What made Dion DiMucci not just an early-’60s crooner but a rock n’ roll pioneer worthy of an April 2021 Broadway musical was the snarl in his voice. He rolled it out just often enough, in hits like “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue,” to balance his sweetness with menace.
“When you have a voice as deep and wide as Dion’s, that voice can take you all the way around the world and then all the way back home to the blues,” Bob Dylan writes in liner notes to Dion’s new album, Blues with Friends, which recently debuted atop the Blues Albums chart. At 80, Dion can no longer hit those impossibly high “Wanderer” notes, but he sounds just right among stars like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Billy Gibbons and Brian Setzer on 14 original tracks.
The Bronx, N.Y., native spoke with Billboard from his Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., home, where he’s quarantining on a lake with “kids roller-skating with their scooters and their bicycles.”
Are you in good health?
I am, yes, thank God. One day at a time. I’m doing the deal, you know, like everybody.
At the end of the “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” you recall Cooke standing up for you in all-black clubs during a period of segregation and racial tension. He would say, “He’s with me.” What’s an example?
He took my wife Susan and I out to this little soul club to see James Brown. Nobody knew who James Brown was at the time — it was James Brown and the Flames. People were like, “Who are you?” It was kind of reversed. They were getting on my case. And he kind of championed the cause. Sam Cooke was a preacher’s kid. I was from the Bronx. I was rough around the edges and I traveled with him for about six weeks. I wasn’t aware of Jim Crow. I knew there was racism in New York, but all the Apollo Theatre guys played on all my sessions and they were very encouraging, so it was different. I saw him in some ugly situations. And I’d say to him, “Hey, Sam, why don’t you punch that guy’s lights out?” But he was very refined, he stood up tall, he was a good-looking guy, and he would say, “Dion, I would never lower myself to think like that.” He taught me, basically, that racism is a peculiar way to become a man. He would tell me, “If race matters to you, you’re a racist. That’s what racism is.”
You wrote that song years ago and finished it with Paul Simon for this album. Did you spend dig through your archives for songs on Blues with Friends, or were they all new?
Most of the songs are new. I had a good batch. Two of them, I had done before, and they always came back to me. They didn’t quite live where I wanted them to live. One was “Hymn to Him,” which I did with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, and she’s the one who really arranged it. She has that soul voice. I thought, “Man, if she does some harmonies with me on this, this is going to be dynamite.” She said, “Let me try something” and started stacking vocals on it and she captured the sound like the mesmerizing holy spirit. Bruce came into the room and wanted to play a solo and he comes in with his gravitas guitar solo.
After Little Richard passed away, you recalled hanging out with him and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley at the Brooklyn Fox. Bo Diddley was cooking chicken! What else do you remember from that scene?
We always talked about listening to records. I had my guitar there. I’d play some stuff and they’d say, “Where’d you learn that?” I listened to T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed. Chuck Berry could be quite abrupt with people that he didn’t know. He was never like that with me. But Bo was the most family-type guy you wanted to meet. He just was himself all the time, even on camera. Little Richard had his thing going — most of us know him with his outrageous behavior, but he had another side, a very sweet side, a very thoughtful, generous side. He wasn’t a self-centered guy offstage at all.
We’re almost out of time. Anything else you’d like to add?
Hey, I’ve got to tell you this: I was on the cover of Billboard. Once! Probably before you were born. Probably in the early ’60s, when I had ‘The Wanderer’ out and ‘Runaround Sue.’ And let me tell you two things before I go. You haven’t lived until you sing with Van Morrison, number one. And number two, who plays like Brian Setzer? I’ll tell you who: Nobody.