ve been a blessed man. I had the opportunity to pay honor and homage to Robert Johnson and a few of my real heroes, and I got to play with most of the legends, like B.B. King. And now you’re asking me to play, too? I would love to!” And I wasn’t in England, so I sent him the song, and when he sent it back to me I called him and said, “Eric—you sound like you’re 19 years old on this thing!” And he said, “Dion—I wanted to do a good job. So I stood up. I stood up in the studio and played like I was playing for 20,000 people.” And I said, “Thank you.” So we had a few conversations, and we both really have a lot in common, especially with being clean and sober mega-years. I’ve been clean and sober for 54 years. And I always say, “You know, I thought getting older would take longer.” But you turn around, and there you are! And this was the way it hit me. One day, I got a cup of coffee, and I had my shorts on, and I sit down at the kitchen table and I put my legs up on the chair in front of me. And I said, “What the fuck? Whose legs are those? What the fuck happened?”

Paste: If you don’t mind me asking, aside from certain jazz musicians and, say, Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, you didn’t hear a lot about heroin back in the ’50s and ’60s. It seems like a drug you never should have discovered as a kid.

Dion: Well, if you wanna know, everything was taboo back then, even pot. I remember hearing horror stories about Gene Krupa—he lost everything because he smoked one marijuana cigarette, you know? And now it’s like “Ho-hum”—now it’s nothing, it’s just a plant, a God-given plant. But I’ll tell you the truth—I don’t care what people say. To me, it’s all unnecessary. It’s really unnecessary. Period. It’s a problem. But I dunno—you just pick it up one day. And it’s an emotional thing, somewhere in the emotions. Like, my father—he never grew, emotionally. He was like an emotional 13-year-old. He had wonderful qualities—he was an artistic guy, athletic, he could swim forever. He just had great qualities, he was my hero. But emotionally, he was a 13-year-old, and I think a lot of guys who use drugs, they don’t grow emotionally, and if you don’t grow emotionally, you’ll be like a 70-year-old guy looking for 18-year-old girls—you just don’t grow. So that’s my thing—I had to grow emotionally.

Paste: How did you accomplish that?

Dion: Well, you’ve gotta make a decision to be responsible. And I would say that the professionals say this—not me, because I couldn’t put my finger on it—but the professionals say that mental illness and all that kind of stuff … because I never knew what was wrong with my father, but if I look at it, he avoided the area of problem solving at any cost. The pain and trouble that it takes to solve problems and be responsible, he avoided at any cost. He just wanted to be taken care of. And I think in a lot of ways, most people come into the program like that, into these 12-step programs. We’re all immature. So I just had to start developing, start being responsible, little by little. But I didn’t want an exaggerated sense of my own responsibility and start trying to solve things I couldn’t solve, and that’s another problem. But it was important just to show up and do some of the work, you know? But I had great sponsorship, great mentors. I don’t wanna talk like I’m in AA, but I had great mentors in my life. And the first thing a guy told me when I was in my 20s was ‘Love is not a feeling.’ And I didn’t know what love was—I swear to you—and he asked me to define it. And I said, “It feels great when you look at somebody.” And he said, “No! Love is not a feeling—it’s an action, it’s a choice, it’s an act of your will. You choose to love somebody.” And if he didn’t tell me that, I don’t think I’d be married today. I’ve been married for almost 58 years. If he didn’t tell me that, I wouldn’t have known what it was, because I didn’t get it—I was a very selfish, self-centered kind of guy when I was using. And this mentor got me into reading St. Thomas Aquinas, and I’ll say it in the best way I know how to say it, like in the Bronx, because I’m not a scholar or an academic. But he said that if you don’t have God in your life, you’ve got to fill your life with something, so you fill it with the four great temptations, temptations or addictions. There’s Wealth, Pleasure—sex, drugs, rock and roll, whatever, pleasure—and you wanna stay perpetually being pleasured, because who the hell wants the other stuff? It’s fun! It feels good! So it’s also Power and Honor—you wanna be right, you wanna win, you wanna be better, you want good things said about you. And the Power? You just look at the politicians today. These things are like narcotics! Just watch the California housewives or New York housewives shows—women jockeying for position, like, “Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know what I have? I’m better than you! I never lie, because I’m the most honest!” It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit. That’s what he says. But when you find God, when you have that spiritual awakening, God shapes your desire for these things. They are not bad, and we’re not Puritans. And when I was doing it, it was disastrous. And I thought that was interesting—that was like the program in a nutshell.

Paste: How did you reincorporate Catholicism back into your life after lapsing?

Dion: I was never really Catholic. I read myself into the church after years. I had this question, like, “What is truth? And who has the authority to define it?” Because we live in America, where it’s like, “Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do? Thank you, but I’ll think for myself.” I’m like that. I’m a rock and roller. But is there such a thing? “The truth will set you free.” But what is it? I wanted to know. So I kept reading, and I read myself right into the church. And I thought it was kind of crazy-cool, because there was a guy in the program who always said, “I like to listen to the first 100 rather than the last 100.” Like, the first 100 guys that started the program, the source, because you get more of a potent source of the program. So I always thought like that myself—if you wanna know about the blues, you listen to the early fathers, like Robert Johnson and Skip James and Son House and Fred McDowell. You listen to their intention, and it’s a good start, you know? It gets your roots in the right place. And then if you wanna know about the country? You listen to the founding fathers—they created it, they actually invented liberty. So what did they believe? Why were they so adamant, to where they put their families’ lives on the line to create this individual freedom? Same thing with the church—what did the guys in the first 300 years believe? The guys that were martyred? Were they crazy? Were they superstitious? Because I thought religion was a bunch of poppycock—to me, it was a joke. But then I started reading why these guys laid their lives on the line, and I said, “This is not bad stuff! This is potent!” And I started seeing a beauty, a truth, a goodness, a strength that was a higher reality, a divine reality that was above what I was thinking. And I think that’s why I have a degree of sanity about me, because I’ve always stayed with the founding fathers of everything, including the early Apostolic fathers of the church. I go to the source, and I like that, because then you can go from there, you know?

Paste: I’m sure you saw the film The Wanderers, or read the book. What did you think of it?

Dion: Well, Richard Price, who wrote it, was a friend of mine, and he’d come from outside the neighborhood. And you would think the Fordham Baldies all had bald heads [as the gang was depicted in the film], but they didn’t. I belonged to the Fordham Baldies, and we named ourselves after the American bald eagle—it had nothing to do with being bald. Who is gonna be walking around with a bald head in the ’50s? What are you, nuts?

Paste: Was there a real Ducky Boys? Those inbred-looking guys were scary as fuck!

Dion: No, there wasn’t a Ducky Boys. That was his imagination. But there were some scary gangs. There were the Harlem Redwings, the Young Sinners, the Fordham Baggers, the Imperial Hoods. There were all these gangs when I grew up, from little different neighborhoods. But the Redwings were the Puerto Ricans from that part of town, and Paul Simon wrote about the Cape Man, and he was one of the Redwings. And Richard Price didn’t grow up in my neighborhood—he grew up in an adjacent, more wealthy neighborhood, where there were houses, not tenement buildings. It was like in Pelham Parkway, so he kind of understood it from a distance.

Paste: I always loved Walter Hill’s updating of that New York gangs concept, The Warriors.

Dion: I like that movie! That was a good movie. But I think the one that was more accurate was Blackboard Jungle. That film was much more accurate. And [its star, teen villain] Vic Morrow—now that guy had a weird ending to his life [killed by a helicopter rotor on the set of the Twilight Zone movie in 1982]. That was really strange.

Paste: Have you ever had a close brush with death? Where you thought your time might be up?

Dion: You know, that’s why I have this song called “Angel in the Alleyways” on the new album. I was talking to Bruce and Patty, and I said, “Yeah, I just feel like I’ve had an angel guiding me on some higher reality.” Although if I did have a guardian angel, he’d be pulling his hair out for sure. But I definitely feel like I’m known, do you know what I mean? Like I’m not alone, I’m known from a higher reality, like there are people leaning over the balcony of heaven cheering me on and praying for me, in spite of my bullshit. In spite of me not getting everything perfect. I mean, what can I tell you? I couldn’t plan this if I tried!

Paste: Like if they pulled you aside as a kid starting out and said, “Guess what you’ll be doing in the year 2021, after a deadly worldwide pandemic? Making not one, but two new star-studded albums!” You would not have dared to believe it.

Dion: Yeah! Exactly! When I got clean and sober in 1968, my father-in-law told me, “Dion, you’ve got all the time in the world when you’re sober. But your time gets short when you’re drinkin’ and druggin’.” And the way he told me, I believed him. But exactly what you just said is like the playing out of what he said—just seeing it. Seeing it come to fruition. But I’m glad I lived this long, because I’m starting to feel really embraced by the musical community. I always felt a part of it in some loose, general way. But now I’m actually feeling totally freakin’ loved and embraced by it, and it’s an incredible feeling. I was telling my engineer—because he and his wife love Rickie Lee Jones, and all the people we’re working with are always talking about her—that I wanted to get her for a song like “I’ve Been Watching,” which is kind of a quirky love song. So I said, “Let’s ask Rickie Lee.” And this is one of those stories like what you were saying, when people respond to you in a cool way. When I phoned her, she said, “Dion, I’m so glad you called me, because Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker, they love your album Blues With Friends, and they were just telling me about it the other day. And now here you are, calling me? I used to dance in the kitchen to ‘The Wanderer’ with my mother and my sister, and we danced to ‘Runaround Sue.’ So I would say yes to you, and I haven’t even heard the song! I already wanna do it!” So it was really cool, recording that with her.

Paste: You’ve known Bruce Springsteen for ages, and he’s famous for helping out his longtime idols, like Gary “U.S” Bonds. How and when did you guys first meet?

Dion: Well, it was through Steven very early on, Little Steven. Steven played with my band, and I met him in the early ’70s in Vegas. He was working with the Dovells, and I loved the way he played, so I said, “Why don’t you play with me?” So we did some shows together, and he was always like, “You like Robert Johnson?” I mean, we weren’t even talking about Robert Johnson in Las Vegas in the ’70s, but we’d both be playing blues backstage. So I met Bruce through Steven, and then I met Patti through Bruce. And I just love the way she sings. I have no vibrato at all, but she has a beautiful, soulful kind of quaver, and I just love the way I sound with her. And there are some things I don’t like around me—I’m a little weird that way. Like piano—it’s an unforgiving instrument to me, and I’d rather hear a Rhodes. Not that I don’t use piano, but for the most part, there are just certain sounds that I identify with. But man, I’ll tell you—Bruce and Patti were so amazing to me, and this is another one of those just feel-good stories.

I sent her the song and she really liked it, but I sent it to her, just me and guitar, and I said, “I want to keep it real plain, so you could hear where I’m breathing. And if you wanna do harmony with me, you’ll know exactly what I’m saying and on what note. I don’t wanna give you anything cluttered.” And she said, “Do you have any bass or drums on it or anything?” I said, “I haven’t put anything on it yet—I wanted you to hear it very raw.” And that was the only track on this album that I sent out that way—most of ’em were completed when I sent ’em out, because I wanted people to know what they were playing to. So she sent me back 64 tracks! My whole career isn’t 64 tracks! So when I talked to Bruce, he said, “Dion, Patti loves the song, and she had me in there and I did some tremolo guitar, I did some harp. But everything you hear on that song, that whole arrangement, is Patti’s production. She just got into it!” She layered her vocals, and every verse is like a different production, every verse is different, the way she did it. And if people do stuff like this for you, it really makes you feel ultra-good. And you say, “Wow! They didn’t just phone it in!” They didn’t take it lightly at all, and really gave me a lot of their time, and it really makes you feel loved.

Paste: What have you learned from Bruce over the years? He’s easily one of the best songwriters in the world.

Dion: Well, you know, Bruce is an interesting guy. He’s a real good example of … you know, I come from an era where a lot of great musicians and rock and rollers died. Like Presley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson—I could go on and on. And they traveled more than other people, they were in different situations more than other people, and sometimes there are just no models to look at. So how do you grow old and do this stuff? How do you age? What do you do as a great musician? So I started with Hank Williams, and he died real young. I was like 12 years old and a Hank Williams fanatic, and he died. It was the most important thing in the world to me to collect his records and learn them. And I was learning how to live. But Bruce is a guy who has really embraced that role, because he never repeats himself, and he’s very creative and always taking chances, like doing Broadway. Or doing Western Stars, or writing a book like the one he wrote—it’s almost like the confessions of Augustine, you know? And it’s attractive to see that his curiosity for the arts and growing and developing and maturing and evolving, it just keeps on. So it’s interesting to really look at, because he’s a great role model.

Paste: One of the coolest artists I ever met was Lou Reed. It must have been awesome to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by him.

Dion: Oh, Lou was great. He was just genuine. I mean, he liked to push people’s buttons, but when he came along, I guess everything had been rebelled against already, so he had to make up stuff. He had to go outside the boundaries. But he didn’t do it just to bother people—he liked to stir the pot to see what was real and what would stand up, who was genuine, who was authentic, who was full of shit. That’s the way he was. But when you were around him, he was a warm guy. He was nothing like his image.

Paste: I’ll share my quick story about him with you, then. When I first talked to him by phone in the mid-’80s, he mentioned Delmore Schwartz, and—unpretentious Midwesterner I am—I asked him, “Who’s Delmore Schwartz?” And instead of sighing in who’s this-idiot disgust, he stopped the interview to explain him to me and how he’d studied under him at Syracuse, and how influential his writing had been. I went out the next day to City Lights in San Francisco and bought one of his books. A few years later, in 1989, when I interviewed Lou in person over lunch in L.A. for his New York album, I brought him a stack of French surrealist books I was reading at the time, and I thanked him for being so kind to me earlier. I asked him why he went into such elaborate detail, and I think he was eating a celery stalk at the time, and he paused, mid-bite, and replied, simply, “I could tell that you were curious.” And that came to symbolize what I do and why I do it. Curiosity should be the motivating factor for all of us, I think.

Dion: Man, that is a great quality—to not lose your curiosity about life. It’s so beautiful and deep and wide and rich, and there’s so much to know. So to just sit back and get cynical and get stuck, and not ask yourself questions? It’s a crazy way to live to me. It’s not attractive. Curiosity? You hit it, you really hit it. Curiosity is just such a cool thing and that should never die.

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