“Singing a New Song”: A Conversation with Rock-n-Roll Hall-of-Famer, DION

Dion DiMucci June 17, 2011

“After all, who could be hipper than Dion?” With that question, Lou Reed inducted his fellow New Yorker into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Dion (his unspoken last name is DiMucci) was one of the early rockers, making his debut on the charts at age eighteen in 1957. He was still charting in the late 60s. His hits are standards in period films and on oldies stations: “Teenager in Love,” “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” “Ruby Baby,” and “Abraham, Martin, and John.” He’s one of two U.S. pop stars to appear on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Bob Dylan is the other.) The difference between Dion and his contemporaries is that he’s still making new music today. His album, Blues with Friends, was Billboard’s number 1 disc for the year 2020. At press-time, his follow up, Stomping Ground, seems on track to similar success. The recent albums include collaborations with Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, and other notables. Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend wrote liner notes and praised the music inside. In this interview, Literary Matters’ Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Wilson, endeavors to answer Lou Reed’s question and get to the heart of Dion’s hipness.

RW: Your voice has been praised — by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed — as the authentic voice of rock and roll. Your rhythm, your effects, and your attitude arrived in 1957 as something astonishingly new. Where did you get it all? What were the elements that went into that voice?

DION: The sounds inside your head are shaped by the sounds coming in from outside. The mix and the proportions are up to God. What I made of them, I guess, was up to me.

I grew up in Belmont, the Little Italy of the Bronx, and life was full of music. Opera was everywhere. My grandfather listened to it, and so did my uncles. Enrico Caruso had been dead for a generation, but he was alive in my extended family. The men had these old black 78s they’d spin on the victrola, and the kids would have to stop running around the room. I remember getting chills hearing Caruso sing “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Puccini’s Turandot.

My father also filled our little Bronx apartment with Louis Prima, Al Jolson, and Burl Ives.

There was music everywhere outdoors, too.  I remember walking by a synagogue one Saturday in the summer, and the windows were open, and I could hear the cantor singing inside at the top of his lungs. His delivery was so exotic and so haunting that it stopped me in my tracks. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I stood there outside in the heat, soaking it in, wondering how I could do what that guy was doing. It was that sound I was trying to capture in the opening phrases of “Born to Cry,” a song that charted for me in 1962.

The radio brought a lot of good music into my life. I was influenced by Jimmy Reed and all the black doo-wop groups. But it was hearing Hank Williams that changed my life — his commitment to the lyric — the way he would bite into the words and rip them off at the end. I wanted to communicate like that. I wanted to live the life he sang in his “Luke the Drifter” series.

So that’s what my ears were taking in. It was all the Bronx, though the Bronx opened out onto a wide world. And what was true in 1957 is still true today. My latest album is titled Stomping Ground, and that’s what it’s all about. The neighborhood is the sound I’m trying to capture.

I suspect that’s what Dylan and Springsteen and Lou were talking about when they talked about my music. It’s the sound of my streets and my home amplified through my voice and my guitar.

RW: You were writing music when you were a teenager. What did you value in a lyric at the time?

DION: Definitely the sound of the words. They had to feel right coming out of my mouth when I was singing them. The meaning wasn’t as important as the sound.

These were the years when we were inventing doo-wop.  We sang harmony on the street corners. On Friday and Saturday nights we’d take the train to Harlem and go to the shows at the Apollo Theater. Afterward, on the ride home, we’d try to use our voices to imitate the various instruments. We’d come up with nonsense syllables to catch the sound — one guy going “din din din” for the bass, and another guy wailing “ooh ooh oh ooh” for the trumpet, another guy going “wawa wawa” for the sax. You get the idea. It wasn’t words. It didn’t need to make sense. But it felt right coming out of your mouth, and of course you always needed the rock rhythm. Put it all together, and it was so sweet on the ear when you heard it. The sound was everything.

That was the foundation of doo-wop. Maybe there was a top layer of love song, but all the filler and all the harmonies were made up of that kind of sound.

There was an art to it. We were precise about it. I remember when I was writing “Runaround Sue” with Ernie Maresca, I wrote the nonsense syllables out on big sheets for the singers to read: “Hape hape bum da hey de hey de.” Every vowel and every consonant had to be just right, or you lost the effect.

RW: But sound wasn’t everything in those songs. The lyrics were clever. You were going for something more.

DION: You’re right about that. Sound was primary, but it wasn’t everything. The first song I ever wrote was “Born to Cry.” I wrote it when I was fifteen, and it was an anthem of teen angst. “There’s so much evil round us, I feel that I could die / And I know, yeah, that I was born to cry … The things I like and wanna have I can’t even buy. / But I know, yeah, that I was born to cry.” In my teenage way, I was aiming for self-expression.

So were my contemporaries. Some critics act as if social commentary was invented in the Sixties, but it was going on in the Fifties, sometimes very subtly. Rage is great, but it’s not the only kind of expression.

What I wanted to do back then was take people on a trip. My own home life was a mess. My parents yelled at each other all the time. When they wanted to take a break from their argument, they’d yell at me and my sisters. Music took me away from all that. It made my problems go away. In a song you can present a problem in the first verse and solve it by the third. Now, wasn’t that easy? At a very early age, I found that I could do that for people. I could sing, and it would take them away from their troubles.

RW: In your childhood, radio was emerging as a medium primarily for music. How did that affect your creative development? What were the other major factors?

DION: Radio was like magic to me. I’d turn the dial and hear music I could never hear otherwise. I tuned in a station from Wheeling, West Virginia, that broadcast the blues. Man, it was like a religious experience.

After school, I’d run home to catch the last half-hour of the “Don Larkin Country Show” coming out of Newark. That’s where I discovered Hank Williams, who became my hero and role model. I couldn’t believe the things he was doing with his voice. My uncles would sing Italian songs, and they’d give everything this tremolo effect I couldn’t stand. But Hank Williams would squeak and squawk and yodel, and I’d sit there laughing like a crazy kid — laughing with delight.

As soon as the show was over, I’d rush downstairs to the front stoop to sing “Honky-Tonk Blues” and “Jambalaya.” My friends would ask me, “What’s that all about? What’s a honky-tonk? What’s jambalaya?” I had no idea, but they sure sounded good coming out of my mouth. I got a reputation in the neighborhood as the “Bronx Hillbilly.”

Radio was my introduction to the great big world. Nothing on earth moved me like country and the blues. Nothing could have given me a better preparation for the coming of rock and roll.

RW: In memoirs and interviews you’ve mentioned a number of influences in your development as a songwriter: Hank Williams, of course, but also Doc Pomus, Roy Orbison, Carole King. What did they teach you?

DION: Doc Pomus was like a second father to me. My own father was a piece of work. I loved him, but I didn’t want to be like him. In all his life he never had a real job. He never filled out an income-tax form because he never earned enough money for it to matter. I wanted to work hard and succeed at something that mattered, something important. Success came for me when I was seventeen and I signed a big recording contract. At the time, Doc was half of the hottest new songwriting team in the business: Pomus-Shuman. I knew I had arrived when my label hired them to write me a hit.

Pomus-Shuman wrote many of the signature songs of the era. “Save The Last Dance For Me,” “This Magic Moment” — when you think of the Fifties, it’s their tunes that run through your mind.

But, for me, Doc was a grownup who was making a living doing what I considered the most important thing. He was creating music.

Still, he wore it lightly. He knew that my swagger was mostly a show — underneath I was an insecure mess — and he encouraged me as a singer and a songwriter. I would put my ideas out there, and it meant the world to me when he liked them. Doc gave me confidence, and he helped ease my way into adulthood. Doc and I shared a love for the blues. Big Joe Turner was his favorite.

The songwriting process back then was a real collaboration, and Doc and Mort worked closely with me on the composition of “A Teenager in Love,” which went platinum for me in 1959. I can’t think of a better way to learn the craft than to sit in a room with those guys. I never finished high school, but this was the most amazing educational opportunity. Who needs Harvard?

You mentioned Roy Orbison, and I had a similar chance with him. We were touring, and I sat down next to him on the bus and just asked him flat out to teach me everything he knew about songwriting. He laughed. Then he told me he liked to think of a theme — say, transportation — and then make a list of words that fit the theme, and then write a lyric from the list.

OK, so transportation — I made a list of ways to get from one place to another: helicopter, jet, water ski, circus cannon, taxi, hot-air balloon … You get the idea. And from that list I wrote my song “I’ve Got to Get to You.”

I’ll take a helicopter or a Concord jet,
A creaky elevator or a red Corvette.
I’ll water-ski an ocean, ride a tugboat too.
There isn’t a single thing that I wouldn’t do.
I’ve got to get to you.

What a breakthrough! I asked a simple question, and I got not only a new song, but also a pretty reliable cure for writer’s block.

Same holds for my time with Carole King. She and her husband, Gerry Goffin, were the power couple of popular music. I worked with them on “This Little Girl of Mine.” And I recorded other Goffin-King numbers. This was a decade before Tapestry, but I knew I was working with a genius when I sat at a piano with Carole King. I tried to soak in as much as I could.

Dion

RW: Though you were writing songs, your early hits were mostly written by others — the big names in the Brill Building. Why was that? Did it bother you?

DION: No, it never bothered me. It’s still doesn’t bother me. I do like writing my own songs because they’re a more perfect expression of how I’m seeing things and what I want to say. But a good song is a good song whether it’s by Goffin and King or Lieber and Stoller or whatever. If it’s good, I’m all for it.

I had the chance to sit with Doc Pomus and learn the art from a true master. I was able to craft songs with Carole King. Waiting is hard, but it serves its own purpose in the development of an artist.

RW: You were the first rock artist to be signed by an “establishment” label, Columbia Records. That was a seismic event in the music business. How did it influence your music?

DION: It was strange. Columbia didn’t want to miss out on the tidal wave that was rock and roll; but at the same time they were sure it was going to recede at any moment. They thought it was a fad that was just about to pass.

So their idea was to take a top-selling rock artist — me — and groom him to be the next Frank Sinatra. They wanted me to wear a tux and sing the Great American Songbook.

Look, I love Sinatra. I love the Great American Songbook. But that’s not what I’m hearing in my head, and it never was. Columbia and I didn’t see eye to eye about the future of anything.

But again, I was young and I was learning. I got to sit in John Hammond’s office and listen to the blues. I got to walk through the halls and talk music with Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.

Meanwhile, I recorded a vault full of music that Columbia refused to release. I had fallen in love with the blues by then, but blues had a pretty tiny audience, and the label wasn’t much interested in reaching those people. In 1965 I recorded the album Kickin’ Child, which I think is one of my best — and one of the best of its era — but it didn’t see the light of day until 2017.

At Columbia I was surrounded by the best talent, and I was composing and recording at peak performance. But it was going nowhere. As I said, it took me decades to get those sessions out of the vault and into people’s headphones.

RW: You’re open about the fact that you were using hard drugs and addicted to alcohol from age fourteen. What effect did addiction have on your music?

DION: I’ve been clean and sober for more than fifty years. My life is so much better since I cleared my head. Addiction was destroying my family and my friendships. My life was crashing and burning in so many ways.

But, you know what, it never touched the music. I listen now to the music I made from age fifteen to twenty-nine, and I can’t find any defect that I can blame on addiction. I can’t explain it, but I can’t deny it either.

I know some people give drugs all the credit for their good songs, and I certainly don’t want to do that. Heroin didn’t inspire me to do anything. If I had stayed on it, or if I had kept drinking, I would have been dead a long time ago — and I would have died estranged from all the people I love. Instead, I stayed alive and kept on doing my thing. I’ve made more music and much better music off drugs than on.

RW: Bob Dylan is the only rock artist to win the Nobel Prize for his work. You met him when he got his first gigs outside Minnesota. How did you see him grow? Did his early successes influence your writing or performance?

DION: I met Dylan when he got his first big break in music.

In 1959 I was headlining the Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. I don’t have to tell anyone the story of what happened, do I? February 3 was “the day the music died.” The plane crashed with all those guys on it. I was the only headliner who had taken the bus instead, and so I was the only one who survived.

But the show had to go on. I was torn to pieces inside, but the promoters insisted we had to finish the tour. They brought in replacements for all the acts that were missing. Bobby Vee came in from Minnesota with his band, and on keyboards was a kid named Bob Zimmerman, who was working under the alias “Elston Gunnn.” That’s right: Gunnn, with three n’s at the end. In a few years the world would know him as Bob Dylan.

Bob and I haunted the halls together at Columbia when he first broke through. I loved his music, though it couldn’t be more different from my own. If I write a song with eight-syllable lines, the lines are gonna have eight syllables. Bob just doesn’t care if some of his lines have seventeen instead.

But the guy can pull it off. There’s no doubt about that. I mentioned earlier that I consider Kickin’ Child to be one of my greatest efforts. Well, that album had four Dylan covers on it, and I’m proud of every one of them.

We’ve stayed in touch. We’ve toured together. Maybe fifteen years ago we did a series of shows together in New York City. In 2020 Bob wrote the liner notes for my album Blues with Friends, and he praised my songwriting. As far as I know, he’s the only Nobel Prize-winner to do that.

Has he influenced my work? Of course he has. He opened up the range of topics you could treat in a song. I don’t think “Abraham, Martin, and John,” my big hit of 1968, would have been possible if Dylan hadn’t prepared the way with his socially conscious songs.

RW: You’ve developed over time — from a singer who writes songs to a singer-songwriter. How did that happen?

DION: Success won me more freedom. By the late 1960s I was pretty well established, and I could do what I wanted. I wasn’t looking to earn a lot more money. My back catalog was performing pretty well for me. I wasn’t trying to win the respect of critics or crowds. I was making the music I wanted to make, and it was doing what music is supposed to do. It was reaching people. I’ve never stopped making new music, and I’ve always had an audience.

RW: You’ve had long relationships of collaboration in your songwriting — forty years with Bill Tuohy, ten years with Mike Aquilina. That’s unusual in your business. What’s your creative process? How exactly do you and your partners go about writing songs?

DION: My secret is to make friends with guys who have a lot of patience. I can be a perfectionist, but those guys have respected that.

My process is pretty much as I described it earlier. I find words or phrases that feel good when I sing them. Most of the time, it’s just the sound I love. What amazes me is how Bill or Mike can take a single word or a small phrase and build a world around it. They’ll use it to spin a story or create a character.

Both men were good friends of mine before they were my lyricists. So they knew me. They had a sense of the sounds I like to sing — and the kinds of words I like to avoid. If I don’t like a line, my complaint is usually: “We don’t say that in the Bronx.”

They knew my story, too. So they could draw from my real life to fill in the blanks. Some years back, I came up with a tune, and the only lyric I had was the refrain “Here in America, here in America.”  Mike heard my demo once, and he knew that the song would be about my tour with Sam Cooke in the Jim Crow South.

With Bill and Mike the friendship came first, before the collaboration, and the songs have grown out of the friendship.

RW: I wonder what “The Wanderer” means to you after so many decades. That is, you spent decades moving from genre to genre — pop to Gospel to blues — winning awards and charting now and then. But as soon as you seemed to establish a pattern, you moved on. How do you explain your shifts? What is it that has kept you stylistically wandering?

DION: I love that song. After sixty years, I still love performing it. I do wish people would pay closer attention to the lyrics. I’ve had listeners complain that it’s misogynistic. Come on! Have you never heard of satire? Other people think I’m just making fun of over-confident Guidos. But the guy in the title role is more complex than that. He says he’s “happy as a clown.” But in art — in opera, literature, painting — clowns are notoriously unhappy. Remember Verdi’s aria? “Even though your heart is breaking, laugh, clown, laugh.” There’s more to the Wanderer than meets the ear of someone who’s not listening closely. He’s got “two fists of iron,” but he feels he’s “going nowhere.”

That song was such a hit for me that eventually I became identified with it. I had to accept the fact that people will always think the character is me, just because I sing it persuasively. I’m OK with that. Like “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” was based on a real character in my neighborhood. I find him interesting, and I’ve returned to that persona repeatedly, in “King of the New York Streets” and “Gangster of Love” and other tunes. They’re all crowd pleasers.

But you’re talking about another kind of wandering, and you’re right. I’m restless. I need to work. I need to explore. I need to try new techniques. I like to work with different artists. I’ve been nominated or won awards in pop, Gospel, blues. I still love it all — all the songs, all the styles.

But I never leave anything behind. If you listen to me play all the songs right now, just me and my guitar, you’d hear that it’s all Dion music. When you talk about my wandering, I believe you’re talking about the window trimmings.

RW: Does your reading influence your songwriting? What were you reading when you wrote your early hits? What do you read these days?

DION: When I was young I was more fascinated by the visual arts than the literary arts. My dad would take me to MoMA and the Met, and he’d point out the elements of style that made each painter unique — Monet, Degas, Dali. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I had spare cash I would buy big books about the painters and their works. I remember a book I had about Monet, and in one photograph he sat — white-haired and bearded — in the midst of his large extended family. I looked at it and said, “I want to be that guy.”

Eventually I did take up painting. I’m no Monet, but definitely good enough for a couple of my album covers.

These days I read a lot of history and biography. Lately I’ve been listening more. I like to do audiobooks while I’m walking in the morning. It’s easier on my eyes. I’m a voracious consumer of Scripture and theology, Christian and Jewish. The subject matter of those books is God and creation, and that covers everything in every song I’ve ever written. So, yeah, my reading feeds my writing!

RW: A lot of your recent work has been in the blues genre. The blues, of course, transformed American music, but the blues also transformed American poetry through the work of tremendous talents like Sterling A. Brown and Langston Hughes. What is the continuing appeal of the blues to you? What do you think the blues offers you, as an artist, that other genres don’t? 

DION: I define the blues as the naked cry of the human heart longing for God. It’s the most demanding art. I can’t believe it when I hear people dismiss it as primitive. They act as if you’re cutting corners because you get to repeat the first line in the AAB form. Have they ever tried writing one line that’s worth repeating? You might as well dismiss the blues for being pentatonic. It’s easier — right? — because you have fewer notes to choose from.

No, it’s not. The constraints of the form make it more demanding. It’s harder to excel, harder to set yourself apart. You have to do more with less. I mean that as a guitarist as well as a singer. You can’t waste words when listeners are going to hear them twice.

I seem to have fallen back into the blues full-time, like I was in the early to mid-Sixties. It was my friends Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison who first urged me to revisit these roots. Then I got a Grammy nomination for my album Bronx in Blue. And lately I’ve had the pleasure of hearing my songs performed by some of the great masters, Sonny Landreth and Joe Louis Walker and Joe Bonamassa. I’m pleased to say I wrote the title track on Joe Louis Walker’s most recent album.

RW: Your most recent album, Blues with Friends, was the #1 blues album of 2020 on the Billboard Charts. Of course, a tremendous number of Americans were introduced to your music by your appearances on “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark back in the late Fifties and early Sixties. My mother grew up in poverty in Alabama, and one of the first things she ever saw on a TV set was one of your performances on “Bandstand.” That is, not only were your songs playing on radio stations across the country, but you were also appearing on that new medium, television. This kind of fame had to be startling. How did you deal with so much fame at such a young age? How has your relationship to fame and popular success shifted over the years?

DION: I wasn’t ready for fame. I wasn’t ready to have so much money or freedom or power, and I didn’t use those things well. Thank God for my wife, who drove me sane and helped me sober up and enjoy life. My relationship to fame changed when I stopped caring about it — when I removed it as a goal — and I needed to get sober before I could do that.

RW: The critic Dave Marsh noted almost twenty years ago that you were the only artist from your generation producing new music. Everybody else is on the nostalgia bus. Last year Bruce Springsteen made the same observation in a Wall Street Journal interview and emphasized how singular this is. What makes you continue to produce new work at an age when nobody else does?

DION: Look, I don’t want to knock the nostalgia bus. All those artists made amazing music in the Fifties and Sixties, and people still want to hear it today. If you’ve scored one hit, you’ve made a million people smile. If they still want to hear your hit sixty years later, you have something you deserve to feel really good about.

Look at me. I’m eighty-one years old, and I’m still singing “Teenager in Love” at every show. I do it because people want it, and because I love those people, and because I love Doc Pomus who wrote the song. Frankly, I have newer songs I’d rather sing, but the show is not just about me. It’s also about the people who helped to make me who I am — the people behind the songs and the people in the audience.

I am a restless soul, and I need to keep making new music. Why is that? I’m not sure, but I think it’s because music itself isn’t the end for me.

When musicians are young, they make music for lots of different reasons. They have lots of different motives. They want respect. They want money. They want to get laid. They want easy access to drugs. Some of those motives can keep you going for ten years or even twenty, but not much beyond that. At a certain point, you can just keep doing the same show and still get what you want out of it. You don’t have to go through the trouble of making new music — because it is a lot of trouble. You can just show up and sing the old hits, and you’ll get what you want out of them.

But it’s different if you think your art is not for you. If you believe your art glorifies God, you’re going to keep doing it as long as you can still breathe. When I make music, I feel like I’m crazy King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, singing a new song just because I’m still newly in love, or belting out the blues as a Psalm of lament. As long as I can still breathe, I hope to be newly in love with the God who made me. He always gives me something to sing about.

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilsonwas born in Griffin, GA, and raised in nearby Macon. He is the author of The Stranger World (Measure Press, 2017), winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and of How to Think Like a Poet (Wiseblood 2019). His work appears in periodicals such as: Best American Poetry, Five Points, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. The Administrator and C.F.O. of the ALSCW, he lives north of Baltimore and teaches at The Catholic University of America. He is Editor-in-Chief of Literary Matters.
Ryan Wilson

Author: Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, GA, and raised in nearby Macon. He is the author of The Stranger World (Measure Press, 2017), winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and of How to Think Like a Poet (Wiseblood 2019). His work appears in periodicals such as: Best American Poetry, Five Points, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. The Administrator and C.F.O. of the ALSCW, he lives north of Baltimore and teaches at The Catholic University of America. He is Editor-in-Chief of Literary Matters.