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Music lovers of a certain age will remember a young singer, Dion, rising to the pop stratosphere with 1959's “A Teenager in Love,” followed by “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” in 1961. Unlike many teen idols of the day, he changed with the times, rebounding in 1968 with “Abraham, Martin and John” and shifting from doo-wop and R&B to pop-rock, grittier rock and folk rock, steadily releasing albums since his launch with 1958's Presenting Dion and the Belmonts.
Born Dion DiMucci in the Little Italy section of the Bronx, the singer overcame drug addiction and found lifelines in religion, his 57-year marriage and, especially, music.
Now 80, he's releasing Blues With Friends, 14 originals he cowrote. Special guests appear on each song, including Joe Bonamassa on “Blues Comin’ On,” Van Morrison on “I Got Nothin',” Brian Setzer on “Uptown Number 7” and Paul Simon on “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America).” It's not Dion's first dive into the genre. Blues is where he started.
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On his lifelong love of blues
I had early hits that were blues songs. “The Wanderer” is blues. “(I Was) Born to Cry” was a blues song. That was my foundation. We didn't call it blues. We called it rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted to communicate like Hank Williams and groove like Jimmy Reed. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.
On making Blues With Friends
Some of these songs came out of heaven and downloaded into my head. I thought, Wouldn't it be great to cast people on each song? Jeff Beck is the only guitar player who can make me cry, so I sent him “Can't Start Over Again,” a ballad. I sent “Bam Bang Boom” to Billy Gibbons, and he finished it in three days. For the gospel tune, “Hymn to Him,” I wanted Patti Scialfa. She has such a soulful voice. She layered her voice like nine times and captured the sound of the heavens. Then she said, “Do you mind if Bruce [Springsteen, her husband] plays a solo on it?” He put down his gravitas to complement what she did.
On his song about late soul legend Sam Cooke
When I traveled with Sam Cooke in the early ‘60s, he used to protect me. He took me to see James Brown before Brown was popular. Once he took me to a soul food café deal and some people got ruffled that I was there. He just said, “Dion's with me.” He was tall, very refined, a real gentleman, a beautiful guy. He had compassion. It was a personal song and I put it in a drawer until I saw Green Book. I thought, Oh, they made a movie of my song. I brushed the song off and recorded it. It's not just a story of racism. It's a story of brotherhood.
On meeting the love of his life
I met Susan 65 years ago. She came from Vermont. Nobody moves to the Bronx. You're born there. She had red hair. She was exotic. I was a confused kid. I looked at her and thought, If I can get close to her, my life would be perfect, my life would make sense. I had a dream. With her I could get a ranch house and kids. And I was right. We've been married 57 years.
On how his marriage weathered the rigors of a rock ‘n’ roll career
She's easy to take. She's usually the brightest person in the room. Many years ago I was sitting on the steps of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in my Italian neighborhood when a young guy ran up to Monsignor Pernicone and said, “I'm getting divorced. I don't love her anymore.” Pernicone said, “Then love her.” They went back and forth and finally the monsignor said, “Love isn't a feeling. It's an act of your will. It's a choice. It's not just about you.” There were plenty of times I thought, I have a guitar and a credit card, I'm out of here. But I thought of the monsignor. And of course, it feels good when you commit to love.
On surviving a heroin overdose at 16 and kicking addiction at 29
I was using all kinds of stuff. It was the ‘60s. In February 1968, Frankie Lymon, a good friend of mine, died of an overdose. We used to hang out and use together. It brought me to my knees. I didn't know God from a hole in the wall, but I asked God for help. When I got off my knees, I was changed. It was April 1968. I haven't had a drug or a drink since. I changed in a blink of an eye. It brought me to the desire to seek out and understand God's power.
On his spiritual journey
I came into a spiritual-based 12-step program 52 years ago, and about 10 years into working the steps I started questioning it. What is truth and who has the authority to define it? That was my quest. I've always read books by Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Thomas Merton. They're my heroes. I read myself into a pretty solid place, and that's how I came back into the Catholic Church. I fall in love with the beauty first, before the rules or the facts, whether it's my music, the church or Susan.
On skipping the flight that killed Buddy Holly during the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour
Buddy Holly was an old soul, very decisive. What 22-year-old charters a plane? He did, and he put together a deal with the CEOs of the tour to lessen the cost. There were only four seats: for Buddy, the pilot and two more. You had to kick in $36. My mind couldn't open to spending $36 for a short flight when my mother couldn't pay the $36 rent back home. She worked two jobs. My parents argued about money every day. Their arguing saved my life. I never talked about this until recently.
On The Wanderer, a jukebox musical that tells Dion's life story through his music
It will open April 8, 2021. It has action, romance, betrayal, a lot of laughs, the history of early street rock ‘n’ roll and the old neighborhood, of course. It's a story about transformation. It's like a young Sopranos with a Rocky Balboa ending. It's uplifting, but it's not yada-yada entertaining. It has substance. That's why I'm blown away.
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On his unwavering commitment to music
I was always driven. My father was creative but he never had a real job, and all my uncles would put my father down in front of me. I must have sworn an oath when I was 7 that no one was ever going to treat me like a joke. It drove me to do something great.
On relaxing between recording and touring
I go to the gym three times a week. I talk more than I work out, but I get there. I got to do something for my fat rigatoni ass. I love to read, but my eyes are getting dry so I listen to audiobooks now. I love hanging with Susan. I've always liked to walk. I walk a mile loop outside my home in Boca Raton, [Florida]. With this pandemic, I see kids on bicycles and skates and scooters. They're calling their parents, not just looking at their phones. I don't want to minimize the horror, but good stuff is happening, too.