Dion - Biography
“When I was growing up there was no rock’n’roll, there was no teenage music,” Dion said, speaking from his Florida home, his unmistakable Bronx accent still intact in 2007. “I grew up listening to all these great musicians, guys I still idolize - Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams. When I was a pre-teen there were some high-powered blues stations I could pick up from the South. A Newark country station, WAAT, had a show called ‘Home Town Frolics’ with a guy named Don Larkin spinning country records. I’d run home from school to catch the last half hour of that. Those blues and country songs were always with me and in my guitar. I honed my skills on the guitar playing along to those records.”
Dion grew up before rock’n’roll existed. He had no grand plans for becoming a rock star, or a country or blues singer for that matter. When he heard a small label was looking for singers, he auditioned and was signed. Dion collaborated with guys he knew from the neighborhood for his first song, “I Wonder Why.” Calling themselves Dion and The Belmonts, they became an overnight sensation when the Italian doo-wop of “I Wonder Why” rocketed up the charts. More hits including “Teenager In Love” and the standard “Where or When.” His label, Laurie Records released an album to cash in on their success, Presenting Dion and The Belmonts (1959 Laurie). Soon after Dion dropped the Belmonts, went solo, and released Runaround Sue (1961 Laurie) which included the title track as well as “The Wanderer” and “The Majestic.”
Columbia Records soon signed Dion as a solo act, their first teen idol. His first album for the label, Donna the Prima Donna (1963 Columbia) had three hits, including “Ruby Baby”, “Drip Drop” and the title track. Dion’s albums for Columbia were a mixed bag of blues, rock, doo-wop and covers of pop standards. He even did a few folk-rock sides with Tom Wilson, Bob Dylan’s producer, behind the glass. (The sessions with Tom Wilson were finally released years later, during Dion’s folk years after the success of “Abraham, Martin and John.”)
After leaving Columbia Records, Dion hit bottom. He’d been experimenting with drugs and alcohol since he was a child, but this time his drug use almost killed him. In 1968 Dion was able to clean up with the help of his wife and father-in-law and remains sober to this day. Dion returned to Laurie Records and recorded Dion (1968 Laurie) a folk album of his own songs and some well-chosen covers, including “Abraham, Martin and John” the song that launched his career as a singer/songwriter. “Dick Holler wrote it and he did it as a happy tune. We came up with a slower, sadder arrangement. The organ solo in the middle is ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ to separate the time between John and Martin, to give the arrangement some interest. The single did so well that Warner Brothers offered me a 10 year, 10 album deal.”
During the Warner years Dion released albums Sit Down Old Friend (1970), Sanctuary (1972) and Suite For Late Summer (1972). The tracks alternated between folk rockers and intimate acoustic numbers. They did well critically, but weren’t as commercially successful as “Abraham, Martin and John.” Dion also cut one of the great lost rock albums of the 70's, Born To Be With You (1975 Ace UK) produced by Phil Spector. Pete Townshend of The Who said its “dark, relentless feel” makes it one of the greatest albums of all time. “Spector never completed (the album),” Dion says. “I own the masters, so I put it out in England on Ace in 1975.”
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Dion cut Gospel albums for various labels, culminating in a Best Gospel Album Grammy Nomination for I Put Away My Idols (1983 Day Spring). During the late ‘80s and on into the ‘90s, Dion returned to rock’n’roll, Bronx style, the music he helped invent. He was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1989 and performed “The Wanderer” with a band that included Keith Richards, Little Richard, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson and Tina Turner. Later that year he cut Yo! Frankie (1989 Collectables) with Dave Edmunds, applying his ‘50s meets ‘90s production techniques. In 1995 he formed The Little Kings Band featuring ex-Dictator and Del-Lord, Scott Kempner on lead guitar. “I just wanted to get out and play some loud rock’n’roll and not worry about performing. We wrote some songs and it was a lot of fun, but if somebody hadn’t come by with a cheap little recorder, it wouldn’t even be on record.” The 2001 album, Live in New York is credited to Dion and the Little Kings and is released on Ace UK. Dion’s last rock album (so far) is 2000’s self-produced Deja Nu (Collectables).
In 2005, Richard Gottehrer (producer of Blondie, The Go Gos, etc.) heard Dion on an NPR radio show punctuating the story of his life with some blues tunes. He convinced Dion to make Bronx in Blue, a bare bones voice and guitar album (with percussion accents by Bob Guertin, AKA The Hurty Gurty Man) for his digital only company The Orchard. Bronx in Blue was later released on the Razor and Tie label in 2006. Dion returned to major labels with his second blues outing, Son of Skip James (2007 Verve Forecast). His voice is still full of fire and his guitar technique impressive as he launches the fourth phase of his legendary career. In 2012 he released Tank Full Of Blues.