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This article was originally published on July 1, 2020.Dion has released a new album, Blues with Friends, featuring Paul Simon, Jeff Beck, Samantha Fish, Billy Gibbons, Bruce Springsteen, John Hammond, Joe Louis Walker, Joe Bonamassa and others.
The Bronx-born singer Dion forged his sterling reputation as a rock’n’roll and doo-wop hit-maker in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, with classic singles “A Teenager In Love”, “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”. As his popularity slid and then rose again, down the decades, Dion began to bring forth the blues as his chief conduit for songwriting, mostly crafting original material. This resulted in a run of blues orientated albums, beginning with 2006’s Bronx In Blue. The new album, Blues With Friends, unveils a dazzling sequence of starry guest players, including Paul Simon, Jeff Beck, Samantha Fish, Billy Gibbons, Bruce Springsteen, John Hammond, Joe Louis Walker and Joe Bonamassa, the latter releasing the album on his new label, Keeping The Blues Alive Records. Most of the guests contribute guitar parts, leaving Dion himself to deliver the central vocal passion.
Whereabouts are you living nowadays?
I’ve been around Fort Lauderdale since 1968. I raised my three daughters down here in Florida, and they’re teachers. I have an apartment in New York, right across the street from the Stock Exchange. I have to get up to New York, I have to walk the streets, and get my fill. I spend half the time here, and a little time there when I’m working.
How has your relationship with the blues developed, in recent years?
Back around 2000, I did a two-hour interview for NPR, sitting there with my guitar. I was punctuating the stories with songs I grew up to. Richard Gottehrer [the Brill Building songwriter] called me and said, ‘Dion, you should do an album of these songs, they come out very naturally’, and I thought, ‘I grew up to those, why would I want to sing those songs?’ Then she [presenter Terry Gross] played the interview a second time, and Richard calls me again. I went to the studio and knocked it out in two days, and when I was driving home, the cd in my truck, the thought came to me, wow, this is really me, this is my DNA, this comes naturally to me, I don’t even have to think. This is the bedrock of where everything’s come out of. Maybe even “Runaround Sue” was a heavily disguised blues song, I don’t know.
Even those rock’n’roll and doo-wop songs, they often have a blues backbone.
Absolutely, there’s a lot of doo-wop songs like that. Even on this new record, there are songs that aren’t three-chord blues.
On Blues With Friends, even besides the blues, you still include elements of country, rockabilly and straight rock music. It’s all there, as well as the blues, sometimes depending on who each song’s guest player is.
“Uptown Number 7”, with Brian Setzer, that’s a blues song, but I heard him on it, he plays very different, distinctive sounds. I couldn’t have planned this album if I’d tried.
That’s the rockabilly-infused number! How did you and co-producer Wayne Hood work together? He’s quite a multi-instrumentalist. How did that come together, in his studio?
I was aware of Wayne, because he plays in bands around town. He has a studio in his home, and he’s a great musician. Every time I saw him, he’s either playing keyboards or guitar. He’s just a very talented guy. I heard some of his production and engineering work, and I thought, this is the guy to do the album. I’d accumulated these 14 songs, and I hadn’t got into the studio because I was involved with putting this play together, The Wanderer, which is opening April 8th at The Paper Mill Playhouse [Milburn, New Jersey]. I was very involved with that, but I was still writing. I had a month off, but I thought, I’m gonna go down to Wayne’s and cut the stuff. I called him, went in, and cut all 14 songs in three days.
Which instruments did you use, on those initial frameworks?
I overdubbed on them, I know exactly the tempos of these songs. I wrote 12 of them in the last four years [the other pair were from 1965 and the early 1980s]. I wanted them to live somewhere else, I didn’t like where they were [those last two]. The way I do it is to say, give me a drum loop, at this tempo, and Wayne said, ‘just sing ‘em like you’d sing ‘em at home’, so I grabbed the guitar and knocked them all out, then I got a Tele[caster], I do this stuff between a bass riff and a guitar, and I get a feel that I want, that I’m hearing. I played it to Joe Bonamassa. His business manager Roy Weisman lives about five doors away from me. Joe said, ‘I want to play on that’, and he played on “Blues Comin’ On”, and it just blew my mind! Bonamassa has something in his head that nobody else has, it’s mesmerizing.
Was that the first point where you started thinking about inviting guests along?
Absolutely, when he did that, I thought, hey, I’m going to send “Bam Bang Boom” to Billy Gibbons [Z Z Top], because I hear him on that song. All of a sudden, I started hearing people on the different songs, like for instance Jeff Beck, he’s the only guitarist who can make me cry. I called him, and when he said ‘yes’, I knew I had something. I just started thinking about who I’d like to hear on a particular song. I’d be riding down the street, listening to a song, thinking, ‘Sonny Landreth belongs on this sucker!’ I sent Van Morrison a song, I wanted him to play saxophone on it, and he said, ‘no I’d rather sing with you’.
That exchanging of verses you do with him is quite unusual, on the album, because one thing that starts to become apparent is that most of the guests play guitar, or perhaps harmonica or saxophone. There aren’t many invitees who sing, apart from Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Patti Scialfa. Is that because you wanted to keep the songs very personal to yourself?
I wasn’t that rigid with the vision of this: Patti Scialfa has a beautiful voice, I call her the Jersey soul girl. She was singing harmonies and heard something different. She arranged the whole vocal, it was sublime, what she did with it, and then Bruce [Springsteen] offered to play a solo, and it just happened, and I thought, this is great.
I called Little Steven, he played with my band in the ‘70s. It just kept going, it was like a wave, so much fun. My friend John Hammond, we go back to the early ‘60s, the Gaslight [Café] in Greenwich Village. I knew his dad [JH senior] when I was at Columbia. I used to go to the early Dylan sessions, because I was the first rock’n’roller signed to Columbia. I was thinking, I’m going to call Bob Dylan, because he’s a great blues singer. A lot of people don’t know that, or wouldn’t define him like that. He surprised me. He wrote some stuff.
That was typical of him, to write some of the liner notes rather than actually playing.
I never did anything like this, where you have a track and you ask great artists, who are very distinctive in their playing. You know who it is when they’re playing. You know Sonny Landreth, he plucks the guitar like a virtuoso violinist. When Wayne Hood heard John Hammond playing slide and harmonica, he looked at me and said, ‘I never heard anybody play like this, he’s playing stuff I’ve never heard’. I never told anybody what to play. I think the only person I asked to play something was Rory Block, and she didn’t do it! I had this Appalachian mountain song, and said ‘could you do some hollers on it?’, and she said ‘no’. She ended up singing, playing the bass part, and another slide part, because that’s what she heard.
That’s real good, with the two downhome slide guitars, her and Hammond, with the responding vocal. Did you see Little Richard in recent years?
I’ve seen him, and worked with him in recent years. I’ve seen him periodically. We’ve been friends since the Brooklyn Fox days, going way back. I knew his mother, Leva Mae, she loved me, she used to compliment me like crazy, used to tell me I had soul. It was unbelievable: a year before I worked at the Brooklyn Fox, I would watch Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis on the little television we had, dancing across my living room floor. Within a year, I was at the Fox with them, that was amazing. I became friends with them early on, and it was kinda like the music, at that time, brought the races together.
On the new album, when you laid down those vocals, did you keep the originals on the finished songs?
I kept all the original vocals! That’s one thing that amazed me. When I’d finished everything, you would think, wow, that’s a lot of energy, there’s more energy than what I started out with. My guitar was flailing all over the place, all over the vocal mike. I couldn’t care less, it just felt right. They were alive. I know when a vocal is good, I just like to do it. Most of those things were first vocals. Paul Simon and I did a song called “Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America)”, and I’m singing the whole song live, right into the camera [for its video]. That’s the vocal that I used, I did it one time, for the album. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it a second time, or a third time, you gotta get it right too, but I think if you get those first takes, they’ve got a lot of life.
I know when it’s right, or when it’s honest, so I just left the vocals. I might not have the innocence in my voice that I had when I was 19, but I sing much better now, I enjoy it more. I still sing my original songs in the same key, when I go out on stage. The blues community plays together, listens together. It’s like a family. I would say you’re never alone with the blues. It’s a tradition, but it isn’t a dead tradition. It’s a living tradition, a handing down, a passing on. You get a 30-year-old like Samantha Fish, who is just so steeped in the tradition. She’s un-freakin’-believable! The tradition never gets tired. Guitarists get tired, people get tired, but the song never gets tired.
Blues With Friends was released on June 5th. It is available on amazon.com and other music retailers.