excerpts By STEVE DOUGHERTY
Weeks before the release of his latest CD, Dion DiMucci mourned the Jan. 1 death of his harmonizing Bronx homeboy Fred Milano. Together with Milano, Carlo Mastrangelo and Angelo D’Aleo, Dion and the Belmonts rose from neighborhood street corners to the top of the pop charts in the 1950s with songs like “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love.” Now 72, Mr. DiMucci, who went on to solo stardom with “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer” and “Ruby Baby” before releasing his final No. 1 hit, 1968′s “Abraham, Martin and John,” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. He lives in Florida with his wife of 48 years. His latest CD, “Tank Full of Blues,” comes out Tuesday.
The Wall Street Journal: You came up when rock ‘n’ roll was still dawning on America, after Elvis and before the Beatles. You rocked the “The Ed Sullivan Show” in a tuxedo. Did you feel torn between two worlds?
Dion: I was the first rock ‘n’ roller signed by Columbia Records. Aretha Franklin was starting there at the same time. They were giving Aretha and me Al Jolson tunes; I was singing “Mammy;” she did “Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”—they didn’t know what we were about. From the beginning, before I recruited the Belmonts to record with me, [managers] told me to put the guitar down—leaders of groups don’t play guitar. They wanted to give me a nightclub act and book me in the Copacabana. They wanted to put me with corny backing singers—Broadway-trained guys who were great singing “Oklahoma!” but didn’t know from rock and roll. The show business era was — “Hey! How’s everybody doin’ tonight? Hope everybody’s fine!” The rock and roll attitude was —we don’t care how you feel about it; we’re taking you on a trip. “Let’s go!”
Your new album, “Tank Full of Blues,” showcases your love for that music. When did you start filling your tank?
Way back at Columbia, John Hammond [the legendary producer who helped launch the careers of greats from Billie Holiday and Count Basie to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen] pulled me into his office. He had this big grin and said “Dion, you seem to have a flair for the blues.” I left there with an armload of albums by Furry Lewis, Leroy Carr, Fred McDowell—and Robert Johnson. I never wanted to imitate those guys like Mick Jagger did—”I followed her to da stay-shun.” I thought if I did that I’d get killed at the Brooklyn Fox where Howlin’ Wolf and all the greats used to play. I met Bo Diddley at the Fox. He scowled at me and said “Where’d you learn to play blues like that?” I thought he was going to kill me. I said, “I listen to records.” He said, “Me, too.”
What did the Delta blues have to say to a 1960s pop idol?
That music comes direct from God. It’s three chords you can use to express any human emotion. The funny thing is, I could sing about feeling lost and abandoned in a bar and they’d ask me to sing it again. You can sing about how you feel all day and get applause; but if you ever talked like that—oh man, my baby done left me and I feel lost and broken and abandoned and I can’t stop crying—you’d get a fist right in your skull. Blues lets you sing about things you’d never say to a stranger. It feels good to sing about feeling bad….
You were the only headliner who survived the 1959 tour when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash. Did you ever wonder why them and not you?
I was 19 years old and touring with those guys was the best thing that ever happened to me. Buddy and Ritchie and I, we all had the new Fender Stratocaster guitars; mine was all white; Buddy’s had the sunburst body. We jammed every night on that bus. The heater kept breaking down in subzero weather. It was so cold on the bus Buddy’s drummer got frostbite and had to leave the tour. Carlo of the Belmonts filled in for him. Buddy and the Bopper were from Texas; Ritchie was from L.A.—they didn’t know cold like that. They wanted off that bus! Buddy chartered the plane; we flipped for the two other seats. The Bopper and I won the toss. But the price was $36 each. That was the exact amount of the monthly rent my parents argued over all my life. I couldn’t justify spending a month’s rent on a plane ride. Plus I could handle the cold. I told Ritchie, “You go.” Then all of a sudden, they’re gone. I remember sitting alone on the bus after and there was Buddy’s guitar; I was in shock. I thought, what the hell is life about; why am I here and they’re not? I was angry. It took me a long time to process that loss.
In your recent book ["Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth," about his Christian faith] you say Feb. 3, 1959, wasn’t the day the music died but the day it was born. What do you mean?
There’s a line in Scripture that says a grain of wheat doesn’t bear fruit until it dies and takes seed. Buddy Holly and the Crickets created the form—guitars, bass and drums—that every rock band after him, the Beatles, Stones and all the rest, followed. They wrote and performed their own songs like he did and his music is still being played today. And that tour, it gave seed to a new generation. Bobby Vee was a 16-year-old kid who filled in for Buddy at the next gig in Moorhead, Minn. We got to know each other and we always kept in touch after that. When Bob Dylan broke big, Bobby Vee told me that his piano player that night was Dylan, who was 18 and still known as Bob Zimmerman. [Mr. Dylan's spokesman said: "Bob says it's so."] He had been in the audience for one or two of the Winter Dance Party shows and now he was on the stage with Bobby Vee, standing in for Buddy Holly. Bobby told me Dylan played so loud he couldn’t hear himself sing; he said you couldn’t control the guy; it was like someone let him out of a cage.
That happened at the beginning of your career. A few weeks ago Fred Milano died of lung cancer. What were your first thoughts when you heard?
I was shocked, obviously, because it was so sudden. It was already in stage four when he found out there was anything wrong with him. It hit hard because a relationship like we had, it’s ingrained in you. We knew each other from our teenage boyhoods; even though we weren’t close and didn’t talk in later years, what we went through together made us like family. He and the Belmonts—they were the very best. Freddie was almost like a genius with vocal harmony. I was humbled to sing with him and Carlo and Ange.
You guys came up singing on street corners and in subway cars. Most people are shy about singing happy birthday at a party; what made you guys different?
We weren’t shy — we knew we were good! When I was 17 I got an offer to make a record. I recruited the Belmonts to back me. I remember the first time we rehearsed up in my parents’ apartment; we put together “I Wonder Why.” I was singing lead; Carlo was down low; Angelo was high; Freddie was filling in the middle. We were doing four different things at once — to be in the middle of that song while it was happening— it was like a rapture. When you’re inside a song, you’re not thinking, you’re in the flow, you know exactly who you are and it feels like a gift—a blessing….
The real-life wanderer—you—settled down and married his teenage sweetheart, a girl named Sue. Only she wasn’t the runaround—you were. You two will celebrate your 50th anniversary next year. Why did she stick around for a guy who liked to roam around?
I met Susan when she was 14 and I was about 16. We were both playing at the St. Martin’s school Thanksgiving dance. I was singing with a band — Eddie the butcher on bass and Little Roach on drums—doing “Shake Rattle and Roll” and some Carl Perkins songs. She was singing “Lollipop” with Joan & Joan—Susan and two girls from the neighborhood named Joan. I saw her up there—”ooo lala lala lollipop”—and I was struck dumb in love. When I had some success I did a whole lot of stupid things; I thought I was really something special. I’m just lucky she didn’t give up on me. We always loved each other; I just had to grow up a little.
You were friends with Frankie Lymon ["Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"], who was famously ripped off by music executives who exploited countless musicians over the years. Do you feel bitterness?
I didn’t get hurt as bad as a lot of people. With “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” I reaped next to nothing in terms of cash. I got lucky after that. I had a guaranteed contract for $100,000 a year from Columbia. But look at guys like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Did they get beat? Yeah they did. And bad. Muddy ended up with nothing. But you got to factor in that they got 50-year careers doing something they love. The record companies, yeah, they weren’t honest, and yeah, they didn’t pay you right. I was angry when I got ripped off. But they gave me something that meant I didn’t have to walk around destroying myself with anger. They took a shot on me. They gave me a career in music that allowed me to go around the world. I was blessed. I’m 72 now and I’m still singing and recording. The life I’ve had, the people I’ve known, the woman I love, the music I’ve made, the faith that fulfills me—it’s all a grace and a gift.
see full WSJ article HERE